Original post written on www.maria-dreams.com
Dear Kissimmee (K-Town, This Fuckin' Place, America's Basement, and any other of the colorful pet names I've given you over the past 24 years),
I used to hate you. I know most love letters don't start this way - or maybe they do. Maybe this is the biggest romantic cliché there is: mortal enemies fall in love. But I don't think so, because though I resented you and hid you, had so many emotional affairs with the more glamorous options in the area, and left you as soon as I could, you always gave me everything. You still do.
I met you when I was six, before I knew most things that have since shaped who I am - including English. Including Spanish. And "I learned" is only part of the story, because I learned them with you. In the underfunded ESOL programs that introduced me to the most patient, dedicated teachers I ever had; in the "ay bendito"s and the "tas pesada"s and, of course, the "alabanza"s that turned the neighborhood into a barrio; in the "C" and "D" schools where kids grew up too fast and made adult mistakes before they were adults, where consequences were more a matter of circumstance than a matter of choices.
Since before I could drive, I'd hitch rides to other towns - other places that were less places and more idyllic glass boxes displaying the American Dream my family came here to chase in the first place, the same American Dream that evaded us by both circumstance and by choice. I'd covet a place in these places, and rejecting you felt like part of that deal. "I can't wait to get out of this town" was a mantra and an identifier. It was a rallying call for every ounce of ambition I had. A purpose. A happy ending made all the more alluring by the fact that I had no idea what that even meant.
But "happy" was in the empanadas and mofongo at Melao. "Happy" was in my grandma being able to understand the cashiers at your grocery stores - and only yours - because they were the only ones who met her Portuguese in the middle with Spanish. "Happy" was in the 15-minute drive to Downtown Disney, where my friends and I would wander when we had $5 between us and an itching desire to do something. "Happy" is in the defiant refusal to call it anything but Downtown Disney. Disney Springs? I don't know her.
"Happy" doesn't even begin to cover how I felt this past Sunday, at halftime, when I saw the songs that taught me how to dance and the cultures that taught me how to open up and the language that first taught me how to communicate in this scary, foreign country. I felt so proud, because for the first time, the spirit you've always had - the spirit of hope and sueños and felicidad that I took for granted for way too long, while reaping the benefits of letting it shape who I am, was on display. It was being celebrated on one of the biggest stages in the world. And, in a way, so were you - so were the towns and cities and sueños that were left by all of our families to come to you in pursuit of the American Dream.
Home's where the heart is, sure. But it took resenting you, and leaving you, and being forced to return to you, and leaving you over and over again - with the ever-present satisfaction of being back "just for a visit" - to realize that it's something else, too. That, even when things are hard and sad, home's where the happy is. Where you realize it's always been, when you've deigned to let yourself stop and recognize it. And that, even when you're gone, it's part of the fundamental fabric of who you are, for better or for worse. For too long, I thought it was for worse. I couldn't have been more wrong.
So, like a bad girlfriend who's done wrong and knows it, I've admitted I messed up. I've listed your many attributes and recognized my failure to acknowledge them - but never to your face. So here's that long-overdue admission: I was wrong about you. I'm sorry. And thanks for all that you've given me, in memories and lessons and unforgettable people. In the million things I don't even understand yet, and that coming back to you makes me understand a little bit more every time. Thank you.