Overseas American

Overseas American: Growing Up Gringo in the Tropics

Gene H. Bell-Villada
Copyright Date: 2005
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2tvbhs
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  • Book Info
    Overseas American
    Book Description:

    Born in 1941 of a Hawaiian mother and a white father, Gene H. Bell-Villada, grew up an overseas American citizen. An outsider wherever he landed, he never had a ready answer to the innocuous question "Where are you from?"

    By the time Bell-Villada was a teenager, he had lived in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Cuba. Though English was his first language, his claim on U.S. citizenship was a hollow one. All he knew of his purported "homeland" was gleaned from imported comic books and movies. He spoke Spanish fluently, but he never fully fit into the culture of the Latin American countries where he grew up.

    In childhood, he attended an American Catholic school for Puerto Ricans in San Juan, longing all the while to convert from Episcopalianism so that he could better fit in. Later at a Cuban military school during the height of the Batista dictatorship, he witnessed fervent political debates among the cadets about Fidel Castro's nascent revolution and U.S. foreign policy. His times at the American School in Caracas, Venezuela, are tinged with reminiscences of oil booms and fights between U.S. and Venezuelan teen gangs.

    When Bell-Villada finally comes to the United States to stay, he finds himself just as rootless as before, moving from New Mexico to Arizona to California to Massachusetts in quick succession. His accounts of life on the campuses of Berkeley and Harvard during the tumultuous 1960s reveal much about the country's climate during the Cold War era.

    Eventually the "Gringo" comes home, finding the stability in his marriage and career that allows him to work through and proudly claim his identity as a "global nomad."

    Gene H. Bell-Villada, Cambridge, Massachusetts, is chair of the Department of Romance Languages at Williams College and the author of such books asBorges and His Fiction: A Guide to His Mind and Art,The Pianist Who Liked Ayn Rand, and the National Book Critics Circle Award finalistArt for Art's SakeandLiterary Life: How Politics and Markets Helped Shape the Ideology and Culture of Aestheticism, 1790-1990.

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-222-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Foreword, with Hindsight: American, Overseas
    (pp. xi-xxiv)

    “So where’re you from?” someone asks me at a cocktail party, or a dinner.

    “I grew up in the Caribbean,” I say. My standard reply.

    “Oh, where? That’s kind of big.” Or “That’s a lot of places.”

    “Well, I was raised in three Latin American countries. Came to the States when I was seventeen and a half.”

    “Which countries?” they then ask.

    “Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Venezuela,” I say.

    “Where were you born, though?” is the usual follow-up.

    “Haiti,” I answer. “But that was just an accident. My parents moved on a year or so after that.”

    “Oh, do you...

  5. PART ONE: OVERSEAS

    • Next Stop, San Juan
      (pp. 3-23)

      “Where’re you from?” asked the freckled-faced guy sitting next to me in a Puerto Rican school bus. I must’ve been in third or fourth grade.

      “From the States,” I said.

      “Where were you born?” he pressed on.

      “Haiti.”

      “Well, then you’re Haitian, not American.” He mistakenly saidhaitilenoinstead ofhaitiano.

      It was a foretaste of confusions to come.

      My first home on this earth—according to my father—had been the Hotel Olafson in Port-au-Prince, a foreigners’ enclave that serves as setting for much of Graham Greene’s novelThe Comedians. This odd fact has sometimes helped spice up accounts...

    • When We Were Almost Puerto Ricans
      (pp. 24-48)

      A neighborhood kid—let’s call him Paco—has got me pinned up against a wall in somebody’s front yard. Staring at me eyeball-to-eyeball, with a defiant smirk on his pretty face, he intones a perverse little litany.

      Du-ru-á, du-ru-á, du-ru-á.

      I stand there bewildered by it all.

      Du-ru-á, du-ru-á.” (Approximate English pronunciation: “Doo-roo-AH.” They’re nonsense syllables. His own creation.)

      In the meantime a younger cohort, who lives in the house, is picking on Kanani, tossing him toward the grass and taunting him. Paco shouts, “Yeah, get his brother, too!” then keeps up his nonsense refrain. “Du-ru-á, du-ru-á.”

      So new is...

    • Strange Interlude in Venezuela and Florida
      (pp. 49-62)

      We’re among a planeload of recently arrived passengers, Kanani and I. Nervously seated with others in the plastic bucket seats along the picture windows. It’s the foyer to the passport control office at the Aeropuerto Internacional de La Guaira, which services nearby Caracas. Eventually a uniformed official arrives, calling on Venezuelan citizens to proceed to the next room. For a split second I almost rise to join them, wishing briefly that I could. Wishing I were Venezuelan.

      My next recollection from that day in June 1955 is of our smiling dad, chauffeuring his Nash Rambler on the spanking new superhighway...

