"Where are you from?"
I answer this question a lot, even in situations where no one around me gets asked a similar question. Typically I respond by saying "Peru" without giving it a second thought, like I've watched my mother do countless times with seemingly boundless warmth.
But throughout my 20s, I became tired of answering the question and felt restless when noticing that others didn't get asked the same question.
This is especially true now that I have a partner who is a white man and a first-generation immigrant from Peru who doesn't have to answer to the same introductory protocol that I am so familiar with.
Since I get this question so frequently, I've experimented with other ways of answering it, like saying that I grew up in Miami — which almost always leads to follow-up questions like, "No, but where are your parents from?" or "Where are you from originally?"
Once I give an answer that signifies that, yes, I'm brown because of my Peruvian indigenous background, I prepare myself for what will most likely entail hearing a Peruvian spiritual journey story that is sometimes accompanied by some sort of fetishization directed my way in the form of "compliments" or "nicknames" like "Peruvian princess," which is a favorite among white men I've just met.
And even when I don't get fetishized, the spiritual journey stories I've been hearing for years are almost never followed by questions about my own time in Peru or how I emigrated from Peru with my family when I was 4 years old, which is truly a lost opportunity because that story includes my 4-year-old self assuming that the US is a country in the sky, Jetsons style, because my mother said that everything was different in America and I thought different meant opposite and opposite obviously meant sky cities.
Peru is not an experience — and neither am I.
Since immigrating to Miami, my mother's stories of her youth in Peru as well as her stories about our ancestors have helped build important parts of my being. It was as if she built a bridge between Miami and Peru for me and my siblings to freely walk back and forth on when we needed to. It's a bridge that has sustained my sense of being and belonging countless times throughout my life.
She first began building the bridge right before we left Lima when she said, "Take a big breath and smell the ocean here so you won't forget that there is nothing like this smell," which became my last memory of Peru during our period of immigration.
The actual decision for our family to leave Peru was made by my mother in 1991 during a particularly tumultuous period in Peru where she and I barely escaped a bomb that went off at a house we walked past while walking home from preschool.
When we arrived in Miami, we applied to get our green cards through political asylum, which was not finalized until I was 19 years old, so I wasn't able to visit Peru until then.
So Peru, for me, was felt through my mother's stories and reminders of loved ones. She built a place of belonging for me this way.
So when someone sits me down to listen to their stories of awakenings in Machu Picchu, I feel that it's important to understand that Peru is not an experience — and neither am I.
I myself haven't had the chance to go to Machu Picchu, because when I visit Peru, I spend all my time laughing and crying at dinner tables, using every second I have there to make up for lost time with family that didn't get to see me grow up.
And I get it, Peru is vast in culture, history, and beauty. I'm proud to have indigenous ancestors that built what so many from all over the world come to visit. But consider that there are always more contexts to consider; this country doesn't exist solely for your spiritual retreat. Unlike a Manic Pixie Dream Girl character, Peru is not here just to move your story along.