His face peeked out at me, startlingly familiar and just a little painful.
Smooth brown skin, round cheeks, and dark eyes—the way they curved just slightly.
The similarity was striking.
I hadn’t realized how I loved him until he was staring out at me from a TV screen, breathing and blinking and gesturing with his hands. I felt like I had lost him.
Losing comes only with loving, I realized.
It’s funny, really, how everyone looks like someone else.
In Chile I learned to make ghosts of my classmates. Everyone there was someone from home. I spent several weeks unconsciously re-assigning identities, establishing a security blanket of familiar faces to surround me.
Then I came back home to Hawaii and I had the same problem. Everyone I saw was suddenly from Chile. I couldn’t avoid them. I went to the grocery store and saw Tío Olvaldo wandering the liquor aisle, or my friend Francisca leafing through magazines by the register—strange and aching remembrances.
I still do this. I am constantly turning my head to see people who aren’t really there. Shocked with an electric second of familiarity—the trace of I face I know well hidden within the face of a stranger.
I find the most surprising people in the most surprising places.
This time it’s in a short documentary about panela production in a Mixtecan village in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
Panela is a type of raw brown sugar.
In this particular village much of their community life centers around the cultivation, harvest and processing of the sugarcane crop into panela.
It is a nice, quiet little film. Sparse dialogue scattered between long shots of farm workers sitting in the tall grass of a wind-whipped hillside, wiping sweat from their brows, and the calm constant creek of the wooden sugarcane press as it churns out a sweet, pulpy juice. Simple messages about good food and where it comes from. It’s refreshing to hear the same wisdom here, from this community, that every hip young social activist and his younger brother seem to be writing books and making documentaries about these days; know where your food comes from, know what’s in it and how it is prepared.
But this still isn’t the main impression I take away when the film is finished. There is something else which presses more heavily on my mind...
Near the end, the filmmaker—a young man returning to his home village after several years away—makes a short cameo to thank the audience for watching.
And when his face blinks onto the screen, my heart gives a quick painful start and my insides ache just a little.
He looks exactly like Daniel Soto. From my 12th grade class in Chile.
So much so that it shakes me up. I’m not prepared for it—surprised that after 2 ½ years, his image still causes such a raw and visceral reaction. It leaves me breathless and wondering: what power does this boy have over me?
Well, I’m not sure, but I think it’s love.
I’ve been thinking a lot about love lately. About what it is and whether or not I have experienced it.
I had a friend once who told me she fell in love every day, sometimes even multiple times a day.
I didn’t know what she meant by that. I thought it was a little bit ridiculous. I also thought she must be very loose in her definition of love.
Lately, though, I am starting to understand her meaning. My perspective is shifting and I am starting wonder if maybe that's not impossible. Maybe a person can fall in love every day, or multiple times a day. And maybe I could benefit from being a little looser with my own definition of love—allow myself to love more people, more freely. And to call it that.
I did love Daniel. I didn’t realize it. But then I found his face in a movie and my insides ached, and I can’t think of any other explanation.
I loved him with his colorful beanie and his old guitar. The way I would look for him every day at school and listen to him sing songs of revolution: Inti-Illimani and Victor Jara. I loved our long and clumsy conversations about politics, spanish-english dictionary in hand, flipping to entries like “neo-marxism.” He made me read the Communist Manifesto. I made him read Animal Farm. I liked his glasses and the way he smiled. I liked his muddled anger, joy and frustration the day we all found out that Augusto Pinochet died, and the time he took to sit down in the desk next to mine and explain to me all that this meant. I loved how he took me home on the micro my last night in Arica and gave me a pin with a Chilean flag on it, looked me in the eyes and gave a passionate discourse about “his people” and mine and the windows we had opened with our friendship, all while gripping my shoulders.
This is love.
And maybe it isn’t always as complicated or as involved as I once thought. Maybe, sometimes, love can be simple.
I am still very young, and I realize that. So maybe, for now, simple is fine.
If I think of it that way, then I have loved more times than I can count.
I loved the fire-juggling man from my Oregon summer camp. With his wild beard and kind eyes. I think he had a wife, or maybe she was a lover—a folksy dreadlocked woman who wore a long quilt-patterned skirt. He would smile at her when he performed and in between acts he would go and stand with her.
There was a child too, a little boy that he hoisted on his shoulders and swayed with to the music of the African drum group that was also performing that night. When I watched him there with his family, I loved him. I loved that he existed, I was fascinated by him. I watched him all night.
(I also might have imagined an alternate universe where I was the dreadlocked woman, traveling across the country with him and the other fire jugglers in a beat-up Volkswagen bus. Kicking up dust, racing buffalo herds, letting my growing brood of children run barefoot and free in the plains...)
I loved Martín with his tongue ring and his cigarettes. He lived in the apartment above mine in Chile and asked my host father for permission to take me out on a date. This was my first date. He walked me to the boardwalk on the beach by my house, bought me a diet coke and asked me not to tell his mother that he smoked.
I loved AJ, the Rwandan refugee I met on the bus in Orem. I loved how he dropped everything to come with me and find the nearest Starbucks and told me stories about leaving home at 16 to search for his deadbeat father, his inheritance in Rwanda and his experience with a band of gypsies in Europe.
I loved Joe from the airplane, and those 9 hours we shared easy conversation--talking and laughing. The music he shared with me, the love stories and the loneliness. The panic and urgency with which he spoke when he realized the plane was landing, and although our worlds had been intertwined for a brief moment as we flew suspended between continents, soon we would stand up, walk to baggage claim and part ways to lead two very separate lives.
I have loved perfect strangers: Jorge from the Laundromat. Hyun at the grocery store. Olga from my music class. Cello Joe from the Shake Your Peace concert. The Romanian woman and her little sandy-haired son with his dinosaur toy who I see on the bus occasionally.
I think of them all and I smile.
The English title for this film is “Sweet Gathering”—but I prefer a more literal, if less graceful translation “sweet coexistence.”
To me, that is love: the simple sweetness that comes from knowing only that someone is alive. That somewhere in this crazy universe they, too, exist: breathing and blinking. And for that to be enough.