After her parents divorced, and her father moved from Mexico to Arizona, Fernanda began thinking of living in the United States. When she was thirteen, she started a diary –in her own idiosyncratic, imperfect English, so her family wouldn’t be able to read it– to document her plan to move away. It was never her goal for the move to be permanent, but it was, and Fernanda hasn’t lived in Mexico since. Last spring, she discovered the diary again; along with it, some unresolved tensions.
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[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Many of you have asked us how you can support Radio Ambulante. There are many ways. If you go to our website —radioambulante.org— you can make a donation, or buy t-shirts or tote bags. And for our listeners in the United States: consider supporting your local public radio station. You can do that by going to donate.npr.org/RadioAmbulante. I repeat: it’s spelled d-o-n-a-t-e, donate.npr.org/RadioAmbulante. And don’t forget to say something about your donation on social media with the hashtag #WhyPublicRadio. Thanks.
Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Maybe you had one. I did. Mine was a hardcover black and white notebook. It was always in my book bag. I would write poems in it and lyrics to songs that I would never dare sing. Anyway.
Fernanda Echávarri, a journalist and friend of mine, remembers hers.
[Fernanda Echávarri, producer]: It was a little notebook. Well, a rectangle, you know? About the size my palm is now. Well, I haven’t grown all that much since I was 10 [laughs], I’m still the same size. But it was the size of my palm.
[Daniel]: The cover was gold and it had a little rabbit on the first page.
Fernanda: And I think it says “Mi diario” or “My Diary,” I don’t know if it says it in English or Spanish.
[Daniel]: It even had a key, but she lost it.
[Fernanda]: And since its little lock didn’t work, I said: “I’m going to write in English.”
[Daniel]: So no one could read it.
She started writing in that notebook in 1999.
[Fernanda]: “Dear Diary, [laughs] my name is Fernanda. This is my diary. [Laughing] I’m 13. I live in León.”
[Daniel]: In the state of Guanajuato, Mexico. And what Fernanda wrote in her diary was the normal, everyday stuff.
[Fernanda]: I wore such-and-such shoes, at 7pm I did such-and-such thing. I think I have crush on this boy, Fernando. Everything, everything. There’s a picture of a beige shirt I bought. I wrote B-E-I-S-H: “beish” [Laughs].
[Daniel]: And it’s no accident she was writing in English. Fernanda wanted her own space, a private space. No one else in her house spoke English. And well, Fernanda didn’t speak much English either, but she was learning.
And she had a lot tell outside the day-to-day. Those were complicated years. Sometimes her home environment was difficult. A few years earlier her parents had gotten divorced.
[Fernanda]: The situation between my mom and dad was, well, a little tense. I’m telling this seriously: they couldn’t be around each other. The situation was…nil.
[Daniel]: Her dad went to live in the US, in Tucson, Arizona. While Fernanda and her sister Andrea, who’s 4 years younger, stayed in Mexico. Her mom had gotten married again, and like many families, it took them some time to get used to this new dynamic.
[Fernanda]: My dad left and I didn’t see him for…what, a year, 2 years. I didn’t see him. I missed him a lot.
[Daniel]: In ‘97 Fernanda was 11 and went to visit him for the first time. With Andrea. And after that, they would go in the summer and sometimes for Christmas. Everything in the US seemed wonderful to Fernanda.
[Fernanda]: “Wow: air conditioning at the mall.” “Wow: the clothes stores.” “Wow.” Everything was “wow.” My dad had pool, so it was like: “Wow, the pool.” Even though there were pools in Mexico. And there were malls in Mexico, too.
[Daniel]: Did that really grab your attention?
[Fernanda]: Yeah, it did. Quite a bit. Mostly because I was at a school with catholic nuns [laughs], with uniforms. I had a very religious mom and my family was very devout and… So…
[Daniel]: Ah, now I get it…
[Fernanda]: I was attracted to the…
[Daniel]: It was like: Freedom!
[Fernanda]: Uh-huh, fewer rules [laughs].
