I Promise You | Translation

I Promise You | Translation


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Translated by MC Editorial

[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.

Leaving is never easy. It involves dreams to be fulfilled and the excitement of new beginnings, but also goodbyes, unfinished business, promises that we don’t know we will be able to keep, and everything that surrounds leaving a life behind, leaving people behind…

We don’t just leave a place; we also leave the version of ourselves that inhabited that place. And change is often harder for us to accept than for our loved ones who are left behind.

Today’s story is about all of this. About who we are when we leave and who we become with distance and many years. And about the promises that sustain the fragile bond we have with our place of origin.

After the break, journalist Jasmine Garsd.

We’ll be back.

[Daniel]: We’re back. This is Jasmine: 

[Jasmine Garsd]: The day I left, I sat in my kitchen with my best friend, Gabriel.

A taxi was waiting outside. In the drowsiness of siesta time, under the spell of the perfume of the jacarandá trees, time seemed to move slower, but not as slowly as I wanted.

It was summer. 2002. I was 19 years old and I was leaving Argentina. “Listen to me,” I said, holding back my tears. “There is something I want to give to you.”

With teenage solemnity, I handed him my purple, glitter-covered platform shoes.

Many years later, Gabriel confessed his disappointment:

[Gabriel]: Because it was like, I don’t know, maybe I was expecting a letter or something like that. Those platform shoes, were like, OK… what the hell was I going to do with platform shoes? I think I gave them to the first homeless person I found. 

[Jasmine]: But let’s go back to the day of my departure. Before Gabi could answer me, my mom stuffed some money under her shirt and yelled, “Let’s go!”

My grandmother Iaia grabbed my face with her cold, bony hand and whispered something into my ear.

I looked at her, standing there, with her light robe and her thick little legs that always reminded me of a little elephant. Suddenly the woman who took care of me and scolded me so much seemed very small and defenseless. But I also felt a little irritated. How dramatic. Didn’t she know that this was a temporary thing? I gave her a hug.

I turned to Gabi and said:

“Gabriel. I’ll be back soon. I swear to you.”

All this happened more than 20 years ago. 

Gabi is still my best friend.

We are in touch almost every day on WhatsApp. We talk about everything. Just by hearing the tone of his voice when he answers the phone, I know whether he is having a bad day. If we talk in the morning, I know he is having black coffee without sugar and a piece of baguette for breakfast. And he knows the most intimate details of my life. I tell him… even when I have an appointment with the gynecologist. At this point, some of my facial expressions are actually his; they just stuck to me. Like the way I purse my bottom lip when someone irritates me.

But there is something we have never been able to talk about in all these years.

About the promise I made to him in the kitchen that day: that I would return.

It became a kind of unwritten rule between the two of us. We can talk about anything except that.

All our lives, Gabriel and I have understood each other almost instinctively. From the moment we met, when we were 15 years old.

It was at the end of the nineties. Argentina was going through one of the many financial crises we have had. After years of brutal neoliberal economic policies—some of them very similar to what is being proposed today—the country seemed on the verge of exploding. The desperation was tangible. My parents were teachers. We never lacked anything, but we were always worried, as if on the edge of an abyss.

So my summer vacations took place in the neighborhood square.

And that was where we saw each other for the first time.

He was lying on the grass, next to a friend of mine. A cigarette hung from his lips and he had a Quilmes beer in his hand. He was like a Latin Mick Jagger, a mix of Prince and Sandro de América.

I saw him and thought, “That guy is beautiful.”

He, on the other hand, looked at me—skinny, pale, with woolly hair that blocked the sun from his view—and pursed his lower lip. Irritated.

[Gabi]: I thought, like, here is this typical posh friend. I saw you like you were too blonde and too light-skinned; she is an unbearable cheta, end of story.  

[Jasmine]: Cheta: bourgeoise, educated upper-class, snobby, preppy. 

And to show him that I was none of these things, I drank the rest of his beer as if it were not the first time in my life I had tried alcohol. It was warm and disgusting. It made me think of urine, but I washed it down like it was the nectar of the gods.

Which earned me a bit of his respect. We started making jokes.

Gabi and I were very different. I was a shy girl, very anxious, secretly very angry. He was a kid from a country family, very Catholic. He lived in fear that they would find out what he had only recently begun to understand—that he was gay.

But we had in common that we both came from families where there was a lot of arguing, and where those discussions often led to physical violence. Almost on the spot, we started joking about our situation. We shared the dark humor of kids who live in a world where adults often behave like scary children. Far from being defiant teenagers, our ultimate act of rebellion consisted of secretly drinking my mother’s tea.

