An excerpt from “Commemoration”

As Nathaniel can probably also attest, it’s a juggling act to have two blogs at the same time. I tend to write deeply personal posts, often about motherhood, culture shock, and conservation issues on my personal blog. But when it comes to how my life is affected by the political circumstances we write about in Amor and Exile (that also affects many other couples), these subjects overlap.

This is an excerpt from my most recent post on my blog The Succulent Seer. It’s about me getting Mexican citizenship and celebrating my daughter’s first birthday within a few days of each other:

The possibility of running out of money hasn’t occurred to me for at least 10 years, back when I was struggling to get on my feet as a recent college graduate. But when they turned me away at the SRE doors and I sat down on the bench outside with the baby, after 5 years of underemployment, and contemplating the possibility that my application for citizenship had been for naught, I wondered if heartless bureaucrats would continue to empty my pockets until I failed to even qualify for either a visa OR citizenship—and then how would my husband and I be together? I broke down in tears. So as to not get stuck in the paperless limbo land that my husband lived in the U.S., I decided to go ahead and reapply for the visa at the eleventh hour, on September 15th, the day before Mexican Independence Day. It was the last day I could submit my papers.

We were down in the commercial district making our way to the bank to transfer money to the INM coffers for the right to be here another year with my family when I got a phone call from my contact at SRE. Only that I couldn’t answer because I’d just dropped my cell phone on the ground and I could hear nothing on the other end. I ran outside to get my husband’s cell phone, ran into the grocery store to put credit on the phone, and ran back out to call my contact. “Is Syracuse spelled with a ‘Y’?” he asked. I stammered yes, wondering if this really meant my wait was over.

I’ve included the link to the full post if you want to read it there.

Summer Family Reunion, Mission Impossible, Part II

A friend of mine is a midwife educator and we took a few classes with her before our baby was born. In one of them, on the topic of pain, she introduced us to a great saying: FEAR is False Expectations Approaching Reality. It buoyed me at the time in the hopes that labor wouldn’t be as painful as I expected. Although I can’t say the birth of my daughter was less painful than I feared, I can say that traveling to the U.S. with her was.

There were many things that allowed my FEAR to be just that—false expectations. Some things were better than I worried they’d be, and some things were worse. But overall, it was a much more pleasant experience than I imagined—as another American friend who’s a long-timer in Mexico has suspected may be the case with me, I might be psyching myself out to be pleasantly surprised in the end. Not a typical personality characteristic of mine, but when it comes to love and exile, it can be a useful tactic.

The cost was not a problem because I did not keep track of how much money I spent like I have on other trips. Why bother? Keeping track of my receipts wouldn’t change how much I had to shell out, that I’ve been unemployed for the last 24 months, or that my financial safety net is developing some seriously large holes. In the end, I had enough to get back home.

The family reunion was a success, if you don’t count the fact that my husband wasn’t there. But then again, neither were several aunts, uncles, and cousins…so why be nit-picky? The important thing was that my daughter got to see her grandparents (my parents) again, meet her uncle (my brother) and his fiancée, her great-aunt & uncle and a couple of their relatives, a good handful of my high school friends, and a large number of my parents’ friends from work.

One unexpected dynamic was that despite his absence, Margo had a much stronger presence than past trips, and I chalk that up to him being present through our daughter. She looks a lot like him, questions directed to me about her invariably brought him up, and many people intuited how much she (and me, by default) must miss him.  So it was nice not having to tiptoe around the subject of his absence like a big white elephant.

I’d done my grieving over not being able to get a Canadian visa for Margo for travel. I’d prepared myself emotionally and let loose a few floodgates en route to have the best mindset possible upon arrival. Sure, a few tense moments occurred as can happen with anyone traveling with kids and aligning parenting philosophies with the grandparents. But I was surprisingly solid when it came to not falling apart.

It might have been because I convinced myself, as I told our daughter, that there were some good things about him staying home: he had to work, we saved money, someone had to feed the chickens and the bunny and the cats and water the garden, someone had to watch the house. So when we’d make our phone calls, it felt more like he was serving a purpose back home than languishing lamenting about not being with us. That was fortunate.