    • Cuban Military Cadet No. 562
      (pp. 63-92)

      Dawn. First light falls on two long rows of metal bunk beds. The vivid sounds of the bugle’s sixteenth notes have us all tumbling out as one. Cuban reveille: its staccato strains differ considerably from the arpeggiated tune familiar to me from American flicks and Puerto Rican media. So begins the day for us boarders at Havana Military Academy.

      Following morning toilette in the large communal bathroom, we’re under compulsion to ensure our lockers are neat, our shoes shiny, our beds properly made with a ten-inch fold on the top sheet. At inspection call each one of us—there are...

    • Family Interludes in Puerto Rico
      (pp. 93-104)

      “Hope these next few days go by as fast as our weekends do!”

      During our two long years at HMA, Kanani and I will often toss around such conceits, like little boys tallying the days till the arrival of Santa Glaus. The countdown in this instance is for our long-awaited date of departure from Cuba, and on to P.R. either for Christmas break or summer vacation.

      Life on the smaller island now signifies our legitimate escape and place of rest, far from the solitude and severity of La Habana. The house on Mallorca Street has become the symbol of our...

    • On Being Gringo in Caracas
      (pp. 105-150)

      It’s past midnight. Some slightly boozed-up gringo boys roam casually down the hill, five, maybe six abreast. Cracking the typical teen jokes, they’re returning from a pre-Christmas dance party thrown at Academia La Castellana, a small-sized American school located in the upper-middle-class enclave of La Castellana. They’ve had more than a few cups previously and are about to imbibe from someone’s flask, when the sudden sound of a speeding, honking vehicle startles them. The group moves aside.

      A bevy of rich, slick Venezuelans, who’d also been at the school bash, go barreling by in their luxury machine, almost sideswiping one...

  6. PART TWO: AMERICAN

    • Not Yet at Home in El Norte
      (pp. 153-204)

      White waiting room, says the sign, unambiguously.

      Colored waiting room, says another, farther down the hall.

      Same goes for the restrooms, the game rooms, and most everything else at Greyhound bus stations in the Deep South. It’s all black and white. White versus black. At each and every southern depot where Kanani and I come down from the bus, we’ll encounter these signs, time and again, without fail. The constant reminders of state-enforced racial segregation, and the attendant oppression and intimidation, are among the greatest shocks to our newborn Yankee souls as we first travel across the U.S. of A....

    • Trying Another Coast
      (pp. 205-218)

      Oh, the temptation to conclude this narrative on the upbeat note of the previous paragraphs!

      A classically happy ending: our quasi-immigrant boy riding off into the sunset (the sunrise, actually), ready to enter Harvard’s mythic realm. His recognizable first step toward making good in this America. (Jetliner takes off majestically over the bay. White letters unfurl: “THE END.”) A standard final scene in countless exemplars of the American Romance of Immigration. A tale told many times over in our high-school textbooks and autobiographical success stories, in TV dramas and glossy mags ...

      Yet once the immediate practical hurdles of settling...

    • Life in (and outside of) the Heartland
      (pp. 219-245)

      I am alone in my one-bedroom, garden apartment in Binghamton, N.Y. The ground-floor rental unit comes equipped with electric heat, heavy suburban-style furnishings, and textured wall-to-wall carpeting, linden green in color. My portable record player and small radio both date back to Harvard graduate-school days. I’ve no TV set. No phone, either. No one can reach me here unless they come knocking. I’m about eight months into my instructorship at one of the best of New York’s state college campuses.

      It’s four years since I broke with my father. Told him I never wanted to see him or have anything...

    • Expatriation et cetera
      (pp. 246-253)

      So, in the summer of ’74, having completed my Ph.D., I decline an attractive, full-time, long-term job offer from some gracious folks at the University of Massachusetts’s new Harbor Campus. (This despite the fact that there’s an academic recession going on; some of my profs and fellow students probably think my decision foolhardy.) And I leave for Europe on a budget flight with Icelandic Airlines.

      First I spend time with Audrey in her studio apartment in The Hague, where—with my Ph.D. thesis firmly behind me—I start to read and write on brand-new topics, totally unrelated to my doctorate....

    • Afterword, without an End: Overseas American
      (pp. 254-260)

      In 1978 I’ll add my mother’s maiden name “Villada” to my byline, and start calling myself “Bell-Villada” in other work-related business as well. The compound surname serves a number of purposes: to claim my complex Hispanic background, to make it clear from the outset that I’m not exactly white-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant, and to differentiate myself from my father. Whenever I set eyes on my original, shorter handle, I’ll feel a curious disengagement from it, as if “Gene Bell” belonged to somebody else, some other guy I never much liked.

      I nevertheless think it necessary to retain the “Bell” side of my ancestry....