[Daniel]: Uh-huh, uh-huh.
[Daniel]: She thought about staying in the US with her dad more and more, mostly because at that time Fernanda and her mom didn’t always get along very well.
[Fernanda]: Of course, at that time me and my mom, well we would butt heads like tractors. I mean, our personalities clashed a lot.
[Daniel]: And in her diary, aside from writing about the boys she liked and her friends, Fernanda would write about her plan: to go live with her father. But…
[Fernanda]: Telling my mom: “I want to go live in the United States”…
[Daniel]: Would break her heart.
[Fernanda]: Of course!
So I would write during the day, not so much at night, in secret, not at all; I wrote in the middle of the day when everyone was around, but busy with their own things. I would write then. And sometimes I’d steal a cigarette from my…from my…from my mom’s husband, and I would start, according to me, to smoke the cigarette and write in my diary [laughs]. And I was there, all cool, very rebellious, at least to me, smoking.
[Daniel]: Fernanda mulled the idea over for a year, more or less. Until she finally got up the courage to mention it to her mom.
[Fernanda]: Everything that attracted me to the US, scared my mom.
[Daniel]: She was worried about the United States she saw on TV: drugs, sex…we’ll say it’s a culture that’s very different from the one in Querétaro.
[Fernanda]: So… No it wasn’t like there was one day we talked about it, but there was a day when finally my mom said: “Ok, you’re leaving in July…and you’re coming back in May when the school year ends.”
[Daniel]: And so, in July of 1999, Fernanda and her little sister Andrea flew to Tucson, like they had in years past, to spend the summer with their dad.
But at the end of the summer, Andrea went back, but this time, Fernanda stayed.
[Fernanda]: I said: “I’m going to see what’s up in the United States. If I don’t like it, I’ll go back. But at least I’ll know what it’s like to live with my dad and live in the US.” And…and that was that.
[Daniel]: You thought it was going to be a year and…you never went back.
[Fernanda]: I’ve been here…18 years.
[Daniel]: Of course. You’ve lived in the US longer than in Mexico.
[Fernanda]: Yes, I was about to turn 14 when I came and I’m turning 32 this year.
[Daniel]: You’ve probably asked yourself this many times. Because I ask myself and I didn’t even have the option, you know? What would my life have been like in Peru? Do you ask yourself: “Who would I be if I had stayed in Mexico?”.
[Fernanda]: Every time I time I go to Mexico. Everytime I time I go. Every Christmas, every trip. It’s the same questions. What would I have done? Would I be physically different? Maybe, maybe I would do my hair a little better. Would I not have a nose ring? Maybe I would be skinnier [laughs]. Would I have a kid? Would I be married? I don’t know.
And I start thinking about my sister a lot. My sister is the one who… who… ah… because we separated when we were so little.
I mean, thousands of people don’t live in the same country as their siblings. But normally that happens later. Not when one is 10 and the other is 14. So I think about what our relationship would be like a lot, what she would be like, maybe, if I had stayed to be more…
[Daniel]: More of a big sister.
[Fernanda]: To have a little more of an influence on her…
[Fernanda]: That’s what I think about more than anything else: who would I be and who would I be in relation to my sister. Who would I have been for her if I had stayed?
Especially at that age. You change a lot after you turn 10, every year. And in those really important years… I wasn’t there.
I just wasn’t there.
[Daniel]: When Fernanda told me about her diary, I thought: “Oh great! A fun story for Radio Ambulante.” The teen-angst , how ridiculous we all are at that age. Her mangled English. But we realized—I think we both did—that wasn’t the story we needed to tell.
Do you feel guilty?
[Fernanda]: Yes. Quite a bit. Because I understood why I came …but Andrea didn’t. Andrea didn’t know why I went to the United States. I think. Maybe she knew. But… [Crying] Sorry. I never talk about this. Once I tried to talk to my sister like this when we were talking about other things, but no… Sorry [laugh].
