The hot sun glared down on my dark skin as I stepped into the familiar dirt street of Laredo, Peru that day in 1984. Children played hopscotch and jacks on the sidewalk while women outside their small concrete homes swept away dust that had settled overnight. Men walked to the sugar cane fields and factories, while boys kicked a ball to the park. A few young adults lingered outside their doorsteps and watched as the world passed them by, and three ladies down the street would be out speaking in their native tongue and giggling about things that mattered only to them.
I was 11 years old, visiting my grandmother in South America for what would be the last time in my childhood. It would be the last time I saw her in our homeland. I had been there five times before but would not return to Peru again.
I was born and raised in Wadena, Minnesota, a small town in central Minnesota surrounded by green grass, churches, and middle-class white people. I never questioned how I came to be with a mother from Peru and a father from the United States.
In 1972, when my Quechua mother was 18, she met and married my father, a missionary from Minnesota working in Peru. She moved with him to the U.S. and started having kids.
My father would send our family down to Peru every couple of years, including 1984. I packed my schoolbooks and said goodbye to what I knew as normal for a couple of months as I trekked to Peru with my mother and sisters. I was in the fourth grade and Michael Jackson, Cindy Lauper, jelly shoes, big hair, and rolled jeans were all the rage. My teacher, Mr. Bangston, was excited for me to learn about another culture and felt I was going to learn more in Peru than I otherwise would in my entire fourth grade year. He was right: by the end of the year I had matured into a young adult who could appreciate other places, foods, people, cultures—and cherish the memories I formed there.
Those memories of Peru are deeply imbedded in me. It’s like my early childhood is better remembered in the weeks and months spent there than in my small hometown. In Wadena, the most exciting moments were the Amish riding their buggies down highway 71 or old people gathering for coffee at the corner café.
In Peru, our Spanish-speaking family was very close. We spent lots of time together preparing meals, going to the market, visiting family and friends, touring the country, and making memories wherever we went. Maybe it was the store owners daughter across the street who always gave me a piece of dulce (candy), or the trip to Cajamarca as we sat in the ancient Inca baths of my forefathers, or maybe the memorable day at the beach digging for mui mui (sand crabs) while letting them crawl on my hands. Maybe it was abuelita’s famous chicken soup or walking my grandfather’s food pail to him at the factory with mis tias (my aunts), or my tio (uncle) giving me my first sip of white wine at a party for my mother’s birthday. For all of these reasons and many more, I was in my element as a young child in what seemed like a retreat from my spoiled, taken-for-granted life back in the States.
One morning was different from the rest, though. I had been up late the night before talking and creating random acts of silliness and nonstop laughter with my older sister, while listening to the radio behind our bed and up in the window that overlooked into the kitchen. The same window we would eavesdrop through as the adults would converse about things we will never know. We could speak some Spanish, but only enough to get by, and not always enough to fully grasp or understand what others were saying. So I was tired when I was awakened by the rooster who formally decided to cock-a-doodle-doo like he did every morning, at what seemed to be too early an hour for us northerners.
Normally, I would hear him and fall back into a deep slumber, but this particular morning it was just too much: that rooster was loud and proud and I could sleep no more. I looked across the room where there were five more beds. Much like other family settings in Peru, we were poor and in tight quarters, but comfortable, familial, and traditional. I saw my three sisters, aunts, and mother sleeping. I decided to walk out through the curtain that separated the bedroom from the dining area and there he was: my great-grandpa!
He was my favorite grandparent as a child. He would always ask me to help him prepare the rice for our meals. He taught me what to look for in the rice we were picking through. Most people might think it a daunting task to sift through thousands of pieces of rice every day, pulling out any bad pieces, but it wasn’t for him and me. It was time together that has stayed in my memory for over 30 years now. With his mild demeanor, he would often speak only a few quiet words of Spanish. Although I did not always understand what he was saying, I felt his meaning through his soulful old eyes. He sat with his warm milk at the dining table, looking out the open front door. He watched as the children ran by and I wondered what he was thinking in that moment. Being the humble, quiet man he was, he didn’t reveal his thoughts.
