Six years ago, ten years felt like an eternity. Our waiting period. Ten years, and then a request for a “pardon” and a shot at a visa application for my husband. Every year I returned to the States, alone, every time, feeling so sad about having to leave my husband in Mexico. Our hopes are about so much more than a visa. Our hopes are about keeping our family together. For me, having to travel alone for 6 years meant it started to affect me a little less every year than the first time.
Now, on this seventh trip back (one year I went twice), my husband’s the one with tears in his eyes. For the record, I’ve seen Margo with tears in his eyes maybe three times in the eleven years I’ve known him. This time, it was at dinner. Tomorrow, he bids me and his toddler goodbye for three weeks while she accompanies me as a bridesmaid in my friend’s wedding in CA, and my grandmother’s 90th birthday in NY. It’s perhaps not as traumatic a separation as some families experiences when a parent is deported or jailed, but it hurts all the same. I tried to reassure him that we’d call twice a day, and we’d be in good hands, and I’d be as patient as possible with our daughter in his absence (he’s the good cop), but that wasn’t what was upsetting him. “I know, but it’s just frustrating,” Margo said “it’s difficult.”
I started to tear up myself in realizing just how rough this was going to feel for my husband this time around. But then he remembered the one beer I bought him earlier and the mini bottle of wine I got myself a couple days ago. “I want to be able to celebrate the night before we go,” I had said. “Se me estaba pasando,” Margo said, almost forgetting. We poured a glass and I reminded him of the possibility that when 2016 comes we might actually get lucky. “The first lawyer was a lying optimist, the second and third lawyers were truth-telling pessimists, so maybe this fourth lawyer is a truth-telling optimist,” I said, regarding some recent encouraging legal advice we’d heard about our case.
He managed a half-smile, and we toasted. “To 6 down, and 4 to go,” I said. Que sera asi.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted, but it’s not for lack of interest…this past month I’ve been writing my last chapter furiously in the hopes of completing my part of the manuscript by the end of the month—a paragraph here, a paragraph there, an edit for Nate here and there, squeezed in during my daughter’s naptimes and before I rush off to work in the afternoons.
It hasn’t been quite as hard a task as previous chapters, only in that a chunk of the writing was already started for me, a part that I did earlier that got carved off of my first chapter. The hardest parts have been integrating all the things that have happened in the six years since I’ve moved here, how they’ve changed me, and how they affect my outlook on the future.
Then it dawned on me. The real reason why it’s been so hard to find time to write is because of a recent spate of the subject I’m working to encapsulate in this very chapter: “hardships” (as they call them in the immigration annals); little things that make life here in Mexico particularly hard to deal with and have got us struggling to keep our heads above water.
It started in the end of May, when Margo cut his finger on a table saw and had to take himself to the ER (I was out and he didn’t want me to worry). You might say that accidents can happen anywhere, and I agree, but in this case I counter that it occurred because we don’t have enough resources to get an appropriate table saw with safety measures…this was Margo’s improvisational setup of a radial saw upside down clamped to a piece of plywood with an open slot for the blade. In his own words, “I am very careful…but some accidents are impossible to avoid.”
Then, the three of us had giardiasis. For those of you who don’t know, that’s hiker’s diarrhea. Except we haven’t been hiking since January. Giardia is a protozoan found in contaminated water. A Mexico specialty for its higher incidence in the population and lower hygiene standards. We spent Margo’s 38th birthday on Metronidazol (Flagyl), hence not a drop of celebratory spirits, except cake, which probably made us sicker.
Not more than two weeks later, I did imbibe at a quinceañera. I also got food poisoning that night. Probably Salmonella.
Three days later, I got a viral stomach flu. OK so that might also be pretty standard U.S. fare too but I threw it in because of its chronological order here, and also because I thought it might have been a relapse of the Giardia.
Then yesterday, less than a month after he went to the ER for his finger, I had to take Margo to the ER, yet again. This time, it was one of our trademark local arthropods—scorpion sting. Ironically enough, we’d attended a first aid course that morning and I’d asked the specific question, “If someone needed treatment for a scorpion, spider, or snake bite, where would I take them?”
The response was “Hospital General o Hospital del Niño y la Mujer.” So that’s where I sat yesterday at 6 pm, less than an hour after the babysitter had arrived to watch our daughter while we used the backhoe to transplant our banana tree to the other side of our yard. In preparing, Margo had to move a few cinder blocks out of the path of the backhoe, whereupon the scorpion had stung him.
