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.
As a follow-up to my post about our visit to ITJ Campus Queretaro to talk about Amor and Exile, I thought I would post a couple of lovely reports from fourth-graders at ITJ from the closing ceremonies of their unit on migration. I had to work this morning but a friend who has a child at ITJ sent me the photos of the reports via Facebook message.
It was interesting for me to see how our story is viewed from the eyes of 10 or 11 year olds. It’s cool how they picked up on things that we didn’t even say. And even cooler how they were able to inspire me back with their reflections on our story.
Thanks again to the teachers at ITJ Queretaro for including us in your great, reality-based education model. And thanks to the students for your great reviews. Now if only you could export your learnings up north…
**Errata noted since publication: the students are fourth-graders, not third-graders as originally posted. My apologies!
Margo and I visited the Instituto Thomas Jefferson, an American school in Querétaro, on Monday, January 27th. We went to discuss our experiences migrating between the United States and Mexico and the Amor and Exile project. Our talk was part of a bigger cross-curricular unit for the fourth graders at ITJ, headed up by my friend and colleague Heather Ruark.
Some stats on the talk:
104 4th grade students
Throughout the migration unit, students are asked the following driving question: What is it like to move to another country?
The unit includes the following topics:
Geography, specifically Mexicans who move to the States, and human migration in general;
Writing – non fiction, biographical essays;
Reading – The Circuit, a juvenile autobiography by a former migrant worker in the fields of California.
At the end of the unit, students create a final project consisting of a photo essay gallery of Migration Stories to and from Querétaro
Margo and I had given a similar talk to high school students at the PrepaTec de Monterrey (ITESM Campus Queretaro) prior to the publication of Amor and Exile. But I was particularly impressed by these young students’ level of interest and thoughtful reflection on the topic, particularly considering their age—ten and eleven years old. The kids really enjoyed the book trailer, and had dozens of questions for us, ranging from what our favorite foods and colors are, to what the name of the law that prevented Margo from legalizing in the U.S. was—we had a field day spelling out the IIRIRA of 1996. 🙂
Heather commented that it was a really great experience to be able to get into the subject in such depth. By inviting many speakers from different countries who live in Querétaro and by allowing the students to explore both sides of the issue, they enable students to analyze the complex reasons for illegal immigration and the societal impact of migration in both directions. She also mentioned that the unit is well received by parents, even to a extent greater than she imagines it might be received in the United States.
We were glad to have this opportunity to share our story on a personal level with the students at ITJ, and help foster awareness of this complex issues amidst our next generation of global leaders.
Seven years ago, two women’s lives were changing forever. They both had just made commitments with men who were a persona non gratas, undocumented and unwelcome in the United States, the women’s own nation. One of the women stayed in her home country in the hopes of finding a path to stability, to live without fear. The other left and moved south, into “exile,” with the same hopes as the first. They did not know each other at the time, nor that the life paths on which they’d embarked would eventually cross.
Seven years later, they know each other. Paths have now crossed. The first woman finally moved south, just as the second one was considering when she’d ever possibly return North. Seven years have passed and not much has changed, except for the birth and growth of their daughters, and some deaths — not the least of them the passing of many hopes from those early days.
This past week, we welcomed Krystal and her family into our home. Krystal is a longtime blogger (currently posting at LoveMyHusbandMoreThanTheUSA, previously at A Year in the Life of Krystal) now newly fellow “exile wife,” to use the term she coined the night of our first meeting in person. It was a quick stop for them on the way to their own new home in the Central Mexican Highlands, not too far for where we live.
Our meeting was surreal in many ways — first because Krystal is someone I have only “known” virtually for just over a couple years, since around the time when we began writing Amor and Exile. Secondly, Krystal’s arrival to exile is something that I’ve been “watching” her prepare for for some time now — via her public postings of her family’s struggles. As a U.S. Iraqi war veteran and mother dedicated to justice for her family, she long resisted and tried very hard to make it work for them to stay together in the United States. And so it felt somewhat monumental that one of the warriors, a legendary character from our loosely organized but broadly cast net of immigration-affected families was finally “surrendering,” and making the move into exile.
