On Writing

Published on September 17th, 2013 | by Sarah Maria Medina


SARAH MARIA MEDINA Seeks Various Remedies: On Writing and Mothering Across the Border

In my early twenties I worked in the clubs, put myself through college, and only dated women. The end of my twenties could definitely be blamed on my Saturn return. Or maybe rather than blamed, blessed by, depending on perspective. After a break up with a girlfriend of two plus years, graduating from the university, and my then lover leaving town on tour for Europe without a said goodbye, my Saturn return hit me full on. And it seemed to keep going past thirty. One of my best friends, Honor convinced me to go to Havana. Eight months later, I came back to my home town with a small flutter in my belly.

When I first arrived in Havana, I went to Lila parties, secret lesbian soirées. Honor had given me her best friend’s number, and she took me into her family. We climbed stairs to a rooftop, the city lights spread out below. But I wasn’t ready to love another woman, to open myself to that kind of risk of feeling broken again, in only the way a woman leaving me does. My own grandmother was in a lesbian partnership when I grew up, and fluidity of sexuality was something normal to me. My faithfulness has always been to my chosen partner, usually a woman. When a man who sang Hip Hop lyrics, devoted and true, came along, I decided to lie with him for awhile.

His house by the sea was filled with familiar sounds: the drone of a television, his older brother chanting Santeria prayers, his mother’s hum, the laughter of children. I felt my daughter’s spirit call to me on the roof, when a thunderstorm was coming. My lover wanted a daughter too. The world beyond our time together ceased to exist for us, and this impulse to have a daughter was the strongest thing in our lives. Then the storm passed, and my visa expired. I left for New York, and went to a clinic in Brooklyn, where other moms sat crowded in plastic seats waiting for their appointments.


A pregnant Jamaican woman next to me, said she had been waiting over an hour for her appointment and was going to be late to pick up her child from daycare. My reality hit me strong, far from the romantic Havana heat, and the breeze that rolled in from the sea. What was left were broken phone lines, an impending sense of loneliness, and a phone call to Honor. I flew back to Seattle, where I spent my next month with morning sickness on her couch. She took me to my midwifery appointments, bought me Gatorade and popsicles. Eventually, I found a small cabin in the forest to shelter me from the world, and she flew back to Havana.

The question after my daughter’s birth, was where to raise her. We were on our own, and I was looking for some magic. It was Honor who had told me about Chiapas. She had come here to the mountains, to write a book with two other friends. My own grandmother was puertorriqueña, and I missed the sounds of Spanish. My priorities were to raise my daughter somewhere we could speak Spanish daily, and where I could have enough time to write. I wanted to leave behind the ordinary life, at least for awhile. I wanted to enter into the world of magical realism that I had read about in college. I wanted to see the country that had inspired the painter Remedios Varo of the surrealist movement. I wanted to walk along the streets where Frida Kahlo had been raised.

Since my college years, when I first learned about Frida Kahlo, I have found her life inspiring. Though her physical pain was severe, she created great works of art. I am fascinated by her journal, her line drawings and poetic word lists. Her romantic relationships with women. I wanted to be closer to this historical painter. To her mystical world of parrots and poetry. Was it possible to live in or near Frida’s world? The green leaves of her paintings called to me. And the world she had lived beyond that. The photo of her recently woken, in bed next to a woman. Her kitchen, filled with bright colors, and laughter.


I had also read a book about Remedios Varo, La Cazadora de Astros (The Huntress of Stars) by Cuban writer and mother, Zoe Valdez. Remedios had moved to Mexico, and according to Valdez, Mexico was where the painter had found her home. A place to dream and create, beyond even her native Spain, or France. Valdez had written an intricate scene of Remedios interacting with another friend, as if in a dream world, where they created their surrealist images through an intimate theater in her living room. I wanted to experience this theater, to have the space to create, and write. To invite magic into our lives.

When my daughter and I travel from our small town in Chiapas to Mexico City, we visit the house of Frida Kahlo, sit before the murals of Diego Rivera in the Palacio Nacional, and admire the bridge between their two small houses in barrio San Ángel. To see the typewriter of Diego Rivera in his studio, the bedposts of Frida, her collection of butterflies, and her garden below is to enter a past world where art was created through great pain as well as beauty. I found I could find a way to write about leaving Havana, heal my past, and begin a new life here for my daughter.

I have not found the free spirited surrealist theater of Remedio’s living room, except for feverish spells when I recently contracted typhoid fever. I lay in bed for weeks, exhausted with a fever, heavily nauseous. During this time, I began reading Malinche by Laura Esquivel. In my feverish state I was inspired to write poems about this woman who many believed had originally betrayed Mexico. Esquivel had rewritten Malinche’s history, with a more feminist perspective, showing that rather than betraying her country by serving as an interpreter to conquistador Cortez, Malinche had been surviving.