[Daniel]: No, it’s OK.
Fernanda told me about one time in particular, when she went to Querétaro with her boyfriend for her sister’s graduation party.
[Fernanda[: And I was really excited. “I’m very proud of you for getting your college degree.” And then mom played a video that Edmundo, my mom’s husband, had made. It was very nice.
[Daniel]: And in the video there are several photos that Fernanda couldn’t identify. A trip to the beach. A trip with Andrea and her friends. A meal at a place she didn’t recognize. And in the video, there’s picture after picture.
[Fernanda]: And, I mean, I turned to my boyfriend and said: “I have no idea where these pictures were taken.” And they were really important years for my sister and I have no idea who these girls are.
And at that moment, watching that video, I got this tremendous sense of sadness at not having been there, but at the same time I felt such joy about how beautiful those years that she had with my mom and her husband had been. But bear in mind that sitting there watching these videos it was like someone was grabbing my throat. Looking at them, I felt like I couldn’t breathe: [Crying] “God, what about me? Where am I? And it’s nobody’s fault but mine.
[Daniel]: It’s not guilt either.
[Fernanda]: But it feels like guilt…
If it isn’t guilt, what is it?
[Daniel]: This is Fernanda’s argument: she chose to go, she chose not go back.
And we realized in the studio that this is the story. This is what it’s about. And Fernanda had a lot to talk to her sister about. So when Fernanda went to Querétaro in August of this year, 2017, she brought her recorder.
We’ll be right back.
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[Daniel]: Many of you have asked us how you can support Radio Ambulante. There are many ways. If you go to our website —radioambulante.org— you can make a donation, or buy t-shirts or tote bags. And for our listeners in the United States: consider supporting your local public radio station. You can do that by going to donate.npr.org/RadioAmbulante. I repeat: it’s spelled d-o-n-a-t-e, donate.npr.org/RadioAmbulante. And don’t forget to say something about your donation on social media with the hashtag #WhyPublicRadio. Thanks.
We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
[Fernanda]: And I’m Fernanda Echávarri. Coming out of the studio with Daniel, we had decided that I was going to ask Andrea if she would talk to me. And the truth is I was surprised that she said yes. She doesn’t talk about this sort of thing much. My sister was a month away from getting married and my mom had arranged her wedding showers so that I could be there.
And so, with all of the preparations and events, it wasn’t until my last night in Querétaro that Andrea and I were able to sit and talk.
Ok. Checking: 1,2,3;1,2,3. Check, check, check; hello, hello, hello. I hope this goes well. Come a little closer so it’ll be easier to do it like this.
I have to admit, I was a little nervous.
And we can start with …your name.
I’ve done thousands of interviews, but never with a member of my family and never for a story that’s so personal.
[Andrea de Echávarri]: I’m Andrea de Echavarri. I’m 28 years old. I went to primary school, secondary school and high school in León. But I’m from here, I was born in Querétaro…
[Fernanda]: Mexico, because this is for all of Latin America.
[Andrea]: Mexico. Querétaro, México [laughs]. And I still live here, and I’m going to keep living here. For a while longer.
[Fernanda]: We started talking about our childhood. The neighborhood where we lived: Los Portones. We talked about the friends we used to dance and play and skate with. But what I really wanted to know was if Andrea remembered any moment, any conversation between the two of us, about my decision to go to the United States. Or the months leading up to it and the discussions with our mom.
[Andrea]: I don’t have a clear memory of the moment, I didn’t…I… Well I think I didn’t understand or even know…what was going on. And it was like: “Oh, she’s going to stay for a year to study English.” And… And that was the first…the first impression I had of going back alone. And the thought of “Oh, Fer is going to say a year to study English like a lot of girls,” you know, who did go. And well, I went back alone. Uh…
[Fernanda]: At that time, and for several months after, that was my plan. To go back once I finished the school year. But as the date for me to buy my return ticket got closer, I felt as if the time had gone by too fast and I didn’t want to go back.
