Naihobe Gonzalez


Naihobe Gonzalez is an emerging Venezuelan-American writer living in Oakland, California. She is a fellow of the San Francisco Writers Grotto and Kearny Street Workshop’s Interdisciplinary Writers Lab and an alumna of the Tin House Summer Workshop. She holds a Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University and conducts policy research when she’s not writing.

Becoming Oz


It was Oswaldo’s first car ride in America—though he didn’t call it that yet. “America” still referred to whole continents. This new country where he had just arrived was Estados Unidos, or E.E.U.U. when abbreviated, or as his mother sometimes called it, Gringolandia.

Oswaldo looked out the taxi window. After leaving the airport, the landscape had yielded to a never-ending forest of dead trees, bare branches blurring together as the car sped past. Oswaldo had never seen a dead tree, much less thousands. 

The clock read 4:40; it seemed impossible that the sun was already setting.

His mother sat to his left, her head tilted back. He wanted to ask her why this dry, gray place didn’t look like the movies (except maybe the horror films he wasn’t allowed to watch), but something told him to keep his thoughts to himself. Instead, he focused on reading the road signs, so neat with their white lettering against an emerald background—the only bright hue around. Oswaldo saw words he’d never seen before, not even in English class: Lenexa, Olathe, Gardner, Egerton. He touched the window. The glass felt cold and wet.

By the time the taxi got off the highway and came to a stoplight, the handprint he’d left on the glass had disappeared. A man on a motorcycle pulled up next to them, his face shielded by a helmet. The red light shone in the darkness like a warning. 

Oswaldo watched the man, counting down the seconds for the light to turn green, thinking back to the time when a different man on a different motorcycle had tapped on the window of his mother’s car with the barrel of a gun and yanked a gold chain from her neck, leaving a delicate bruise on her skin for days. They had never stopped at a deserted red light again. 

To his right, the man had turned towards him and was now tucking his hand inside his jacket. 

“There’s a guy on a moto with a gun!” he said inside his mother’s ear. Before she could reply, Oswaldo tackled her down onto the seat, shielding her as best as he could with his small but growing body. Gently, she led him upright and wrapped her arms around him. Oswaldo couldn’t read her expression, couldn’t know he had just validated her decision to abandon their old selves and start a new life in a quiet Kansas town. 

“Everything’s fine, amor,” she said, just as the taxi and motorcycle drove off. “We’re not in Venezuela anymore.”


Everything was different in Oswaldo’s new school. Rulers. Dates. Maps. Even on the multiplication problems he aced, only he crossed his 7s and underscored his 1s. In those first weeks of school, Oswaldo stood at the Pledge of Allegiance mouthing the words he thought he heard. He shrugged apologetically when his classmates asked him “what” he was. He copied their movements during tornado drills. He pretended he didn’t mind eating his deviled ham sandwiches alone, even after a freckled kid named Kyle announced from the head of the cafeteria table that deviled ham looked like dog food. “Dog” and “food” were two words Oswaldo knew. 

What Oswaldo hated most, though, was how people said his name.

“Oz-wall-dough,” Ms. King had said on his second first day of fourth grade.


“Oz-wall-dough,” she’d repeated with a beatific smile, though nothing had changed. 

Everyone seemed unable to imitate the sounds he patiently offered them, inserting warbling consonants and drawn out vowels where there were none. Then one morning, Kyle came up with a joke during roll call, and Oswaldo would never be called by his name again.

“Ms. King, Ms. King,” he’d said. “You should ask ‘where’s Waldo.’ Get it?’” 

The class tittered as soon as they laid eyes on Oswaldo. Even Ms. King seemed to smile. Oswaldo understood the words, but not why they were funny. 

“He’s even got the same sweater,” another boy said. His friends laughed, and although Oswaldo still didn’t understand why, he was now certain they were laughing at him. 

“That’s why I said it, dummy,” Kyle said. “Right, Waldo?”

That afternoon, Oswaldo finally asked his mother the question he’d wanted to ask since they’d ridden away from the airport.

“Why did we move here?”