When I read the rewritten histories of women like Malinche, I begin to permit myself to rewrite my own. The lover I had taken in Havana had had a younger lover in the states, an open relationship. There were miscommunications, thrown emails that never reached her when he broke things off, and she had been hurt. I fell in love with his humble house by the sea, with his family. And though he knew and had met my previous girlfriend, for a few months we began to believe that we could make something together. I think even more than being in love with him, I was in love with his house, with the generations who lived beneath the same roof. I had come from a broken family, and I wanted to piece my past back together with his.

Esquivel’s rewrite of the past, gave me permission to seek my own past back, and forgive the word betrayal.My daughter would crawl into bed with me on top of the secondhand quilt we had brought back from Guatemala, made from worn guipils, traditional blouses. She would delicately open the Malinche book cover, unfolding the squares, until she could see all of the codices that had been printed on the inside. The codex squares of Malinche’s life, from birth to death and the moments she had lived between were drawn in small detail. This was the way Mexicas wrote poems. My four year old awed over the butterflies, Quetzalcóatl, and Malinche’s mother squatting in birth with her grandmother as her midwife. It is these states of fevered conflict I find myself in, where I reach into my own past, and scoop out both the beauty and rawness, to write new poems with. It is in these spells, where my daughter and I both find ourselves in bed, surrounded by books, as I am recovering from some new waterborne illness during rainy season that we salvage moments, bring the past into the present and reinvent it as poetry.

It is hard at times being a single mother, when you are ill and your baby needs to be cared for. When you need to be cared for. When I came down with typhoid, we were coming back from Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. They say there is a temple beneath the lake, which you can swim to at night while you dream. At the dusty hot border, we crossed by foot back to Mexico, and walked a distance with our luggage, because there was a road barricade. I began to feel faint, and then feverish. Nausea hit me strong on the winding roads. A tall blond woman from Germany noticed I was trying to maintain, and began to nanny my daughter. When we arrived back to our town, I could barely stand. She hailed me a taxi and packed me inside. When I arrived to my doorstep, an Italian woman like a young Sofia Loren, who had been house sitting, opened the door. She tucked me into bed, kissed my cheek and said she would check on me the next day. She had left me a big pot of vegetarian soup on the stove. I fed my daughter from the soup for the next couple of days until I had more strength. It is these small gestures of friendship that help us through the difficulties of being away from our family, of living in a country not our own.

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When we lived up in the mountains above town, occasionally a neighbor would come to help me. Her family is wealthy from selling land, but she likes to work, and was probably as curious about my life, as I was about hers. Sometimes, my daughter and I visited her home to buy fresh tortillas and eggs. She would invite us into her kitchen, and give us cups of hot chocolate. I would watch the smoke from the fire filter up through the space left between the wall and the roof. Her grandchildren hid timidly behind her long skirt. In town, we are still building our community. Sometimes I rely on my telephone and the fact that most anything is delivered in Mexico: pharmaceuticals from the pharmacy, cat food from the corner store, and Chinese dinner from the Chinese restaurant with the tanks of big goldfish.

The Lila rooftop parties with a view of the city that stretched out below like a spider web of lights are far from me now. The nights at the malecon, the sea wall, where tall staggering transgendered queens sang, and a single guitar could be heard have been replaced by mountain sounds. In Havana, the sea held Yemaya, who was always present with her billowing blue skirts, where the grandmothers of the barrio left her molasses and sugarcane, seashells and prayers. The mountains take a different tone: the magic is more understated, quiet. There is a feminine man who sells integral bread with flaxseeds at the organic market. We have begun finding a few minutes to chat as the small market bustles around us. There is a subtle queer presence. A store that sells honey from their farm, and homemade granola. I have heard of a taco stand in the mercado run by transgender women, but it seems to be hidden in the long narrow corridors of comedores. And though the singer Chavela Vargas recently died, her songs can still be heard from open windows, as I walk through town, especially during the week of her recent death. Dressed in a suit, she sang Ranchera songs traditionally sung from a male perspective. She had a friendship with Frida Kahlo in her younger years. Now, when Rosa Sanchez is in town, her slow baritone is reminiscent of Chavela Vargas. I have gone to listen, but most nights I am home with my daughter, reading bedtime stories, and brewing tea.

