The list: for a former sister-in-exile

In the going on 13 years I’ve been in Mexico, we’ve had to say “goodbye” to several good friends who have moved “back north” or elsewhere. In Amor and Exile, I wrote about a variety of different reasons that other expats end up down here in Querétaro and the solidarity we have being foreigners who’ve chosen to relocate here.

We hosted a reunion gathering of sorts last month when one of our dear friends who moved back to the States a few years ago finally was able to come back and visit. Kind of a big sister figure to a few of us, it was great to have her and her family here, reminisce about when our kids were toddlers and besties together, and that feeling of sisterhood while raising a family in a foreign country.

Around the same time we were hosting our good friends who were in town for the weekend, we were saying a different kind of goodbye to some other dear friends who had an immigration exile situation very similar to ours, but who finally got their break to return as a family this past summer.

Heather and Horacio (H2) met over a decade ago in Georgia, fell in love and decided to get married and start a family. As fate would have it, Horacio, also from Central Mexico (San Luis Potosí) experienced legal challenges to an adjustment of status due to having overstayed and working while on a tourist visa to the U.S. Heather ended up accompanying Horacio down to México as I had Margo. We both actually lived in Querétaro for several years without knowing it, but didn’t meet each other until we published Amor and Exile, Heather found the blog, and reached out to try and make contact.

To make a long story short, H2 didn’t have to apply for one but two waivers. Their first was an I-212, similar to ours that we applied for last June and got approved last September; and their second (an I-601) was precipitated by a torturous sort of double jeopardy penalty handed out late in his application process, at the end of his 2nd visa interview last year.

We had been waiting right alongside H2 , first for the visa interview, then for the results, for one, because that’s what friends are for, and secondly, because our paths have mirrored each other’s so closely over the last 12+ years. In fact, the things we two exiled ladies had in common in our journey are so downright uncanny we decided to keep a list of things we both have or have done:

  • Both are from the East Coast of the U.S.
  • Both are educators
  • Both have younger brothers
  • Both left the U.S. with our “inadmissible” husbands on a voluntary departure
  • Both stopped at the Grand Canyon on our last trips out of the U.S. with husbands
  • Both moved to Mexico in 2006 (3 weeks apart)
  • Both had a Nissan Platina car
  • Both lived in Querétaro (for 5 yrs w/o even knowing each other)
  • Both taught English in Mexico
  • Both had their first borns in Hospital Santa Cruz
  • Both first babies were born in the same room!
  • Same immigration lawyer (I referred them to ours)
  • Both had to apply for I-212 waivers for their husbands
  • Both had I-212 waivers approved

This running list of things in common became like a joke for us, with all of our uncanny similarities. It was one of many go-to sources of humor that our two families needed during so many months and years of darkness and despair, trying to hold out hope that we might be able to choose our destinies as a family and return to our homelands together with our families. H2 and their family did end up briefly separated for a short while while Heather worked as a schoolteacher close to family in Pennsylvania and took their two boys with her, a natural reaction to needing and wanting to command a better income to raise a family than one can in Central Mexico, and also based on the assumption that her husband would sail through his 2nd visa interview and have his green card that same calendar year. Unfortunately that plan got derailed when a consular agent decided that one waiver was not enough to clear Horacio’s name and that the family would need to prove dire hardship and greater deserving of returning together to the States than normal circumstances would dictate, and that Horacio’s overstay of his visa would jeopardize more than twelve years later.

The first and only time Heather and I finally decided to write down all our things in common was when our paths were finally about to diverge. It wasn’t when Horacio got the rejection at the consulate in Ciudad Juarez, which was earth shattering for their family, and which also shook us to the core. At their dinner table in their home a while later, Horacio related the depth of his sadness to me about when, after a series of unforgiving questioning at the bank-teller style booths in the consulate, he was shown a blue slip that invariably meant his visa application was being denied. Since we had the same lawyer (they got started on their process faster than we did), the first thought that went through my mind was “what did they do wrong?” The truth is more complex than can be described here. But beyond the facts of their case, which differ slightly from ours, on an emotional level we grieved that rejection with H2, and tears rolled right alongside them as Horacio recounted the interview and the hours that followed in the lonely hotel room in CDJ. We didn’t just know – we felt, we saw, we understood the letdown that it represented for them, and how easily that experience could be ours in a few short months.