[Gabi]: Like two ladies. Like two children-ladies that we were…

[Jasmine]:  We were children-ladies.

[Gabi]: Yes…

[Jasmine]:  We spent as much time as possible in the park, talking about music, superheroes, and sex—a lot of sex. Across the street there was a hotel by the hour and, fascinated, we watched the couples arriving and leaving, while we smoked cheap national cigarettes, tearing out the filter to feel even a little tougher, a little less virgins.

But, more than anything, we talked about our obsession with going far away.

[Gabriel]: I fantasized about leaving, yes, I fantasized about leaving, I fantasized about being in a better place. But it was not a possibility. Not that; it was not a dream, a daydream, I think that’s how you say it in English, traveling or going to another place. No, it wasn’t, it wasn’t a real possibility.

[Jasmine]: Because by the late 90s, the Argentinean economic crisis was very serious.

My parents had been out of work for a whole year.

Gabi’s father was a taxi driver and his mother was a secretary. They were barely making ends meet.

In the evenings, when Gabi returned from the square, he often found his father, beer in hand, empty gaze, and nothing to eat for dinner.   

[Gabi]: There were nights, nearing the end of the month, when there wasn’t much left, there was no money. So we had mate with bread for dinner.

[Jasmine]: When I returned home, I entered through the kitchen so that no one would know the time I came in. But many times, my old man was there, sitting, as if lost. 

Pa, I said. Go to bed.   

To hide the smell of tobacco, I sprayed myself with Axe deodorant—which seemed to me the height of sophistication then. I would climb into bed next to my grandmother Iaia. She was a character. She had peculiarities that irritated me at the time; but now, when I recall them, my heart melts. She would go to bed with her shoes on, in case there was an emergency and she had to run. On the nightstand, she always had a glass of cane liquor to help her sleep better, and under the pillow, a small plastic radio broadcasting the news all night long.

And over the years, the news got worse and worse. 12% unemployment. 15%. 17%.

At the end of 2001, desperate people began looting supermarkets, holding mass protests. The police responded brutally. They even killed protesters just a few minutes from my house. We had five presidents in less than two weeks.

Lying next to Grandma Iaia’s radio was like trying to sleep to the sound of a clock that marks the arrival of the end of the world.

And our world seemed to finally collapse at the end of December of that year. My family decided that we would soon go to the United States. They had the feeling that it was now or never.  

[Gabi]: I remember that when we met in the park, we got together and talked. You started telling me why your family decided to move to the United States, and so on. Also, one of the things you told me is that you were very sad about not seeing your grandmothers. I remember how distressed you were about the fact you were leaving while your grandparents were staying. I don’t know whether it surprised me, but it did distress me a lot, yes, it was very distressing… the idea of loneliness, thinking like, “There won’t be anyone left, like I won’t have anybody.”

[Jasmine]:  There was a saying I heard several times back then: “Last one out, turn off the light.”

But the story of immigration is almost always told by the one who left, not the one who stays. And most Argentineans stayed.

In the days and weeks after I left, Gabi says he watched his friends leave one after another. 

[Gabi]: It frustrated me. I felt like I was stuck in the same place, I felt that everyone else was able to choose to go wherever they wanted but not me. I had to stay here.

[Jasmine]: He dreamed of studying Fine Arts, or Fashion and becoming a designer. But on the day of his graduation, his mother sat down with him and told him that college was not a possibility. Not for the moment, not with the country’s crisis.

His family needed him to get a job. So he worked as a waiter. Tips were scarce. And he says that during his daily routine, he thought about me and that new life in the United States.

[Gabi]: Where you had the opportunity to start over and live a great adventure. And somehow I stayed here. Nothing. Living the same life that I was already living. 

[Jasmine]: In his mind, when I got to the United States, I would join the cast of one of those badly-dubbed movies, the ones we watched as kids on rainy days. 

[Gabi]: I imagined your life like any North American movie, you know? That you were going to go to some college, where you would have a boyfriend, maybe you would join a sorority, you would get a part-time job. Those life dramas that always end well, where somehow all your efforts are reflected and in the end you end up having a great career and you end up having a great boyfriend and so on. 

[Jasmine]: But in the United States, my reality was very different.

My parents had lived in California a long time ago during the Argentinean dictatorship, in the ’70s. They became citizens and I was born there. They returned to Argentina shortly afterwards. My grandmother used to tell me, “You were born there by accident. You are from here, you are Argentinean.” I never knew whether it was a joke, a reminder, or a wish. In any case, I actually remembered very little about the United States, almost nothing.

