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Bienvenidos friends,

It was through traveling for long periods of time outside of the United States that I began to truly empathize with how challenging it must be for immigrants like my mother to plant roots in a different land.

My husband Dave and I met in 1998 while playing music together in a band with a Mali West African Griot musician, Cheick Hamala Diabate. As a person raised in a small town in Virginia, these complex driving polyrhythms and acrobatic soaring traditional vocals were so much more advanced than what I was exposed to growing up. It was the most challenging, mind blowing music I had ever heard! 

(Top) Spring Parade in San Cristobal (Below) Rigoberto Calderon and Dave B at some ruins. Photos: Estela Knott/Provided 
Playing this music unearthed so many questions for me about my own roots that it prompted me to travel with my mother to visit friends in the heart of Mexico. I had no idea I was in for such a sensory overload. Maybe it was genetic memory, but whatever it was, it moved me. Simple everyday things like the sounds of bus doormen haggling with potential passengers on a corner. The smell of fresh tortillas cooking over an open fire. The feuding smells of hanging meat and fresh cut fruits and vegetables in the markets. The beautiful brown faces with deep dark eyes, like my mother’s, so present, yet rooted in rituals and traditions that have mingled and fused with immigrants over thousands of years. 

What really broke me was the Mariachi band that serenaded my mother on her birthday. As they sang to her, I saw her so enveloped by nostalgia, and I felt a rush of heat rising through me as tears filled my eyes and I wept uncontrollably. Their soaring harmonies pulled on my heart strings like nothing ever had. This experience really brought home the feeling that I needed to authentically do justice to this beautiful song that my mother wrote back in 1989 called “Vengo de muy lejos” (translated I came from far away). I didn’t want to leave. So, I left my soul in Mexico, and the rest of me went home, worked hard and saved money so I could go back.
(Top) Dave playing tunes in San Cristobal (Bottom left) Estela writing songs by candle light in Veracruz. (Bottom right) Estela and Dave with Mayan friends (who were environmentalists and researchers) of the Lacandon jungles in Chiapas. Photos: Estela Knott/Provided
On a snowy morning in February 2000, almost a year after my first trip to Mexico, I went back with intentions to stay longer. This time, though, Dave, my boyfriend (and later husband), tagged along. We weren't certain how long we were going to stay, and our plans weren't concrete, but we knew what we were after — and we were determined to stay until we found it.

We flew into the Yucatan and were greeted with a warm welcome by my mother’s friends, the Calderon family. They so graciously helped us get acclimated for a few weeks before we set off on our journey. Culture shock is a real thing, and after a month, we were really missing home. Home was easy, comfortable, predictable. Living in a new land uproots you in a way that makes you question everything about yourself and where you are from.

It’s one thing to switch back and forth into a second language when you are fluent in the dominant culture. It’s an entirely different experience when you are immersed in not only the second language, but the culture, food, politics and environment it inhabits every day and all day. It took us more than a few months to develop our sea legs. We never felt at home, per se, but it didn’t take us long to begin to find bliss in the freedom of living out of a small backpack with our sole goal of chasing the music. 
(Top) Bull fight in Conkal Yucatan Mexico. (Bottom left) Calderon family. (Bottom right) marimba band in the Yucatan. Photos: Estela Knott/Provided
We danced in the streets of Mérida to Jarana, Yucateca, plunged into the crystal blue waters under the stars of ancient Mayan ruins in Tulum, Yucatan. We ate the best molé ever in Oaxaca with Son Istmeño bouncing off buildings that surrounded the plaza square. We hitched rides and hopped buses. We recorded stories and shared conversations with people as we rode through the jungles of Chiapas. We got sleep when we could on tables during the monsoon rains that flooded the ground while playing Son Jarocho music for days and nights on end in the mountains of Santiago Tuxtla, in Veracruz. Before we knew it, we were gone for a year and half.

As we drove home over the lush Blue Ridge Mountains into my hometown of Luray, Virginia, to reunite with my family after our travels, I imagined there were Mexicans who had chosen to settle in these mountains because they remind them of home. 

I wanted so much to write a song about this epiphany — to save the memory soaring in my spirit from one place to another. So, in 2019, we wrote the song, Guacamaya Appalachia, with our good friend Zenen Zeferino Huervo.

It took me 15 years and a world of hard won experiences — building a family, investing in my community, learning to play jarana, to sing and dance the rhythms in my veins — to invite Mexico into my home. But I did it, and I’m so glad I did.  

Until next time my virtual voyagers!

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