When my father brought home the printed publicity, I kept a flyer for myself, so I could look at it that night in bed. I had conjured up a camp in the desert, when it was first mentioned a few weeks before: horses, panoramic views, old Wild West towns, buffaloes, teepees. The word “Texas” loomed large.
“To Texas? For two months? Aren’t they too young?” asked my grandmother, while pulling together the big Sunday lunch for the family.
“No, there are a lot of adults there to take care of them--they’re called consulers, and besides, the four kids will be together. They’ll keep each other company,” answered my father. My mother nodded, her hand on the back of her neck, still not fully persuaded.
By the light of my lamp, I could see that the camp was made up of cabins in the middle of a dense forest, “only minutes from the modern city of Houston.” There was a big dining hall, a meeting area, a pool, stables, a small lake. There were little blond kids dressed in matching green and white summer clothing everywhere. They were all smiling.
Back then, the United States seemed very far away from the Mexican capital. Mexico was part of the non-aligned movement, and protectionist policies subjected us to a wide array of bad foreign television shows that had been assembled domestically, limited car and motorcycle options, and a selection of candy and toys that we kids considered prehistoric.
A trip to the United States was like being given safe passage to the other world, where one could find (and buy!) fabulous things like Silly Putty, Nerf balls, or rubber roller-skates. El Paso or Laredo in Texas, or San Ysidro in California were, for us, what Trieste was for many Yugoslavians: a great glimpse of the fruits of the capitalist world.
When I came to live in Slovenia in the winter of 2008, I was prepared to encounter harsh winters, an expensive cost of living and a less vibrant social dynamic than that I’d been accustomed to. But what I didn’t expect was to find an economy so sluggish and old-fashioned, nor a population so conditioned to depend passively upon the public or private sector employment on offer.
But I reached the zenith of my bewilderment when I came across my first glimpse of Yugo-nostalgia.
“Are you fucking with me?” I asked the first person to confess his longing for that lost paradise, during a trip to a Croatian island. Of course, he hadn’t actually lived it, having been born a few months before it all came crashing down.
“Everything was better before. If you had a job, you’d at least have a house, healthcare coverage and retirement. Now, nothing.”
“Yeah, but now you can make more income and you don’t have to go across the border to buy coffee.”
“Well, whether we can actually make more money is arguable,” my friend said. “Anyway, my dad can’t live on his pension now, and says he misses those trips to the border.”
The truth is, we didn’t keep each other company at Camp Manison in Texas. The four siblings were separated when we arrived. I walked away from my brother and my two sisters, carrying my backpack, my heart almost jumping out of my ribcage, following a blond kid who, years later, could have been cast in Dazed and Confused.
We walked past the dining hall, the pool, the archery range and, behind a wall of tall pine trees, we came upon a group of four cabins. The blond kid smiled at me every once in a while, saying things I couldn’t understand, until we got to the door of one of the cabins. He knocked and then opened the door without waiting for a reply, and gestured for me to go in. I looked back, to see if I could see one of my siblings in the distance. Nothing. Inside, a counselor was talking with three boys slightly older than I was, who were having a hard time hiding their amusement at my frightened demeanor. The consuler said my name, made us all shake hands and then left us alone. My great nightmare of the summer of 1973 had begun.
The idea of sending us to camp had gotten traction when my parents decided to reignite the flame of their marriage by taking a trip to Europe. Madrid, Paris, Nice, Geneva, Rome, Capri. The United States was good for going to buy speakers or take the kids to Disneyland, but to acquire culture, a sense of history and savoir vivre, the Latin American aspiring to make good had to travel and get to know the Old World.
It was the third or fourth night, when the three common criminals who I’d been stuck with as roommates had tired of making my life miserable, that one of them—who actually wasn’t North American, but Venezuelan, a fair-skinned upper-crust Venezuelan who had joined forces with the gringos to torment the Mexican—had taken pity on me and, once the other two had fallen asleep, gave me a stack of comic books to read.
I nestled into my cot with a little flashlight and escaped to the world of Archie in Riverdale, Mickey Mouse in Disneyland and Batman in Gotham. At the end of one of these tales, if not at the end of all comics, I found myself astonished by something I hadn’t known before: happiness was within my reach. First, of course, within my pockets’ reach. The implication was clear and the faces of that happy family made it visible: if one had failed to create a sweet circle of friends in the real world, one could, for only $1.25, make friends who promised to fulfill all one had ever dreamed possible.
That night, I slept with my heart beating fast against the last page of a comic book on my chest.
This is Part 1 of a 3-part series that will appear once a month.