THE BLOG
02/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Sort of Hajj: The Pull of Ancestral Homelands

My family emigrated from El Salvador. But I have never set foot in that country.

The nearest I have come to this familial motherland was when I was fourteen, and my mother took me to Nicaragua. As part of the trip, we climbed to the edge of a volcano (yes, my mom took me cool places when I was a child). On the climb down, my mother pulled me aside and pointed to some verdant mountains in the distance.

"That is El Salvador," she said.

This glimpse is the extent of my first-hand experience with my family's birthplace.

A natural question is, why did my mother and I stop at Nicaragua? Why didn't we keep going into El Salvador?

The answer is simple: We didn't want to die.

At the time, (circa 1985), my mother was on a Salvadoran government hit list. If she exited a plane there, she would be shot. Anyone who thinks I'm exaggerating doesn't realize how ruthless and bloodthirsty the junta running El Salvador was at that time. My mother was a rabble-rouser in the United States, and she spoke out against the Salvadoran government. This got her noticed in her homeland. They certainly weren't going to send some international assassination squad after her in the Midwest (it's not a Bruckheimer movie for damn sakes), but my mother found out through her friends in El Salvador that she was on the small list of Americans who would be quickly picked up if she ever returned. Two of her siblings had already been murdered, so this was no joke.

For this excellent logistical reason, we were not going to El Salvador any time soon. The war has since ended, of course, and my mother has returned a few times. But I haven't yet made the trip.

Time, money, and the myriad responsibilities of adulthood have prevented me from packing a suitcase and yelling, "Next stop, the tiny village of San Vicente." In fact, although I've lived in several cities and seen more of America than most people have, my international jaunts are limited. Besides that journey to Nicaragua, I've been to Mexico and travelled about nine feet into Canada once. I finally made it to Europe a few years ago, where my wife and I hit London and Paris. And that's it.

But with all the dream destinations in the world that I have yet to conquer -- drinking wine in Italy, scuba diving off the coast of Australia, trekking to the North Pole -- why am I hung up on visiting a tiny country best known for warfare and which my family abandoned a generation ago?

After all, few people go to El Salvador unless they have family there. I suppose there are those mega-travelers who hit every nation no matter how small or impoverished. But aside from that, people generally don't get any closer to the place than the rainforests of Costa Rica or the beaches of Belize.

However, for those of us who are first-generation, there is always the pull of a land that we have never seen, the place where our parents come from. Their memories and stories have not been decayed by time, and we feel irrational nostalgia for a place barely removed from us. We ponder how we would have turned out if we were born and raised there (I have since found out that this is metaphysically impossible... but that's another post or maybe even a different blog altogether).

This yearning for a lost homeland is not shared by most Americans. As I mentioned in a previous post, my wife is descended from German immigrants who came over so long ago that she has no idea when they arrived or what their names were. Her desire to visit Berlin is roughly equal to her interest in roadtripping to Delaware. In contrast, one of my best friends is first-generation Serbian, and his life was incomplete until he walked through Sarajevo.

Similarly, I want to see the place where my mother and aunt grew up, and the nation where several of my cousins were born, and the focal point of so much joy and misery in the history of my family.

So I hope to someday go beyond the fleeting image of that landscape I viewed from a distant vantage point when I was a teenager. For all I know, it might be decades from now, when I'm an old man doing some kind of crazy circle-of-life final journey. But I will stand on top of that lush mountain that I saw long ago and say, "Damn, I finally made it."