Author’s Note: Something fairly big happened in our immigration journey in the past few months, news that, given how much of a watershed moment it represents, I really would have expected myself to have shared sooner. And yet, for reasons I explore below, I have been mulling over how to share, or perhaps unconsciously putting off the sharing. Several years ago when we were writing Amor and Exile, and I had more time to figure out how to write about and share my experience; and it wasn’t as difficult to simply give myself the creative space for my story to bubble forth. Nowadays, finding time for reflection, or taking an idea and expanding it, is a rare luxury. But given this new development, I’ve kept asking myself, what can I say about this? It’s hard to know what to say when you’re still getting your bearings. But then good ol’ Fourth of July approached, stirring memories and feelings about the US of A, and soon after emerged a question, the answer to which is at the heart of where we stand for the next few years. This is a work in progress, friends.
* * *
A art therapist colleague of mine once told me about a favorite piece of writing advice she’d once received: “write what you want to know.”
I want to know: “how can I, a person who rarely takes no for an answer, who has fought and won many battles, campaigns, and endured daily struggles, who knows what she wants and how to get it, whose nickname is ‘stubborn,’ ‘thorough,’ and whose very name means leader of the people; how can I be stuck in this multiyear limbo… how can I be on the cusp of the very opportunity for freedom that we ostensibly have been seeking for the last 16 years… how can I finally have arrived at the moment of truth, the time to move forward, the chance to capitalize; and yet, all I can seem to do is ponder the possibility.
Wouldn’t it seem that, after 10 (closer to 11 now) years of exile that I’d at least have gotten the pondering out of the way? Or was it that I was so protective of my heart, after how badly it’d been hurt previously, after those first years of lawyer visits, that I wouldn’t even allow myself to entertain the possibility of a door opening, couldn’t let myself be deluded into the idea that a future back in the U.S. could be possible, lest it be a cruel joke, as it has been for so many people, and could very easily be for us?
And yet now, it seems one nod has been given, the I-130 sort. I’m not even sure exactly what it means. Yes, you (to Margo), we acknowledge you claim you may have the right to a spouse visa based on the claim that you are married to an American. Is that what that means? That doesn’t include the several dozen other steps yet to be taken en route to the (still) possible visa (never a guarantee, even after paying the rest of the estimated costs for the whole application process, approx. 7500 USD – and that’s more than half of what I make in a year now to support our whole family, even as an employee of the US embassy).
And so, just like that, a new reality, a door has opened, and now a decision must be made. Or so it seems. And so the idealistic leader who got this whole ball rolling in the first place looks at the troops and says, “what are you all waiting for?” But the spiteful little girl, the one who thought, you didn’t want to play with me, so now I’m going to ignore you, is sulking in the shadows. The worn-out working mom who’s been pulling 50 hour work weeks regularly just wants to veg on the couch. The incessant reader of sensationally negative news about the racially charged violence in the U.S. is cowering indoors, freaked about the potential harm she could lead her family into with a move back to the States, not unlike the fear some Americans experience upon absorbing negative press about Mexico (whether that’s a well-founded fear or not is up for debate at another date). The ever-skeptical accountant who takes one look at the scant balance sheet and shakes her head, catching the glance of the ever-practical logistics planner, who folds her arms over her chest and sighs, imagining the gargantuan tasks ahead to relocate a family all the while aligned with the intricacies of an unpredictable immigration application process ultimately leading to a job search for a rather scattered boss who’s been out of her home nation for 11 yrs.
And hence, the conductor has her hand on the chain, wanting to blow that whistle, but the VIP passengers haven’t quite made it onto the train, which is still idling in the station.
Yes, we are idling in limbo, and I’d really like to know why. Uncle Sam, it is because you (inadvertently, I’ll allow you – I’m still that forgiving) forced out one of your own with friendly fire and she’s spent too much time and energy healing her wounds in a foreign land to be able to come home? Or is it that lovely México has truly seduced me with all her charms and I am now hopelessly under her spell? Is it possible that I couldn’t have foreseen that in the end, it would be a little of both?
