By Aurelia Cortés Peyron
Translated from the Spanish by Savitri Arvey
I believe that childhood is the closest that we come to experiencing a dream world. That is why my childhood bore the freest metaphoric associations. Childhood is surrealist without knowing it, an intuitive exploration of the metaphor. In a child’s development, associating a face with an identity is one of the first metaphorical activities; the human fascination with masks probably comes from the fear that instills the emptiness between appearance and being, an emptiness that we fill with names. But this ambiguity enables plasticity in the metaphorical imagination, it’s a source of childlike surprise and symbols in our dreams.
When we were kids, we always spent summer vacations at the same beach in Puerto Vallarta. The drive was just as exciting as arriving at the edge of the green Bucerías sea. We always made the trek in my grandparents’ blue Chevrolet Blazer, eating sandwiches and listening to two or three cassettes on loop. One of them was Milagro by Carlos Santana. And at the time, I believed that my father was Carlos Santana.
My mother thought that her uncle was Cri-Cri; my friend Ale thought her dad was Salinas de Gortari (when her father was far away, it cheered her up to turn on the TV and watch the president give a speech). I was also convinced that my aunt was the Tinman from the Wizard of Oz; her lipstick and skin color (not quite silver, but a different shade than mine) were enough to make the connection. Now that I think about it, the entire Wizard of Oz narrative is based on the staging of a child’s feverish imagination, with family and neighbors as the protagonists. I am sure that if I continued my survey, I could put together an extensive list of these false childhood identities.
Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about the idea that old age is a return to childhood, how the elderly regress to the logic of dreams towards the end of their lives as their abilities cloud and identities wither. They hear the voices of loved ones who have already passed away. With childlike cruelty, they confuse the son or daughter by their side with their favorite child who is nowhere in sight. Due to some sort of indulgence, need to reconcile or occurrence within memory, the elderly become frozen in a moment from the past, often a happier one. This leap is more transient, erasing the features of a face in order to reveal the previous one.
As a child, I knew that Santana and my father were two separate people, but this division wasn’t relevant. Such time-space elements didn’t come into play due to the resemblance I saw between them. The strange affinity—between Santana’s guitar or maybe voice, and my dad’s mustache and the pleasure with which he smoked and frowned in his floral print shirt—surpassed any logical framework. The root of this association could simply be the overlapping of Santana’s voice and the reflection of my dad at the wheel in the rearview mirror, as the jungle came closer and closer.
Just like in a dream, I was able to understand that two identities coexisted, or rather converged, in the middle sliver of a Venn diagram. When we retell a dream, we make numerous clarifications of how time and faces superimpose (“it was him, but at the same time, he was also a classmate from middle school”). Often, when we reconstruct a dream after waking up, we have to accept rules that seem incomprehensible, irrational, and sometimes even amusing or sinister. We always do this with imperative verbs like “have to” or “must” conjugated between the diffuse limits of the imperfect.
We learn rules halfheartedly and without knowing their purpose. It’s the same when I write. There are associations that feel filial or genetic, ideas that seem like my daughters or sisters. There are others that arise due to their immediacy (metaphor and metonymy schemes that I once learned in college come to mind). I work well with associations because they enable me to put on and take off masks that help me to understand the identities of the people and objects that surround me. In that sense, I alter between the watercolor painting of old age — that leaves inklings of white paper untouched – and the oil painting of childhood — the superimposition of gestures, features and voices in thick, indistinguishable layers.
Find the Spanish version of this post here.