Borderlands

 Ready for portrait day in my favorite shoes

Ready for portrait day in my favorite shoes

When I was around three years old, my mother abandoned me.

Or at least, that’s what I thought at the time, during the roughly five minutes that it took her to find me.

I’d been asleep, down for an afternoon nap, when my the sound of a pickup truck door slamming shut and engine starting up yanked me out of my reverie. I don’t remember who else was there. For all I know, the babysitter was in the next room. But my young mind didn’t register any of that. The truck door closed, my eyes popped open and I went immediately into full freak-out mode. I jumped up and ran out of the house and into the driveway and then the street, chasing the truck breathlessly as it drove out of sight. Even though Mom came back momentarily, everything was explained (she was just hauling a few bags of trash down the street), and life went on, I’ll never forget the horrible feeling that I felt that day: the sheer panic and terror that sets in when you think your whole world – which, at that age, consists almost solely of your relationship to your parents – is ending.

This type of early childhood experience is not uncommon. The little traumas of day-to-day life are, to a degree, part of growing up and learning to live in an often unpredictable and chaotic world. I can handle the idea that difficult things happen accidentally. What’s a lot harder to swallow is when deliberately cruel acts are carried out intentionally and systematically, by someone who has a clear upper hand in the relationship of power. On this 4th of July, Independence Day, in the wake of the most recent of many migrant crises – the intentional, systematic, and trauma-inducing forced family separations at the border – I’m finding it difficult to cheer for my country.

A few days ago, on the other side of the world in the country of the Netherlands, my album Land Baby was reviewed by Richard Wagenaar of thenextgig.nl. In his review, he described the album as follows: “In addition to being very beautiful and very varied with both folk and Spanish-language songs, Lara Manzanares’s new album Land Baby is also particularly relevant to the discussion on migration. (…) An album as a plea for a bridge and against a wall.” (Full review here - it's in Dutch, full translation coming soon: http://thenextgig.nl/lara-manzanares-land-baby/) Track nine of Land Baby is a song titled “Borderlands.” On this Fourth of July holiday, I have decided to write about that song. (There is a music player at the end of the blog post where you can listen to the song in its entirety.)

 


 Photo: Julie Mendez

Photo: Julie Mendez

I wrote Borderlands during a busy summer in San Francisco. For a few months, I spent the majority of my waking hours hiking around the city as a Census Taker. I planned my route each day as I knocked on ten, twenty, thirty doors and asked my neighbors in English and Spanish about their ages and races and whether they rented or owned their homes. Often, at the end of a day out on the streets as a Census Taker, I would come home, trade my satchel for a guitar case, and head back out into those same streets to earn a few more dollars busking (performing on the street for tips). I was interacting with people of all sorts, all day long – listening to stories. Sometimes the stories came in the form of data points on my census sheet. Other times they were silent facial expressions and gestures, conversations (or sometimes threats) about why someone did not want to open the door, or, on some delightful occasions, how happy someone was that I had stopped by, and would I like to come in and have something to drink? 

 Busking with my friend J. Michael Combs. Photo: Huracán Gomez

Busking with my friend J. Michael Combs. Photo: Huracán Gomez

Out on the streets as a musician, the stories continued. People would stop to talk to me, and tell me about memories that the songs I was singing brought to them. Sometimes they would stop and sing along and ask me how I learned the songs – mainly old Mexican rancheras and corridos that I had heard on the radio in Northern New Mexico and sang with my family as a teenager. I met several friends this way – people whose friendships I still cherish to this day.

Aside from these friends, however, the majority of the people on the street told only very brief visual stories, parsed out in just a few moments as they drifted by on their way to and from somewhere, their minds still dwelling on where they had just been or fixed on where they were going. The street itself is not generally thought of as a destination itself, but rather a means to arriving at another place. There are exceptions, of course: some businesses spill out onto the sidewalk with outdoor patios, and the street can become a temporary destination if it’s blocked off for a festival or other event. But in general, people use streets to get somewhere – and ultimately, at the end of each day, to get home

 Haight St. in San Francisco. Photo: Lara Manzanares

Haight St. in San Francisco. Photo: Lara Manzanares

In addition to the friends and strangers that I encountered while singing on the street, I also interacted with a third group: those for whom the street is their home. We as a society have collectively delineated spaces like the street – along with highways, borders and the fences and walls that mark them – as being “in between” spaces. As a Census Taker that summer I navigated passage across hundreds of thresholds into peoples’ homes. As a busker musician on the street, my focus was not on passing through borders but rather on arriving at in-between places and sticking around there for a while.