Our two families’ shared trauma, a emotional and legal roller coaster that our children and extended families also ride, in all its grandparent-depriving, borderline bipolar parental mood highs and lows, results in a keen, unique bond uncommon to any other family friendships we’ve had. We actually led quite normal, ordinary lives here in Querétaro, both as teacher/trainers, bridging intercultural communities both at work and in our personal lives. Our WhatsApp conversations were filled with affirmative, humorous messages. Our families share a love for nature and we often had the privilege of enjoying outdoor adventures together. Then, when immigration woes invaded our consciences, there was only total, immediate, and unconditional support and understanding for each other. That is a rare privilege to share with a like-minded friend, much less in the same county two thousand miles south of home.

I write about these varying family “immigration autonomy” statuses, for lack of a better word, in Amor and Exile. Though most foreigners must apply for a U.S. visa (except those with visa waiver programs), most friends are not subject to the same level of scrutiny and decades-long processes that H2 and my family have had to endure – they also have the freedom to relocate where they so choose, whereas our family’s only real choice is to stay put if we want to stay together. H2 shared not only that same restriction with us, but also the singular drive to rail against it, and to keep trying, against all odds, to achieve familial autonomy in the eyes of the immigration system, and at its essence, an ability to relocate wherever they so choose.

The author at her first A&E reading in Querétaro, México. Heather is against the wall at far left.
The author at her first A&E reading in Querétaro, México, and Heather, at far left.

And so we weren’t surprised at all, in fact, we were impressed and delighted, to hear when H2 went ahead and applied for that second waiver (an I-601), right away, with our same lawyer. I do have to confess that I was surprised when their waiver was approved relatively rapidly, and they got their 3rd visa interview appointment in a matter of a few months the approval, while we are still waiting 10 months after our waiver was approved. But of course each case is subject to its own intricacies and order of events. We were unbelievably overjoyed when we heard that Horacio’s visa was finally approved, in the month of June this year. I was particularly happy for Heather because I knew a June approval meant she would be able to return to the school where she taught in Pennsylvania and also enroll her sons for next school year as well. The aftermath of a visa approval, when one has been out of the country for over a decade, can be complicated, as it could be for us, if Margo is granted one, due to the simultaneous timing of leaving current jobs, all the logistics associated with relocating a family, job hunting for the primary breadwinner(s), etc. But since H2 was banking on a visa relatively soon after the I-212 approval over a year ago, they were a few steps ahead in the game. I knew the relocation was to going to happen fast.

It did in fact snowball rapidly, as they had a vacation to Guatemala already planned, and that gave them a week to pack up their belongings from Horacio’s brother’s home where they had spent the last 10+ years, a week with family in the southern U.S. before school started for Heather and the boys. When we got the good news, I quickly realized that it might be my last chance to spend time with our friends before they’d be flying north, like migratory birds in springtime.

Our two families decided to go see Spiderman in a theater at a new mall that just opened not far from our home. The new fangled movie theater felt almost VIP for general admission prices, so we had a nice time. As we were leaving, I pitched stopping for drinks, milking the last private hours we would likely get with them. To my delight, they obliged, and while we sipped margaritas and the kids played, we got the skinny on Horacio’s most recent experience in CDJ, this time accompanied by both Heather and the boys. As probably only immigration/exile geeks like us would do, we replayed Horacio’s interview over chips and guacamole down to the questions and responses and what he wore. I found myself asking if my husband who has never worn a tie would have to don one – to my relief the suggestion was no. We got plenty of advice and tips from both of them, and my feelings teetered between elation and admiration for, and solidarity with them and their persistence, to fear of our own experience not working out, and selfish sadness at how much I would be missing them very soon. The night ended too soon, and was very airy and bubbly with promise and selfies, but I resolved to say goodbye with more pathos before they departed northward.