A few days ago I hadn’t actually expected to meet her. I was aware of her family’s impending move south, the vague details of the approach, and where she’d be arriving. But I know how these trips go, having done one myself. When you have your whole life riding on four wheels plus the emotional momentum of a spouse only a few hours’ drive from reuniting with a family he hasn’t seen for years, your forward motion is unstoppable. Side trips beyond a brief foray at the beach seem frivolous, unreasonable even, given the main purpose of your viaje. I also assumed she’d be taking a more southerly route given her destination. So I expected to continue to wish Krystal well virtually, and mourn the inability of yet another one of us to obtain the rights to stay back home with our entire family intact.
But as fast as data flies in the interworld, another member of the network tagged me in a comment that Krystal would be driving through Querétaro. Suddenly, my virtual propriety dissolved and social pressure tactics emerged. I commented that I’d be hurt not to see her — half joking, but also aware of the unique opportunity her drive through our town posed. After a flurry of Facebook messages throughout the day and finding the geographic coordinates of my house so she could locate us (we have no physical address), I discovered I would have house guests that evening after all. I quickly set about making sure that Krystal’s family’s stay would be a moment of comfort in what can be a emotionally grueling journey, having left behind everything they knew and held dear.
The truth was, I needed Krystal’s visit probably as much as she needed a safe place to stay. Despite my abundant blessings, I’d become somewhat depressed recently about the lack of progress in many things I deem important in my life — all related in some way to my state of exile. Combined with a cold winter and my family being sick during the holidays, my mood was worse than blase prior to my friend’s arrival. I was trying hard to pull myself out of my funk, but it wasn’t quite working.
Part of me doubted they’d actually arrive. I surmised they might either get held up in traffic a state away, or decide to push through and make it to their destination by that evening. Later Krystal confessed that her own husband had his doubts, compounded by the fact that I couldn’t give them a house address. We laughed about it once they’d arrived safely, but my husband probably would also have questioned his wife’s wisdom for taking a winding rural route on the outskirts of an unknown city in the dark night, trying to find the town of a friend she’d met on the Internet and who she was Facebook messaging with to find.
But every message I received showed a location a few kilometers closer to my house, and my own husband had offered for their girls to stay in our daughter’s room so they could be comfortable (a rare move of generosity on his part, as he is often more reserved than I), an offer which I extended through the cyberwaves to her. I added that our property was gated and safe and that their dogs were welcome, after intuiting the stress that builds at the end of a ten-hour drive across a foreign country.
Suddenly “they were here,” i.e. in my town, but I was still at work, and the cell phone connections weren’t working. She had thought she was lost but I told her she did better than most local friends at finding the place. I got home as fast as possible and found them at the local convenience store and they followed me home. Luckily, they’d found a taco stand across the street to grab a bite while they waited.
Meeting someone you’ve only known virtually, I’m starting to realize, is a really amazing experience. I remember when it first happened for me last summer when we went to D.C. to deliver our book and I met another Crystal, from PA, who’s also part of our network. So many dimensions emerge that are impossible to ascertain via Internet — and a knowledge of someone, and their heart, becomes whole. My first impression was to be deeply impressed that she found my place in the middle of nowhere in the dark, with only a pair of GPS coordinates to go on. Next, I saw a couple that was tired, but still propelled by the weight of their journey. I then saw the two young girls who were along for the ride, and loved and cared for very much. And then the four of them walked up our driveway, across our doorstep and into our home.[/caption]
At one point, Krystal and I were sitting at the dining room table chatting a mile a minute. She had mentioned that her younger daughter understood Spanish but refused to speak it, and I responded that it’d happen naturally, eventually. As her elder daughter, who had thought I was named “Michelle” at first, sat with us sipping Lipton cup-a-soup, she asked her mom a telling question. We’d been spilling terms like “retired” and “exile,” and the eleven year old wanted to know what the e-word meant. I smiled, and let Krystal take that one. “It’s when someone has to leave their home against their will,” she explained. End of the discussion. It hit me then that the girls were aware of the journey but not fully aware of the implications of what was happening — but how could they be? Even though they were every bit a part of the collateral damage of a policy that’s in effect declared war on immigrants, these two precious, displaced souls were happy just being my daughter’s playmates for a night. And that was just fine, because in my opinion, the less you understand of the reasons behind this nonsensical forcible exodus, the better. Afterward, the girls were playing board games, reading picture books, and running joyfully about the house until bedtime could be extended no longer.
After catching each other up on the various latest details of legal laments, family feuds and professional pinings, the parts that don’t get shared in Facebook statuses, we soaked in a moment to just be. Two sovereign women who, despite a lot of fear for having to leave behind something so integral to our identity — our home country — and despite having to become a part of a machisto culture that often fails to nourish our souls about us as much as our own cultures under-appreciated our partners, were still in this for the long haul, come hell or high water.