His mother was sitting on the narrow bed they shared searching for jobs. She didn’t look like herself, swallowed by a shapeless sweatshirt and sweatpants, her bitten nails sticking out of fingerless gloves. She had been complaining that the heating was drying out her skin, but Oswaldo wondered whether that was the reason why the heating hardly ever roared on.

“Give it time, amor,” she said, without looking up from their old laptop. 

Oswaldo decided he would get her attention.

“I want to go home,” he said, taking his time with each word.

His mother raised her gaze. 

“We came here for a better life for you. Give it time.”

Oswaldo knew there were problems back home, but at least their lives had been whole there. They hadn’t been without Abuelita and Tía and Pedro Luis and Marco and la Señorita Ana, or without a language that made the world make sense, or without beaches and mountains and music and laughter that made you feel connected to something beautiful, so that you could try to forget everything else that wasn’t. Oswaldo felt betrayed. America was supposed to be the best country in the world. That’s what he’d assumed from years of watching American fantasies on TV while adults complained about inflation and crime in the next room. What was so great about a cold, quiet place where everything and everyone looked the same?

“But why here?” He asked.

“Because Magaly was already here and could help us out while we get on our feet.”

“Why was Magaly here?”

His mother paused.

“Because her cousin was already here and could help her.”

“But why would they—.”

“That’s enough for now. Don’t you have any homework to do?”

Oswaldo sat down on the carpeted floor and took out a worksheet on mixed numbers, the only thing he’d understood all day. Just as he started to write his name at the top, his pen pierced the paper, leaving a single blue dot on the beige carpet, as small and solitary as he felt. Oswaldo spit on his fingers and rubbed at the stain, which then expanded into an inky blob. 

“Mami,” he said, almost a whisper. 

Seeing his mother on her hands and knees moments later, frantically scrubbing the carpet while muttering “Oswaldo, this isn’t our house, you have to be extra careful,” he wished they could be transported back to their sunny apartment with the smooth granite floors he had grown up playing on. But it was the way she said his name, more mournful than angry, that finally made him cry.


The summer before middle school, Oswaldo and his mother moved into their own apartment. It was in a different school zone, but that was just as well. By the end of fifth grade, Oswaldo had made few friends, and they all called him Waldo. The joke had stuck for almost two years, not just because it had been funny, as he’d later realized, but because the new name had been more familiar to everyone. 

Even as he learned English and earned good grades and did all the things his mother kept saying he should do, Oswaldo’s hope of going back home, where he could be himself again, still smoldered. But he tried to keep quiet for the sake of his mother, who had become slow to smile and quick to scold. Although he hadn’t liked it so much then, Oswaldo now wished she would have friends over to drink anís and talk politics and dance salsa like before. But she never did. She had lost something too, yet was as committed to staying in America as ever, and when Oswaldo complained about how boring their new lives were (and “boring” stood for so many more things he wasn’t prepared to articulate, not even in Spanish), she would say, “I’d rather have a boring life and see you grow up healthy and safe.” 

One time he’d replied: “And what about happy?” 

Her nose had turned pink as she blink-blink-blinked, and she’d said to please give it time before growing quiet. Oswaldo wished he could take back what he’d said. But just when he thought she wasn’t going to say anything more about it, she’d sighed and said that if he was still miserable, she would consider letting him live with his grandmother when he was a little older. She had squeezed his shoulder and made him promise he would try harder, and Oswaldo had nodded, hardly hearing anything she’d said after that.

One of the things she’d said was that she was signing him up for a summer baseball league. The following week, she dropped him off for his first practice. Oswaldo was the first one there, except for a man raking the field. He looked as if he had once been in shape, though a tucked-in polo and leather belt now held in a paunch. He waved to Oswaldo and started walking over to him. Oswaldo swallowed. New people could mean new diction, jokes, and idioms he might not understand. 

“Hey there, I’m Coach K,” the man said, stretching his right hand out to Oswaldo and wiping the sweat from his face with his left. A pair of strapped-on sunglasses hung from his pink, wrinkled neck. 

“My name is Oswaldo Ramírez. I’m sorry I am early.”

“What’d you say your name was, again?”


