polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Planning for (.......): Maria’s Story

by Hector Fernando Burga

Show Maria a map and ask her to identify where she lives or how she got to where she is. She hesitates, points and misses. Walk with her down the street and you will quickly realize she doesn’t understand most signs or conversations. Ask what country she is from and she’ll mention the name of a village in the Andes Mountains: a place that is not in the map.

I met Maria in 2006 during my first year at the PhD program in City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley. Seeking a welcomed distraction from seminars in Planning Theory, I sought volunteer opportunities around campus and became Maria’s English interpreter. She was an illegal immigrant who had approached a local faith-based humanitarian institution to help her obtain political asylum. Following years of domestic abuse she had escaped to the United States only to face the prospect of deportation. Mustering courage, Maria had learned to pronounce the institution’s name and ventured onto the street to find it. Eventually, she reached its doorstep.

Maria’s Spanish was filled with the phonetic particularities and cadences characteristic of the Andes. This made her interaction with local bay area Spanish interpreters difficult. I still recall the resignation on her demure face the first time we met. Having had prior experience interpreting for political asylum cases, I knew how important the first meeting was to build rapport and trust. I quickly took the firs step.

“Soy del Peru,” I said, smiling and extending my hand.

Months later, Maria would tell me how that word: “Peru”, had brought her a sense of relief. In time, I would also find out that it had no geographic or political value for her. Its sound, however, had triggered memories of a place not far from her village.

I met Maria on a regular basis for the duration of one year. I worked with a team of law students to develop a well-crafted narrative, a testimony of her life. The record of this document was crucial to claim political asylum. Its production was arduous: dozens of interviews designed to uncover layers of specific and intimate details about her life before and after arriving to the United States. Back “home”, Maria had sought to divorce her husband, but facing retaliatory murder if she did, her family arranged for her escape to the coast. A parcel of fertile land had been exchanged as a form of payment to secure the journey. She was followed, and therefore had to go farther. She was smuggled, like contraband through land and sea, borders and safe houses, her life caught in a web of handlers, until she reached Oakland, California. Such was the endpoint of what had been a precarious life defined by illiteracy, hunger, mental and physical abuse. As she narrated her story, there were images of terror and vulnerability but also intelligence, resilience and laughter. I couldn’t help but be suspicious. Her story was so extreme, unlike any other I had heard before. But my suspicions were eventually crushed by the power of her voice. Her responses to questions, as her demeanor, were terse and taciturn at the beginning. Nevertheless, with each session, her memory became sharper and her personal narrative became compelling without ever a hint of contradiction.

One day, before a session, Maria told me she had problem. She couldn’t stop remembering. She was spending her working hours as a nighttime office cleaner in San Pablo Avenue recalling her life in the Andes. Every new detail gave her the urge to tell. She was driving her co-workers insane with constant rambling. Maria had been the quiet one, now she wouldn’t shut up. She looked desperate.

“El Huaico,” She told me, referring to the Quechua word for “Landslide.”

In the next session, I lent her an old portable hand-held cassette recorder to help her mark testimony. It was a chunky machine with a big red button. Maria was very grateful especially when she found out that she could play her Shakira tapes on it.

Another time, I drove Maria to an appointment with a psychiatrist who would evaluate her emotional trauma. The session proved to be heart wrenching. Maria spoke about scars on her body. Scars I had heard about, but not seen until then. At one point during the session, I had to take a break. It was too much, emotionally. My voice began to tremble and the interpretation was being compromised. Maria held back tears. She insisted that we continue. We couldn’t waste time. She was remembering.

On our drive back, I was silent, but Maria was enjoying her navigator seat. She was reciting the trip almost like a story. At that moment, I realized the power of the orality transforming her life. Without the ability to mark anything, she was inventing her own capacity. Perhaps recovering it. She would deploy stories to map her world. The same oral transmission that empowered her to remember her past and allow us to mark her testimony was crucial in the formation of an alternative spatial imagination. Beyond maps, drawings, symbols, signs and words, Maria deployed stories with meaning and value that were intractably connected to place.

At the end of that long year, we had a scheduled hearing with a political asylum inspector. Maria’s case was accepted for review. She crossed the first hurdle in an long bureaucratic track. My job was done. To show her appreciation she baked a big cake for the team. We had a small party and listened to Shakira. I never asked for my recorder back. Afterwards, I called her a couple of times to see how she was doing. Eventually I lost touch with her. I went back to writing, reading and living the detached life of a PhD student. In turn, Maria did what she needed to do. She disappeared.

Like many of us, Maria’s trajectories in the city are bound by places of work, security, even distraction. But in her case, these movements were meant to be invisible. Her trajectories can’t leave any trace. Detection would place her and the networks in which she circulates in danger of retaliation. In essence her presence in the city is about drawing a blank. As much as one may think Maria didn’t know where she is in the map, we were not supposed to know she is there.

I haven’t forgotten Maria’s story. Many times, I felt my role was deeply questionable. An educated Peruvian-American born in Lima and raised in Miami, interprets the words of an “Indian” woman from the Andes. As the practice of planning, this was a space filled with relations of power defined by gender, class, race, oppressive legacies and erased histories. But Maria would constantly remind me to do a good job, unraveling the inherent contradiction of my rather self-imposed, privileged interrogation. Our sharply different, yet common experience of immigration allowed us to form a useful and temporary bond: a space of interpretation with the freedom to enunciate. I haven’t forgotten her voice (my voice) and the question it asks me: If planning practice is a space of interpretation, how do we plan for those who are not on the map? How do we interpret for those who are invisible?

Credits: Images from Hector Fernando Burga.