I was just making friends, speaking English a lot better, spending time with dad… I wanted to stay another year, but the idea of picking up the phone and calling my mom to tell her that terrified me. I knew that I was going to break her heart and upset her like never before. And that’s what happened.
[Andrea]: Well, I noticed she was upset. And well, I asked what was going on, and at first it was a lot of not…not speaking…not saying a lot of things. And when I said: “Mom, what’s going on?” Well that’s when she told me your…your sister…Well, my sister didn’t want to come back and wanted to live in the US.
[Fernanda]: I think at 14, I didn’t really understand what it meant for my mom that her daughter wasn’t coming back. Now that I’m an adult, it’s easier to see things from her perspective. It’s easier to understand how that would have hurt her.
What did you think of my life in Tuscon, in the US.
[Andrea]: For the first few years?
[Andrea]: I mean, right after you left? I thought it was like “wow,” you know? I mean, it was like, “she lives in the United States and..and…she takes a yellow bus to school” you know, like in the movies, but for real. It was like “well, Fer lives in a place where everything is super cool,” you know, “where everything is really nice and the clothes are really cool and everything is stylish, not like here.”
And…and of course, well, I don’t remember you ever telling me at that time that you were sad or upset, I don’t know if you just didn’t say anything or kept it to yourself.
[Fernanda]: Yeah, I wasn’t always having a good time. I arrived in Tuscon thinking I spoke enough English, but I soon realized that that was not the case. My school wasn’t like the ones you see on TV, like in Britney Spears videos.
And even though I was excited to be there, it was a kind of complicated transition. There were moments when I felt very lonely. But I never told my sister any of this.
[Andrea]: And now I know that obviously it took a lot of work for you to learn the language and adjust and… Well also coming to a home that you had only stayed at for vacations, you know, with…with two people that you aren’t used to living with, well it must have been complicated, but at that time I didn’t see it like that, I was young.
[Fernanda]: Do you think that my leaving at 13 was a kind of way for me to rebel?
[Andrea]: In part, yes. I mean, you’ve been super independent since you were a little girl, right? I mean, in that sense we’re oil and water, don’t you think? Today I’m four weeks away from getting married, I mean, the fact that I’m going to leave my mom, I think that’s the…the hardest part? I mean, yes the cultures are very different and since you were very little you were very independent, very responsible for your own things, your actions…everything. Everything you did seemed very thought-out.
[Fernanda]: I mean, yes and no. On one hand, of course, I was the one who made the decision to go. But sometimes I feel like I stayed almost because of inertia. It was like being a passenger on a train that can’t stop anymore. After living in Tucson for a few years, the idea of going back, imagining going back to León, became very hard for me.
The first three or four times I went back to Mexico for the school break, someone in the family always asked when I was coming back or why I had stayed. Sometimes I thought those were more than questions. It was more like they were reproaching me or scolding me for having left my mom and sister. And the truth is those conversations really bothered me.
Little by little, Andrea was getting used to my not being there.
I asked her if she ever made the obvious choice: making the room we shared just hers.
[Andrea]: No, I didn’t…no…I didn’t take on the attitude of “she’s gone and the room is mine.” The two beds always stayed in there. I think there were some dolls of yours that stayed on top of the covers. And they stayed there through three moves.
[Fernanda]: I don’t know if you remember, mostly in the beginning, moments when you’d say: “I wish Fer was here.” Or…
[Andrea]: Yes. A lot of times, because I didn’t have another siblings, you know. It was a long time, years of feeling alone, of…well yeah, even not having someone to fight with, you know, you need that. I couldn’t borrow my sister’s clothes, you know? I couldn’t borrow her shoes. Or my sister couldn’t cover for me…with a lie or a…because she wasn’t there, you know? So yeah…yeah it didn’t feel good, the truth is…
[Fernanda]: We each looked for ways to replace the other.
[Andrea]: I went out with my friends a lot, or with one specific friend, so I could feel like she was part of my family. I mean, I would take her to go eat —I remember perfectly—, uh… to sleep over, wanting to be with her all the time.