“Righty-oh. It’s good to meet ya. Where you from?” Oswaldo could feel himself being scrutinized, but he didn’t mind. He was proud to give his answer. “No kiddin’,” Coach K replied. “Venezuela. Any chance you’re named after Ozzie Guillén?” 

In Coach K’s mouth, the name sounded exotic, like a famous composer or physicist. Oswaldo shook his head in the noncommittal way he’d mastered for times when he didn’t understand something but felt too embarrassed to admit it. But Coach K was undeterred. He unclipped his cell phone from his belt and began to type. A moment later, he pointed to a picture of a man wearing a White Sox uniform.

“Ah,” Oswaldo said. “Oswaldo Ozzie Guillén. The Venezuelan baseballer.”

Coach K chuckled and slapped him on the back.

“We got ourselves a new Ozzie, then. Welcome to the team.”


In just weeks, Oswaldo relearned the English words he’d once learned in Spanish. Béisbol became baseball, jonrón became home run, ampáyer became umpire, and the other boys didn’t make fun of him as his tongue made the transition. On the sandlot, foul lines met at home plate and extended out perpendicular from each other, bending and joining to create an enclosure inside which the boys became a team. The weather also brought them together. Playing summer baseball in a dusty, landlocked state was misery, but it was shared misery. 

And then there was Coach K, always smiling. Because of his mother’s work schedule, Oswaldo came to practice early on most days, helping Coach K prepare the field for practice. And when his mother couldn’t pick him up on time, Coach K took him home in his titanic pickup truck, familiarity building between them on each ride. Near the end of the summer, Oswaldo finally asked him what his real name was, the question he’d wondered since the day Coach K had introduced himself.

“John Kaczmarczyk,” Coach K replied. “At your service.” 

Oswaldo was quiet, too embarrassed to ask Coach K to repeat himself. But just like that first day, Coach K seemed to understand something in Oswaldo’s silence, and he shimmied his wallet out of his front pocket to show Oswaldo his driver’s license. Oswaldo stared at the name—John Henry Kaczmarczyk—and counted the number of vowels.

“Does everybody call you Coach K?” He asked, handing back the wallet.

“My wife calls me John. My kids call me Dad. Some people just call me Coach.” 

“Where is your name from?” Oswaldo asked. Perhaps he was asking too many questions, but there was nothing in Coach K’s demeanor that made him want to stop. 

“It’s Polish. From Poland.”

“Are you from Poland?” 

“Nope, never even been there. But I suppose you could say I’m Polish-American. Third generation. Meaning—like your children, or I guess grandchildren—they’ll be third generation.”

“I want my children to be born in Venezuela,” Oswaldo said. It was something he said instinctively, simply because it was impossible to imagine that the generations that would come after him would have no memory of the place he still thought of as home.

Coach K laughed, stopping only once he saw that Oswaldo had crossed his arms.

“Sorry, Ozzie. That’s just an odd thing for an 11-year-old to say. Tell me, why would you want that? It doesn’t sound too good there.”

Oswaldo shrugged. It was at once too easy and too difficult to explain.


On the first day of middle school, all of the boys wore the sun’s imprint on their faces, their bronzed athleticism giving them a shared visual identity. Besides that, it was their sense of comfort with each other at a time of peak social awkwardness that helped make them aspirational and therefore instantly popular. In P.E., they were either the first to get picked or the ones doing the picking. In the lunchroom, they moved and sat and ate in packs. That year, Oswaldo got a taste of what it felt like to exclude others, and he was ashamed of how much he liked it. 

It was a similar feeling when he rode home with Coach K after practice. From the perch of the F-250, Oswaldo could see inside other cars from an angle that almost felt too intimate, could see the trash people kept in their cup holders, the cell phones they stuck between their thighs, their preening in their rearview mirrors. And yet he never forgot that the truck he looked down from did not belong to him. 

Oswaldo was ashamed, too, of the embarrassment he felt when his mother picked him up wearing her work uniform. Was ashamed of how hearing all three crisp syllables of his name called out around others felt like it was his mother who was saying it wrong. Was ashamed that he preferred to ride home with Coach K than with her. Even when it was just his mother and him, though, there was shame. Of how he rushed their weekly calls with his grandmother, how he hated to hear his mother ask her whether she was sure she had enough to eat, how he tuned out the Venezuelan news shows his mother always had on in the background. 

