Creative Nonfiction from Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas

On Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas:

Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas recently received a 2016 Writer’s Award from the Rona Jaffe Foundation. Her nonfiction book, Don’t Come Back, which will include the essay, comes out in January 2017 from Mad River Books, an imprint of the Ohio State Press. She has MFA degrees in both creative nonfiction and literary translation, both from the University of Iowa. She is also the author of Drown Sever Sing.


“BOG-MIA-CID” appeared in Arts & Letters Issue 30.

In Miami I sweat. Partly because it’s Miami, partly because I have a fever. I’m asked to step out of the line and go up to a table where officers wait for people like me, and then they ask “Why are you sweating?” Partly this fever, partly this coat I’m wearing. Because it’s heavy and my bags are close to the weight limit.

They ask me to open my bags and take everything out, please, so I do. They don’t look at anything, they don’t look at me, and I’m so tired of traveling, I can’t stop thinking of other things. It was the eighties and then the nineties, my parents were young, and Bogotá was always ticking. Every doorman had a mirror at the end of a stick, every guard a sniffing dog, everyone knew to check the trunk, and never go near police stations because that’s where they liked to park their cars, tick, tick, boom. In Miami I pull out socks and shirts, little sweet things my mother has packed for me to find later. The officers stand a few feet away and occasionally look over their shoulders in my direction.

I imagine they see me, all of me. The small, the stupid, the no-sense-at-all look I can’t shake when I’m this tired, and dressed from head to toe in black. I feel swollen, discolored, and rank. Like something left out too long, soaking in the gutter and drying in the sun. I feel it, know it, and I know they see it too.

Bogotá was once a city of shattered glass, and repair shops thrived. Bombs are loud and cities are full of windows. Paula remembers too. Once she told me, “Bogotá was the place where bad things happened.” We remember these numbers under photographs on the screen between cartoons and telenovelas. Ones followed by zeros that went on forever. Bounties for information leading to the capture of, of, of, of… New names and old names and always, Pablo Escobar Gaviria, the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers, and José Santacruz Londoño, alias Chepe. It was the time of the Narco-state, the narco-tapes, the narco terrorists. It was the eighties in Bogotá, and the nineties in Cali that convinced my parents to get their three daughters out of there. Because it’s not just the bombs that do it.

When there are bombs it’s harder to care about the guns, and the knives, and little sharpened sticks and fists, and the limp bodies of those kids that started showing up all over the country with empty eye sockets. In the news they told us they sold the eyes for transplants, wealthy gringos and Europeans with envelopes of cash and red coolers, but we know better now—no good for transplants.

In 2011 in Miami, I watch from afar a beautiful black woman tell a beautiful Hispanic woman something I can’t hear, and then they look in my direction and nod. “Please pack everything back now.” They glance over the stuff and back at the planes. Mine was the last flight, no one is behind me, no one is coming, but they pace like I’m taking up their table and time and space, so I stuff these little things my mother wrapped so carefully in the corners where they’re sure to crack, and finally I take off my coat. Cali was full in the nineties; I wish these officers could have seen it. The stores were colorful mechanical wonders, everything moved, everything new and getting newer by the minute. Everyone had a marble fountain on their lawn; everyone wore gold and fur coats over tank tops in ninety-degree weather. My friends had bodyguards and chauffeurs, and every week some family member would fly back from Miami with a new little trinket, a new little nothing, new little everything just for them. Cali wasn’t like Medellin, Cali didn’t want to own the world—it just wanted a fair piece. So the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers never declared war quite like Pablo did. Though the city was still sharp and pulsing, and I remember the helicopters.

After I’ve packed everything back I’m told to wait, and they motion for me to clear their table. I ask again why I’m being detained, and they say things that make me feel conditioned, because they know exactly what to say, because they’ve practiced and I haven’t, so I nod even though I neither understand nor agree. The words get stacked into perfect little towers, protocol, procedure, only a minute, please wait here, let me check with my supervisor, don’t move, and I nod, then try again, but what was it that did it? I only manage to sound guilty. They tell me not to wander off, to stay put, to wait. They ask me, “Why are you sweating?” and “Are you on any medication?” I feel like we are dwelling on the matter; I don’t know. Why aren’t you? “What is the weather like in Bogotá?” I tell them it’s beautiful, so they ask again, “What is the weather like exactly?” Really great, like autumn all the time, and the rain, you should totally go, and I completely mean it. Sometimes people refer to Bogotá as the fall city, Medellin as spring. Cali is summer itself. When my family was there we swam every day, my mother drove my sister Paula and me to lessons, and we’d sing little songs about Daniela on our way back. We sang about that time she had worms, and we saw one squirming in her diaper, about how she reached out for my mother’s breast, about the time she stole and hid all the candied almonds, “Just like Chepe,” and then we sang another song. One day we were singing, and I saw soldiers springing up from bushes by the side of the road. Black helicopters overhead. Then, all these people running through the street—soldiers towards us, people away—while I yelled for my mother to turn on the radio. “It’s nothing,” she said, “it won’t tell us anything,” and we sped away.