Having citizenship and friends there helped enormously when it came time to leave Argentina, but still it wasn’t easy. We ended up living in a motel in Southern California, until my dad started working and we looked for a place to live. It was 2002 and the motel was packed with sailors heading off to war in Afghanistan. I looked at them out of the corner of my eye while I had my scrambled eggs and coffee for breakfast in the diner. Mornings I worked in a bakery, afternoons at the supermarket. On weekends, I sold cowboy boots at a store.

In the evenings, on my way home from home from work, I always tried to buy some international calling cards that were sold in the stores. I wanted to call Gabi and tell him about my day. I told him about the boy I liked. Gabi described for me the pants he had designed and sewn for himself. But in the background of all those conversations, there was always my promise to return. Distant but present, like the roar of the sea. 

Every time I was having a bad day, every time my pervert boss gave me a neck massage when he walked past me, or a customer treated me badly, I would call Gabi and say, “This place sucks. Luckily, I’m coming back soon.” Every time Gabi had a bad day, when he argued with his family or his boss threw a tantrum, he would sigh and tell me, “I can’t wait for you to come back.”

But returning at that moment was impossible. I couldn’t even afford a ticket to visit, much less move back.

What we needed, I thought, was time. I needed time. Two more years. Maybe three.

Three at the most.

I started earning money. Not much, but much more than I was used to. I was beginning to achieve the independence from my family that I had always wanted, but that I could never have imagined in my own country.

However, Argentina was always in my rear-view mirror. Beautiful and alive, resilient… even in her desperation. Gabi told me about all the new things he was doing with his life. Poetry readings, protest marches, weekends in the countryside. Everyone was having a hard time, yes, but they managed. They were always looking for a way to enjoy life. Meanwhile, the closest thing I had to a friend, to a social life, was the 15-minute break I took in the parking lot at work, when I shared a cigarette with an asshole colleague who took the opportunity to tell me his repertoire of misogynist jokes. This was definitely not the life that American TV had promised me.

Anyway, nothing mattered too much, because I had an escape plan. Someday very soon, I would make a U-turn. I would go back. And when I did, I would join Gabi on his new adventures. My whole life would make sense once again.

Gabi and I always ended our phone calls the same way. I would say, “See you soon.” And he answered:

[Gabi]: I love you to heaven and back.

[Jasmine]: I visited Argentina again in 2011. I hadn’t returned for years.

I didn’t tell anyone. Not even Gabi. I thought it would be a wonderful surprise to just show up one day, out of the blue, unannounced.

That night, I arrived in the city, went to my aunt’s house, ate something and fell asleep.

It was still night when the phone rang, and because of my jet-lag, I had a hard time absorbing what the voice on the other end was saying. They had found my grandmother Iaia at the foot of the stairs of the nursing home, unconscious. She had fractured her skull and had been taken to the hospital.

In my memories, I am running underwater. Too slow to arrive on time.

When I got to the hospital, the police were already there. They gave me the news that she had died. They explained that the circumstances were confusing. That it could be an act of violence and there was now an official investigation. They did not let me in.

Dazed, I went out and looked for a pay phone. There was only one person I wanted to call. It was a Saturday. He was sleeping.

“’I’m here,” I told him. “I need you to come to the hospital.” When Gabi arrived, I collapsed in his arms.

A few days later, we went to the police to pressure them to return my grandmother’s body to me. 

[Gabi]: We couldn’t have gotten an uglier police station. We waited a really long time.

[Jasmine]: The wait, more than for bureaucratic reasons, was because at that moment a soccer match between Argentina and Uruguay was being broadcast. Argentina was about to be eliminated from the Copa América, and the official in charge was with the others, yelling at a television screen down the hall.

In my nostalgia, I had forgotten this part of Latin America—how devastatingly cruel its dysfunction can be.

The days passed. At night, Gabi would crawl into bed with me. We hugged each other. I cried and he whispered in my ear, “Jazmina. You know how things are here with the police.”

But in his consolation, I perceived a subtle accusation. The United States made you weak. That country made you thin-skinned, delicate.

For the first time in my life, I had the terrifying feeling of wanting to run away from my country. I had never felt that before. But I couldn’t tell Gabriel… I was worried it would be too painful for him. Even offensive. So I hid it from him.

I think it was the first time in my life that I hid something from him.

He would fall asleep and I would stay awake for hours.

A few days later, the police called. I had to identify Iaia’s body at the city morgue.

Gabi went with me. When they took her out, he realized that I was choking. He found my hand and whispered, “Jas, close your eyes.”

By identifying her body, Gabi gave me one of the most important gifts I have ever received in my life. Being able to remember my grandmother as she was the last time I saw her, that day when I left my country and she, trembling, grabbed my face and said in my ear, “Jasmine, don’t forget us.”