I said, “Beunos dias, abuelito!” He replied with a smile, and opened his arms for my hug. His warm milk smelled delicious and he pointed to the kitchen telling me there was more in the pot on the stove. I ran in and looked in the pot but decided not to have any just yet. I wanted to wait for breakfast. I walked by the laundry area where Chato Feo, abuelita’s talking pet parrot sat on his metal rod. He was a funny creature and although smart and beautiful with color, could be quite cranky and snippy at times. I spoke to him and ran back towards great-grandpa. It seemed quiet, more quiet than usual in the house. Grandpa had left to work at the factory and my abuela was not in sight.
I asked great-grandpa where she went. He said she had just left to go to the market for breakfast food.
I quickly scurried out the front door to see if I could catch up with her and trail her to the glorious market, but when I looked down, I was still in my pajamas with no shoes. I ran to the bedroom and put on sandals and ran out the door, no caring whether or not I was in my pajamas. After all, I was an American girl and my dress was clearly different than that of other children my age here. They wouldn’t notice.
Running and yelling “abuelita!”, I could see her in the distance. There she was, a tiny-framed woman in her dress carrying her flour sack to retrieve our breakfast. It was her daily market walk to pick up fresh pan (bread), aceituna (black specialty olives), and sometimes fresh fruit. These were some of my favorite childhood treats. The bread was freshly baked and was shaped like a large croissant but had a taste and aroma so wonderful it filled my mouth and nose. The trick was to put butter on the piece of bread and set an olive or two inside the bread and bite into it. The pairing of these two simple food items is a masterpiece I still enjoy today.
Soon, I caught up with her. Out of breath, I could barely speak. She looked at me with sweet shock and quickly told me to go back home. I begged to stay with her. I had never seen the market before. Although I could tell abuelita wanted to send me home, she saw the curiosity in my eyes and allowed me to tag along.
This was our first trip to the market together. Just her and I holding hands. I could feel the soft texture of the flour sack handle in her hand and mine. As we turned down another street, I could hear a commotion in the distance. It was the market!
With fish and chickens hanging from poles and ropes, the colors of fruit and vegetables, and the smell of fresh bread, I was in a new sensory world! This was like nothing I had ever seen before. No one bartered or sold goods in the streets back home. Why had abuelita not brought us here before? I didn’t know, nor did I care. I was just happy.
When I look back on that day—along with so many others shared with uncles, aunts, and cousins playing on the beach and in the ocean, sitting in ancient Inca baths, and helping prepare meals for celebration—I see my identity for what it truly has been and always will be.
I am a child of resilience and strength. I come from the mountains, from the Quechua people who were captured, enslaved, bartered, murdered, and forcibly removed. I am a child of illness, who has learned to understand, embrace, and respond to the inequities my great-grandparents, grandparents, and so many other family members have suffered through. I am a daughter of the Sun God Inti and the Rain God Illapa.
I am a daughter grown of the indigenous roots within me that breathe through my dark skin and reach up to the Creator.
I didn’t realize then just how important that flour sack would later become to me, but I remember how amazing it felt interlocked between our joined hands.
Years later, when my dear abuelita Carmela Fajardo Ulco passed away after a long hard-fought battle with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, my mother asked me if there was anything I wanted from her home in Peru. I asked for only one thing. Her flour sack.
For me, the sack is a reminder of my childhood, my innocence, my cultural ways of learning and knowing, the countless times I’d watch her small frame leave and come home with food, my time with her in the market that day, and the strength woven in the sack that has lingered through generations: much like the resiliency she honored me with. My abuela’s flour sack hangs in my kitchen as a reminder of who I am and where I come from.
Sometimes I find myself glancing at it and wishing she was still here. That sack takes me back to the moments in the warm sun when innocent children played hopscotch and jacks, moments picking through rice with great-grandpa, the feel of textured cloth in my and my abuela’s hands. And for this, I’m thankful.