He never wanted to become Waldo again, and even as another and then another year went by, the fear never left him. At first, he had wanted to dissolve into the crowd. But over time, as his skin absorbed all the shame until he almost couldn’t tell it was there, he wanted to be seen. Like when Coach K chose him as his leadoff hitter over his teammate Mikey. Or when the high school varsity coach came to watch a game. Or when he got his first real crush. 


Oswaldo almost didn’t go on the eighth grade field trip, for reasons that made no sense to him. Even if it wasn’t his mother’s fault that she couldn’t afford the overnight stay at the zoo (of course it wasn’t her fault, he told himself), Oswaldo thought she didn’t have to stand in front of his bed yelling that he was forbidden from going while waving the check Coach K had given him in the air like it was some illicit object she had caught him with. Oswaldo was giving up on understanding his mother or being understood by her. 

And yet—he had managed to change her mind that morning by threatening to stay in Venezuela when they visited that summer, waving the promise she had made to him years before the same way she had waved Coach K’s check at him. 

Oswaldo boarded the bus and took the back row for himself. The fight with his mother, and the prospect that it would resume when he got back, had darkened his mood. But that all changed when Mackenzie walked all the way down the aisle and sat down next to him. It was electric, being so close to her and being seen so close to her. 

The bus took off, leaving behind Oswaldo’s mother. He looked out the window for miles, wiping his palms on his pant legs, wondering what he could say. They were riding down the same highway he and his mother had taken from the airport years before, but in the opposite direction. The trees and signs no longer held any wonder for him, though; they just were. Strip malls and fast food chains repeated themselves in steady intervals. Beyond the highway, there were rows of identical houses lined with greige aluminum siding, the kind like Coach K’s, with formal and informal versions of the same rooms. 

Mackenzie leaned toward him, her silky hair smelling of sweet cucumber, and pointed at one of the road exits. 

“My aunt lives in Shawnee,” she said. 

The first thought that crossed Oswaldo’s mind was to tell her about his aunt, who lived on an island called Margarita, in a town called Juan Griego, famous for its sunsets that made the sky look like the end of days. Maybe he could explain how much he was looking forward to going to Venezuela, but how he’d wanted it for so long, to go home, it made him nervous that it was finally happening, that he might actually want to stay there and never play varsity baseball or see his friends or Coach K or Mackenzie again. But he couldn’t say any of that. 

“That’s cool,” he said instead, his voice a deep squeak.

He pretended to look at the scenery outside, even though all of his senses were focused on the cell phone Mackenzie had taken out. A moment after she stopped typing, he heard giggling a few rows ahead. A ponytailed girl turned around and rested her chin on the back of her seat. 

“Hey, Oz.” It was Mackenzie’s friend Kat. “I got a question for you.”

He was aware of Mackenzie shaking her head and of his friends’ quiet anticipation around him. 

“Wassup?” Oswaldo said, bracing himself for a question he couldn’t answer. It happened less frequently now, but there were still words like musty and fruity and janky that weren’t in books or on TV and would leave him feeling exposed.

“What kinda girls do you like?” Kat asked. Oswaldo understood the words, but not what was behind them. He made a face he hoped would make her feel stupid even though that was precisely how she was making him feel. But Kat ran her tongue over her braces and continued. “You know, like—do you like white girls? Black girls? Mexican girls?”

He’d never thought about it like that. He knew he liked Mackenzie and Mackenzie was white, in the American sense, and anyway, those weren’t the only options. But he couldn’t say that either. 

“How do you know he likes girls?” Mikey said from the other side of the aisle.

While his heartbeat echoed in his ears, Oswaldo’s brain sent a signal to his lips, immediate, strong, without a single intermittent step of translation.

“Don’t be mad ‘cause girls don’t like you, Mikey.”

It wasn’t a clever comeback, but the quickness and conviction of its delivery helped it land with the back-of-the-bus crowd, who oohed in response. To his surprise, Owaldo had come out on top. But Mikey wasn’t done.