[Daniel]: We’ll be back after a break.

[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. Jasmine Garsd continues the story. 

[Jasmine]: After my grandmother Iaia died, I felt like I had failed. I hadn’t been there for the people I loved most, I hadn’t been able to stay connected enough, I hadn’t even managed to return home in time to say to my grandmother, “How could I possibly forget you?” “How could I forget about you?” “Thank you for everything you gave me.”

I was overwhelmed with guilt.

After I returned to the United States, Gabi and I continued talking every day. But every time the topic of my coming back arose, even just for a visit, the excuses came out almost involuntarily.

“The tickets are too expensive. I don’t have enough vacation days. I have too much work.”

Until the summer of 2022.

My work as a journalist sent me to Argentina to cover the FIFA World Cup.

And that’s when it happened. Finally, Gabi and I talked about what was it forbidden to talk about. About how, over 20 years ago, we had sat in my kitchen and I made him a promise I never kept.

When I got out of the taxi and saw him for the first time after so long, I was excited. Gabi had a mask on.

[Jasmine]: Gabi! Hellooo.

[Gabi]: What’s up, Jazmina.

[Jasmine]: You look the same! Well, I don’t know; I don’t see half of your face. Maybe you have aged terribly…

We walked to the park.

[Jasmine]: Stop, I remember. This was a vacant lot.

[Gabi]: Sure.

[Jasmine]: I mean completely empty.

[Gabi]: It was an empty lot until a year, or two years ago… 

[Jasmine]: On the way, we met a childhood friend, who did not recognize me. 

[Gabi]: Hey, Valmir, everything all right?

[Jasmine]: Hello!

[Vladimir]: Hello, how are you? A pleasure to meet you.

[Jasmine]: A pleasure… as if it were the first time he had seen me in his life. I felt like a ghost in my own town.

This park is the same. I think they painted the playground equipment.

[Gabi]: No, they improved them a lot. And the new ones… 

[Jasmine]: I had a feeling of disorientation, of familiarity and distance. Walking through these streets felt like visiting the set of a movie I had seen a long time ago. This had been my world, such a small world, the only one I knew at that time. It was so different back then. Who had I been in this place?

When we came to the park, we immediately went back to our routine. We lit a cigarette and started catching up on the neighborhood gossip—who had gotten married, who had broken up, who was fighting with whom.

Gabi looked very well that day. Better than ever. Happy. He is a modeling agent and he loves it. He is dating a very sweet man who makes him eat healthy.

It felt so good to be together again. Just like old times. As if nothing had changed. It felt so good that the question that always torments me came back to me. “Is it time to return?”

And like a compulsion, like a nervous tic, I repeated the promise and had an immediate excuse for it. “I’m going to come back, but because of my job I can’t. Not right now.”

It was then that I noticed how Gabi was looking at me, pursing his lower lip. And it was then that he finally told me what he really felt.

He remembers the moment as clearly as I do.

[Gabi]: It was like, “Mmm-hmm dude, stop bullshitting, just stop. Let’s skip this, let’s skip this loop that we’ve had for years. Where you say, ‘I’m going to return or want to return, but it’s not going to happen.’ Let’s get over this.”

[Jasmine]: This was new to me. Gabriel was finally venting.

Were there moments you felt irritated, thinking, “What an idiot, you don’t have to say that anymore”? It’s everything alright.

[Gabi]: Obviously. From the moment I understood it, every time you said it to me, I felt irritated, but like, “Okay, stop, stop telling me this because the way things are, why are you telling me this?” I don’t know, but I felt you were saying it to me to calm things down, do you understand? And finally it was like no… 

[Jasmine]: Looking back, Gabi is right. I repeated the promise many times because I felt immense guilt. That’s why I told him about how difficult my life was in the United States. A clumsy attempt to soften our reality. According to him, that made him feel even worse. 

[Gabi]: It was like listening to you complain about something that I never got the chance to do. 

[Jasmine]: Gabi didn’t want to listen to my complaints, not at a time when he was barely making ends meet.

He says the moment he realized I was never coming back was years ago, when my grandmother Iaia died. I guess that was the same moment it became clear to me. The moment when I also decided to keep silent.

[Gabi]: That’s when I realized, “OK, Jazmín is not coming back.” And that’s when I automatically got it, and I thought, “You no longer have anything to tie you here.”

[Jasmine]: But you were there.

[Gabi]: Yes, but umm, as a friend, not that I would have wanted you to come back just for me. Not now. At another time, if you had said that when we were 23, I would have loved the idea that you would come back just for me. Do you understand?

