By Selena Pruitt – Paraguayan adoptee, grad student-to-be
My best friend Natalie and I landed in Barcelona on a chilly Friday evening, the horizon glimmering with the falling rays of the setting sun. Stepping off the plane into cool air, I shivered with anticipation: the DNA test told me I could find myself here. Its neon-colored pie chart told me 39% of myself came from Spain and left me to figure out the rest, something I’ve been doing my whole life.
Adoption creates more questions than it answers, and I was tired of asking them with disappointing results. My identity is my first puzzle to solve and after years of dredging through the internet, I turned to more scientific pursuits: a DNA test. Most of my life I believed the answers might lie in South America, but to my delight the DNA test pointed towards Europe, specifically the Iberian Peninsula. Luckily, my study abroad decisions placed me within arm’s reach of the Peninsula and allowed me to explore a land I felt inexplicably drawn to, even if the the language was a barrier. But I had a week to look, to explore, to search, and to encounter everything that is Spanish, and if I was lucky, I just might be able to find that 39% of myself.
One night train later, we found ourselves in Madrid, the first stop on our trip. We spent the morning wandering in a sleepy daze, trying to kill time before we could check into our hostel. Hours and a nap later, we entered the real world again and found ourselves standing in the middle of Puerto del Sol, one of the busiest and touristy places in the city. It was loud, hectic, overwhelming, and I had no game plan, other than blending in with the crowd.
“Let’s start small,” I thought, “and work our way up.” Thirty minutes later, Natalie and I were relaxing in a charming tapas restaurant with drinks in our hands: a mint mojito for her and a glass of sangria for me.
It was there I found it. Spanish sangria was everything I dreamed it would be: sweet, refreshing, fruity, alcoholic, and I loved it. I was hopeful too. Three glasses of sangria later my taste buds had embraced Spain with open arms, or maybe they were just celebrating a reunion with an old friend.
Perhaps loving sangria meant loving Spain, which maybe meant loving part of myself. But that’s too easy, because anyone can like sangria and you can find it almost anywhere. Natalie cut me off after four glasses and sent me back to the menu to find actual sustenance. It was there, on the back of the menu, where I learned that the Spanish named sangria after their word for bloodletting, because of its deep red color. And it was so fitting. I was searching for my blood, while drinking the blood of Spain, like a morbid sign from the beyond. So, for the next few nights, all I drank was sangria.
“You should just get an IV of sangria and have it directly injected into your blood,” Natalie joked one night and I grinned at the image. But then again, perhaps sangria already runs through my veins. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking. At the end of the night though, I’d decided: I had found at least 6% of myself.
However, sangria wasn’t the only thing I discovered a passion for in Madrid. Our second night in Madrid was heralded by a last-minute decision to see a Real Madrid vs Villarreal game and the whole evening was intense.
As children, my siblings and I all played soccer for many years, but only my brother Sam truly loves it. I dreaded soccer for a variety of reasons, primarily my lack of coordination and inability (or lack of initiative) to run quickly, but also because I felt nothing for the game. Playing soccer didn’t bring me to life, but watching Spanish fútbol definitely did. The fans were exuberant and drunk, on beer and anticipation. The stadium crackled with electricity and excitement that could be felt all the way up in our second-to-last row seats, as thousands of people gathered to worship Real Madrid’s team (especially the starting eleven man line-up) for ninety minutes or so and from the first touch to the final overtime minutes, I was riveted.
I fell in and out of love the entire game. One minute I was yelling out of excitement and in the next, yelling out of frustration. I loathed Ronaldo every time he missed a shot and worshipped Bale each time he blocked a defender. Spanish fútbol took me on a dizzying roller coaster of emotion and I never wanted to get off. At the end of ninety minutes my voice was gone, my ears were ringing, my energy levels were through the roof, and I knew that I had found 11% more.
Finding that first 17% in Madrid comforted me and encouraged me to keep searching. After two days there, we mixed things up with a trip to Morocco, before continuing on to Barcelona, which meant I had time to breathe and reflect on what I had discovered. But it was on our return to Spain that I found myself confronted with one of the most important parts of the Spanish culture: its language.
As a child of Mexican immigrants, Natalie is fluent in Spanish, which made her the official translator of the trip. When she speaks Spanish, the language flows from her tongue like melted chocolate, whereas mine trips out of my mouth in confusing Spanglish sentences. Despite my linguistic failings, I could pass for a Spaniard as long as my mouth remained closed. But after disembarking from the plane, I found myself waiting at the customs window longer than usual.
As Natalie browsed the duty-free shops, I waited patiently at the window, watching the customs official scan and record my passport — only to be surprised when he spoke to me.
“Repíte, por favor,” I said nervously.
“Tú eres American?” he asked again, staring straight at me. I responded with a polite “sí.” But he kept staring at me. His eyes darted back and forth between my face and my passport, like he was expecting me to have morphed into someone different each time he looked up at me. Finally, after several minutes of gazing at me, he spoke again, “Nació en Paraguay?”
“Sí.” I responded confidently, only to panic when he continued to speak in rapid fire Spanish. Despite my nine years of Spanish, my language skills are limited to basic conversational phrases, food vocabulary, and a few commands I had memorized, all of which were useless at this moment. I needed Natalie. She was my lifeline to the Spanish language, when it went beyond asking if I wanted two churros or three or if I knew where the bathroom was.
As the customs official waited for my response, I knew that this was a make-it-or-break it moment. Could I speak enough Spanish to convince the Customs Official that some part of me belonged here? He swiftly repeated his question, and I knew the answer: no, I could not. Taking a deep breath, I responded, “No hablo Español muy bien,” and sealed my fate: I would not be able to include language as part of my percentage.
The customs officer seemed flummoxed by my response. He stared at me again for several moments, until I added, “Mis padres son gringos,” and everything made sense to him. In a flurry of movement, my passport was stamped and returned to me and I was ushered into the duty-free shop, leaving behind the Spanish language, and my chance at finding the rest. My failure weighed heavily on me and I sought comfort in a part of Spain that had not rejected me. Hours, and glasses, later I realized something: I may never truly be able to find or define the whole 39% on this trip, or even in my lifetime, but at least I’ll always have sangria.
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