[Fernanda]: You’re literally describing the same thing I did. It was the same for me in Tucson. It was me and 2 adults. And 2 adults who got home from work at 6:30 and 7 pm. I got home and made dinner in the microwave by myself. I didn’t have anyone to fight with [laughs]. I didn’t have anyone to share clothes with. What you were going through was what I was going through, but in another country, and in a parallel universe. It was the same.
[Fernanda]: If we were having similar experiences, we didn’t know it at the time. We saw each other every summer and every Christmas, but we didn’t talk about these things. And as time went on, the differences in age and personality between me and Andrea were more and more pronounced. Me in my half-punk phase in high-school, with my skater friends and Andrea still in grade school. Later, I was entering my 20s in college and working and Andrea was a rebellious teenager. During those years we were bothered by what the other one was doing and it was hard for us to understand each other. We see that now. But at the time, we didn’t.
It’s hard not to think of it as lost time. Some moments stick in your memory forever. Others don’t.
[Andrea]: I have a theory about myself and I think it’s very…it’s very real: I block out a lot of things. I don’t let a lot of things in. I don’t know, sometimes mom is surprised and says: “You don’t remember this-or-that thing?” The truth is I don’t, but it’s the best way I, Andrea, have to cover myself. Saying: “I don’t want it.”
[Fernanda]: Meanwhile, I’m the complete opposite. I’m expressive and I don’t hold in my emotions. In any case, I’m very pleased to know that Andrea also remembers me that way.
[Andrea]: I mean, I did grow up…I grew up knowing that…that you missed me or… I mean, I did… I really remember you telling me “I miss you” and “oh I kept your clothes.” I mean, that part is really cool because you were, or you still are, very expressive about things so… I never thought “Oh, no. I don’t think Fernanda misses me,” or “I think”…. Well no.
[Fernanda]: I would like Andrea to open up a little more with me, but I understand that I also had things I kept to myself. I think I never told her how I felt because I didn’t want her to judge me. Maybe I didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that sometimes I also regretted my decision.
[Daniel]: After this conversation, a few days after Andrea got back to New York, we went back into the studio one more time to listen to the audio she recorded.
When you’re very close to a story it makes it very hard to listen to the tape. The week after you came back did you feel like you…like you were putting off listening to the audio?
[Fernanda]: I hadn’t opened it until last night. No… Obviously I know what’s in this…[laughs] in this interview, you know? Because I did it. I was there. But no… Even when you asked me, ‘how’d it go,’ I said, fine, like a person, like a producer I don’t know. But at the same time I didn’t want to listen to it again without having been… I don’t know, I don’t know. Listening to what Andrea said and the words “I was very lonely,” that gets to you in that moment. But listening to them now, it’s like…it’s as if she’s yelling them. I hear them much louder.
[Daniel]: Tell me a little about the…the emotions you felt during the interview.
[Fernanda]: [Laughs] There were plenty! I started out very nervous. We started to talk about our childhood and when we used to live together, the dancing and all that, so it started very… I don’t know.
[Fernanda]: Light, yeah. And then…
[Daniel]: And then…well, not so light.
Do you think you were holding back your emotions because of your sister’s personality? Or because it was almost a professional thing, like if I have a microphone in hand I’m working and this story isn’t just about me and the idea is for her to talk, not me…?
[Fernanda]: 100%. Rather, both things: the fact that Andrea was saying it and it sounds a little emotional, but physically Andrea isn’t …she’s not crying or like “I was lonely” [sobbing jokingly]. I mean, no, she’s telling me like: these are facts and I was lonely and I felt this and… And I had never heard her say that but at the same time I said: “Ok, I’m grabbing the mic, how are the levels and now it’s my turn and then, let me tell you I was feeling the same thing!” There was a moment when I needed to separate myself a little from the interview in order do feel 100%, like I do right now.
[Daniel]: What was the hardest question to ask?