Her approach to exile will be different than mine — less bound to one location, and will take a proactive stance to try and make the most of it by traveling. It’s an admirable approach, and I truly hope it brings even more satisfaction than we have found in our situation — we are truly lucky to have the house and land we do, but we are essentially bound to it until we have the means again to loosen the legal/economic ties that bind us to this location.
Aside from the simply lovely aspects of having our families meet and hang out, I was struck by the nature of our reunion. How we ran to take the Facebook picture and what an achievement it felt like. How we recounted the meetings among “our kind.” When I met Crystal, when Krystal met Jennifer, when Raquel met Giselle, and so on. It’s as if every meeting is special — and it is — as we know, without articulating it, that we’re a burgeoning demographic, a movement without a leader, a spontaneous organization, allied without really wanting it — who asks for a sisterhood that is defined by a loss of autonomy? — but also absolutely needing it, growing bonds where they’ve been forcibly severed, by our own country.
This kind of alliance is the kind that reminds me of spontaneous healing, where the body patches up a scratch or a cut, where positivity takes over pain without thought or intention. I saw this in my daughter’s total welcoming of strangers in her happy Spanglish and when I heard the younger one finally responding in her own adopted tongue as naturally as I assumed she would. I saw this in my daughter’s stuffed animals I found among the bedding where the girls stayed, the ones she’d lent them so they could feel a little more “home” along their journey.
It was a positive force that brought our families together in the first place, the urge and instinct to unite with love rather than ostracize with hate. It’s what I wish more for our daughters’ world when we are no longer. This kind of encounter helped renew my faith that I’ve done the right things in a time when the results are sometimes so hard to live with, it’s so easy to question my own wisdom, question what the hell kind of world we are exactly living in, anyways.
So thanks for stopping by, Krystal. Blessed be your journey.
Seven days until we go to Washington to deliver Amor and Exile to Congress. Even though we’ve already bought plane tickets and are thick into planning trip logistics, part of me still “no le ha caido el veinte.” That’s what they say here when something still hasn’t hit you yet.
Maybe it’s because I’m still so far away, in Mexico. I haven’t been to Washington in decades, but its policies affect me daily.
Maybe it’s because I’m still incredulous—and not only that we surpassed our campaign goal to raise $11,000 to send a copy of our book to every member of Congress. It’s still sinking in that we are finally done with our book, something that took over 3 years to complete and that’s required some serious trials of endurance to accomplish as a team.
There are times when this whole ride still seems somewhat dream-like (sometimes nightmarish). I got on this roller coaster nearly 12 years ago, when I met my husband, who is Mexican, in San Francisco in 2001. That’s when everything began to change for me. I discovered that our country has an undocumented class. I discovered that in many cases, marriage makes no difference any more. I had to decide whether to leave my country to keep my marriage together. I had to say goodbye to my friends, my family, my career as a science teacher. I moved to Mexico.
I’m currently sitting in the office of the Secretary of Exterior Relations. I took the bus here in the scorching, pre-rainy season Querétaro heat to get a Mexican passport. I need it in addition to my U.S. passport because I’ve been naturalized here since 2011. Becoming a Mexican citizen isn’t something I set out in life to do, but it was something that made economic and practical sense since my husband and I have to be here at least 10 years until he is eligible to apply for an I-212 waiver of his permanent bar from legally immigrating to the U.S. I am getting a Mexican passport so I can legally leave this country to go to my home country’s capital next week to ask that my husband, my family and millions of others like us might someday have a chance at getting a passport too.
They are very kind to me here, but of course, they are just as much about the rules as they are in the U.S. When I had to pay an unexpected $90 for a passport that I would really prefer to not purchase given my bank account’s precipitously low level, I tried to remember why I am doing this. It’s all for the long run—for my family’s well-being, to travel in good international stead, so I can claim my rightful spot among the many voices asking for legislative redress of a decades-long difficult situation—in person—no longer from afar.
When I was 23 and fell in love with my husband, I soon found out how much we were up against, and my world turned upside down. A long-time activist, I became silenced by fear, by disempowerment, for many more years than I could have imagined. I came close to losing faith in the system. But little by little, once in Mexico, as my cynicism about returning someday converted to self-reliance and survival (and sometimes thriving) in a developing country, I very slowly began to find my voice again. And then came Amor and Exile, after several years in it. I’ve regained some guarded hope in 2013—not just because of my own strength, but also with the support of others. I didn’t know it when I was 23, but I know now that I was never alone—that millions would experience my fate. Their stories, their struggles, are part of what propels me forward.
