When my grandfather was sent to Texas from Venezuela in the 1920s to study high school, I have no idea how he arrived there from Maracaibo, though I imagine it was probably by ship. It was in Texas that he learned how to speak English, which eventually helped him land a job with Shell Oil when he settled in Caracas some years later. I don't even know where he lived in Texas, though I try to imagine what that must have been like, separated from his family, a brown foreigner in a distant country.
In the 1950s he moved his wife and children to New York City for three years, where they lived in Washington Heights. That's where my father learned how to speak English, among his Italian-American and Jewish friends in elementary school. My father would later fly up to the US again in 1967, to study in New York and Boston.
My first trips out of the US were in the early 1970s, to Venezuela to visit family, though I don't remember these. When we moved to Caracas permanently, we travelled by freight ship, a week-long journey out of New York City I remember vividly, from the expanse of ocean around our ship, the girl my age I befriended, whose family were the only other passengers on board, to our arrival in the summer heat of La Guaira, a blast of green off the cliffs and mountains of the coastline.
I've been passing through airports my entire life, so that along with hotels they feel like familiar and inevitable locations. I've only listened to the collaboration between Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd, In What Language? (Pi Recordings, 2003) a handful of times, but I already like it very much. It seems like a natural precursor to Ladd's brilliant album Negrophilia (Thirsty Ear Records, 2005) in that his poems are given a prominent place in the mix. In this album, however, we hear more of his words, with the unifying theme being the transit of brown bodies through airports all over the world. Brown people passing through airports as a result of privilege, or out of necessity. Who can travel, who must travel and who is deemed suspicious when traveling, especially after 9/11? Latinos, of course, have always been deemed suspicious in this country and we probably always will be, even in states like California, Florida and Texas.
The album opens with a couplet inaugurating the travel motif explored by Ladd's poems & production alongside Iyer's great piano playing, as well as a talented group of collaborators:
"In the delicate distance
of brown, I sit in a bus"
I don't even have enough money for a haircut right now, yet I'll be passing through airports in Texas, Florida and Massachusetts next month, for work or family reasons. There will always be a reason to move or leave whatever place I consider home. The transit imposed by history and by nomadic impulses established years before my birth. I often write when in transit, hoping to maybe fix and archive the places I travel through on my way elsewhere. Boston is my home now but it doesn't feel permanent. Born across the river in Cambridge, I soon left, imitating my grandfather in reverse direction. The echo of my name in Guillermo Alberto Parra Portillo, somewhere in Texas in the 1920s. Which is why Mike Ladd's closing lines coincide with my experiences. Hip-hop being a way of life tied to ancient and current migrations:
"Parts of this bag are older than history
This will outlast our memory"