I think H2 knew how fast things were going to go with departure, but having been in similar situations myself, and knowing how the gravity of all the details and feelings associated with major events aren’t fully appreciated until you’re in the thick of them, or perhaps afterwards, I knew they would be “riding the wave” so to say and if I wanted to see them one more time I’d have to pay close attention. There was a tiny window where my impossibly packed work schedule and their own crazy schedule of getting back from their vacation and flying to Pennsylvania would cede a space of 2 hours, literally the night before they flew out. I debated whether I should add to their stress and try to see them one last time. But since I’m big on ritual in terms of life experiences, and considering how special H2 and their family have been to us in the last 5+ years, I wanted to try.

Sitting on Horacio’s brother’s couch, as she served salmon to his brother, sister, and their niece, I couldn’t help but feel like I was intruding on a solemn family goodbye dinner. They insisted it was no trouble, served us party mix, and Horacio sat on the couch with us, but I did feel like I was imposing. It was also after 7 pm and a school night for our daughter, so I resolved to be quick. I have gotten so good with not letting immigration matters get me down any more, so I didn’t expect tears. More likely, I am just internalizing and getting numbed by all the emotional horror carried by the stories from the border and the Interior under this current administration. But as Horacio began to talk about how Margo would certainly get his own visa, and as the four of us began to reminisce about the last several years, while the kids strayed in different directions, probably shell-shocked by the weirdness of the moment, my stoic facade quickly crumbled.

To present I’m still not quite sure what obsessive behavior compelled me to pull out my Notes app and ask Heather to help me write down the list of ours things in common that we’ve been compiling over the last six years since we published Amor and Exile and she found me through our book networks and showed up at our first public book talk in Querétaro. The list certainly wasn’t a priority thing she needed to do in that moment. I can’t come up with any better explanation than it was a coping mechanism, me playing journalist to my own life, knowing that the list has been important as many times to Heather as it was to me, that it helped keep her sane through all these years in exile in Mexico to know that someone else like her was surviving, even sometimes thriving; and that for both of us no matter what happened in our husbands’ immigration fates, there was someone else in the same boat, and that maybe, just maybe, if they were doing it, we could keep doing it too.

The more years you spend in exile, the more desensitized you become to the inhumane pressures of your life amounting to a ticker tape of immigration case readouts. The only thing that is keeping us whole, human, and alive with love is knowing the other faces, hearts, and hands that are swimming upstream against the waves, waterfalls, and hurricanes of hate, and persisting in the face of them all. Thank you Heather and Horacio for touching our lives, for sharing your humanity, your friendship, your generosity, your indefatigability with us. And congratulations on this huge win in the struggle to keep our families together. We will see you soon “al otro lado,” whichever “side” it may be.

The author and her friend Heather with their families over the holidays in Central Mexico.
The author and her friend Heather with their families over the holidays in Central Mexico.

The Waiver (I-212)

I’ve been trying since last November, then again in January, April, and June to sit down and properly share our immigration status. But the last year has been lived in the moment, with little luxury of time to write and muse about it all. I lost my grandmother, started to swim, turned 40, have weathered budget cuts at work, and perhaps most notably, finally decided to move forward with Margo’s  I-212 waiver application and everything it implies.

We’d been dragging our feet a little bit with moving forward with the I-212 application. If approved, it would waive Margo’s previously inadmissibility due to having previously “entered without inspection” and having stayed more than a year after that. We technically could have filed it 2 years ago, on September 18, 2016. But certain factors slowed us down: the cost (several thousand USD), my Mexican salary, the Trump candidacy and later victory, and the dread of the flipside – the possible rejection.

I’m not sure if it was my grandmother’s death last September and the resulting growing desire to make visiting family together easier. Or if it was the urgency created by the perception of a door slowly being closed on the northern side of the border (given the current administration’s unceasing attacks on immigrants). But by November of last year, we’d made our mind up to finally give the I-212 a try.

The I-212 has mythical status in our family. Since 2003, it’s surfaced again and again as the key step to rectify Margo’s immigration status. The one thing that would allow our family freedom and autonomy again. In reality there’s obviously so much more to it than that.

And yet so much hangs on a singular decision made by a USCIS agent when reviewing that package of papers. And so, perhaps with the exception of the consular interview, there is no other step that’s loaded with as much importance, at least for our family. For others in similar situations it’s the I-601 waiver, a slightly different type, the famous “hardship” waiver. 