Perhaps what’s become clearer than ever as a result of this labor of bringing light to the very dark debate over immigration is the following: for every negative commentary or political prediction I hear about this issue, I observe something really positive. Not only is every single one of us who’s separated from our spouses, in exile, or living undocumented in the U.S. not alone—there are millions—but we all have families and friends who want us back safe in our communities. And they have friends too. We have friends and family who are willing to close the distance on thousands of miles and the seemingly similar distances in political rhetoric between where we are and where we want to be. That is the difference between what I knew at 23 and what I know now, and that is what I will try to remember every moment that I’m making it known while in Washington, D.C. next week.
People have been asking me if I saw Obama’s inaugural speech. I probably should, just to be “informed.” My not having seen it has less to do with me being a cynic than my not wanting to be let down again. Ever since his victory speech in 2008, I’ve been riding a hot air balloon with a slow leak.
Today, idealistic feet planted fully on the ground, even with rumors of impending immigration reform, I prefer not to entertain illusions of quick fixes to my family’s problem of a 10-year exile in Central Mexico. Even so, I just don’t have the heart to reveal the full extent of my reservations to my 90-year old grandmother. Her grandparents were immigrants from Germany, settling to farm in Central New York, much in the same way my father’s side of the family immigrated from Mexico a couple generations ago.
Last week my grandmother told me she really wanted to read our book. I wish I could snap my fingers and a publisher would pick it up this week. More than giving her the satisfaction of reading her favorite granddaughter’s story, it would help explain the tangled tale of why whatever immigration reform the administration is plotting probably won’t benefit my family and me.
Last night, she asked me about the inaugural speech. Did I see it? It was great. I told her no, that I’d rather just hear about the new laws getting passed than getting my hopes dashed again. That I wish he would stand up to corporations trying to milk our country dry of every last taxpayer dollar. I’d much prefer to hear about new initiatives passed investing in solar power than hear that Keystone XL is getting new rein in the Lower 48. But when she told me she wanted to send a letter to our senator, Chuck Schumer, I thought to myself, what could Chuck do at this point? We’re not a Dreamer in a university town with several thousand signatures behind us. We’re an unlikely unit of three: one Mexican man with a junior-high education who just wants to have meaningful work, one Ivy-League educated thirty-something, years away from her career and a toddler who might never go to school in her second country of citizenship. But I kept silent, because who am I to knock a great-grandmother’s undying optimism?
I share my grandmother’s hope, and the hope of millions: I want meaningful immigration laws passed, the kind that would allow my husband, daughter and me to return home to the U.S. together as a family. I’d rather see this happen than hearing for the umpteenth time that immigration reform is in the news, or surmise that Latinos are simply pawns in another political game. Our story is a part of the book Amor and Exile because I wanted to share our voice and illustrate an incredibly complex subject in that way that only a personal tale can. In the event that we cannot get our book to the public before the immigration reform debate happens, I’ll need to find another way to contribute to this debate.
But I’ll admit, I’m struggling to figure out how to do more than what I’ve already done. Championing immigration reform is a bittersweet battle for me. Although millions of youth and families like ours—and the U.S. economy—stand to benefit from immigration reform, because our family is suffering from a draconian time bar, the likelihood that we will benefit is very slim.
Of course I do allow opportunities for inspiration. I listened to part of that speech today, to Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem. His message of unity, of vision beyond the things that separate us struck a chord of kinship in me, even released some tears to cleanse my eyes that are frankly too young to be so chronically pessimistic. With this choice of poet, with this message of hope, I look forward to some choice actions taking the place of choice words on Capitol Hill this year. And in listening to this poet’s work, I am inspired to rise to the challenge of communicating exactly why it is that I can’t go home, and how, in an ideal world, my fellow citizens could help get me back there. I’ve always been a willing soldier of idealism, and I know there is a lot of work to do.
Maybe if I get to go back home to the U.S. with my family as a result of this next presidential term, I will watch that inaugural speech after all.
I wish it was still her saying goodbye to me and not the other way around.
The first time I told our story in mixed company—which is still a rare occasion—was in early 2006, to a group of high school students. My group co-leader and I were both teachers at the Catholic, all-girls Notre Dame High School, in Belmont, and we were on an Intersession volunteer service trip to Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico organized by the non-profit Los Niños.