“I even flipped it twice to check for scorpions—damn scorpion.” He was more upset about having our gardening project delayed for the second time.
I was just worried about getting him to the hospital fast—he’s allergic to their venom, and so when he was 4 years old the only reason they took him to the hospital was because he’d begun salivating—they hadn’t seen him get stung. When he was a teenager in la secundaria, he’d gotten stung at home but they took him to the local clinic instead of straight to the hospital, and patiently waited their turn. When the doctor saw them, Margo’s throat was already closing and he said, “What the hell are you doing here and not at the hospital?”
Needless to say I was determined for that to not happen, and by the time we found parking, made our way in to Urgencias, and I found the right person to talk to (no one was at the ER desk), the numbness had only reached his mid-forearm. Margo was laidback, since things move at a snail’s pace in Mexican institutions, and he knows he has a New Yorker now to sic on the attendants. I was proud of my ability to get him seen immediately. After years of stumbling practice, I can finally make biting but polite phrases in perfect Spanish, like “this is the ER, right?” in order to catch the attention of the young nurse who seemed more interested in flirting than receiving patients.
He was waved right in, where he received anti-venom, IV fluids, and was prescribed painkillers and antihistamines, which he’ll take for three days. I considered the trip practice for a real emergency, and feel grateful we have federal insurance (Seguro Popular) that covers these sort of catastrophes.
It’s not as grave as a snakebite, or a black widow sting, but they live nearby too (I’ve come in face to face contact with both), and I live in eternal fear/respect of them. But the point is it’s not quite the same neighborhood I grew up in, where the most I had to worry about were mosquito bites and poison ivy, or the next one I chose, that features poison oak and earthquakes. This is the home we have no choice but to be in. But it’s still home all the same, like it or not, at least for now.
Nathaniel and I have been away for a few months hunkering down on our next chapters in the book. But I’ve come up for air for the few days before we enter collaborative editing mode again (hooray!) this Thursday, when we’ll swap chapters and then tear them to pieces. It was a new thing for me, writing a chapter in between work days (I now teach at an English school as well) and at naptimes (previously, I hadn’t honed the fine art of only writing for a couple hours at a time while my daughter napped). Although I’m fairly content with the final product, I’m a little nervous about the collaborative editing process for this one. Not that Nate and I haven’t honed our process (we actually have come a long way in that, and think our way of doing things now brings out the better writer in each of us), but because this chapter felt like more of a doozy for me than my first two.
This chapter (unnamed for now) is centered on my husband and my departure together from the U.S. in mid-2006. It was fairly straightforward to write but mined innumerable emotions, the kind felt as we waffled back and forth on the decision as to whether we’d leave the U.S. to move together back to Margo’s hometown, and if so, when. I obviously get into it in much more detail in the book but suffice it to say that making the intentional leap to leave your friends, family, profession, and economic well-being is no small task. Going back through everything I thought, felt, and experienced along the way of making that decision and then going through with it (I draw heavily on my journals for my chapters) was emotionally intense, to say the least.
And what was weirder for me this time is that it wasn’t so tough while I was writing it, but got tougher when I was almost done. I’d written quite a bit of the last part of the chapter (which is basically our border crossing story) years ago, but went back and carved it up and rewrote it for Amor and Exile. In doing so, and in rereading the chapter to my husband, I relived the whole experience, which brought up a lot of feelings I thought I’d put to bed a long time ago (guess again).
Leaving behind friends, family, and familiar places were tough, but I still have contact with them and I can still visit. What stirred up the most distressing feelings for me upon revisiting them were the parts about leaving my job, and the actual border crossing itself. I don’t feel like I ever quite got back on track after derailing my professional trajectory (although I have undertaken a number of satisfying projects), and so that’s probably why I feel unsettled about that piece still.
The move south in its entirety was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done, even though the actual border crossing itself was one the most stressful things I’ve ever done. I’m not sure why, but I got the notion to take another look at our route on Google maps. Below are a few images that I came up with. They virtually brought me back down memory lane.
This was the route we took from the San Francisco Bay Area to Margo’s hometown of Queretaro, Mexico. We stopped off in Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon because we don’t know if Margo will ever be back in the United States again someday, and well, those are two places you’ve just got to visit before you die.
This is a zoomed-in view of more or less where we crossed in Nogales, AZ to Nogales, Mex. Marker A shows where we had to stop unexpectedly, throwing a bit of a wrench into our plans.
It was precisely in this lot/parking lot that we had to sit sweating it out (literally) for a few hours while our truck’s legal paperwork was being done (none for my husband, unfortunately).
