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Sara Brenes-Akerman
A Likely Story

Credit: Sara Brenes-Akerman , Sara Brenes-Akerman

Fidel Gamboa died on August 28th. It is hard for me to explain what this means to anyone who doesn’t find the sentence striking at first glance. In short, it was a tragedy of epic proportions. He was an astonishing musician, by all accounts a great man and someone who cherished his home.

I was born in San José, the capital city of a smallish country with the ability to be both beautiful and ugly, at once welcoming and chaotic. Despite growing up abroad, I was raised in the ’90s listening to Britney, the Backstreet Boys and Alanis — which is to say that I had the pop musical upbringing of most any American little girl.

And then I grew up a little and left. At the airport, on my way to my freshman year at Penn, I decided to stop by the overpriced souvenir shop and grab a present for my soon-to-be roommate. An album by a group called Malpaís— the musical project for which Gamboa served as the major creative force — was the pick. I ultimately decided to keep it for myself.

The band was named after a beach in the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. It is no coincidence that Malpaís took its name from a geographical spot — an extremely picturesque one at that — given the centrality of birthplace in the imagery of its lyrics. Along with landscape, they took it upon themselves to take childhood, nostalgia, rainy afternoons and popular wisdom and turn it into something that was at once recognizable, completely new and consistently astounding.

Malpaís managed to bring into focus, for me, the certainty that there was something in folklore to be deeply cherished. Its members made it cool to be Costa Rican and even cooler to value it. It became about knowing where you came from and owning it day in and day out. Gamboa was many things to many people. I personally was profoundly thankful to him for nourishing my sense of belongingness through beautiful music.

We all have a Malpaís, a San José or a place to which we belong to despite how far away from it we might be or how disconnected from it we might feel.

We mourn places more often than we mourn people. As someone who travels back and forth fairly regularly, I have experienced first-hand the fear that comes with feeling that your surroundings shape you in ways that are far more powerful than what you would otherwise choose to allow. There is a duality that comes from having lived in multiple cities that brings into question the sustainability of a constant identity in a changing environment. At a school where 83 percent of the undergraduate student body is made up of out-of-state students, I am sure that I am not alone in this.

What’s more, many of us do not want to go back home and the question of what this means in the larger-than life meaning of things is bound to show up every now and again. If there’s anything to be learnt from Malpaís, it’s that this is a question worth asking relentlessly.

The day after Fidel Gamboa passed away, I had the very distinct feeling, or fear, that my country was a worse country because of his absence. That I belonged to it, or it to me, a little bit less. Today, his voice continues to pour out of my iPod and, as he is mourned by thousands a few thousands of kilometers south of Philadelphia, I remain as grateful as ever for what he did for the place I was born to call home.

Sara Brenes-Akerman is a College senior from Costa Rica. Her email address is A Likely Story appears every other Thursday.

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