* * *
And just like that, the I-130 was approved. And now I, a daughter of liberty, am attempting to summon the metaphorical troops, to brave what’s next. Whether that’s figuring how in sam hell we are going to afford this, whether our chances of waiver approval are the best or not, whether it’s the wisest investment to make when we have so little to invest, whether my family can bounce back from the pinball effect of the last twenty years of international migration, whether I really know my country anymore, whether I can or have to or will ever be able to or should let go of Mexico after seeing me through and providing me refuge and sustenance during some pretty dark times in the last eleven years, or whether I can ever forgive my country for being the main cause of all this mind-bending anguish in the first place, and whether the moment will ever arrive where the fireworks of happiness and relief rain down over us when we look back and say, “we’re done with this” …. whether that day will ever come, remains to be seen.
Submissions now closed. Thanks to all who participated!
America is, at its heart, a nation of immigrants.
In our book, Amor and Exile, we told the stories of American citizens whose lives spanned two nations because of their love for their partners from abroad. Their love rose above immigration laws, and their families have persevered in the face of increasingly punitive policies. In a world of migration and shifting borders, love, compassion, and respect for each other serve as bridges between nations and cultures. We, like many others, believe that spirit should remain at the heart of our foreign and domestic policy. Let’s reject hate, reach out to our neighbors, and embrace our roots as a nation.
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NOTE: Your reason for#BuildBridgesNotWalls could be as simple as a photo and story about your family, neighbor, or classroom (with permission, of course). Or, it could be an anecdote about your work, a paper you wrote, or a tale of your ancestry. Get creative and personalize your idea with an image that’s meaningful to you, share your name, and where you’re from (geographical location) – as much as you’re comfortable with sharing publicly.
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The trumpist barrage of immigration-related executive orders has come to resemble a wall of its own accord. Between the Muslim ban, halting refugee resettlement, expanding deportation criteria and ICE ranks and threats to cities that seek to protect their own residents, who needs border walls?
But border walls, at least, are porous, unlike the dense xenophobia emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The Israeli “Separation Barrier” or “Apartheid Wall” pictured above and below, which Trump loves, to be sure, is, as you can see, porous. I also crossed the line between East and West Jerusalem many times in the back of a work truck.
We know the border below, but does Trump have any idea how many people cross this border every hour? Does he have any notion of the interchange that happens between Juarez and El Paso — the culture and ideas and commerce and research that sustains the border region?
Does he know that walls are death sentences, that send migrants deeper into the desert? Or that walls are mere inconveniences, to be surmounted.
What is missing in Trump’s life that he wants to build more walls?
The people making these new policies for the U.S. — the band of white nationalists surrounding Trump and heading up his bureaucracies — choose walls, which is to say, they choose fear and isolation.
Walls, fences, barriers are symbols of failure. When we fail, we put up walls. Or land mines. Or drop cluster bombs. Is that the future we want for the southern U.S. Border?
We are about bridges. Building bridges between languages, cultures, nations and people. Because the whole world is just one narrow bridge. At least it was two weeks ago. But don’t be afraid.
“All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be overwhelmed by fear.” — Rev Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810)
The big day finally arrived, almost two weeks ago. September 18, 2016. Marking ten years since we drove across the border in Nogales, AZ. It now feels like ancient history.
I think I sort of imagined back then that on September 18, 2016, we would be hovering over a sheaf of papers, ready and waiting to urgently send in the famous waiver application that would pave the way for Margo (and our family) to return to the U.S., soon after to be whisked back to the U.S. to reestablish our interrupted lives there. In reality, the scene at present is much more complicated, and just plain different than what I had first pictured.
The actual September 18th, 2016 went more like this for us:
Back in the spring of this year, we finally submitted Margo’s I-130 application, which I wrote about in my first “the tenth year” post. Rather unceremoniously, our lawyer submitted the files to USCIS, USCIS acknowledged their receipt of the application, and we haven’t heard anything back since.
Rather than sitting around biting our nails, basically, life just went on. I still work at Peace Corps Mexico, and Margo still builds thing for local folks who have requests for custom furniture. Our daughter is still attending a little Montessori school that lets us bring cupcakes in to celebrate her birthday with her classmates, complete with a lovely circle around the sun ritual that marks every year since her birth.
In fact, the only reason why September 18 is normally celebrated in this house is not because it marks the day we crossed into Mexico, nor the anniversary of my Mexican naturalization (it really does share that date) – but rather that it’s our daughter’s birthday. Why fate would have chose to combine 3 such event all into one date is beyond my comprehension, but it did make for a rather pleasant celebration opportunity this year, especially given that we have more reasons to be grateful for our life here than we have complaints – leading to a profound lack of urgency to return to the States.
