When the legendary Cuban folk singer, Pablo Milanes, died recently, I was devastated. Overnight, I was transported back to a time in my 20’s when I lived, studied, and traveled in assorted Latin American countries. “Pablo”—as his fans refer to him—was a staple of that period of my life, a touchstone for me and those around me. Upon hearing the news of his death, I immediately wrote to several of my Latin friends to express my condolences. I also listened to his music for the rest of the day. Pablo’s passing was just one reminder of how we connect to distinct eras in our past. In that spirit, I”m resharing this post about my deep connection with Latin America.
Lockdown has afforded all of us an opportunity to reflect on who we are, what our priorities are, and what we’d like to change in our lives. I have some good friends here in London, for example, who just got married after being together for 32 years and raising two grown sons.
When I asked them why they’d finally decided to tie the knot, one of them responded, “We had such a good time together during lockdown! And I wanted to celebrate that.”
Other people have taken the opportunity to quit their jobs and embark on new careers. Or to embrace the “life’s too short” mantra, and retired early. Me? I had a different lockdown-induced change of heart. I found myself craving a reconnection with a phase of life I’d lost touch with: the years in my 20’s when I lived, worked and studied in Latin America. And so I set about forging a new connection to that particular era—and to myself within it.
There’s nothing quite like music to reconnect you with your past. Music gets you to think in concrete terms about what different phases of your life meant to you and why. And in doing that, you get a better handle on your present self—what you like about yourself, what you might wish to flee, what you miss about yourself, what you’d like to see more of in the years ahead.
I’ve always loved Cuban folks music ever since I lived in Central America for a year in the late 1980’s, listening to the likes of Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés, two giants of the Nueva Trova movement. But I returned to that music with a vengeance during lockdown.
Now, in addition to podcasts, I’ve been listening to Cuban folk music as I “walk without purpose” around my neighborhood and discover new nooks and crannies.
I’ve also started re-reading some of the giants of Latin American literature. I read Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece, 100 Years of Solitude, back in the day. But one day when I was wandering through my neighborhood, I saw that someone had put a copy of this book out on the kerb along with a bunch of others, inviting strangers to grab one and take it home. (BTW? Love this idea and intend to reciprocate during my next major declutter.)
Then I attended a virtual memorial service for one of my college professors, someone who mentored me and encouraged me to pursue an academic career. He was a scholar of Afro-Brazilian relations, and his service was filled with friends, family, students and colleagues from Ghana (his home country), Brazil, and all over the world.
As his former students began to recount in the chat bar how they’d first gotten to know him and the imprint he’d left on their lives, I remembered that he had introduced me to the work of Jorge Amado. Amado was a novelist whose stories of life in the eastern Brazilian state of Bahia won international acclaim.
He was a social realist, who celebrated the rich cultural traditions of Afro-Brazilian religion and music which characterize Bahia and its capital, Salvador. Although I must have read a dozen of Amado’s works 30 odd years ago, I was suddenly consumed with an overwhelming desire to re-immerse myself in their depiction of Brazil’s immense cultural diversity.
I’m in very close touch with a number of friends in Latin America, and visited one of them in Argentina not long ago. But in recent months, as I’ve reached out to all manner of people from my distant past, I began to include some Latin friends I’d lost touch with as well.
I focused on a group of friends from Chile, where I’d travelled twice for lengthy periods during graduate school to do research. One was a former professor I’d had in Costa Rica who’d returned to Chile after 17 years in exile, another was someone I interviewed for a project and subsequently became good friends with, and yet another was a “fixer” from a political party who’d single-handedly arranged at least half of my interviews with top politicians in the country.
I can’t tell you how delightful it’s been to forge these personal connections anew. I am now in regular touch with all three of them and it has enriched my life enormously. And the best part is, we picked up exactly where we left off (minus the odd spouse, child and grandchild…)
Your turn. Did you ever become distanced from a particularly significant period in your past, only to rediscover it after decades? How did that feel? What brought it back?
Image: Photo by Leon Overweel on Unsplash
This post originally appeared on Sixty and Me.
September 1, 2021, 4:04 pm
I used to say that class reunions are periodic gatherings of people who have nothing in common to confirm that they still have nothing in common. But more recently I’ve come to feel that there’s an inseparable bond between people who shared experiences in the same time and place, whether it be school or work. Say what you will about Facebook, but it provides a way to keep in touch with classmates and colleagues that we wouldn’t or couldn’t do otherwise. I’ve even developed affinity with people from high school who I never talked to them.
September 1, 2021, 6:41 pm
Totally agree Howard! I’m a huge fan of FB for precisely this reason and have had exactly the same experience.
September 1, 2021, 4:05 pm
Should be “Whom I never talked to then.”