“Whatever, Oz-wall-dough. Why don’t you go back to your shithole country?”

There was a mixture of laughter and silence this time, though Oswaldo only heard the laughter, loud and resonant.

“Don’t mind him,” Mackenzie said, rolling her eyes. When Oswaldo met her gaze, her cheeks burned bright under her too-dark makeup. It was almost enough to distract him from the shame seeping out of his skin. Almost enough to convince him that if she had shrugged it off, so should he. But it wasn’t enough. He wished at once that they all knew how Venezuela was far more beautiful than Kansas and that he hadn’t been born there in the first place.   

The bus rolled on through a flat horizon, not unlike an ocean except on land, asphalt twinkling in the sun just as water would, forming mirages.


The journey to Venezuela seemed to really start in Miami, where the airport announcements and conversations between passengers switched over to that specific sing-song Spanish that was making Oswaldo’s insides vibrate like a tuning fork. But after years of soaking up English, his body was almost too full for its sweet sound. When he wanted cran-apple juice he had to settle for asking the flight attendant for manzana con cranberry. When he wanted to tell his mother that the clouds outside looked just like marshmallows, he searched for the Spanish word for so long that the clouds had cleared, revealing the Caribbean Sea below, by the time he’d given up. 

Oswaldo wondered how it was possible he could see the ocean waves from all those thousands of feet up in the sky. He wondered: had cranberries and marshmallows not existed before? He wondered about how much this trip had cost them—not just his mother, with her extra shifts and used-up savings, but Oswaldo too. Coach K had been disappointed that he was going away for the entire summer, missing early practice for the high school varsity team. And Mackenzie—well, she had broken up with him. Aside from the loss—of a spot on the varsity team, of his first girlfriend—it was how they had made him feel bad for wanting to go home that he carried with him.  

Meanwhile, his mother leafed through the in-flight magazine without actually looking at its glossy pages. She held his arm when they began the descent to Maiquetia. She stood tall and straight when the immigration officer asked why Oswaldo’s passport was expired. She elbowed her way to the front of the baggage carousel so they could grab their bags before anyone else. 

Suddenly, Oswaldo remembered standing around those same carousels when he was a little kid, on the way back home from visiting his aunt in Margarita. He remembered picturing himself hopping onto its gliding belt and riding around in circles, thinking it might be scary but also fun. He remembered his mother’s watchful eye, his abuelita’s winking. Nothing had felt foreign to him then. The gap between that memory and the present made him feel like he was spying on someone else’s childhood. Whatever happened to that little boy named Oswaldo? The years that separated him from Oz were magnified by the different lives they had lived in that time span. 

Oswaldo tried to dig into that memory but found a shallow hole. He was still digging when he got into the floorless backseat of a taxi. 

“Sorry about that,” the driver said, glancing at the exposed steel below Oswaldo’s feet.

They took off, the windows rolled down, ocean winds buffeting palms and planes before hitting their faces. As they drove up and away from the coast, the road curved through leafy mountains. The asphalt was filled with potholes and blood. Oswaldo looked at the withering faces of people standing in the back of cattle trucks and the withering flowers on roadside memorials. He didn’t remember seeing anything like that before. He did remember the slums that started to appear the closer they got to the city, teetering on hills, beside roads, atop tunnels. But they seemed sadder to him now under the weight of their blue water tanks and upturned satellite dishes, framed by greenery that burst through cinder blocks, defying death.

“Your head looks like a floor fan, left to right, right to left,” the driver said. He laughed as he looked at Oswaldo from the rearview mirror. “How long have you been away?” 

“Five years in Gringolandia,” his mother answered.

The driver stared ahead and nodded for some time.

“A lot has changed since then,” he said, just as they entered a tunnel.

It was dark and loud inside, the air thick, a sudden shock. Oswaldo felt nauseous, eager to come out on the other side already, but the tunnel went on and on. They passed a tow truck towing another tow truck. An SUV with windows so dark he could only see a reflection of himself when he tried to look inside it. The question he would ask himself for years to come first occurred to him inside that tunnel, just as his stomach inverted itself, thrusting up years of homesickness with it. 

If there was no place like home, where might that be?

©The Acentos Review 2020