[Fernanda]: If she resented me?
You don’t feel at all resentful?
[Andrea]: Well, no I don’t. You mean resentful that you left? No. No, I have no reason to, it wasn’t like you left because of me, you know, I mean, the truth is I don’t…maybe it’s more like I’m resentful of…the years we didn’t understand each other at all.
[Andrea]: Like at all. At best, if we had lived together that wouldn’t have happened because we would have grown up in the same culture, in the same family environment, with friends, uh, at best we would be somewhat similar or have things in common, you know?
[Daniel]: Or maybe she’s idealizing it. In other words: how many siblings grew up in the same house, with the same parents, in the same culture, how many were close as children and then as teenagers stopped talking? Stopped sharing? And then as adults, well, are done? They aren’t close or intimate or only barely talk. It’s very common.
This clearly isn’t the case with Fernanda and Andrea. Even though they had their years of not getting along, years in which the distance between them highlighted their differences in character and in personality, it’s not like that now. It’s like the distance never existed. They communicate constantly.
I’ve seen it. Fernanda and I teach a class together every spring in New York and more than once, Andrea has interrupted us with a little message. And without fail Fernanda responds. With long strings of emojis.
In their teenage years —and well, still— Fernanda and Andrea lived thousands of kilometers apart. But it wasn’t until this most recent visit that they realized that despite that distance, they had shared a really important experience.
Maybe it was something they each had to survive, the overcome. In order to reach to the other side. To get to the closeness they have now.
[Fernanda]: I think what struck me the most was, I don’t know, [crying] hearing her say that she felt really lonely. As an older sister you never want to hear or think that your little sister feels alone. And because I felt lonely too. I felt the same way Andrea’s describing.
[Daniel]: How did you end the interview? What feeling did you end on?
[Fernanda]: Well, I asked her questions for an hour and a half, and then at the end I asked her if she had any questions for me. And, well, I was honestly a little surprised by her question.
[Andrea]: What would I ask you? Was there any moment when you thought or said: “I went to fast. I could have been a little more patient,” and could have tried to stay longer?
[Fernanda]: Yes. Plenty of times. Yeah, I thought about it the most when I was finishing high school. Of course. Of course because…at 13, what do you know? Nothing. Nothing! You think you know about everything in the universe and you’re nobody.
[Andrea]: And would you have liked it if someone, I mean, if someone stopped you? Or would it have been worse?
[Fernanda]: No, if…if I… If someone had said “you’re not going,” I would have been rebellious in León. It would have ended worse, honestly. But if we’re talking about what-ifs: I would have liked to have gone for one year and come back and finished high school and spent more time here. And then decide.
[Daniel]: It’s a very astute question. And it’s interesting that you’ve asked yourself that question too, you know. You were so eager to leave. Your answer is also true, certainly if you had been forced to come back…
[Fernanda]: Coming back I would have been incredibly resentful, like: “they took this opportunity away from me,” or “they didn’t let me see how things were because they forced me to go back to Mexico.”
[Daniel]: But they didn’t force her. And she stayed. And they each followed their own path.
And now, after many years, they talked about a lot of things that they may not have been able to without the microphone and the recorder.
(SOUNDBITE FROM WEDDING PARTY)
In any case, while we were finishing this story, Fernanda went back to Mexico for Andrea’s wedding. And the two sisters danced until four in the morning. Happily.
Fernanda is a journalist and producer for Latino USA with NPR. She lives in New York. This story was produced by Fernanda, Silvia Viñas and me. It was edited by Camila Segura. Mixing and sound design by Ryan Sweikert.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Andrés Azpiri, Jorge Caraballo, Patrick Moseley, Laura Pérez, Ana Prieto, Barbara Sawhill, Luis Trelles, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Luis Fernando Vargas. Maytik Avirama is our editorial intern. Andrea Betanzos is our program coordinator. Carolina Guerrero is our CEO
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
Learn more about Radio Ambulante and this story on our website: radioambulante.org. Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin American I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.