When I meet a person for the first time they usually find it difficult to guess my ethnicity. More than anything, my last name is a pretty big clue, but I’ve heard everything from Portuguese, Italian, German, Greek, and even Middle Eastern in one strange instance (don't ask me why). Just by looking at me, it’s hard to guess I’m Hispanic because, on the surface, I’m about as white as you can get. Since the term “Hispanic” in the US is often incorrectly associated with “Mexican,” people are thrown off because my blue eyes and light complexion don’t align with the standard Mexican stereotype.
Plus it doesn’t help that my ability to speak Spanish is “passable” at best.
At the end of the day through, I am Hispanic – my mother is Cuban and my father Mexican. As a child, I was fascinated to learn about my family history, hear the stories about how my parents ended up in Texas, and the idea that I still had family living in Mexico, Cuba, and even as far away as Spain excited me. As far as I knew though, my family in the US lost contact with these individuals years ago, so I resigned myself to the fact that I would never get to meet them in person.
As you can imagine, I was astonished to find out my uncle (on my mom’s side of the family) managed to track down and get in contact with two relatives, Pepin and Carmen, who still reside in town called Gijon in Northern Spain. I didn’t think such a thing was possible! It seemed so far away, both in sheer distance and family lineage. I was amazed my family managed to reconnect with these long lost relatives considering my great-grandfather left Spain for Cuba over 100 years ago.
My aunt and uncle took a trip to Gijon several years back to visit Pepin and Carmen, but since then, there has been minimal contact with this branch of my family. For years, I only had a vague concept of who these people were based on stories I heard. Considering my own mother never met them in person, I felt the chances of me meeting them were slim to none. In my mind, Pepin and Carmen would forever remain an enigma – the side of my family that stayed behind in Spain. Never in my life did I imagined that years down the road I would find myself in the famous city of Gijon.
I understand a family reunion post may not be the most thrilling for my readers, but I will proceed regardless.
Fear not my dear, sweet, naïve Tello… nobody reads this blog anyway.
My last morning in Santiago started off with a scare. I’ll spare the details, but at 8:00am on June 23rd you would have seen me frantically sprinting through the streets of Santiago muttering a colorful assortment of profanities as I raced to the bus station with a 30 pound backpack strapped to me, two pieces of toast in my mouth, a half-dozen crackers in my left hand, and my day pack in the other.
It was a classy sight indeed.
Luckily I made it on the bus with exactly two minutes to spare. Panting uncontrollably and sweating profusely, I victoriously took my seat at the back of the bus while the other passengers stared at the disheveled backpacker who can’t seem to get his life in order. Overall the ride to Gijon was uneventful, but I did manage to get a few uncomfortable hours of sleep and recuperate from the morning’s impromptu marathon. Before I knew it, we arrived in Gijon and I was happy to settle in to my hotel.
Yes, I said “hotel” - there are no hostels in Gijon.
There’s nothing nicer than forced luxury.
Overpriced as it was (and well over my entire daily budget), it was remarkably nice to have my own room, bed, bathroom, and even balcony. My next biggest question was how best to utilize all this unexpected privacy?
Don’t judge me, you don’t know me.
I was nervous as hell when it finally came time to call Pepin. How on earth was I suppose to carry on a conversation with these people for two entire days? What if I can’t understand them through their accents? If I get stuck, there’s no fall back position, they don’t speak a word of English!
As the blood drained from my face, I realized it was too late to turn back. Since I was already in Gijon and the hotel room was paid for, I was committed. There's no sense stopping if I already made it thus far, so I picked up the phone, made the call, and scheduled a time to meet.
Here goes nothing.