Since my family’s future quite literally hangs in the balance of the I-212 waiver, from the moment we decided to go through with it last November, I put every last ounce of my attention to detail and motivation to make sure it was the best effort possible.

That ranged from conducting an small campaign to raise several thousand dollars in legal fees and application costs; to recruiting, collecting, writing, and organizing the approximately 85 pieces of evidence to be included in the 236-page waiver packet (70% longer than my Master’s thesis) – including 13 letters of support, Margo’s and my own personal treatises on why he/we deserve consideration, and 258 scanned passport pages.

And then, to prevent myself from experiencing crushing defeat in the case it’s denied, I simultaneously told myself that the results didn’t truly matter. 

Everybody wants to be happy and content with their life, no matter the circumstances. There have been many moments in the last 12 years, even extended periods of time, where that was the case. That’s encouraging to me because it means I could be prepared for, and could potentially weather, that ever-present possibility that Margo, our daughter, and I might never be able to return to the U.S. as a family. 

Lest I seem appear cynical, that possibility could be increasing. There is an uptick in denials at what ought to be the ‘final step’ or ‘rubber stamp’ consular interviews. Memos that tighten the rules on visa processing are making it incrementally harder to achieve a successful application.

At best, our lawyer told us to prepare to wait for at least 2 months, if not 13 months, to hear anything back about the package that she sent in on our behalf to the San Diego field office of the U.S. Customs and Immigration service this past June. That was her longest wait for a response on a waiver application. To add to that, she shared reports that positive communication between immigration attorneys and USCIS field offices is intentionally being decreased. 

This is the environment in which my 17-year old bid to bring Margo back with me to my home country is culminating in. So it’s only normal that I am inclined to prepare myself for the worst.

*     *     *     *

Despite my low expectations for hearing back about the waiver any time in 2018, on the bright side, they did cash our $900 processing fee less than a month after receiving it. So even though USCIS is not known for its approachability lately, our lawyer and I did chat about creative ways to try and get in touch with the San Diego office.

Our lawyer, Laura, is based in Milwaukee, and thus has more contacts in that region. But a friend from college who recently came to visit mentioned that a fellow alum of ours’ wife was an immigration lawyer in San Diego. That made me think she might have a local contact for the office. Laura agreed, and I’ve been attempting to get in touch with the friend’s wife through my friend for the last month. 

But life, of course, goes on amidst all this. Work has been unusually hectic even on the heels of a particularly hectic summer. September’s always just generally upbeat with Mexican Independence Day, our daughter’s birthday this past Tuesday, a date shared by our 12-year anniversary in Mexico, and my 7-year anniversary of my Mexican naturalization. So, unable to really catch a breath, the message about the waiver was still pending.

Then, Friday morning, taking a brief break from getting ready for a team meeting after a big visit from headquarters last week, I checked my messages and casually saw one from my mother that said “a letter came for Margo that says he is approved to reapply for admission.”

My hands started to tremble and my mind raced as my thoughts struggled to catch up with what my eyes saw. My one thought was I needed to say this out loud in order to believe it. So I made my way upstairs to our office area, closed the door, and told two volunteers what happened. Knowing our story, they immediately started jumping and screaming, and hugging me – which made it feel very real.  I sat down and felt my heart pounding, and suddenly couldn’t think much about what I’d been working on just 10 before.

As it started to sink in, I started to think about all the people I needed to tell – Margo, our lawyer, my brother, close friends, other colleagues, and things started to feel very surreal. Grinning back at the volunteers, and excusing myself for a moment, I went to look for my boss, and when I couldn’t find him, I went to find another colleague who wrote a reference letter. When I told him the news, his eyes turned to saucers, and he hugged me, my body started to rack with sobs – not sadness, not joy necessarily – just raw emotion.

The director ran in, and I filled her in on what happened. After talking with my boss, we agreed I needed to go home early to tell Margo in person. It was probably better that way, because as much as I tried to concentrate, I simply couldn’t.

There was a moment in that hour before I went home, where I wondered out loud how long the feeling would last. I even asked whether I should let myself feel the happiness. That is what 17 years of your fate lying in the balance of a piece of paper will do. But regardless of the source of the happiness, I decided to let myself feel it. I decided that even if it only lasted one afternoon, we deserved to experience that joy. And I hightailed it home to break the news to Margo.