In Havana there is an open door culture. In the evening we would walk through the barrio and visit casually. There are few phone lines in homes, and there is a more old fashioned way of visiting. Before, or maybe after supper, I’d comb my hair through and take a vuelta through the streets, pausing along the way to greet the grandmothers on their porches. Here, in our small mountain town, there is also a casualness about visiting friends. It is common to knock on a friend’s door, to share a cup of coffee in the afternoon. If I haven’t had time to brush and plait my hair perfectly, because I was up late writing and woken early by my four year old serenading me on her pink guitar, no one seems to give notice. There is a sense of smallness, a sense of possibility for community.

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I am also sustained by letters to my closest friends in the states. A dear friend, Nann in New York edits my poems, and we send our work back and forth. I find time to write hand written letters, and my daughter knows the post office well. My community extends back across the border, cradling me at times when I feel at my most vulnerable. Letters postmarked and stamped find their way back to me in the mountain town. Every two weeks, I let my finger trail down the list of names in the post office. Sometimes, the mailman behind the counter hands me a postcard or a small envelope, and inside are lines of words that encourage my perseverance, that make my world expand back beyond my fevered bed.

In the Cerrillo, is Casa Blues, where a friend, Santiago lives. Inside the courtyard, behind the graffiti covered wall, which lines the narrow street, are four small houses and a gallery space. I had written a short story about a single woman who was pregnant and searching for home, set in one of the small Castilian houses inside Casa Blues. The story is laced with magical realism. A Chicana filmmaker, Rosario who was in town, encouraged me to work with Santiago, to make a short film based on the story. Early morning would find us with Knomia, another filmmaker who was visiting Mexico. My hair barely brushed in unkempt braids, I would knock on the heavy door of Casa Blues. The three of us would find ourselves on the streets to catch the first clouds that had settled over the town.

With distance from my own country, I am able to have the space to recall my stories with new voice. Visiting the sun and moon pyramids in Palenque engulfed me in a world that made my daughter and me small. It reminded me of the greatness of the history around us: the jungle with great tall leaves and insects that sing a high pitched hum, the stones that had been placed by small hands. There is a learned humbleness when living in another country. Now, I am able to write about my past, without being overwhelmed by details: the house in the barrio by the sea, the rooftop, the dusty road that led down to the fishing village.

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I tend to romanticize my life, to find beauty in unexpected places. I learned this from my mother. When I come back to reality, it can overwhelm me. This happened between my lover and me in Havana. His barrio was where Hemingway lived. Fishermen row small boats out to sea each day, and the current carries emigrants at night to my country. Eventually, I had to confront my reality. I climbed the old wooden ladder to the roof above his brother’s room, where laundry hangs to dry, and sat until the sky became dark. In Mexico too, there is great beauty, yet, there is also another reality: poverty, children on the street with hungry bellies, border crossings and border patrol violence, struggles between indigenous communities and the government, my best friends in the states who can never be replaced, the number of airplanes it takes us to return to our family. My uncertain future.

My daughter plays outside in our small garden. In her hand is a caracol, a snail. The Zapatistas use the snail as a symbol of their progress. We crossed over into their territory one day, high in the mountains, our passports in hand. They say a snail moves slowly, but forward. Maybe this is like my writing. I write poetry when I am inspired, sometimes between fevers. I am writing a memoir about Havana that is slowly taking form. In the morning, when my daughter is enchanted by snails, I write over my strong cup of coffee. This has become our morning ritual. And I write again at night, while she sleeps. Tonight, I will peel off her pink tutu and her leotard which will have become dirty in the plaza with her friends after her ballet class. I will read her a chapter from Through the Looking Glass, as she tells me that she has also seen talking flowers in the garden. When her soft sleeping breath begins, I will take out my laptop, my thermos of fresh mint tea beside the bed.

The painter Remedios Varo’s name translates to Various Remedies. For me, and perhaps for Remedios during the time she lived here, Mexico has became just that. A country of remedies. It is much more than the local Mayan healing herbs found in the market, which cure various common illnesses. Mexico is a country filled with different sounds: the organ grinder in the street, the children playing in the plaza, the hummingbirds’ wings. And beyond the garden and the streets, Mexico’s artists of the past are still present. The murals and paintings, the houses that seem to echo with their voices. The remedies are not only physical, but also soulful. They invite us to to reinterpret our histories, to rediscover ourselves, to write poetry. They continue to inspire us as a family, as we make our life together across the border.


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About the Author

Sarah Maria Medina is a poet and a fiction/creative non-fiction writer from the American Northwest. Her writing has been published in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Midnight Breakfast, Educe Journal, Winter Tangerine Review, Raspa Literary Journal, Codex Journal, Semicolon Journal, Luna Luna Magazine, and elsewhere. She’s also the author of a chapbook of poetry titled Girl Turnin’ Queen and Other (Broken) Havana Love Stories. She lives in Mexico with her daughter, and is at work on her memoir, A House by the Sea in Havana. www.sarahmariamedina.com

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