I also might not have had time to grieve his absence since I was so darn busy taking care of the baby. Besides fully co-parenting with my husband, we also had someone coming in a few days a week to help with the baby for the month before we left, and so I was used to getting a large amount of help with the baby at all hours. Her grandparents were great with her, feeding, entertaining, and bathing her to everyone’s delight, but spending the nights getting up alone with her and putting her to bed during Fourth of July fireworks and the days prior were more tiring than normal.

One FEAR that was more true than I expected was the exhaustion factor of the actual bus and air travel by ourselves. But even so, it was kind of funny to see a couple in the airport with two young kids bickering over some aspect of parental care mid-escalator ride. In the state I was in, baby hanging from the sling, (albeit balanced nicely with backpack weight), with luggage in tow, I smiled knowingly at the woman and said, just breathe. She looked surprised for a moment but then smiled back at me. Then they went back to their bickering and I thought to myself, I don’t have to deal with that aspect of traveling together, even if my back is aching!

The author and her daughter at her parents' home in NY

Another silver lining to the exhaustion was that all of that extra time with the baby by myself also led to something special—we bonded like when she was a newborn, and that was perhaps the sweetest unexpected benefit of all.

When I got back to Mexico, I got some feedback from friends with children that gave me some insight about the fact that, although I may have unique circumstances as to why my husband isn’t able to travel with us, it’s surprisingly common for many of my friends to fall into the traveling alone with kids department. One friend related how her husband is stuck in the PhD program from hell for almost 10 years, which has forced her to strike out camping on her own with two small boys. A new American friend here in Mexico traveled alone with not one but two kids up to the States in June—not because her husband doesn’t qualify for a visa but because he forgot to renew it. Others travel alone because their spouses can’t get time off work.

Although I feel womanly solidarity in that we all face similar challenges with our children and I empathize with their spouses’ unavailability for travel (and I also bow down to their ability to juggle multiple infants alone!), when I mentioned this to Margo, as well as the pros of the “holding down the fort” argument, he wasn’t 100% convinced. “Yeah that’s all true, but I would like to go.” Knowing he’s someone who doesn’t express their wants and needs often, his words didn’t fall on deaf ears. And perhaps that is the one expectation that most disappointingly approached reality: that on the subject of traveling together as a family,  reunion or otherwise, bright sides or not, ultimately we didn’t have any choice but for Daddy to stay home.

Only some can share the dream…

This is an edited version of something I wrote seven months ago…when my daughter was a newborn, when I still blogged on Yahoo, and Nathaniel and I had yet to begin coauthoring Amor and Exile.  Since then, I wanted to remove my daughter’s personal information until we make our final decision about whether her real name will be included in our book. But since Yahoo discontinued their blogs,the best they could do was delete the entire post. I didn’t want to lose it entirely since it was a disappointed reflection about the failed DREAM Act on the reasons why some people are able to get legal status while others aren’t, now pertinent since the act stands to be resurrected in the upcoming immigration reform period.  Since posting this, my daughter and I have traveled for our first time together up to the States and back, giving us an ever deeper appreciation of the privilege of binational status. In fact, I too may have it soon—my application for citizenship was approved although the paperwork is still yet to come in. I hope to write reflections on our trip and my own impending naturalization in my next posts, but in the meantime…

*             *            *

December 2011

These past couple weeks, we’ve been so sick…the long nights up with the baby have taken their toll on our immunity.  During these dreary days of illness I received news about her U.S. citizenship.  Although she was born in Mexico, since she is my daughter and I am a U.S. citizen, I can confer mine to her.  So seven weeks ago, we packed ourselves and 100+ sheafs of paper; including, but not only, copies of our every possible ID, lab reports and prescriptions from my pregnancy, ultrasounds, transcripts from my high school, college, and MA, our marriage license, my birth certificate, an affadavit of my precise whereabouts for every day of my life since 30+ years ago, photos of the birth, before, at the hospital, and after; and drove out to the U.S. consulate in San Miguel de Allende to apply for her Consular Report of Birth Abroad and U.S. passport.  At the office, my meticulous organization paid off but the passport photo was a little too D-I-Y. They didn’t mind that Margo was the background holding the infant, but the inkjet job was a bit off color.  So we took a taxi over to a real photo studio and had my digital images printed out on her laser.