Margo’s I-797 Notice of Action

Celebrating the news

 

We did, of course, celebrate immediately and wholeheartedly. It felt as if a years-long weight had been suddenly lifted from me. 24 hours later, the glow was punctuated by normal trepidations about next steps. 36 hours later, some of the kinds of fears I once had twelve years ago when thinking about making an international move south of the border poked their nose in. 48 hours later, although the adrenaline rush has abated, the good feeling still remains. It’s tempered by the knowledge that good friends and many allies have also gotten to this step only to be shot down by technicalities, and have had to sadly start again, or even put away their dreams.

But rather than let the obstacles dominate my vision, I plan to draw on the perspective I’ve developed over the last 17 years about how to not let fear control my life.

*     *     *     *

p.s. Grandma, if this had anything to do with you, thank you.

Provisions

provision

Definition (From Merriam-Webster online):

1a :the act or process of providing
b :the fact or state of being prepared beforehand
c :a measure taken beforehand to deal with a need or contingency :preparation made provision for replacements
2:a stock of needed materials or supplies; 
especially :a stock of food — usually used in plural
 
 
*   *   *   *   *   *
 
Not much has changed since my last post, on the 4th of July, at least from my point of view. I’m still disappointed with the abundant xenophobia emanating from a nation of immigrants. As for the U.S. vs. Mexico, with the spate of mass shootings, the continual dumbing down of the executive branch, and even environmental disasters, the U.S. keeps giving us reasons to question whether the living standard it offers is superior to Mexico’s… except for the opportunity to be closer to family and (maybe) giving Margo & I both new professional opportunities.
 
Much of the above is circumstantial, but I also have a sinking feeling that it’s the result of a slow decline of things in the States compared to when this all started for us 16 years ago. And I suppose it shouldn’t be too surprising, either, that declining living standards and growing anti-immigrant sentiment goes hand in hand. One of the first lessons I remember from basic biology was about density-dependent factors influencing populations – how with increased numbers comes stress, competition, disease, and other ills. It seems to me that our lives wouldn’t be as negatively affected, were space and resource deficiencies not impacted by the rapidly increasing gap between the mega-wealthy and the rest of us. To rewrite a saying, “if others were to live more simply, the rest of us could simply live.” But I digress.
 
 As befuddling and frustrating as the socioeconomic declines in the U.S. and worldwide are in the midst of such abundance, I am oddly pleased that I still get disappointed about it all. But I guess my sentiments are precious proof I am not so jaded from our period of exile that my ideals have been completely destroyed… my remnant disappointment in regressive politics is proof that I still have hope and faith that all the wonderful things I grew up to love about the United States could actually be true, and could become the norm, rather than the exception.
 
 
*   *   *   *   *   *

 

The author’s late grandmother Thelma

Even though my mindset hasn’t changed much in the last few months, my family’s situation has. We had a death in the family recently. My dear, closest, and longest-lived grandparent, Thelma, a.k.a. Grandma Cookie, or GG by my daughter, passed this past September, a month after her 95th birthday. My parents were visiting for my daughter’s birthday when she fell ill.

GG & Bee in New York

Perhaps it was the goldenrod and aster pollen swirling in the unseasonably warm Upstate New York late summer air, perhaps it was the unseasonably warm air itself, or maybe it was the prospect of one more forbidding Syracuse winter, we’ll never know exactly what happened. But GG’s COPD took a turn for the worse, graver than she’d ever experienced. A whirlwind of upheaval ensued: hospital admission, her refusal of medical intervention and acceptance only of palliative care, siblings flocking in from across the country, and we were all faced with the sudden reality that GG’s long run on Earth, her wide window of life was closing, and that our family matriarch’s reign was finally coming to an end.
The following weeks were sort of a blur. I returned with my parents to Nueva York to see Grandma, but of course, I had to go alone. I arrived just in time to say goodbye to GG. In giving her all our Mexico family’s regards, I was painfully reminded of how earlier this year I knew, I just knew, that I had to reunite them all in Canada or we might never again. Justin Trudeau must have known last December too, when he waived the visa for visiting Mexicans. I said everything I needed to. I cherished as much of her as I could in those final moments. And then I, and she, and we all, let go.

