Vida, by Patricia Engel, is a story that deals with, among other things, ideas of agency, responsibility to oneself, and responsibility to others. Although the story is told through Sabina’s eyes, the drive of the story comes from the desire to learn as much about Vida as possible. And as Sabina learns about Vida, she discovers that she really is two people: the person she was in Colombia and the person she is in Miami. I argue that the ocean represents the division between these two parts of her life: sometimes it is an un-crossable boundary, and at other times it is fluid, allowing Vida to access parts of her past. Like tides on a shore, the ocean pulls on Vida in opposite directions periodically throughout the story. It physically separates her from her life in Colombia but also connects her to the freedom of childhood.
The most obvious reading of the ocean in Vida is as a symbol for separation. Both Vida’s arrival from and return to Colombia are marked by ocean imagery. Within the first paragraph of the story Sabina, the narrator, relays what she knows about Vida: “In Colombia she was never called anything but her given name, [Davida,] but over here Vida stuck, which she said was okay with her because that plane ride over the Caribbean broke her life in two,” (119). The imagery of Vida’s life splitting in two does not just refer to the physical separation of life in Colombia from her life in Miami. I read her change from Davida to Vida as evidence that during this split it is not just her surroundings that change, but her internal world as well. The transition from Davida to Vida is a beautiful play on words. The imagery of breaking life in two directly parallels the act of breaking her name, which means life, in two. Both the plane ride and the Caribbean itself are credited with causing this break, as if the water creates both a physical and emotional boundary between her two lives.
This symbolism returns at the end of the story during Vida’s return to Colombia. While describing the process of helping Vida, Sabina expresses her fear that, if anything were to keep Vida from returning to Colombia, it would be the ocean. “I insisted to Papi that he book her a direct flight, no layover in Miami. I was afraid the sight of the ocean might blow her off course. It happens to the best of us,” she says (144). Sabina worries that so much as seeing the ocean might make the break between here and there insurmountable for Vida. This time, the ocean is not formidable for the physical boundary that it creates, but for some emotional or mystic power that it seems to hold over Vida.
The power it holds over her is complex, but seems to be rooted in joy. During a scene about Vida’s many nuanced smiles, Sabina describes the rare, truly joyful smiles, saying, “sometimes a sunrise ripped across her face and she smiled like it was going to save her life. Like at the beach or when she spoke of her family,” (131). Despite the fact that the ocean separates Vida from her family, it seems to be the only thing, other than speaking about her family, that brings her true happiness. The ocean and Vida’s life in Colombia are somehow linked. Perhaps this is because it is at the ocean that Vida gets to taste the freedom she hasn’t had since she left her home and her childhood.
Not often in the story does Vida get to make choices for herself. First she is depicted as an attachment to Sacha, then, as Sabina explores her past, Vida describes the choices made for her by her mother, then by Fito, then finally by her captors who held her under their thumb at the brothel. But when Vida does have agency in the story, often she chooses to go to the beach.
The first time that Vida and Sabina spend time together alone, Sabina expects to go out for dinner or drinks but “Vida only wanted to go to the beach, even started begging me to take her there like I was her mother or something…[she] pulled off her sandals and ran toward the water, went in up to her knees and splashed around in the foam. I sat on the sand and watched her lose herself, shouting things at the clouds,” (123). The first notable thing about this passage is the urgency of Vida’s tone when asking to go to the beach. In just the paragraph before she is described as neat and reserved, “almost looking like a private school girl who got lost in the wrong neighborhood,” (123). But she becomes impatient and childlike when she asks about the beach, “begging [Sabina] to take her there like she was her mother.” This reversion to childlike nature is unlike the Vida who, elsewhere in the story, makes Sabina feel like the younger of the two despite being years younger. Once at the beach, Vida runs with abandon through the water and sand as if she were a child. She “loses herself” and is oblivious of Sabina – everything she does there is for herself. This reversion to childhood habits suggests that there is a link between the ocean and Vida’s old life.
Despite the fact that there is no ocean in Bógota, it makes sense that the ocean might connect Vida to her past. The ocean is immense: it is open for miles and miles. Vida states that, even after living in Miami for two years “she still couldn’t grasp the immensity of the ocean,” (124). Perhaps the contrast of this expansiveness against the physical confines of her room in the brothel and the emotional confines of her life with Sacha connects Vida to a sense of freedom when she is near the ocean. At the ocean, she has freedom: she can use her body the way she wants, she can be loud, and she can experience joy. Given that these are all things experiences attached to a childhood before prostitution and before Sacha, it is not surprising that the ocean is somehow connected to her past.
This connection to the past comes up again in her relationship to the clouds at the beach. As she “loses herself” Vida begins “shouting things at the clouds”. Although this shouting could simply be a celebratory affirmation, there is something about it that conjures up images of ritual or bargaining with a higher power. It is almost as though she could be shouting at the sky, cursing fate for the lot that she’s been handed. This imagery returns again on Sabina and Vida’s next trip to the beach. Sabina describes the two of them “stretched across towels in [their] bikinis…[Vida] stared into the sky as if she could see her whole history projected into the clouds like a movie screen,” (132). Although this is Sabina’s description, not Vida’s, it again calls up the idea that Vida can access her past through the ocean and the sky above it. This is why she wants to return again and again.
All of this is complicated in the moments in which Sacha and the ocean collide. First, there is the night that Vida, Sabina, Sacha, and The Boyfriend take a bottle of wine to the beach. “Normally, Vida loved the beach, but with Sacha and the boyfriend there she seemed indifferent. [Sacha] blew her a kiss and she stared back under a veil that looked a lot like contempt,” (137). In this moment, it is as though Sacha’s presence nullifies the power of the ocean. Perhaps when he is there Vida is reminded that, in fact, she does not have agency. That the freedoms afforded by the ocean are just a distraction from the truly limited nature of life with Sacha.
The juxtaposition of the ocean with the boundaries that limit Vida’s life in Miami comes up again when she describes her first introduction to the ocean. She says that, after a particularly bad beating at the brothel, Sacha put her on his bike and drove her to the ocean. “He carried me into the water. At first it stung but then I opened my eyes and saw the sea in front of me, all around me…He held me so I could float, didn’t talk so I could listen to only the waves. And when he returned me to the house…I thought, it’s not his fault that he is so cruel,” (138). This is a complex passage that introduces many nuances to the ocean metaphor. First, there is the ocean as healer – when the doctor is negligent towards Vida, saltwater is the best medicine she has. Next there is imagery of childhood and baptism – Sacha carries Vida into the water as though she were a child. What I am most interested in, however, is the mention of cruelty at the end of the passage. Never before or after this scene does Vida explicitly describe Sacha as cruel or show contempt for him. She does not vilify him for working at the brothel or for not helping her escape sooner. It is only after he gives her a taste of freedom and then takes it away that Vida describes Sacha as cruel.
In this passage, it seems clear that the comfort Vida derives from the ocean makes her long for it in the same way that she longs for her life before Miami. The ocean, once again, is synonymous with freedom, and there for connected to her past. The ocean is a contradictory force in Vida’s life. It is simultaneously the biggest physical obstacle to her return home, and it is the representation of freedom and agency that best mimics her life before Miami.