Being a plant person, I’ll use a botanical metaphor. After 10 years, favorable conditions have led to our growth as a family, and we’ve put down deep roots. In the plant world, transplanting can be risky business. If the plant and its roots have been neatly contained in a smooth, enclosed container, it’s fairly straightforward to move it to a larger container or plant it out into the ground. In fact, it’ll probably be happy for you to do so, especially if it was cramped before. But if a plant has been growing freely in the ground, its roots spreading deep and wide into the rich soil, intertwining with rocks and other plants’ roots, drawing up plenty of fresh water and nutrients and leafing broadly into the bright sunshine, it’s not going to take so kindly to your digging under it, pulling it up, and severing its roots. Often, the plant dies back considerably before taking off again in another place. Sometimes it never quite survives the transplant, and just withers. In other words, if the plant is flourishing, there’s got to be a really good reason for you to go for the transplant.
I’ve pulled up roots a few times now in my life, first when I left NY to go to CA, where I met Margo; and again when Margo and I left CA. Each time the pulling up roots itself was not so traumatic – perhaps the previous conditions left my roots feeling cramped or limited somehow, and so they were ready for an upgrade. But the transplant to Mexico was complex. At first, it felt like I’d gone from fertile to rocky soil, and I wilted a bit – for a couple years. But like the mesquite trees here who slowly, but surely send their roots deep down to the subsoil to find water after which they pull it up for others nearby to share, I dug deep down inside and found inner reserves that I wasn’t previously aware of – in the form of resolve, patience, and commitment. I also discovered nourishment all around me in México, in the form of a home of our own, friends, culture, a growing family, future colleagues, and the vast beauty of the natural environment.
Considering what’s been invested into my flourishing again, I probably shouldn’t be surprised at my own hesitation at visualizing such a big move again, especially when there are no guarantees as to the outcome.
So when everyone asks, “are you going back up to the States?” (now that the 10 year waiting period has passed), the first thought in my mind is honestly “why?” and then, “flojera” (Spanish for an almost self-indulgent laziness). I have to confess, there are a few other external factors that don’t help us chomp at the bit for a return bid; namely the cost (>$5,000 USD), this year’s Presidential race ( I definitely won’t make ANY moves until after we see the outcome on Nov. 8), and the police brutality situation (my family members are brown-skinned).
Still, the main pull to return has always been, and will continue to be, the distance from family. We make it work through visits, and when they happen they are truly enjoyable. My daughter seeing her grandparents (my parents) only twice a year and me seeing my brother on average only once a year is getting old fast. But a few conditions for a move that I’ve conjured up haven’t presented themselves yet, namely, forward movement on the visa application (it’s a matter of time and then money), getting the title to our home so we can sell before a move (it’s taking forever), and me finding a really amazing job that would make a move worthwhile (I haven’t been looking, since the visa piece takes longer).
If this is painting a convoluted, circular picture as to what logic I may or may not be applying to a move northward, it’s not accidental. An unseen force seems to be holding those roots fast in place for now.
I am acutely aware that a factor in my being able to stay ten years in Mexico was an initial Herculean effort to find contentment within the confines of a limited situation. Therefore, I want to inject a heathy dose of suspicion into my complacency (I’ve noticed it in myself in other areas of my life besides my thoughts on moving north), and keep it present to make sure I am not selling myself or my family short – but I haven’t quite figured out how to make sure that I’m not letting the difficult years here or the U.S. media cloud what hasn’t yet but might emerge as a dream of a life in the north.
Writing and reflecting on this question definitely helps a bit, but then when one who is prone to plant metaphors tries to type out a coherent explanation as to why she just might not know what she wants yet (in terms of where she sees herself in 5 years), and then her husband of 12 years sends her 6 year old into the house holding the first mature avocado that’s fruited from the 12″ sapling from the Sierra Gorda that she planted her yard 8 years ago, where in the background orange butterflies flit among dozens of wild sunflowers under the bright blue sky, well, answers to elusive questions seem just as hard to find as they’ve been for the last 10 years.