Margo & GG in Canada

The degree of grieving I experienced with the loss of my grandmother was new for me. She was the first close family member I have lost. The resentment I’ve felt over the years of my limited ability to be with her and the rest of my family come into particular focus in the days immediately following her death.
 
I also relived my cosmic disorientation about having broken with a long line of female predecessors, 5 generations deep, who’d been born, raised, or settled in Central New York, since my German great-great-grandmother Theresa gave birth to my great-grandmother Florence on Bear Road. With my grandmother gone, in a metaphysical pole vault, my mother landed first place in the familial matriarchal line and I am next. With my father’s Southern Californian roots, and my husband’s Central Mexican roots now in the mix, my line’s roots are spread across the continent. I have never felt more confused about where to call home, nor felt more pressure to know how or where to lead my family to.
 

The author, her daughter, mother, and grandmother, in NY

That sensation of suddenly becoming “next in line” was indescribable. It was almost akin to physical movement, of a rush of forward movement or elevation. I’ve never had nor heard of that feeling before. With it came a more urgent sense of responsibility. For my whole family. For myself. And like any self-respecting mother, I automatically and subconsciously began preparing for winter.

 

My family, on both sides, has always known well what to do with the turn of the seasons. Both my mother’s and my husband’s family were or are farmers, and thus know in their flesh of the rise and fall of abundance, the leafing of the branch, the bursting of the bud, the ripening of the fruit, the saving of the seed, and the storing of the plenty for a time of less.

GG and her sister-in-law Eleanor with the old plow, in NY

As someone who has been a practitioner and a teacher of these cycles, these understandings are innate and instinctual for me every day, but as I grew up, went out into the world, and learned of the compartmentalization of knowledge in the modern age, I realized that not everyone is privy to this awareness or appreciative of these realities. There are even those who once were, but are no longer subject to the limitations of natural cycles, at least in their minds, by virtue of economic advancement or geographical displacement. And yet we are all subject to these laws and cycles of natural life.
 
One of the saddest things about saying goodbye to my grandmother was descending the basement stairs and finding myself in the recesses of the basement, staring at, and then lightly touching the metal rings of the tops of Mason jars, that held conserves my grandmother had made – who knows how long ago – probably of some local bumper crop, as she hadn’t been physically able to grow any fruits or vegetables to an amount of needing to can them for longer than I can remember.

 

The author’s great-grandmother Florence, with her canning collection, in NY

It immediately took me back to a story my grandmother once shared with me about her growing up, perceiving her family to be living in poverty, until one day she and her family brought the Christmas turkey, bread, and vegetables to a dinner with family living downtown. Her mother, Florence, had been a victory gardener during the War, and because she had so much difficulty having her own children, she had adopted many to be a part of their family. My grandmother realized that, far from being poor, the riches they experienced growing up among wheat fields, berry bushes, and animal corrals far surpassed the riches her “wealthier” aunts possessed in terms of fur stoles and the like. My grandmother and her daughter, my mother, transmitted all of this to me in my childhood, and although it took a couple decades for the soil to be cultivated in me and to flower with that wisdom, the deep appreciation I have for the natural world, and the existential obligation to be co-participants in nature’s creativity, for our own good and that of our families, is deeply rooted in me.

The author and her daughter at home in Querétaro

I haven’t become a master of conserves, but I am a seed saver, and sower. I don’t make tortillas from scratch, but I do make a mean tamale. And I do recognize and value my creativity. Reconciling my exile was in itself a grieving process, it ebbs and flows.  So perhaps I did have something to compare my loss of my grandmother to… I had to say goodbye to my nation. I continue to grieve her. Both losses were out of my control. The difference with exile is that the loss might be temporary, were we to be able to return. In both cases, I am forever changed by the event.
 *   *   *   *   *   *
 
Being uprooted, twice, from a home, with a prospect, albeit long and challenging, of being able to return, of having choice restored, after having grown up 20 years in a 5-generation long tradition as a Syracusan, then seven years a Californian, and now six years a Mexican, eleven years south of the border, but still (always) considered a gringa, continues to be disorienting. Thus, I seek whatever certainty I can from the compass inside. And looking to the women who came before me; Theresa, Florence, Thelma, Debbie, Jenny, and Olga; though the diverse list reaches back before the turn of the last century, the apparent constants are these: Generosity. Selflessness. Concern for others. Putting others first. Working hard for their families. Intense love for children. Aware of a woman’s strength. A love of flowers, romance, and beauty. At many times, refusing to accept injustice, and refusing to cede their power to the undeserving. Just some of my family’s values.