Six weeks later, I emailed to find out if her documents were ready, which they were not, and Margo wondered aloud if a U.S. government office in Mexico would in fact operate on Latin time.  I said, nah…but in reality, I was worried about a little more than schedules.  Although they’d accepted our documents, they couldn’t tell us at the time whether she’d receive her papers or not- that was for them to decide at the Embassy in Mexico City.  And of course since I don’t believe things until I see them, I couldn’t help but be paranoid as to whether or not they’d actually grant her citizenship. It’s not that my documentation wasn’t impeccable, it wasn’t even that her dad is Mexican or that he was in the U.S. illegally at one time.  More than anything, I think my anxiety was a byproduct of many years of me applying for visas here in Mexico, and fearing that obtaining the baby’s citizenship was too easy compared to what it might ever be for her Dad (near impossible).  There had to be a hitch.  And so I crossed my fingers tight and put it out of my mind.  Of course my daughter will get her papers. Right? Then I got the email from the Consulate.

When I saw the words addressed to my 5-month old: Para comunicarle que su pasaporte americano se encuentra listo en nuestra Agencia Consular en SMA (This is to inform you that your American passport is ready at our Consular Agency in San Miguel de Allende).  I breathed in deeply and grinned.  So it shall be, my Mexican-born daughter is now a U.S. citizen.  That night, as Margo held her on his lap, I told him the good news.  What do you think, I asked.  I’m jealous, he responded. I threw back my head and laughed at the irony.  It had been lost on me that Margo might feel bad about the ease with which we were able to obtain citizenship for her as compared to him.  No kidding, I said.  Well be prepared, I replied, because there’re going to be many things that she’s going to have that you never did. He smiled.  Yeah, he mused, looking thoughtful, she’s going to be able to do many things I never was.  I realized he had only been joking, and that there was no hint of resentment in his voice, rather, it was filled with pride.

Our daughter is one of the lucky ones.  By virtue of her mother, who had sufficient orientation and economic resources to shuffle a few papers, she can now be a legal citizen on both sides of the border.  But is she any more American than children who have grown up their entire lives on American soil, even though they were born in another? Although her womb was American, so to speak, she will spend a good part of her childhood in another country.  Individuals who would have stood to benefit from the DREAM act which narrowly failed to pass the Senate this morning will now have to continue either a clandestine life in the only country they’ve ever known, or embark on a new life in a foreign land, to avoid discrimination and apprehension by the law.  It was innocuous enough of a bill, meant to reward young men and women who, of no choice of their own, were raised in a country “not their own,” and despite this, perservered enough to begin an education or join the military.  They now will not legitimately be able to pursue these goals, are not accepted with open arms by the society that stands to benefit from fruit of their labors [note: unless of course another version of the DREAM Act is passed].  It’s not that I am not grateful that my daughter is able to obtain U.S. citizenship, because I am.  It will make doing things in the States much easier, even if we can’t be accompanied by her Daddy.  It’s just that in a time when so many Americans by birth fail to recognize the very privileges they hold, it seems like we ought to expand our definition of who’s an American to those who truly desire to be so. Don’t we all have a right to DREAM?

Brave New Vargas

The suffering economy. Crime levels. Apathy about our country’s seemingly unending involvement in foreign wars. All this bad news only serves to further polarize the political environment in which we can discuss an issue that’s at the heart of our nation: immigration. But immigration is getting hot. Yeah, yeah, you say, it’s like this every few years. But since the 1986 amnesty, no comprehensive immigration reform has been enacted by the U.S. government. However, we have seen the absorption of the Immigration and Naturalization Service into Homeland Security/ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and the passing of rather anti-immigrant laws in southern states such as AZ, AL, GA and now SC. An estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants live in hiding in the U.S., not to mention their citizen family members. It seems that despite the attempts to pass meaningful reform that addresses an increasingly complex immigration situation in the U.S., reactionary xenophobia threatens to overshadow our country’s diverse and worldwide roots.