I couldn’t find imagery for the Homeland Security Department building that we passed when were almost out of the United States (maybe for security reasons). But it was quite a cathartic feeling to both finally be in Mexico and be done with rereading that part of the chapter to my husband. As much as it tears me up what we had to do, and how much I have to retell the tale in order to carry out my vision of telling our story, I’m comforted by the following quote from Buddhist master Chogyam Trungpa:
‘We wear out the shoe of samsara by walking on it through the practice of meditation…so meditation practice or spiritual development depend on samsaras.”
I see my story of leaving the U.S. and coming to Mexico as part of my own personal samsara—kind of like an emotional roller coaster ride. And so the trauma of having done so will eventually fade as I “wear it out” by telling the story over and over again. But in order to tell the story, I must have experienced it in the first place.
One of the most difficult things about writing my part of Amor and Exile is that I live it every day.
Before I joined this project with Nathaniel, I primarily wrote in my journal about my experience of living with my husband in the U.S. when he was an undocumented immigrant there, or the aftermath of moving with him here to Mexico. For ten years, I wrote in my black covered notebooks, profusely but randomly—when events led me to need to record what was happening. Now that we’re collaborating, even though we don’t have a strict schedule, we have an endpoint in sight. As far as the book is concerned, that requires staying on top of regular writing, toward the eventual finish line of completing our manuscript. As far as my life is concerned, that is a more open-ended proposition.
Currently, I have only two days—Tuesdays and Thursdays—to get in the right frame of mind for writing my chapters. Those are the days that my husband has agreed to stay home with our daughter while I think and type. The precious hours available to me are whittled down by everything else that I do in order to get ready to write. Scan the news online, write in my journal, meditate. Then there’s responsibilities like nursing my daughter, eating, using the bathroom. Or the dreaded procrastination, a.k.a. social media networks. All of this is no big news to anyone who writes. It’s part of the game, and you either figure out a way to deal with it or get a different job. In reality, none of this is really that big of a deal to me either. Modern professionals learn to multi-task and juggle activities.
But one of the things that most gets in the way of my writing for this book is the very relationship I am writing about. Ha, ha. Yes, my relationship with my husband. Hey—I’m not ashamed to say things aren’t always perfectly harmonious. On any given day we are prone to bicker about something, but if that happens on the day I am supposed to write about my life for this book, it poses somewhat of a challenge of objectivity to me.
I know damn well that even though my husband and I have our differences that it doesn’t mean we don’t love each other, or that I shouldn’t write this book. We’re new parents, we’re a bicultural and binational partnership (read: culture gap to bridge), and we’re both severely underemployed. Which is to say we have strains on our moods. Just that sometimes it can be a little distracting to argue right before I’m supposed to perfect, for example, a section of a chapter about how we met. If I were writing a book about the Berries of North America (perhaps my next book topic), I really doubt that whether or not Margo interrupted me 7 times in the preceeding 7 hours would affect my portrayal of the geographic distribution of the cloudberry. So I have to try really hard to almost dissociate myself from my own relationship while writing about my relationship. That can be an exercise in absurdity.
If I had been personally targeted, I probably would have been fuming. In fact, I might have even cried. But I am not sure if I would have responded in the same way. Don’t get me wrong: in the book I do talk about all the reasons why I fell in love with my husband—if I didn’t, our story wouldn’t be complete. But I feel very uncomfortable about the idea that I need to somehow prove the value of my relationship with my husband, just because he was at one time undocumented. No one, under any circumstances, should be forced to explain why they love their partner. That’s a dehumanizing situation. I’m concerned that if I respond in that way to attackers, I’ll validate their claims.
I’m writing this post because writing as candidly as possible about our story is something I’ve struggled with since deciding to go public with it. I had second thoughts about what some might consider “airing my dirty laundry.” I’ve done battle with the illusion that, in order to qualify as a worthy subject, our relationship ought to be flawless. But I’m realizing the folly in that viewpoint. I want to be as clear as possible about the pressures our relationship has endured over the years as a result of the legal situation he found himself in, and I found myself in by association. It’s not that we had a perfect relationship and illegal immigration destroyed it. It’s that we have a loving marriage with perfectly normal ups and downs, and immigration law as it’s currently written has strained it to a point that is liable to break up any family. Relationships are hard enough to keep together without having to stretch them indefinitely across international borders and pelt them with the callous comments of haters who have no idea what it’s like.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, my husband just made lunch, and the tortillas might get cold. And then I’ve got a chapter to get back to.
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.
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.