Pasaporte F076717 by Bessie Flores Zaldívar
In Bessie Flores Zaldívar’s hermit crab essay “Pasaporte F076717,” the writer’s Honduran passport becomes a locus for multiple identities: the geographic, historical, and linguistic identities of a country and city and also the identity of the writer who was born there. “When I’m in America, I keep my passport in my underwear drawer,” Zaldívar writes in her author’s note. “I know this document is my most important possession. It is the thing that allows me to move between Tegucigalpa and America mostly seamlessly. It is my ultimate form of identification.”
Laura van den Berg explores the narrative possibilities of objects in her essay “Object Lessons: An Exploration” in CRAFT: “Objects contain worlds; troubled and fractured histories; unanswerable mysteries; forcefields of thought and feeling.” The passport contains the “fractured history” of a country riven by the catastrophic effects of colonialism, US interventions, climate disasters, political divisions, and the pandemic. Each stamp in the passport represents a trip. Just as objects, according to Italo Calvino, become “knot[s] in the network of invisible relationships,” the stamps in the passport contain all the people the writer has encountered. “The thing about los Hondureños, es que como dice mi abuela, hablan hasta por los codos. They talk even out of their elbows. I will never get through a Tegus-bound plane ride without holding an hour-long conversation.”
A passport invites complex definitions of home, particularly for Zaldívar, who lives in one place and belongs to another. “I moved to the United States five years ago,” Zaldívar writes in her author’s note: “Nearly every time I fly to the Toncontín airport, I’m moving toward some form of chaos and also my only home.” As the plane lands, she presses her face against the window, and all of Tegucigalpa is present in a beautifully chaotic lyric rush. “It’s not my Tegus. Tegucigalpa is no one’s. But in that moment, I believe every page of my passport, every crevice and detail of it against my fingertip is Tegucigalpa…” —CRAFT
The thing about los Hondureños, es que como dice mi abuela, hablan hasta por los codos. They talk even out of their elbows. I will never get through a Tegus-bound plane ride without holding an hour-long conversation. Earbuds in is disrespect and that’s all there is to say about that. It’s not my place to tell the stories of the people I’ve met like this, but I’ll say one thing—for the past three years they have all been undocumented older men returning home after ten or more years. And they all say the same thing to me: Estados Unidos no es un pais pa vivir, hija. Pero Honduras tampoco.
On December 15, 2017, I’m twenty years old and at 2:00 a.m. my screen lights up with an American Airlines notification advising me not to travel to Tegucigalpa because of civil disturbances. They offer a full refund. Your safety is our priority. I don’t consider it once. For the past month, through a screen I’ve followed the flames engulfing my home. I’ve refreshed a mounting list of dead with swift thumb movements.
We sit at the gate in Miami with green coffee cups from a local store. Everyone chose it over the significantly closer Starbucks. We are from a land that knows full-bodied coffee is a way to hold your heart in place. People ask each other the same question over and over. Have you been back since…? None of us has. Flights have been constantly cancelled since. Tegucigalpa is the auditory accident that can morph a since to sins.
During boarding, the flight attendant jokes that we should have two separate lines, one for supporters of the current government and another for the opposition. When he says his name, the president’s name, JOH, someone yells, ¡Fuera! It has been a month since the elections. We’re less than thirty days into this dictatorship. I refresh my international news feed every few minutes and text my family to ask if they’ll be able to get through the protests to pick me up. Yes, they say. Worst case scenario we have to pay a war-tax to drive through a protest. Two days ago, protestors broke into the landing strip and the flight had to be redirected to San Pedro Sula, four hours away from Tegus.
Aeropuerto Internacional de Toncontín is ranked as the second most extreme airport in the world by the television channel HISTORY. The landing strip is short and right in the middle of Tegucigalpa. The occasional plane has sped right out to crush cars and houses before snapping wing-height in two like a suppressed sneeze, half inside the airport’s body and half fluids dispersed on the street. The infinite number of mountains and hills choking the city do not help. Half of the year burnt, half of the year green and alive. Pilots need a special certification to fly to Tegus. Toncontín, like Tegucigalpa, is a Nahuatl word, not Spanish. Some linguists claim Tegucigalpa means Toncontín. Toncontín is an ancient indigenous dance. Tegucigalpa means bird or painted stones or toncontín or yellow earth.