[Jasmine]: I understand all this. But the truth is that I didn’t repeat the promise just for him. I did it for me, too. Because I was terrified. Terrified that I was getting further and further away. I needed to believe that I still had a place where I fit perfectly.

I still want to believe that.

[Jasmine]: Do you think I’m still Argentinean?

My whole body tensed up when I asked him this question.

[Gabi]: Ehm, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but no.

[Jasmine]: Wow…

[Gabi]: I think… you’re very Latina. But I don’t know whether I would introduce you as an Argentinean friend today; that’s what I’ve also realized for a long time: you are my North American-type friend, you are part Argentinean and all. But you’re like my friend from the United States. Not, “She is my Argentinean friend living in the United States.”

[Jasmine]: Wow.

I don’t agree with Gabi. Not about this. I believe you are where you came from, even if you are gone for a long time, even forever. What Argentina gave me, no one can take away from me. But there is another possibility, that corny phrase, which actually seems terrifying to me: Maybe I’m not from here anymore, but I’m definitely not from there, either. Maybe I’m not from anywhere anymore.

I’m not angry about what Gabriel says. It’s not the first time I’ve heard something like this. All my life, I have heard Latin Americans talk about Latinos in the United States in this way: they lower their voices when they say, “Yes, so-and-so is Colombian, but… from the United States…” As if it were a serious illness.

What I never realized is that now I live in that whisper.

Gabriel says he still loves me. That I’m still like a sister to him. And that, somehow, we won. We defied the laws of physics. We beat the distance. We talked about this in 2022 as we were walking through Buenos Aires: 

[Gabi]: The way we beat the distance. We screwed the distance.

[Jasmine]: And he even made a joke to lighten the issue: 

[Gabi]: But since you were a snob, you left, like Messi. I stayed here with the people, like Maradona. 

[Jasmine]: I’m not… I’m not like Messi. Or maybe yes, but you are not Maradona.

[Gabi]: Or maybe I am.

[Jasmine]: Another Argentinean who thinks he is Maradona.

[Gabi]: You went to play for another country.

[Jasmine]: I am Messi, the Argentinean who had to leave and who was successful but always missed his country, always thought about returning. But so far he hasn’t, not completely. And Gabi is Maradona, the neighborhood kid who went far, but without ever abandoning the ship.

And it’s fine, he tells me. Because both are essential parts of that country.

Just like that, with a single blow, Gabriel frees me from my teenage promise.

[Gabi]: It’s okay that you don’t come back. That seems fine to me. It’s like… It even seems healthy to me that you can understand that you don’t have to come back. 

[Jasmine]: Which should bring me great relief. But honestly, it makes me feel more trapped than ever.

Even as I say this, deep down I’m still thinking about it. Hang on. Maybe I’ll move back in a few more years. Maybe when I’m older.

I don’t want you to release me from my promise.

Every time I think about my relationship with Gabi, every time I wonder what the mysterious glue is that keeps us together despite distance and time, I return to one memory in particular.

It happened when we were kids, on that first day we met in the park. That afternoon, a summer storm blew up. All our friends ran home. It was just him and me left.

We laughed as we ran under a roof to avoid the rain. I didn’t want to go back home; even then I never wanted to go back. I didn’t have to explain it to him. We just understood each other. Deeply. From the first moment.

He smiled at me, soaked, with his brown eyes lighting up, and he said, “Do you want to stay here a little longer?”

I felt the emotion of someone who heard a voice for the first time in their life. Someone who is thrown a life jacket.

“Yes,” I replied.

We stayed together under the roof until nightfall, watching the world around us fade out.

[Daniel]: An English version of this story was published in This American Life, under the title Pinky Promise. Jasmine Garsd is a journalist living in New York. She currently works as an immigration correspondent for NPR. She also produced the podcast “La Última Copa”, available in Spanish and English. She is writing a book of short stories.

This story was edited by Camila Segura. Bruno Scelza did the fact-checking. The sound design is by Andrés Azpiri, with music by Ana Tuirán.

The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Lisette Arévalo, Pablo Argüelles, Adriana Bernal, Aneris Casassus, Diego Corzo, Emilia Erbetta, Rémy Lozano, Selene Mazón, Juan David Naranjo, Ana Pais, Melisa Rabanales, Natalia Ramírez, Natalia Sánchez Loayza, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Luis Fernando Vargas. 

Carolina Guerrero is the CEO. 

Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program. 

Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.


Jasmine Garsd

Camila Segura

Bruno Scelza

Andrés Azpiri

Ana Tuirán

Laura Jean

Argentina and United States

Episode 22