 

GG and family, in NY

I can still taste Grandma’s fresh raspberries and currants that grew in her backyard, that was steps from my childhood home. I can still taste the jelly she made and shared with us all. I can still see the homemade cookies that she had waiting for her visitors on her counter by her pantry. Like her, I am drawn to cultivating, harvesting, partaking. To participating in the cycle of life, abundance, and sharing. For those around me, for the future. I am not totally sure what this will entail, beyond the occasional banana bread muffins, or socking away whatever savings we can to try and make a northern bid once more. For myself, for my family, for what the unknown holds. Many things are still unclear. But one thing is for sure, the wheel is turning, and the grain will be stored. For the time when provisions are needed.

Fumbling toward fireworks

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.

#BuildBridgesNotWalls: Add Your Ideas

Why build bridges and not walls?

You can see why others think we should #BuildBridgesNotWalls HERE.

You can submit YOUR idea with the form below!

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.

Click here to read other ideas for why we should #BuildBridgesNotWalls.

Don’t forget to submit YOUR idea below, and then, please SHARE WIDELY!

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.

Be assured that our website is carefully moderated and hateful speech will not be tolerated. All submissions must adhere to our posting policy. Your post will only appear after it is approved. 500 word limit, please. Thank you for your contribution!

Submit to #BuildBridgesNotWalls

4+5=

Walls we have crossed

Trumpist border wall in Israel

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.

Border walls are porous.
Border walls are porous. Even Trump’s favorite apartheid walls in Jerusalem.

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.

Juarez El Paso border walls
You mean this border wall? Existing wall between Juarez and El Paso, shot from the highway in Juarez (2011).

What is missing in Trump’s life that he wants to build more walls?

Bad parenting.
Why didn’t Trump’s parents take him travelling?

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?

mined border
Red triangle indicates unexploded ordinance in Southern Lebanon, near border with Israel. Is this the border we desire?

Not a terrible wall.

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 tenth year – II

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.

Jalisco, Mexico, September 2006
Highway in Jalisco, Mexico, 2006

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:

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The piñata

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The cupcakes

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The mezcal

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.

10yrparty-pinata1
Piñata top and garambullo

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.

20161002_121153
Xotol and pollinators

20161002_121040
First fruit

What Trump Could Learn From Americans Like Me in Mexico

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 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.

A nice thing about living in the Bajío of México is it has attracted many expats who truly desire to experience, and celebrate, another culture – specifically, Mexico. From the thousands of Americans in San Miguel de Allende, to Peace Corps Volunteers, to the thousands of businesspeople or Spanish-language learners flocking to the Central Mexican Highlands, there are a LOT of people who love many things about Mexico, and that’s a nice thing to be surrounded by if you’re ever feeling down about about “living in exile.” Folks who want to be here have, in contrast to a lot of Americans’ view on Mexico, a refreshingly pragmatic way of comparing Mexico’s issue to the U.S.’s, a diplomatic way of seeing both sides of the story. We find ourselves in the same boat of (at least occasionally) trying to educate friends and family back home that, no, there isn’t anything to worry about, and no, it’s not as bad as it sounds. In fact, it’s quite wonderful here in so many ways.

But on the whole, to a great extent we are a product of what we read and know, and the majority of Americans 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  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.

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 11.52.50 AM
My friend’s request

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What my friend’s coworker said

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

trump quote
The Trump quote my friend’s coworker was referring to

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

http://www.buzzfeed.com/beckycatherineharris/what-it-feels-like-to-hear-trumps-speech-as-a-mexican-americ#.rlnq1421E
http://www.buzzfeed.com/beckycatherineharris/what-it-feels-like-to-hear-trumps-speech-as-a-mexican-americ#.rlnq1421E

Those of us who are living, working, and raising their families here 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.

Now is not the time to ignore the toenail.