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Encore: A migration journey involves whether to look back or not

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Miguel Macias gets a call from his mother in Spain every few weeks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

MIGUEL MACIAS, BYLINE: (Speaking Spanish).

CHANG: They talk about the family, whatever is happening in her life.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

MACIAS: (Speaking Spanish).

CHANG: And some years ago, Miguel, who is a senior producer for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, started a documentary project, and he asked his mother questions he had never asked her before.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

CHANG: His mother says that she never quite believed that Miguel had left Spain for good...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

CHANG: ...That no one ever thinks that their son is not going to come back when they leave. She says she even feels like crying just talking about it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

CHANG: Today, Miguel's mother feels that the United States is as much Miguel's homeland as Spain and Seville. Miguel has lived here for over two decades, and his story of migration is in some ways unique but also similar to that of many immigrants. Over the years, he has wondered time and time again about his decision to leave his country and whether to return one day. And that brings up other questions for him about the decisions we make in life and how to live with those choices. Miguel Macias is going to take it from here.

MACIAS: The first time I ever visited the U.S. was in 1991, when I was 15 years old. My parents signed me up for one of those summer programs to learn English. My father had become disabled after he had a stroke a few years before.

BEATRIZ: Yeah, I remember you couldn't look at him in the face.

MACIAS: My sister Beatriz remembers that years after my father's stroke.

BEATRIZ: When we were having lunch as teenagers, I don't know if you felt abandoned in some way by him.

MACIAS: I barely remember anything about my father before he had the stroke. My mother always tells me that I was really close to him. He was old-fashioned, obsessed with work and productivity. But after the stroke, my relationship with him could not have been worse.

BEATRIZ: I felt you separated from - I don't know if the family or me. It was too hard for you, so you kind of got away from the whole family.

MACIAS: During those years, the United States became my escape. So when I decided that I wanted to go live somewhere else, the U.S. seemed like the logical place for me to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MACIAS: There are two kinds of immigrants. Heck, there are probably 500 kinds of immigrants, but let's just say for now that there are two kinds - the ones who don't look back, and the ones who spend their lives looking back. I've done a bit of both. I've ordered flamenco CDs from Brooklyn. I've held on to my friendships in Spain for decades. I bought a house in Los Angeles. I've learned how to drive in New York. I've worked myself to the ground day after day. I felt at home in Brooklyn. I've come back home for Christmas to Spain every single year. And through the years, through the decades, I've asked myself time after time, where should I be? What version of myself is more real? Should I stop looking back? Or should I simply go back to where I'm from once and for all?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MACIAS: My initial plan was not necessarily to stay in the United States permanently. I wanted to study radio production for a year, maybe two. But in 2004, after graduating from Brooklyn College, I was offered a job in public radio, and I couldn't turn it down. I was in the U.S. to accomplish things, and I am by all means a privileged immigrant. I came to the U.S. because I wanted to. I was able to study. But this job seemed like my first success. Then, not long after I started my job as a radio producer, I met Julia. Her name is not actually Julia, but we'll call her that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MACIAS: We fell in love. We got married. Julia taught me so many of the things I know about this country. She made me a football fan - American football, that is. We would go to the bar on Sundays, eat wings, drink beer and cheer for the Steelers. That was the time that I was the farthest away from Seville, but I would still go back for Christmas every year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MACIAS: On one hand, I have this - like, this constant need to make decisions to be happier.

This is a recording from a conversation I had with my friend Lisa in 2021. We were talking about happiness, my favorite topic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MACIAS: On the other hand, I have this constant fear that no matter what I do, I will never be happy.

LISA: What do you think it means to be happy?

MACIAS: For me, being happy means to not suffer.

And here is where this story gets complicated, because my father's illness is not the only thing that pushed me to leave Spain. I have suffered from chronic depression since I was a teenager. When I moved to the U.S., I had a chance to develop a different persona. I only told my closest friends about my depression, and even with people I told, I never showed them my suffering.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MACIAS: There are two interesting things about suffering. One is that you know you can survive it. So when something difficult actually happens, it might not even make you that sad. After all, suffering for a reason is much easier than suffering for no reason. The other interesting thing is that you want it to stop, and so you're always wondering what other life would make you happier - a different job, a different city, buying something, selling something, meeting someone, breaking up with someone.