Tegucigalpa is a painted stone in December 2017. Every flat surface is covered in FUERA JOH, a call for the dictator to resign, or KILLER COPS or FUERA GRINGOS or GOBIERNO ASESINO or some other variation of let me live a little longer, please. Every store front is barricaded with wood planks. Every smashable thing has been. Military police stand in groups at every corner. And where there’s no plea for life, there’s the hand-painted face of a missing person. Tegucigalpa, with its American chain restaurants that will always be burned down. Tegucigalpa, with its corner fruit vendors who will always be there the next morning, even if the city burns down. A vandalized Burger King, a pawpaw cut in the shape of a flower. Tegucigalpa, a bottle of spray paint with a blue handprint around its body, scared of its emptiness.
I’ve been through enough plane rides, security checks, and immigration processes to instinctively know when something’s off. The first time I fly to Tegucigalpa in pandemic times, on May 15, 2020, a lot is off. The usual and expected things, yes—people fighting flight attendants over mask-wearing, unusual boarding and deplaning steps, and being stopped in two out of three airports to be asked for my unaccompanied minor papers because I’m twenty-two but the agent insists I look sixteen. But the offest-of-off things happens on the bridge walk of my final plane ride from Houston to Tegus. Three TSA agents stop everyone boarding to ask for their passport and visa. At this point, what is the point? We are leaving the United States, not entering. The agents do not speak Spanish, and most people in line only speak Spanish, so it’s all hand gestures and pointing and yelling from the agents. And it’s all irises and pupils salivating words in gringo-fear from the passengers. When I get close enough, I hear some laughing too. The type of laughter that’s unshared by those hanging from the commas of the punchline in the joke. Were you here packing melons too? one of the agents asks everyone who hands him their passport. What about you? How many melons did you pack?
When it’s my turn, he says, you’re too small to be packing melons and I nod. I get smaller every second I am away from Tegucigalpa.
I know every aerial route between the United States and Tegucigalpa. There are only three: MIA–TGU, ATL–TGU, IAH–TGU. The first is a straight line from Miami to Cuba, Cuba to Tegus. The second is through the Gulf. The last is almost all through Mexico, a fragment of Guatemala, and a part of Belize. The moment the pilot lets us know we’re approaching Tegucigalpa I feel everyone around sit up and open their blinds. Today, some of them are returning home after months of being stranded in Houston. They never intended to be away for so long.
Tegucigalpa was never meant to be a city; it was founded to mine silver and gold from the surrounding mountains. Tegucigalpa rests on a chain of mountains—the smallest at 3,000 feet and the tallest at 4,800 feet. Two other cities were the capital before Tegus, and everyone thinks that choosing Tegus in the end was a major fuckup. Tegucigalpa is smoke and mud. A 2014 study found it is, indeed, the city in Central America with the most polluted air. In part, because it burns every year right before it drowns.
Tegucigalpa is human fauna. Tegucigalpa is a deposit of misery and tears. Should you pick Tegucigalpa up with one hand and turn it over, a tongueless mouth opens as streams hit the earth. Tegucigalpa is a city of extremes. Half of the year underwater, half of the year a desert. Tegucigalpa is a tall African tulip tree in its prime—orange flowers everywhere—but if you get lost in them you might miss the fact that the trunk is breaking through a tin roof cut to accommodate it. The people under it, wet. Tegucigalpa is a wall bleeding NOS ESTAN MATANDO in blue spray paint with half the letters erased by the growing fuchsia bougainvillea. Tegucigalpa is the wall next to that wall with declarations of love—te amo por siempre maria—and no one but Maria knows this was for her. Tegucigalpa is a crumpled handkerchief, my grandma says. Un pañuelito. Nothing’s too far and all corners touch. Deposit of tears.