It’s easy to get cynical in this atmosphere, especially when you’re someone like me whose life has been so profoundly impacted by this simple situation, as described by Jeff Hawkins, in America’s Shameful Moments on June 24th, at DefineAmerican.com:

“At times in the past, the U.S. did not restrict the number of immigrants. If you got here and were in good health you were let in. Currently we restrict the number of immigrants each year. We expect people desiring to come to the U.S. will respect these restrictions and wait in line. That hasn’t been the case and we find ourselves with about 10 million adult immigrants living and working in the U.S. who came here illegally.”

And yet, those inspiring moments do come now and then. Hope re-surges in me that Americans are capable of recognizing immigrants’ humanity, be they documented or undocumented. Or of having a rational discussion about our economic dependence on them. The moments come when I see individuals speaking out for their loved ones who are undocumented, as in Tony and Janina’s Wedding. Optimism fills me when I see authorities such as Paul Bridges, Mayor of Uvalda, GA, suing his own state over a new immigration law, challenging what he feels to be ill-fated policy not just for his town but the entire nation. Or when I post to this or my other blog, Succulent Seer, and get responses from equally inspired individuals.

Perhaps the person who inspired me the most recently was Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who came out as an undocumented immigrant in My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant in the New York Times magazine on June 22nd. Although I won’t summarize the article here, and his situation is different than my husband’s (he was sent to the U.S. as a child, and then chose to continue the life for about 14 years once he found out he was here illegally), there is a certain kinship in that there finally came a time when Vargas realized he couldn’t maintain a secret life anymore. For us, this moment came when we decided that all legal options were impossible, and we would have to move to Mexico to stay together. Knowing the risks which Vargas is putting himself at by outing himself, is inspiring in itself. Seeing that a publication likes the Times was willing to run his article, and that Rachel Maddow brought him on her show in a sympathetic manner is similarly heartening.

However, observing the knee-jerk reactions by some of his “fellow” journalists was offensive. One even went to so far as to say Vargas has disqualified himself as a journalist by being straightforward about his status, as quoted in The Media Deportation of Jose Antonio Vargas, by Daniel Denvir. So is that to say that any individual who’s ever formerly engaged in any illegal activity, such as adultery, drug abuse, traffic violations (pick your poison) disqualifies themselves from their profession? The argument about Vargas being a habitual liar just doesn’t hold up. Most everyone has some dirty laundry in their closet they’re not quite ready to hang out. Come on guys, I’d expect more objectivity when you’re bashing subjectivity.

This is when I can feel the heat of the debate all the way down here in sunny Mexico. Comments like these, although I try hard to ignore the chaff, are strong enough to pull me out of my writing of our book to talk about what’s going on. It concerns me that people are willing to get so high up on their holier than thou horses that they can’t see the forests for the trees. It affects how I write my story. I get nervous about how people are going to react to me telling a story, how it could be construed that I was harboring my husband, no matter how much the immigration lawyer we’re working with assures me that that’s unlikely. Ultimately, I worry that we have strayed so far from our own humanity that we don’t recognize that of others.

But then I think of the brave ones. Like my husband himself, who said, “I never hid who I was.” It’s true, he didn’t, and he also had a lot to lose by voluntarily deporting (as did I, by accompanying him). However, he didn’t have the same exposure as Jose Vargas, who’s essentially making himself a high-profile guinea pig of the new ICE mandate that “law enforcement resources should be aimed at those who would do the country harm, people who threaten national security, violent offenders, and drug dealers,” as described on the American Immigration Lawyer Association (AILA) blog. Vargas said, “We have not had a credible conversation about immigration in this country.” How can we, when everyone is too afraid to see the truth, much less speak it? It’s a big risk he’s taking to speak the truth of his own life, a risk that people with pre-conceived notions about undocumented immigrants won’t sufficiently appreciate, but one that *will* inspire a lot of people, including me. I think I speak for millions when I say thanks, Jose, for sticking your neck out.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.

Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi – 13th century

Considerations for writing a love exile memoir, Part 1

One of the objectives of this blog is to “document the lengthy, emotional and complex process of writing a book about immigration.” With the exception of my undying urge to get our story out, the day-to-day landscape of actually writing it is in a constant state of evolution (at least on my end—Nathaniel can tell you himself how it’s going for him). The first chapter (my arrival/situation in Mexico) was surprisingly straightforward to write compared to the one I’m on now—about when Margarito and I first met. The collaborative editing of my first chapter was demanding, but it was the part I liked best about the developing co-author relationship with Nathaniel. This chapter is much harder to get started, although I’d thought it’d be the easiest—I mean, how complicated can a “how we met” story be to tell?

Fairly complicated, it appears. On the practical side of things, it is farther back in time and I must rely more on memory and journal entries (10 years ago vs. these last few years). Thus it requires a great deal of effort to transport myself sufficiently to deliver an authentic rendition of that time and place, although it’s a task I’m starting to get the hang of. Photos, music, meditation, and just plain dedicated time are helping with that.

When Margo and I first became pals, Cinco de Mayo 2001

Then there’s the emotional side of things. Revisiting what we “used to have” up in the States vs. “what we’re limited to now” in Mexico creates a nostalgic perception of the past that threatens an objective view of the past and the tenuous equilibrium I’ve forged in the present. It’s also a challenge to separate how I analyze current happenings from how I consider the past and its influence on the present. In light of this, I’m experimenting with alternative ways to manage my current “stuff.” I normally journal to process my thoughts, which you don’t really need to be an exile or a parent to relate to. Unfortunately, on top of the book writing, it’s turning out to be an inundation of verbiage that’s becoming overwhelming to organize, especially since in my case almost anything in my life can become material for this book. Since I’ve got to stay on top of the stuff that’s constantly cropping up in the present (I’ve long since learned the perils of repression), and thanks to the advice of a support person I’m working with, art will be the new medium for present-day processing while working on past-tense chapters.

Which brings me to another creative technique I’m a little more apprehensive about, although my gut tells me it’s OK to just go with the flow for now: finding my place in the current literature of my genre (I’m not even sure what to call it—The love exile memoir?—as it mostly exists on the blogosphere or third-person in the media). Although Nate and I are not newbies to the written word, this is our first book, and so we are both experimenting with what works for us. On that note, I’ve decided that instead of irrigating my years-long drought of contact with other immigration love exiles like me (I describe this circumstantial isolation more in the book), I’m going to keep mostly to myself and not inundate myself with the stories of other people who have had to live through the experience of having a spouse deported or forced to make the choice to self-deport.

When I shared this tactic with Nate, he responded that keeping abreast of all the stories and political landscape is important to him. In my opinion, as a journalist covering a large subject matter like immigration, it makes absolute sense for him to approach his subject with a great deal of familiarity. My own subject, on the other hand, is the journey my husband and I have made from getting together in the States, self-deporting, and resettling in his country of birth. Now that I’m involved with this project and Nate’s tipped me off to the abundance of fellow love exiles’ websites, I crave spending time reading up on them, or meeting the people he’s writing about, or getting to know the faces behind the cases that keep popping up to the public light who are living a similar hell as I. However, not only are there ethical concerns with us keeping our sides of the storytelling separate, but there are only 24 hours in the day and as Nate and I have both agreed, we need to keep the distractions to a minimum. So I’ve made a difficult decision to prioritize my precious (new parent) energies and just keep my nose to the writing grindstone. I am, however, making a local exception—a mutual friend is introducing me to another love exile couple recently arrived here to Queretaro. Ironically, the woman’s father found me through Amor and Exile’s Facebook page before I even met his daughter. I’m looking forward to meeting our new neighbors.

Once the manuscript’s done, however, I am eager to get more active in the wider activist community, more than just posting a few links and making a few alliances here and there. After all, the immigrant rights movement is really taking off and God knows many families really stand to be affected by what pans out in this next expected reform period.