In 2012, Julia and I separated. I thought I would be OK, but I wasn't, because it touched the core of my identity in this country. I felt uprooted, out of place, lost. Migrating, just like depression, is not a single event. It happens every day when you get up. It happens every time you meet someone and they notice your accent, every occasion someone makes an old cultural reference and you don't get it. It happens every time something important happens back at home and you're not there for that - a birthday, a death, a celebration, a sickness, good news, bad news, no news, just life, and you're not there for any of it. And then, as I kept struggling with my questions about my future and where to be, something happened.

MARIA: (Through interpreter) When I met you, I don't know, Miguel, because - what do I say? How American you seemed to me when I met you? Well, when I met Miguel, Miguel was a very strange American.

MACIAS: I met Maria in Seville. A friend introduced us outside of a bar. People love to hang out with friends outside of bars in Seville. It didn't take long for Maria to realize that there was Miguel in Spain and Miguel in the U.S.

MARIA: (Through interpreter) I really think that when I first noticed your personality change, when I realize you went from a Spanish to an American way of being, was in the last part of our trip to the United States, when we arrived in New York. You became much more serious. You looked down more, walked faster, talked to me less.

MACIAS: Maria always tells me that I also laugh more in Spain. And meeting Maria started a period of my life where I would use every opportunity I had to visit. And I could have come back permanently during those years, actually, but I was afraid - afraid that years of hard work could evaporate without a trace if I went back. It's an immigrant's worst nightmare - going back with nothing to show for.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MACIAS: Years went by. Maria and I continued our relationship in the distance, with plenty of uncertainty about the future, also daily voice messages to always be with each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIA: (Speaking Spanish).

MACIAS: That's a recording from April 10, 2020. Maria was worried about me that morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIA: (Speaking Spanish).

MACIAS: It was the height of the pandemic, and I was in Brooklyn. My mother had called me a few days earlier to let me know that my father had tested positive. We laughed it off. My father had survived a devastating stroke and decades of living under the risk of dying from another stroke any day. COVID could do nothing to him. On April 9, 2020, my mother called me to give me the news. My father died of COVID alone in his nursery home in Seville. I cried on the phone, took the rest of the day off, went back to work the next morning. After all, suffering for a reason is much easier than suffering for no reason.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MACIAS: I've been running away from the legacy of my father all my life, that constant need to accomplish things in the U.S. to one day earn the right to go back. But the farther I get, the more lucid that notion of success becomes. And the opposite of success is failure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MACIAS: (Speaking Spanish). What do you mean by (speaking Spanish)?

MARIA: (Through interpreter) Well, the topic - I'm talking about the subject of - what's your plan?

MACIAS: Recently, Maria visited me in D.C. for a week. That's where I'm based now. We sat to talk about our future and whether I would finally make a decision to go back to Spain to be together.

MARIA: (Through interpreter) This is an old conversation, and you know that. And you have never asked me to come live with you directly. This is a project of yours in which we're going to see how long I can last by your side and what will I feel like working, just working for you and working and waiting for me. Is that what you want?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LISA: I didn't send you the book "Wherever You Go, There You Are"? I didn't insist that you read it?

MACIAS: I didn't read it, no.

This is my friend Lisa in that 2020 phone conversation. She's talking about the book by John Kabat-Zinn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LISA: I don't think it's untrue that somebody can be happier in a certain environment than in another. But I think at the core, simply relocating doesn't erase whatever fundamental issues or needs or demons or angels or whatever in us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MACIAS: Recently, another friend of mine sent me a message. She's also an immigrant to the U.S. She also struggles with depression. She was struggling with the same questions I deal with. Where is our place in the world? Why are we putting ourselves through all this suffering, going back and forth? And the only advice I could give her is try to decide where you want to be in the future. And even if you don't know when that will happen, at least you'll know that you made a decision. And at that moment, I realized that I had made my own decision.

(Speaking Spanish).

MARIA: (Speaking Spanish).

MACIAS: Maybe it's my age - I'm 46 now - maybe it's the years apart from Maria, or maybe it's my father's passing, but all of those things pushed me to make some decisions - to stop running away from my problems.

(Speaking Spanish).

MARIA: (Speaking Spanish).

MACIAS: I recently bought an old house in Seville to tear it down and build a new home. I also asked Maria to marry me. I finally know where my place in the world is. And even though I don't have a set date or a one-way plane ticket, I know I will come back to Spain to finally rest - to live for the things that matter.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: That was NPR's senior producer Miguel Macias. This segment was an adaptation of Limbo, an hour-long audio documentary originally aired on Latino USA. You can find the link on our website, or go to latinousa.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miguel Macias
Miguel Macias is a Senior Producer at All Things Considered, where he is proud to work with a top-notch team to shape the content of the daily show.