I wish it was still her saying goodbye to me and not the other way around.
The first time I told our story in mixed company—which is still a rare occasion—was in early 2006, to a group of high school students. My group co-leader and I were both teachers at the Catholic, all-girls Notre Dame High School, in Belmont, and we were on an Intersession volunteer service trip to Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico organized by the non-profit Los Niños.
Our trip, together with nearly 20 adolescents and two co-leaders, was incredibly challenging, eye-opening, and life-changing. We all pushed our limits in every sense—physically, emotionally, culturally and even politically. For almost a week, we mixed and poured concrete by hand, we spent an evening with the children of the Casa Hogar Santa Teresita and we learned from many valiant Mexicans working in the social justice in Tijuana.
We encountered the U.S./Mexico border in conversation and in person, from both sides. From the Mexico side, we met migrants headed for a border crossing at a day laborer center. We visited “La Llaga” (the wound) in the flesh: a section of border covered with crosses marking the names and numbers of individuals who’ve died trying to cross. Our students immediately became indignant upon contemplating how a border fence could cause so many deaths—or worse, why so many people would be willing to risk their lives to enter into the U.S. They climbed up on the corrugated metal fence and demanded answers from the border patrolmen cruising by in his jeep. By the end of their 5-10 minute “conversation,” he’d given up debating with them and claimed it was just a job.
Unbeknownst to many, at the time I was struggling with a personal decision I’d made. Later that year I would be accompanying my husband Margarito back to his hometown in Mexico, in what amounted to a self-deportation because Margo was still undocumented, even though we’d been married since 2004. Thus, it would be my last semester at the high school. Even though I’d always been very candid with my students, our situation wasn’t exactly the kind that lent itself to a simple explanation. I’d also had a lot of uncomfortable experiences when overhearing anti-immigrant sentiment over the years, which had led me to be rather closed about my situation.
But the students’ irrepressible joy and open-mindedness was infectious. While observing the girls in the midst of transformation, becoming so passionate about the fates of people they’d never even met, I couldn’t help but feel inspired. One night back at our “house,” after we’d shared reflections on our experiences during the trip, I took a chance and decided to share my personal story with them. I was nervous and tearful but they couldn’t have been more receptive and understanding. I felt like a weight had been lifted. When our trip came to an end, we shared our best wishes with each other. Many students thanked me for sharing my story. Some assured me that going to Mexico would be an opportunity, not a setback. I wanted to believe them.
It was just one week—but all of us grew as a result. For me, some fear was transformed to courage. Back in the States, the zeal of the trip faded as students got back to the grind, punctuated by a petition we circulated expressing our opposition to the proposed Sensenbrenner anti-immigrant bill up in Congress. Many of the students in our group were graduating that year. My husband and I began preparations for our departure later that summer, I started applying for my Mexican visa.
At the end of the semester, a small handful of students threw me a small going away party. They could have been doing the kind of things most teenagers do on a Friday afternoon, but these young ladies remembered my story, where Margo and I were headed that summer, and they wanted to wish me well. That’s the kind of people they are. The sign said simply “Goodbye and Good Luck.” A snapshot of me, my coworker who’d been on the trip, and 5 students was taken at the event.
I haven’t looked at that picture in years, but I took it out less than a week ago to remember one specific student in the picture. Her name was Nisha Tandel. I have several pictures of her from that semester. In every single one she is smiling broadly or laughing. I can still hear her laughing as she repeated “está chido” and “está padre” over and over (the two favorite Spanish phrases learned in Tijuana). In another picture of us at graduation, she is wearing a chain of orchids. That was over six years ago.
When I heard last weekend that we had lost Nisha and her sister to a car accident involving her entire family, first, my head spun in disbelief. Then, all these memories came flooding back. Not having known Nisha very well myself, our lives only having touched each others’ for a matter of months, my mourning was intense but not as life-altering as I’m sure it has been and will continue to be for those who were closest to her. But when I think about how she had been headed for a cross-border adventure of her own, to be married in India in January, I can’t help but be impacted by the depth of the entire family’s, the entire community’s loss. And when I remember the time that she came to wish me well, despite how much of my comfort zone and camaraderie I was about to let go of, she faced me with that cheery optimism so firmly the domain of an adolescent girl on the brink of womanhood and hugged me tight. She may not have known how much her gesture meant at the time, the extra vote of confidence it gave me. I can’t make sense of the inexplicable tragedy that claimed her. And to dwell indefinitely in the sadness that her departure creates would go against her Hindu tradition. So I can only think to return her the favor now. Fare thee well Nisha in your journey to the other side. You won’t be forgotten, and your beautiful spirit lives on. Buen viaje, amiga.