“Every object in that room is equally a form
by which people have chosen to express themselves.”
-Daniel Miller, The Comfort of Things
When I found out I would be moving to the U.S., the first question my mom and I asked each other was What should I bring with me? I immediately thought about my favorite pieces of clothes and appropriate garments for the different seasons. Then I thought about the items that would make me feel close to home and cope with my saudade: books, photographs, souvenirs from past travels and happy memories. Finally, there were those objects I used for my studies and my pastimes, notebooks, art supplies, and more books! It made sense to me to fill my suitcase with this huge number of objects. They would be useful, they would help me start a new life, they would prevent me from spending money. More importantly, they were part of who I am, and they would help me create a new home.
Contrary to my goals, more than half of these objects stayed in Venezuela and the enormous list reduced based on a simple fact: not everything could fit in my suitcase. My luggage had more impact than I thought in the way I selected and dismissed items, and it made me redefine over and over my priorities about what to bring with me. The selection process depended not as much on my personal preferences, but on the capacity of the suitcase and the flight restrictions, which allowed a maximum weight of fifty pounds… My new life would be built upon fifty pounds of my old life, which I had to select more carefully enacting, in Daniel Miller words, an act of dispossession.
Thinking back about those days, I realize the suitcase became a central element of my journey, as the movable container of all the crucial elements I needed for my fresh start. That luggage was a possession that re-defined my family’s relationships and developed new rituals, and this made me wonder about the relevance suitcases have gained for other Venezuelan families whose members have emigrated. Part of our nation is dispersed throughout the globe looking for a new start, for the life that was not possible in our home country. Like me, these persons have left with nothing but a suitcase with selected objects, with the hope of better life and opportunities in other parts of the world. Our lives now fit in movable containers.
In my case, owning suitcases became a family necessity after my brother moved out of the country in 2003. The economic and political depression from the national strike of the oil company PDVSA the year before, and the attempted coup d’etat against Hugo Chávez, left Venezuela in a bad condition, and a great wave of young persons and families emigrated to other countries. Before my own departure, my brother and sister-in-law went through the same process, performed their own acts of dispossession. They selected and packed those objects helpful to build a new life, while dismissing those unfit for their adventure. Eventually, they settled in a new place and built a home with new objects they appropriated.
My brother’s emigration would deeply affect my family’s interaction in ways I never realized until now. Unable to return due to his immigration procedure, we would go see him during the holidays. Our Christmas passed from visiting our relatives in our hometown, Barquisimeto, to traveling to my brother and his family in Miami. With this change, our luggage also transformed. We replaced the small totes and medium backpacks, suitable for short-distance trips, with medium and large-size luggage, specially designed to carry them throughout the airports. Every travel started and ended with packing/unpacking our luggage, a ritual we have perfected along the years in order to fit our possessions.
The ritual also transformed our house. My mother designated a closet to keep the luggage we owned. Inside the storeroom, there were mostly large, black suitcases in different sizes; sometimes there was also a colorful set I would buy, but everybody could use. On the eve of a trip, my mom would go through them to check which suitcases were in good condition, assigned one for each person, and would throw away the pieces in bad condition. She would think about repairing them, but buying new ones seemed a better idea. I believe this was my mom’s own act of dispossession, of a fresh start in her home with new items acquired abroad, along with a new movable container. She repeated the same ritual last year when planning her trip to the U.S. to attend my wedding and visit my brother. She packed a few belongings, leaving space for new items –and memories. Since this would be the first time I would see her after my departure, I also asked her to bring me family photos to keep with me in my Californian home. In return, I gave her some objects and photos I collected for her while we were away from each other to bring back to her house.
Back in 2014, after I told my mother I was leaving the country, she proudly went through her old closet and took out a suitcase I had bought the year before for my new trip. I remember I acquired this luggage knowing I would move to another place very soon. The time had come and there it was, a purple container with front and back wheels, twenty-nine inches long, and a retractable handle, lightweight for me to carry around but big enough to fit as many objects as I could –as long I did not exceed the fifty-pound maximum capacity. Twelve years after my brother moved abroad, I was at my parents’ house, performing the same ritual of packing my luggage and dispossessing objects. Being there gave me comfort and emotional support, we shared laughs and a lot of tears. They were scared about me going far away, but remained supportive and provided constant help while organizing my belongings. Finally, at the Simon Bolívar International Airport, they made sure to secure my suitcase with a padlock and plastic wrap so nobody would open it, and this reassured me that my emotional possessions would arrive at my destination.
In the past, watching people carrying suitcases around the airport meant they were going away for vacations. Now, it usually means the person is moving abroad. Suitcases have become a symbol for this generation of emigrants who, like me, decided to try a new life in a different country due to the economic, social and political instability in Venezuela. Our opportunities to thrive seem to be somewhere else, and there seems to be no choice but to pack your most important belongings and leave. You can even notice how relevant suitcases are when looking at their pictures before departure. The traveler photographs their luggage, passport and plane ticket, using the colorful airport’s main hall as background, created by the artist Carlos Cruz-Diez. The person does not pose but the suitcase embodies them, reflecting their now-movable life, their desires of success, a life of future memories and possessions in another place. At the moment of my departure, I did not take this iconic picture, but I can remember vividly every moment, my suitcase next to me and Cruz-Diez artwork embracing me and my love ones when we said goodbye.
The purple suitcase is still with me, worn down by the years and the travels we have made together since then. Every time I look at it I realize all the layers of meaning this container has to me. The suitcase reminds me of a complex Venezuelan reality I cannot escape even if I am far away, it contains sad and happy memories. Owning nothing more than a suitcase forced me to make choices and dispossess part of my belongings, maintaining only the essential to build a new life. For a while I regretted some of the things I left, but eventually felt more comfortable knowing my mom gave those items to people who needed them. I hope they serve them well.
This suitcase also embodies my movable life, signaled by new beginnings and all the positive things I accomplished after I left Venezuela. Last November, I had to go through the same ritual again, selecting and dispossessing objects before moving from Philadelphia to California. Luckily, my parents were visiting me at the time and helped me pack my movable container. Although bittersweet, this was a joyous moment I could share with them, knowing there was a new adventure ahead of me with my partner. We enacted a ritual that felt natural to us, we shared more laughs than tears and packed the old purple suitcase to fit in what I needed. Leaving behind items in Philadelphia was not as hard as the first time when I left Venezuela. Nonetheless, this nostalgic process made think about when I left my country, and how important this movable container is to my personal experience. This suitcase has become a container of the pieces of my many homes, and while I am not moving, it remains in my closet, along with my husband’s luggage, waiting for our next destination.