 24th St. in San Francisco. Photo: Lara Manzanares

24th St. in San Francisco. Photo: Lara Manzanares

For those who lived in the open air around me, I was basically showing up and playing in their living room… and/or their kitchen, front hallway, coat closet, bathroom, garden, etc. (All temporary, of course: During my time in San Francisco I was witness to the passing of the Sit/Lie city ordinance, which was designed to allow city cops to crack the whip on anyone they found sitting or lying on the street by issuing a fine or just generally harassing them. I did not vote in favor of the ordinance, and I never witnessed it being enforced with any enthusiasm in my neighborhood – but it drove home the fact that for those who live on the street, their only home of any permanence is the body they live in.)

 Front door stoop in San Francisco's Mission District. Photo: Julie Mendez

Front door stoop in San Francisco's Mission District. Photo: Julie Mendez

 Self-expression in the Mission District. Photo: Lara Manzanares

Self-expression in the Mission District. Photo: Lara Manzanares

It was in this atmosphere that I wrote Borderlands: Out on the streets and at the thresholds of strangers, singing into the borderlands of my neighborhood – a place where you are both here and there, and also in neither place, all at the same time. When this space is your place of residence, and there is no “home” to travel across the earth toward or from, where then can you go? 

Two days in the borderlands
And the well has run dry
Only two ways to go from here
Into the earth and into the sky

What emerged in music and lyrics was a reflection of what I was living at the time. Of course, no artist lives in a void, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the influence that Leonard Cohen’s work had on this song – a connection that I myself didn’t make until recently. Thanks to my Dad, I’ve been a fan of Cohen for years and usually cover a couple of his songs when I play out. In his earlier works, Cohen touches repeatedly on themes of shelter and refuge. In Borderlands, the refrain takes on a similar tone:

 Fragment of a mural in the San Francisco neighborhood I lived and worked in.

Fragment of a mural in the San Francisco neighborhood I lived and worked in.

Take her down to the harbor
Wrap her sorrows up in clouds

Nebulous impressions of a time
The frantic stillness of now

Over the last few months, a few people who have heard my album have asked me, “What’s Borderlands about?” I usually just smile in response. The song isn’t “about” any one particular thing – that’s not the point of it. While some of my songs have a definite narrative bent, Borderlands is more about encapsulating a human experience – one that is ancient in its origins, and still relevant today. Where do you go when there is no forward, and no backward? When your home no longer exists to return to, or a return means entering a state of nonexistence (i.e. Death)? Or, as in the most recent crisis at the U.S./Mexico border, when the ultimate “home,” the home that transcends geography and environment – the “home” of family and parents – is ripped away from you? Where, psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally, do you go?

Nebulous impressions of a time
The frantic stillness of now

I still vividly remember the agony I felt thirty years ago as my parents’ yellow 1979 Chevy Silverado pickup drove steadily away from my hysterical little feet – running, screaming, sobbing with all my might – but in vain, as the vehicle pulled further and further away and then rounded a curve out of sight. There I was, completely vulnerable, a four year old kid standing alone, completely out of my mind, in the middle of the street. I couldn’t reach my Mom, who had disappeared before my eyes, and I couldn’t go back to the house, which was now, without her in it, an empty void in my mind. 

 Storytime with Mom

Storytime with Mom

There’s a happy ending to my childhood story. Our neighbors, a couple who ran a small store across the street, witnessed the scene from their storefront window. They came out into the street, took my hand, and led me inside the store. They gave me a candy and comforted me. “Don’t worry,” they said as they patted my head, “she’ll be right back, everything will be okay.” And it was. Mom came back and scooped me up before I had even finished my candy. I was lucky. My world had ended for a few minutes, but it started up again momentarily.  

And now, today, we find ourselves in the position of my childhood neighbors, looking out our window at multitudes of people who are living this experience of complete and total vulnerability, full time, 24/7, all day every day. As we begin another year of existence as the United States of America, what kind of neighbors will we be? 

Take her down to the harbor
Wrap her sorrows up in clouds
Nebulous impressions of a time
The frantic stillness of now

Mmmmm
Mmmmm
Mmmmm
Mmmmm

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Nap time with Dad

~ Many thanks to J.D.R. for helping me gather the courage to post this piece. ~