There is a little statue my family members always have at home. It’s a plump, short, pig-faced man with a million bags around his arms, waist, and neck. He is El Equeco, god of abundance, and that’s what I look like now holding poorly packed bags and carry-ons and coats—one little bag with Colombian pastries because “You might get hungry, you never know.” The officers don’t tell me if they’ll be back, they don’t tell me anything and I understand, I do, it’s a job, but I’m so tired. I wipe my forehead, I feel like shivering but I’ve stopped sweating, so I tell them, “I’ve stopped sweating now, can I go?” Mostly to say something, mostly to get them to say something back. I ask them one more time why I’m being detained, if I did something wrong, but they don’t answer, they only ask me again like a nervous tic, “Why were you sweating?” The day with the helicopters and the soldiers was June 9th, 1995. I know because that’s the day they captured Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, just a few streets away from where I saw the soldiers popping up like weeds. Gilberto is here in the US now, extradited in 2004. They flew him in through Miami.

The black officer comes back and tells me to put the bag on the table, so I do. She tells me to open it, so I open it, and then “Please unpack it.” I stare sort of blankly. Why? “Please unpack the bag.” Why again? What are you looking for? Where are the dogs? Bring them over, I’ll let you bring them over, what do you need? But she doesn’t answer. Instead, this severe look on her face and she repeats, “Please unpack the bag.” I’m suddenly aware these bags have already been sniffed by dogs, been X-rayed, been searched. I’m far away, I am alone, I am not from here, I have less than twenty dollars in my bank account. Almost everything of value that I own I carry with me, it doesn’t take much, so I start again, bit by bit almost everything I own on a table. She doesn’t look at anything, she doesn’t look at me. I lived in Cali for three years, and then my parents sold almost everything we owned and bought tickets to the US, “Where the middle class lives like our upper class and things aren’t so hard.”


The second time I know better. I unpack slowly and re-pack carefully. It’s been a few hours now, I’m getting cold, but I won’t put my coat back on. They come back and say, “Please come with us.” They watch me struggle with my bags, and I figure the beautiful black officer must be training the slightly less beautiful Hispanic officer because she tells her what to do. “Now tell her to take off her shoes,” and she tells me to take off my shoes. “Now tell her to sit down,” and she tells me to sit down. “Tell her to wait here,” and I’m left alone a few minutes to rethink my answers so far. For example, what is the right thing to say when asked, “Did you meet anyone while you were there?” Or, “Why was your passport issued in San Francisco?” Or, “Why so many books?” What is ‘so many’? Or, because these are the ones that fit? Or, you should see the ones I left behind. Or, you should read this one; it’s about the drug war in Colombia.

I leave my bags unattended to be interrogated, and I wonder about these protocols. I wait in a little room, on a little bench and the colors are all wrong. To begin with, there are colors. Worn out greens and blues, and the paint is peeling off. There is no two-way mirror, and no one looking in. I slump, feel the salt of dry sweat on my skin, close my eyes for a second. My family left Colombia in 1995, and it was 1998 when we went back, when things were already getting better, as they’ve kept getting better since.

When they get back the one doing the training tells the other to check my feet.

She tells me, “Spread your toes please,” and I don’t know what that means but I try anyway. The Hispanic officer feels between my toes, I stare down at the socks Daniela gave me for Christmas, this little owl head smiling at the woman as she presses down on its face, as it stares back and exclaims with the knitted writing across my ankle, Genius. “Now stand up against the wall.” Somewhere inside the black woman’s brain, she is making the decision whether or not my cavities will be searched more thoroughly. “Against the wall please, arms out.” I put my arms above my head, and she repeats, “Arms out, out!” The officers are tired too, and I understand, I do, but I’ve stopped registering any of it. “Not above your head, out like this, like this!” She motions but I’m facing the wall away from her, and I can’t really see. “By your side, like a plane, like a little plane!” So I finally get it and then I stop getting anything else. Because I’m against a wall pretending to be a little plane, and I’ve started thinking of Wilson my high school English teacher. “That’s what I used to do,” he said, “checked planes for drugs and Uy! You can’t imagine.” He told us he worked in Miami, security. He used to go through planes after they’d landed, looking for the stuff. Between the seats, under the chairs, along the walls, “You can’t imagine.” Little white bags, latex glove fingers cut off, stuffed down the side, hung like sausages, swallowed like pills. “If this is the stuff they leave behind, imagine,” he said, “just imagine how much gets in.”

The Hispanic officer runs her fingers down my back. Between my breasts, as deep inside me as clothes allow and I’ve stopped asking questions. Then they have a little moment, the two beautiful women—and I’m a mushroom growing on this tiny green bench in an interrogation room. The officers whisper something and then exchange glances. They decide I’m not a little plane full of cocaine and they are going to let me go. Or maybe they are as tired as I am, or this is just an exercise. I don’t know. All the same they’ve decided to let me go, so I thank them and drag my bags up an escalator. I sit by a Subway restaurant drenched in the smell of disinfectant and meatballs.


I was thinking about my aunt before they pulled me out of the line, and I’m thinking about her now. About how she held me tightly my last night in Bogotá. Her chin on my shoulder, the cigarette smell I love, and her colostomy bag against my hip, warm, like her, warm like Cali. “Come back, Lina. Please, please come back.” She cried into the fabric of that heavy coat, she told me I had to see her again, and she nearly crumbled in my arms, my beautiful aunt, decimated by cancer, and lupus, and history, and herself.

The next day my mother held me tightly too, by the international gate I know better than some apartments I’ve lived in. She choked but didn’t stutter. She pulled me close and told me, “There’s nothing here for you Lina, don’t come back.”

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