At the Narrow Waist of the World: a memoir

An excerpt from Marlena Maduro Baraf ‘s memoir At the Narrow Waist of the World, a mother-daughter story and immigrant story that begins in her native Panama.  In this chapter, she is in the US. It is  the early 60s in her new college in Los Angeles full of smog.



When I arrived in Los Angeles in the thick of September, an orange blanket hung heavily over the tiny town of Eagle Rock near Pasadena. The prickly haze made our eyes tear. It scratched at the top of our throats.

Who was I talking to so many times from the payphone in the lobby at Haines Hall, south, crossing the red desert of Arizona, the whole of Mexico and Central America until my voice reached my home, my “s” shaped cocoon, Panamá centro del mundo, corazón del universo?

LA Smog from the 1960s
Los Angeles in the 60s

The coin purse embossed with the head of an Indian is bursting open, but still I need more coins. “Hey Sue, can you lend me three quarters?” The operator will say, “What country do you need to call, and she will interrupt me after two minutes to ask for more change. She knows the sound of each coin. To me the nickels, dimes, and quarters sound a little drunk as they flutter down behind the metal slots. I drop a few pieces on the floor, worried that she’ll cut me off.

Professors from all fields convene at Thorne Hall to deliver Western culture. Thorne Hall is set on tiered steps with marble columns and a pediment, my college’s homage to the Greeks. “Click.” Luminous frescoes by Fra Angelico are projected from slides on a portable screen in the dark. “Click.”  This is copious, extravagant bounty.

  • Building with pillars at Occidental_Thorne_Hal
  • Fra Angelico frescoes-San-Marco
  • Fresco-by-Fra-Angelico-San-Marco

I gravitate to the Intros. It’s good to start new. Intro to Psych. Intro to Anthropology. The Old and the New Testament. Spanish Literature–my first reading of Platero y Yo, La Celestina, Don Quijote de la Mancha.  I dream about Linguistics.

A logical positivist

My eyes are fixed on him. He’s milk white and disheveled. His two front teeth remind me of rabbits. Dr. Loftsgordon, our Intro to Philosophy professor, poses the question and grins, “What statement if true would cause you to change your belief?” The whole school is spellbound by ‘Lofty.’ “If there is no evidence you would accept that would disprove your statement, what you are saying has no value.” He grins right on top of his bow tie. “Ho hum. It has no meaning.”  “Lofty” calls himself a logical positivist.

I remember the fringe of grass along the path.  It was a cool night. I review the arguments for God and know that I’ve known this for a while.

President Kennedy’s been shot

The “mystery meat” and a bowl of green Jell-O crash down on the floor of the Student Union. It feels like I’ve been shot. “President Kennedy’s been shot,” Sue tells me like a zombie. I’ve been in the art building all morning. Everyone walks as if in a trance. We don’t talk. The TV in some building is the only sound. We gather at the screen for days, bewitched by the muffled drumbeat, submerged in our feeling. The white horse with no rider buckles. Jackie. Caroline. John-John.

I’ve been thinking about Papi.  It’s been seven years since he died.  In the morning when I step out of the shower something thuds inside of me.  It’s loud. ‘God is dead.’ I weep.

My college is an island

My college is an island.  The only way to get into Los Angeles is to have a boyfriend with a car. I’ve been crying again. My friend Lillian says that I miss my family. She is a Psych major. She asks if I’ve thought of killing myself. I feel numb and uncertain and separate from the others.

I speak to the school counselor, who is very slight. He recommends a battery of tests to discover my aptitudes. When I come upon a question with a visual component, I fill with black pencil the circle of the non-obvious answer. So he says that I have no aptitude for art. Sue is as confused as I am. She meets with a science instructor to try to determine her major. “Maybe I should be a marine biologist.” The teacher sweeps his eyes over Sue who’s holding her elbows together as she always does. “But you look like an art major,” he bursts.

A nebulous murk

Sue looks up in December pleased at the overcast sky. “Christmas is near!”  An overcast sky in the winter robs the orange lid of all color. In December we look up into nebulous murk.

In my Psychology class the book opens with new definitions for words that I already know. Why give all new meanings to ordinary words? I’m angry at the book. I walk on the edges of the school grounds where no one can see me.

Almost everyone else has closed the blue-lined exam notebooks. I’m hunched over mine working the essays, trying to find the idea that will gather all the pieces together, an original solution to my dilemma. Plainly I have no habits for persistence. Or a specific goal.  Or maybe it is something else.

My eyes feel huge inside my head.

The flypaper’s there

My sophomore roommate Ellen with light curly hair, is placid and pretty. Ellen is the only one who knows that I am crying every day. The flypaper’s there. It’s hanging in the corner of a cozy room.

“¿Qué te pasa, Marlena?” Mami’s on the other side of the pay phone.  


 It’s easy to fly to it. It’s a comforting place. When I don’t have you contrasting me, Mami, what will I be? 

Marlena Maduro Baraf  author of her memoir At the Narrow Waist of the World,

Marlena Maduro Baraf is a writer, poet, and retired designer. She immigrated to the United States from her native Panama and is drawn to words that illustrate different perspectives: Hybrid, Hyphenated. Bilingual. Multicultural. Synthesis. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine, Lilith, Huffpost, Night Heron Barks, On the Seawall, Poets Reading the News, and others. What are reasons people leave one homeland for another? How does digging deep into another culture help us grow?

Marlena blogs at

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