When we land, an agent comes on the plane to take our temperatures. We spend three hours in line to get through customs. The months ahead will be all about lines. Four-hour-long lines to get a COVID test; wait in line for someone to die so you can get a bed; get in line if you both can’t and can believe it when it is announced on national TV that all the money donated by first-world countries to survive the pandemic has been stolen, and no, nothing’s coming. What we have is all we got. What we have is grocery store plastic bags as masks. When you need a suffocation hazard around your mouth and nose to stay alive, you’re in Tegucigalpa.
Up until the last minute, I half-expect the flight to be cancelled. Because this flight is always getting cancelled. It’s November 21, 2020. Two category 5 hurricanes have hit the country in less than fifteen days. The last one cut straight through Tegus. I followed its eye through the night on my phone, refreshing, pretending I could see in that tiny negative space my siblings’ mouths. They tell us we’re taking a slightly different route. That we won’t fly over the north coast of the country. I hate it, but something inside of me breathes better. I know exactly what the north coast looks like right now. What I really mean to say: I know there is no longer a north coast.
The man next to me says that’s the stadium and we’re home, hija. I’ve been too many people’s daughter. I’ll always be when I’m in this seat. And I get this unbearable need to hold his hand, never releasing the wanting waters of my eyeballs from the window. Like this city hasn’t had enough water. Before I know it, the descent ends. The Mormon Temple is right there, I could prick my fingertip with its point. The never-ending tangle of half-finished bridges running through the city’s guts like varicose veins on ankles. The yellow buildings of my high school that once held my budding body before I understood Tegucigalpa is my body.
Wheels hit pavement with throat-stuck squeaks. I know there is a chance, bigger than in other places, this plane will not stop. Tegus is all about heightened chances of. Around me, women pray. Bendito sea Dios, padre nuestro, gracias te damos señor, te pedimos por nosotros. Strangers hold hands. Sometimes, one of the strangers is me. The building where my family is waiting for me speeds through the window like a flicked eyelash guessed on the wrong finger. The man next to me whispers please stop, please God, let it stop. And so far, it has. So far, it has always stopped. The impossibly heavy tin-can pregnant with faces that call me daughter brakes on land that calls me dead and mine and I call home and body. Friction births applause y Bienvenido a Tegucigalpa, the weather is…
The line moves a lot faster than it did in May, though there’s more people this time because those who would usually fly to San Pedro can’t. That airport is underwater. It has completely disappeared under a brown river, except for the control tower’s roof. This extreme little airport is all we have left.
In less than an hour, I’m face to face with the agent, answering questions about where I’m coming from and where I’m staying and where I’m from. Soy de Tegucigalpa, I say. Toda mi vida en Tegus. I always get a version of welcome home or enjoy your stay. This time when the agent hands me back the passport, he says Bienvenida a su Tegucigalpa, señorita Bessie Maria. I know it’s not true. It’s not my Tegus. Tegucigalpa is no one’s. But in that moment, I believe every page of my passport, every crevice and detail of it against my fingertip is Tegucigalpa is the market with darkening plantains is that one wall by my favorite African tulip tree that reads if we all leave then who is left is el Rio Choluteca brown and furious is an unfinished bridge is a beam of sunlight through the window bisecting the back of my leg is the thump thump thump of the woodpecker I curse out in the morning is the rim of a military police’s gun the bougainvillea fuchsia and red and white mango slices in a plastic bag a missing person’s face an accident and a mistake is a city that will never let me reach it without ruin and devastation.
BESSIE FLORES ZALDÍVAR is a queer writer from Tegucigalpa, Honduras. She is an MFA candidate at Virginia Tech and a Tin House YA 2021 alumni. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in F(r)iction, [PANK], The Pinch, Palette Poetry, and elsewhere. She has been nominated for Best New Poets and selected for Best of the Net. Bessie’s chapbook, Rain Revolutions, is forthcoming with Long Day Press this fall. Read more at bessiefzaldivar.org
Featured image by Stefan Fluck courtesy of Unsplash; all other images courtesy of the author