Ever since the 2016 U.S. presidential campaigns began, I have been diligently trying to ignore Donald Trump. Not wanting to give his campaign any free media time or attention, I have been treating it like a hemorrhoid or an ingrown toenail — something that annoys you, that you wish would go away, that you might briefly notice for the discomfort it’s causing you, but that you don’t or won’t invest chunks of time paying attention to for more than briefly due to the fact that it’s a — usually — inescapable human condition not worth worrying or doing anything about.
But there’s always a chance that that inoffensive mole you’ve been ignoring can morph into something more sinister and threatening, and that’s why we can never fully ignore some of these more banal little problems.
One of the things I like most about working for Peace Corps is the high percentage of open-minded people it attracts to its volunteer corps and workforce. As a member of PC/Mexico staff since 2013, I regularly receive emails regarding worldwide campaigns marking important events in the type of work Peace Corps volunteers do. The three main goals of Peace Corps, for anyone who hasn’t been a volunteer or staff before, are, loosely, 1) to provide technical assistance to host country nationals — colleagues of volunteers where they’re assigned, 2) spread awareness of American (U.S.) culture in their host country, and 3) to spread awareness of their host country culture back in the U.S. They call 3) the “Third Goal.” This week happens to be Third Goal week for Peace Corps globally.
Although I’ve never been a Peace Corps volunteer, in the past 10 years I’ve become intimately aware of the inherent challenges and opportunities involved with Third-Goal like awareness back home in the U.S. As a resident of Mexico for the last 10 years, as a dual citizen for five, and as the wife of 12 years of a formerly undocumented immigrant to the United States — a Queretaro native — I’ve inadvertently become an ambassador of Third Goal-like causes, specific to Mexico. Conversations with people back home, on planes, on Facebook, on our blog, regarding the book, our life here, everything counts toward the fact that Mexico — and my fellow Americans’ perceptions of it — have taken a prominent role in my life — if not center stage, then a grudging left central, every single day.
As the largest — and only, really — Peace Corps recipient country with whom the U.S. shares a border, Peace Corps Mexico volunteers have a unique situation in terms of Second and Third Goals, given the enormous historical and current relationship our two countries have culturally, geographically, economically, environmentally — the list of how our two nations are intertwined is gigantic. To volunteers’ good fortune, a good number of Americans are fairly aware of Mexico’s positive attributes — that’s probably a big reason why many apply to be volunteers in Mexico in the first place — but we can probably all agree that Third Goal awareness rarely extends deeply beyond Mexican food, tourism, or Spanish-language learning. Further awareness might include matters of history — territory lost by Mexico and gained by the Southwest — imports/exports, or immigration/emigration by both sides. Add some Mexican or Latino ancestry to the mix and an American might really be able to explain a thing or two about Mexico, its environment, and its people.
But on the whole, let’s not kid ourselves, to a great extent we are a product of what we read and know, and the majority of us get our information from the major media outlets. And because of this, and the fact that “gore sells,” the majority media message about Mexico, for those who are actively working to scrape beneath the surface, is about the security situation. Cartels, crime, and the drug trade. Sure, Mexico has got its fair share of problems. Hell, I am concerned about many of them, especially the economy. But the messages about Mexico in the U.S. media are often terribly biased, and most of the amazing things — some even better than the U.S., such as universal health care (Seguro Popular) — are simply not communicated. So at the end of the day, a lot of American people develop a disappointingly skewed view of Mexican society, one that’s at best uninformed, at worst sorely incorrect and/or prejudicial. This creates a real obstacle for anyone like myself, or a PC/Mexico volunteer, to propagating a more truthful and well-rounded view of Mexico and its society.
I’m fortunate to know a lot of folks who make it a point to be informed about issues that matter to them. Part of this is intentional, and part of this is due to the nature of my professional and social circles. Even when we did our book tour, I was expecting more heckling and trolls, but was overwhelmed by the amount of goodwill afforded by people in my audiences, people who are really consternated by the legal situation our family and millions are in. But what this means is that I don’t get into debates on a regular basis with folks who’ve fallen victim to xenophobia — although I know the potential exists.