At 6:00pm I got a call from the front desk indicating someone was looking for me. Heart pounding, I made my way downstairs and was surprised to finally see Pepin in person. Up until that point I only had is voice to go off of and, unsurprisingly, the image of him I concocted my head was completely inaccurate. Oddly resembling an older version Robert Dinero, Pepin was an older man about one foot shorter than me with the stature and physique characteristic of many men on my mom’s side of the family. His hair was almost completely grey save for a few spots that still showed remnants of deep brown from years past. His eyes were light blue and, while sunken in slightly, shined brilliantly through his golden-rimmed glasses. Pepin, like anyone over the age of 65, dressed in the standard issue outfit of slacks and a nice button down shirt. Both were well pressed, immaculately clean, and very much the opposite of the reused, wrinkled clothing that is the standard in my life. Upon meeting each other for the first time he welcomed me with a warm smile that made it seem as if we were old friends.
We headed to a coffee shop below my hotel and spent a few hours catching up on each other’s lives and the usual “status update” on everyone back in the States. After talking we went back to his apartment so I could meet his wife, Carmen. From the cafe we crossed the street and Pepin immediately proceeded to pull out a key. Seeing the obvious look of confusion plastered across my face, he smiled and said, “We’re here!” Through some stroke of luck, I managed to pick a hotel literally across the street of Pepin’s apartment! If my room was on the other side of the hotel, I could see directly into their apartment from my balcony!
What are the odds?
Pepin and Carmen’s apartment is, as you’d expect, quintessentially that of an old married couple. From the main entryway there was an intricate old rug running the length of the main hallway. While well maintained, the colors were faded slightly and you could tell it hadn’t been moved in years. The entire place was well decorated and the walls were adorned with antique clocks, silver sconces, and pastel paintings of various scenic vistas. As is customary in these types of residences, the walls were painted in that wonderfully outdated salmon color which I have come to associate with my own grandmother’s apartment.
Why the hell did people think this was a good color?
The living room, located immediately next to the front door, was packed with a large white couch and two plush recliners that, while worn, reminded me of my old couches back home in Texas. On the far side of the room there was a giant armoire that took up the entire wall and housed both a small television as well as an impressive assortment of fine china. Opposite the armoire, was a large, perfectly polished formal dining table that, instead of being used for dinner, served as a display for various ceramic figurines and dozens of carefully placed family pictures.
The overall atmosphere was warm and welcoming and upon entering I was greeted by Carmen with a giant smile and a big hug. She was a woman who appeared to always be well put together and made sure her hair was meticulously done at all times. Her complexion was much lighter than Pepin’s, bordering on porcelain white, and always wore some sort of floral patterned shirt. Carmen’s accent was easier to understand than Pepin’s which was convenient considering she regaled me for hours on end about their various travels, family stories, and gossip. She always had a smile on her face, although you would never guess it from the pictures since, ironically, neither her nor Pepin ever seemed to smile for them.
Or in some cases even look at the camera.
Together they made a fantastic old couple. Pepin would always be there to help Carmen make sure her collar was just so when she put on her coat before leaving the apartment. Carmen on the other hand, always seemed to remember the details of every story Pepin told and was right there correct him or fill in the blanks whenever he forgot. Even though I never met these people before in my life, I felt like I was in a home away from home.
We spent the afternoon talking about my part of the family back in the US and I was filled in on the family that still lived in Gijon. In anticipation of my arrival, Pepin printed out an incredibly detailed family tree consisting of over 50 different relatives, most of which I never even heard of, that comprised my mom’s side of the family. I was mesmerized by the sheer number of people listed on the document and a little embarrassed by how little I actually knew about my own family. Pepin spent the better part of an hour going down the list, relative by relative, telling me everything he knew about each person. It was a remarkable experience to learn about so much of my history which, until then, was a compete mystery.
After spending hours talking in their apartment, Pepin and Carmen invited me to dinner at a local restaurant called Le Balleta where the stories kept flowing. Carmen enthusiastically told me of the last time they visited the US for a family reunion in Miami and I told them more about my life back in New York. After a wonderful dinner, they insisted we get together the following morning so they could give me a tour of Gijon and see the sights.
I can’t describe the excitement I felt when I returned to my hotel that first night. After all those years, I finally met my mysterious, long lost relatives of Gijon. Even with the occasional communications breakdown thanks to my sub-par Spanish, I loved listening Carmen and Pepin’s stories. I can’t wait for tomorrow, especially considering I get a private tour from two local family members!
But that’s another post…