The political-personal border

Long-standing “problems” with immigration and the border. The recently unveiled immigration reform proposal by President Obama. Our book. My own life. Never before has the political felt so urgent and personal to me, and yet never before have I felt so reticent about diving into political matters.

That’s kind of weird, so I’ve got to explore this. Although I’ve never held public office, I’ve also never shied away from politics. That’s probably because I never made much of a distinction between the personal and the political per se—at least as defined by Google dictionary (see below*) If you accept those definitions, you could say I got political pretty young, when I began organizing on behalf of the environment. I guess ever since my family exposed me to nature and I attended those camps as a kid, I decided the environment was something important to me, and it seemed like a no-brainer that whatever we did as individuals or a society had an impact on our greater world. Although I was long drawn to leadership positions, I was always far from feeling uniquely empowered—to the contrary, I was convinced (and still am) that anyone and everyone could make a difference in their community with a minimum of effort, and with good reason—my friends and colleagues and I managed to do some pretty incredible things.

Artwork from National Museum of Independence in Dolores Hidalgo, Gto. MX

It was with this sense of confidence that I first approached the issue of adjusting my husband’s immigration status. But as we recount in Amor and Exile, almost everyone who becomes involved with an undocumented immigrant eventually runs into a wall of legal complexity that seems impossible to overcome. Everyone deals with their disempowerment in different ways, and the reasons for their decisions are as intricate as the laws and societal pressures that influence them. Some couples fight tooth and nail to achieve official status for the undocumented partner, and win (or lose). Some couples prefer self-preservation and live under the radar for a short time, or forever. Some stay together. Some are separated. The living situations can be voluntary or forced. Our situation is a combination of several of the above.

Despite circulating a few articles or petitions regarding immigration, I’ve actually spent relatively little energy specifically on immigration action. It might seem odd in light of my inclination to activism, but I think there are several reasons for it. One was circumstantial, and had to do with the fact that around the time I began dating my husband, I was starting to become aware of how exhausting community organizing can be—they call it burnout—and I was at a point in my life where I began to prioritize my energies. I chose to focus on education vs. political activism. I’ve also unfortunately developed some sense of powerlessness over the last 10 years when faced with our limited number of choices, and the extent of people’s knee-jerk reactions about immigration issues is painful to behold. However, I’ve spent a ton of time thinking about our situation and how it relates to the larger political panorama, and always wished I could do more.

Now that one of the decisions I’ve made with regard to Margo’s former undocumented status in the U.S. is to write about it, our story has come into the public light. According to the first definition below, that automatically makes contributing to this book a political act, although that’s not my original intention—I simply had a vision to tell a story. It’s exciting because, as scary as it is, it’s my hope that telling our story could have some positive impact on others in our situation. Despite this, I feel reticent to make any sort of general political statement about my feelings about immigration reform—especially in response to President Obama’s recently unveiled proposal, which Nathaniel recently posted about. That could change, though.

In chatting up my ambivalence with a trusted supporter, she raised the idea of “self-activism,” and that instead of faulting myself for being politically inactive, maybe that’s what I’ve been doing a lot of in these past 10 years. It’s something I’m continuing to explore. After all, leaving one’s home country, adapting to life in another and possibly obtaining binational status (I’m waiting on a Mexican citizenship application) are no small tasks, as I allude to in a 2008 blog post, back when I first saw the artwork above. In any case, the work of writing a book is absorbing enough that I’ll need to seriously prioritize my time until my chapters are done—and for once that feels like a good enough reason to limit my exposure to the fray, at least in the short-term.

*po·lit·i·cal, adjective
1. Of or relating to the government or the public affairs of a country
2. Of or relating to the ideas or strategies of a particular party or group in politics.
3. Interested in or active in politics
4. Motivated or caused by a person’s beliefs or actions concerning politics

per·son·al, adjective
4. Of or concerning one’s private life, relationships, and emotions rather than matters connected with one’s public or professional career