Which brings me back to Donald Trump. He, on the other hand, has been very skillful at rallying the troops, pooling the masses of individuals who are attracted by his messages riddled with misinformation and oftentimes straight-out lies. One specific instance of this was brought to my attention when I received the following messages from my dear friend and fellow Cornellian, my former freshman-year roommate. Her otherwise rational coworker had told her that he thought that Trump’s lies and conspiracy theories about Mexico might be plausible.
When I read this, I thought, oh dear. What about this specifically concerns me? Is it the fact that a schoolteacher, someone who is tasked with educating children, is having this cognitive dissonance? Or is it that they can’t see why yes, he is racist (although the term white supremacist would probably fit better)? Am I disturbed that Donald Trump’s multiple allegations about diverse groups of people and nations — patently false and aggrandized — are pointed enough to stir genuine suspicion in the minds of otherwise rational people? Or that people would think that this is the approach that’s best suited for someone to hold the presidential office of the United States? I’m not really sure where to start.
But the short answer is yes, it is racist. But I’ll let some other passionate informed voices explain that one. And, no, the Mexican government does NOT ship its overflow prison population to cross the U.S. border. So please don’t lose anymore sleep about that. But if you need more information on that matter, here are some facts, as opposed to opinion:
The longer answer, however, I believe lies in the voices of folks who are familiar with the countries and peoples being hated on, and are appalled by such demeaning characterization. Folks such as Carmen, who, as a Mexican American, was pretty upset by Trump’s speech — watch Carmen’s video on BuzzFeed.
That also goes for expats living and working in Mexico, such as Peace Corps volunteers who are promoting Third-Goal awareness, or my dozens of other expat friends living and raising their families here. We cringe to think of what ramifications a Trump presidency could have on our two nations’ diplomacy, and in the wider world.
I could post dozens of links about how important Mexican foods, resources, culture, and immigrants have been to the U.S., its culture and its economy. I could post links about how infinitely bad of a diplomatic decision it would be to alienate Mexico and hundreds of other countries in the way that this inflammatory candidate has been having fun doing. But at the end of the day, am I reaching the people who really need to hear it? Can my words undo decades of misinformation and attrition for people who, collectively, will decide our country’s political fate this November? I don’t think I can do that by myself—I’m asking others who know better to raise their voices, use the powers of message framing, counter the abundant negative messages and misinformation, and share their alternative — and likely more truthful — views widely.
I posted this to one of the online immigration/exile wives support groups I’m a part of today:
“In our tenth year here, I’ve finally decided to start moving forward with Margo’s I-130 [Step 1 of a long and expensive legal immigration process for my husband]. I’m really busy with work so I’m having it done through Attorney Laura Fernandez. I’ve paid a little over a third of what it’ll cost in total (just made a deposit today). I should be able to pay the rest when I get my tax return. I’m not ready to do the waiver, I’m not in any hurry to move north (especially not if Trump gets elected), and we’re pretty settled and happy. But I don’t want to get in a rut, and I am feeling a pull to broaden our options. I want Margo to get his GED eventually, and he won’t do it here. I’m craving good better public education for my daughter, and she’ll need to live in the U.S. for some years to be able to transfer her U.S. citizenship to any future children. I miss crisp forests, rivers, and lakes. And I can afford it little by little now, so it can’t hurt.
I miss my family. They come to visit every year but that could get harder in the future. I wish my Grandma could see Margo again. I want to expand my own horizons. It’s going to have to be gradual, this turning this notion into a reality, because we’ve re-rooted here. I have a circle now. I have a home. But I’ve been meditating a lot on the idea that you don’t necessarily have to be unhappy to want to make a change.”
In our ninth year here, although I didn’t write much about it, I did a lot of thinking about my feelings of readiness to go forward with a visa waiver application. Even in the last few months, a lot of vacillation has occurred. So now, the act of taking one step, albeit small, feels like a watershed moment. This moment has been a long time coming, and even though I’m not as actively involved in immigration advocacy as I once was, it would feel odd to reach this stage and not share it. So here I am. I have a day job now, so I might finally learn the art of the short and sweet blog post after all.