Our trip, together with nearly 20 adolescents and two co-leaders, was incredibly challenging, eye-opening, and life-changing. We all pushed our limits in every sense—physically, emotionally, culturally and even politically. For almost a week, we mixed and poured concrete by hand, we spent an evening with the children of the Casa Hogar Santa Teresita and we learned from many valiant Mexicans working in the social justice in Tijuana.
We encountered the U.S./Mexico border in conversation and in person, from both sides. From the Mexico side, we met migrants headed for a border crossing at a day laborer center. We visited “La Llaga” (the wound) in the flesh: a section of border covered with crosses marking the names and numbers of individuals who’ve died trying to cross. Our students immediately became indignant upon contemplating how a border fence could cause so many deaths—or worse, why so many people would be willing to risk their lives to enter into the U.S. They climbed up on the corrugated metal fence and demanded answers from the border patrolmen cruising by in his jeep. By the end of their 5-10 minute “conversation,” he’d given up debating with them and claimed it was just a job.
Unbeknownst to many, at the time I was struggling with a personal decision I’d made. Later that year I would be accompanying my husband Margarito back to his hometown in Mexico, in what amounted to a self-deportation because Margo was still undocumented, even though we’d been married since 2004. Thus, it would be my last semester at the high school. Even though I’d always been very candid with my students, our situation wasn’t exactly the kind that lent itself to a simple explanation. I’d also had a lot of uncomfortable experiences when overhearing anti-immigrant sentiment over the years, which had led me to be rather closed about my situation.
But the students’ irrepressible joy and open-mindedness was infectious. While observing the girls in the midst of transformation, becoming so passionate about the fates of people they’d never even met, I couldn’t help but feel inspired. One night back at our “house,” after we’d shared reflections on our experiences during the trip, I took a chance and decided to share my personal story with them. I was nervous and tearful but they couldn’t have been more receptive and understanding. I felt like a weight had been lifted. When our trip came to an end, we shared our best wishes with each other. Many students thanked me for sharing my story. Some assured me that going to Mexico would be an opportunity, not a setback. I wanted to believe them.
It was just one week—but all of us grew as a result. For me, some fear was transformed to courage. Back in the States, the zeal of the trip faded as students got back to the grind, punctuated by a petition we circulated expressing our opposition to the proposed Sensenbrenner anti-immigrant bill up in Congress. Many of the students in our group were graduating that year. My husband and I began preparations for our departure later that summer, I started applying for my Mexican visa.
At the end of the semester, a small handful of students threw me a small going away party. They could have been doing the kind of things most teenagers do on a Friday afternoon, but these young ladies remembered my story, where Margo and I were headed that summer, and they wanted to wish me well. That’s the kind of people they are. The sign said simply “Goodbye and Good Luck.” A snapshot of me, my coworker who’d been on the trip, and 5 students was taken at the event.
I haven’t looked at that picture in years, but I took it out less than a week ago to remember one specific student in the picture. Her name was Nisha Tandel. I have several pictures of her from that semester. In every single one she is smiling broadly or laughing. I can still hear her laughing as she repeated “está chido” and “está padre” over and over (the two favorite Spanish phrases learned in Tijuana). In another picture of us at graduation, she is wearing a chain of orchids. That was over six years ago.
When I heard last weekend that we had lost Nisha and her sister to a car accident involving her entire family, first, my head spun in disbelief. Then, all these memories came flooding back. Not having known Nisha very well myself, our lives only having touched each others’ for a matter of months, my mourning was intense but not as life-altering as I’m sure it has been and will continue to be for those who were closest to her. But when I think about how she had been headed for a cross-border adventure of her own, to be married in India in January, I can’t help but be impacted by the depth of the entire family’s, the entire community’s loss. And when I remember the time that she came to wish me well, despite how much of my comfort zone and camaraderie I was about to let go of, she faced me with that cheery optimism so firmly the domain of an adolescent girl on the brink of womanhood and hugged me tight. She may not have known how much her gesture meant at the time, the extra vote of confidence it gave me. I can’t make sense of the inexplicable tragedy that claimed her. And to dwell indefinitely in the sadness that her departure creates would go against her Hindu tradition. So I can only think to return her the favor now. Fare thee well Nisha in your journey to the other side. You won’t be forgotten, and your beautiful spirit lives on. Buen viaje, amiga.