Everyone is waiting with baited breath for the much-anticipated executive action to be announced by President Obama this evening at 8 pm. Everyone who sees immigration as an important issue, that is. My coauthor Nathaniel Hoffman described how most of immigration is a waiting game in Chapter 3 of Amor and Exile, The Binational Labryinth:
“Immigration to the United States, whether legal or illegal, is a waiting game. You wait to be eligible for a visa and then for your visa to be approved. Sometimes you wait five years or sixteen or twenty-three years for that visa. You wait three days to get deported or you wait a year for the immigration courts to clear their backlog before you get your hearing. You wait for your brother or your father to fill out the paperwork for you, for a letter back from the National Visa Center. You press two for Spanish and wait, on hold. You wait for a pardon. You wait and watch as Congress takes up immigration reform and drops it and takes it up again. You wait up at night for your loved ones to return home from work. You wait for dark to fall, for the floodlights to pass and then you run across the line and wait for transport. You wait for another mule with trunk space.”
Even if I were waiting, I wouldn’t even be able to listen in to the announcement, because I’ll be teaching English (I currently work nights) while it happens.
Part of me it not really waiting at all though. I was, for a few months. I wrote and circulated an open letter to President Obama in August when it became clear the plan for executive action was in the works. I spoke with Center for Public Integrity reporter Susan Ferriss about my thin hopes for inclusion earlier this week for her piece, “U.S. spouses of ousted immigrants await Obama plan.” However, when recent reports began to point to a probable emphasis on relief for parents of U.S. citizen children, I knew we’d probably be waiting this one out. There will likely also be the perfunctory nod to “highly-skilled” workers. There *might* be a bone thrown in for spouses of U.S. citizens via extended “Parole in Place,” but whether that will happen or not is yet to be seen, and even if it were, it probably would not extend to any of those undocumented spouses of those U.S. citizens who happen to be outside of the country.
No matter what happens, we will have to be clear about what this executive action is and what it’s not. The run-up to this executive action is being billed by some as “fixing the broken immigration system,” but please. You can’t possibly argue that giving tenuous relief to a small fraction of the individuals who need reform is a fix of a broken system. As immigration lawyer and advocate Prerna Lal puts it, she’s “still concerned about the millions left out by the plan specifics.” So this executive action is a Band-Aid, at best. Of course, human rights advocates like Ellin Jimmerson, Director of The Second Cooler, a documentary about the wide human rights offenses committed by the immigration system, narrated by Martin Sheen, have been saying it all along: if widespread human rights aren’t advanced by immigration reform, in the end, it’s not net progress. Sure, it’s a step, albeit small one. Even Obama knows that. Advocates and legislators alike believe that no matter the reach of this executive action, it’s no substitute for Congressional reform.
So no, this executive announcement probably won’t make a lick of difference for my family, especially because we are currently in Mexico. If we had decided to stay in the U.S. and wait it out under the radar as millions of others have done, there might be a slight chance we’d get relief from this. That remains to be seen, as it’s uncertain whether the action will extend to all individuals with 9(c) inadmissibilities. So yes, if it were that 9(c) cases could get relief from this, then yes, we would be left behind for having left the country to try and “get in line.”
‘Course, I won’t be alone in this, hundreds of thousands, probably millions of us will get left out. But this seems to be a recurring pattern, one that I’m not sure will ever be entirely rectified, even by a bill as large as HR15, for reasons which activists like Jimmerson expand on amply.
Which is why, for the moment, I am boycotting the waiting game. In my final chapters in Amor and Exile, I describe how I’ve toyed with the idea of pulling out of the waiting game entirely, not willing anymore to pin my life hopes on an act of Congress or an executive action such as the one on November 20th, 2014.
Ironically, November 20th is the Anniversary of the Mexican Revolution. I wonder if that was just coincidental? Most everyone down here is working today because we already celebrated the occasion on Monday (they do long weekends early), but instead of going to the downtown parade or to a party, I spent it with the editorial team for Amor y Exilio—the Spanish translation of Amor and Exile that is currently underway.
Even with the question of “did we miss out?” potentially shadowing over me during the aftermath of executive action, I would rather take the bull by the horns when it comes to the possibility of arrepentimiento. Rather than regret or question any of my past decisions to move to Mexico, to make this leap of faith, pasa lo que pasa, I would say no, I have no regrets. I prefer to embrace the fact that my husband was duly safe, at no risk of detention in these last 8 years. I am grateful for the freedom to have built our own home, in a lovely climate, and to have made lovely friends and to be making a life for ourselves.
Sure, it’s nice to think of what the future could hold when and if my husband is permitted to travel and/or reside alongside my daughter and I to my home country. Yes, I will be frustrated if the system once again fails to reward people who are trying to do the right thing. And there will still be that glaring recollection that Congress’s failure to move forward on a real fix is what’s brought us to this point.
But our time has not yet arrived. And so in the meantime, I see no reason to wait—just every reason to keep trying to move forward.
P.S. Today’s featured image was chosen for no other reason than it’s throwback Thursday, and it’s our 10-year wedding anniversary in just under one month.
Charles Bowden, a prolific writer and critical observer of the U.S.-Mexico border, died at home in Las Cruces, New Mexico on Saturday. I was introduced to Bowden’s work on my first night in Ciudad Júarez, when I visited in January 2011. The passage below, an excerpt from Amor and Exile, attempts to capture the experience of reading Bowden in Júarez.
An earlier version of the story on Bowden’s death in The Arizona Republic closed with a fitting tribute, a line Bowden once dedicated to another writing hero, Edward Abbeey: “R.I.P., but I doubt it.”
Excerpt from Chapter 7 of Amor and Exile: The Waiver Scene
Betty Campbell has a mischievous, sardonic grin for a 77-year-old nun. My first night in Ciudad Juárez, she offered me her cluttered bedroom, insisting that she preferred sleeping on a mat on the living room floor so she could hear sounds from the street—the sounds of gun shots, peeling tires, and screams, maybe not every night, but frequently enough.
I threw my bag down in the quiet, cold back bedroom at Casa Tabor, Sister Betty’s house in one of Juárez’s northwestern colonias—the unpoliced and forgotten dirt and cobble street neighborhoods that house tens of thousands of underpaid factory workers and urban poor and now drug dealers and gangsters as well. It’s a neighborhood of concrete block houses of mixed quality—some with iron gates and red roof tiles, others run down and abandoned with tin roofs, boarded up windows and holes in the walls. The modest Casa Tabor stood out with its neat yard and pink hued adobe façade.
Later that first evening, with a warm smile and slightly manic glint in her eye, Betty handed me the May 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine folded back to Charles Bowden’s “The Sicario,” an intense interview with a Juárez hit man that Bowden later turned into a book. At first I thought that Betty was trying to haze me into the fraternity of fear that has gripped this town since about 2008, when murders began to skyrocket. But the gleam in her eyes also served to inoculate me from that fear with her absolute faith in the resiliency and creativity of poor people in Latin America.
I wrote “sicario” in my little notebook, knowing it would come in handy over the next couple of days. Mexican sicarios have gotten the upper hand on reporters in recent years, enforcing a regime of censorship through fear at Mexico’s still spunky and highly competitive newspapers. Ten journalists were killed in Mexico in 2010, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which ranked Mexico among the top ten deadliest countries for reporters every year between 2004 and 2011.
At least 29 people were murdered in Juárez during my five days there in January 2011. That statistic comes from the “Frontera List,” an archive that New Mexico State University librarian Molly Molloy maintains, dutifully recording Mexican media crime reports and relevant commentary on the drug wars, mainly from Juárez. I read Molloy’s dispatches every day for a few months, but then had to stop reading every single report because they were becoming too easy to dismiss, as in: There were only three murders in Juárez today.
For the Harper’s story, Bowden, an American writer who has followed drugs and crime along the border for decades, tracked down a former Mexican police officer who had worked for years as a hit man for narcos, kidnapping and executing and burying people across the country. The man was in the U.S., hiding from the drug cartels. Bowden sat with him at an anonymous motel, recording his life story in gruesome detail: the stranglings—his expertise—the chemicals he used to literally disappear bodies, the anonymous holes in the ground where mass graves still lie, undiscovered by authorities. The cocaine and whiskey and paranoia and the eventual salvation that came with being hunted himself.
Betty warned me before I read the piece that it’s a searing account, essentially damning to the Mexican authorities in passages like this one:
They hardly ever do police work; they are working full-time for narcos. This is his real home for almost twenty years, a second Mexico that does not exist officially and that coexists seamlessly with the government. In his many transports of human beings for bondage, torture, and death, he is never interfered with by the authorities. He is part of the government, the state policeman with eight men under his command. But his key employer is the organization, which he assumes is the Juárez cartel, but he never asks since questions can be fatal.