In Memory of Recently Departed Members of the Amor and Exile Community

A well-known Mexican tradition worldwide on November 1st is Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. The custom is one of inviting dead loved ones back into families’ homes for remembrance, honoring and celebration of their lives, at a time when the earthly “veil” between the living and the dead is thinner than usual, and with the help of various mystical and natural items such as marigold flowers, butterflies, and multicolored spirit animals – alebrijes – which assist the deceased in their travels and passage back to the land of the living.

This year, Dia de los Muertos lasted longer than one day for my family. In October, my longtime friend and family supporter, Shelley Whittall, a longtime Canadian expat in Querétaro, lost her years-long battle with cancer. In early November, my suegra (my husband Margo’s mother Sirenia) passed, after years of disabling illness after suffering a stroke in 2010. Our family was forced to mourn from a distance – on one hand, we were all ill with Covid at the time Sirenia passed. Also travel is not financially possible yet as we’re still recovering the costs of our relocation in 2022 and at a time when threats to government funding has led to financial uncertainty for many federal workers, including myself. Thankfully, modern technology allowed us to join virtually in memorials for Margo’s mamá, and to be able to help say goodbye and honor her life and memory from afar. We decided that as soon as we’re able, we’ll travel to Mexico to say goodbye to Sirenia and join the rest of the family in the extended grieving process. 

While recovering from both our illness and the loss of Margo’s family matriarch, more sad news arrived for the Amor and Exile community. 

Word of the passing of Joseph W. Lown, San Miguel de Allende-based real estate attorney, and former mayor of San Angelo, Texas, came this past week. JW and his partner’s story is also told in Amor and Exile

My family and I had the honor of meeting and befriend both JW and his partner in Central Mexico, years after Nathaniel interviewed and wrote about them, in the year after the book’s publishing and early US/Mexico book tour. They had made their home in San Miguel de Allende, and with such a small distance between the families, it was natural to cultivate a friendship. I was always inspired by Joseph and his partner’s bravery for making such a major life change in order to stay together, and was so happy when they were finally married in Mexico City. I am forever grateful for his presence when I conducted one of my first book talks at the library in downtown San Miguel de Allende, and for his generosity in hosting the group that gathered afterward at the Rosewood Hotel. I also found JW’s capacity for self-reinvention incredibly impressive – he later became a student of Mexican real estate law and founded and grew a company with his partner. He was a unique kind of friend in that way that only those who have also experienced immigration exile can be – empowered individuals seeking to flip the script on what it means to be in exile, but who are also regularly humbled by the dehumanizing power of immigration systems that have indelibly impacted our and millions of other lives. Himself a returned Peace Corps Volunteer (he had previously served in Bolivia), JW was a strong supporter of in my work in Mexico and the importance of the mission of world peace and friendship.

It goes without saying that the passing of these important individuals in our lives occurred in distinctly different circumstances. Doña Sirenia had 14 children and lived a long life of 84 years, most of it in poverty and hardship in rural Querétaro or the barrio. JW´s contrasting upbringing is detailed in the book, and although he may have at times experienced greater agency, sadly, he was only 47 when he died this past week. Differing circumstances notwithstanding, both of them were deeply motivated by God, and the impact of both of their departures is felt in ripples across various different communities in both Mexico and the US. 

Doña Sirenia was our daughter’s Mexican abuelita, and she loved her dearly although a stroke she’d suffered the year she was born limited the extent of their interaction. My own family was lucky to spend some time with her in the years prior. When I published The Bajío’s Bounty, a collection of altiplano recipes and Mexican native food plant lore in 2009, I held a tamale-making workshop at our home that my suegra lent her expertise to. I shared a bit of her story and the significance that Margo’s return to Mexico had for her early in Amor and Exile. 

JW and his partner’s story is a unique, gripping, frustrating, but also inspiring tale of two men who also ultimately chose autonomy over alienation in charting their course together, vs separately, south of the border. 

In returning to the passages about them in the pages of the book, and in reflecting on our recent losses, we are compelled to note the unfortunate passing of yet another individual profiled in the book since its publication. Also earlier in 2023, David Miranda, partner to American journalist Glenn Greenwald, died at the tragically young age of 37, in Brazil. 

My instinct has been to try and glean some meaning from the loss of these important people, but it’s challenging. Each selflessly traded in their own personal comfort, well-being, even safety, in support of their partners / family members. Despite having lived circumstances that differed from a more “typical” outcome of separation and hardship, they weren’t completely free of the ongoing challenges that families impacted by immigration regularly face. In their passing, we’ve lost people who put others first, and lifted them up. By telling, and re-telling their stories, amplifying the lights that they shone so brightly, we can at minimum contribute to the honoring of their memories, to the celebration of their lives, and to cast their examples of the type of love we want so steadfastly to see more of in the world. 

To that end, below is a small patchwork of passages from Amor and Exile, in their memory. May they rest in peace, and power, and may their memories burn brightly into the future. Que descansen en paz y poder y que su memoria se ilumina en el futuro.   

In remembrance of Sirenia Lopez Vargas, d. November 6, 2023 (from Chapter 2, Welcome to Exile, by Nicole

One morning while sitting on the whitewashed, sloping roof scattered with stray cat scat, similar roofs all about me, I noticed a peculiar sight in the air—like a dangling little toy. It was a Monarch butterfly fluttering overheard. A light breeze would push it upward or downward, but then the delicate creature would keep surging forward. Another, and another appeared, and looking farther around I realized that thousands of Monarchs were flying over the city in their annual migration from the Great Lakes, over the Continental Divide and into Central Mexico. They were headed to the Santuarios Mariposa Monarca, butterfly reserves in the mountains of Michoacán only a few hours (by car) from where I sat. I wished I could follow them. What I really wanted, rather idealistically, was perfect communication with Margo and for my culture shock and frustrations to disappear. That, unfortunately, was not destined to happen overnight, if ever.

(…)

The only people in my new life in Mexico with whom I never got into a conflict were one sister-in-law, one brother-in-law and my mother-in-law. Mi suegra. I tried to emulate her endless optimism and endurance. 

I helped her water the cacti and geraniums she kept in old coffee cans and the chile pepper bushes in five-gallon paint buckets stacked precariously on the upstairs courtyard wall. I’d look at the picture of Jesus on the far wall of the drab front sitting room; the altars were the only places where she put vases of flowers. I’d listen to her chanting verses from the Bíblia after she’d argued with one of her drunk sons. 

I’d go in and sit next to her in her room while she complained of her high blood pressure and her knee pain. Part of me wanted a closer relationship, but apart from the fact that she had thirteen children of her own, we also had many divergent views. I was more like my own parents—“recovering Catholics”—and wouldn’t accompany her to her favorite activity, misa. Previous sermons I’d attended in Mexico were filled with messages about accepting poverty and women’s submission. Margo had been even more rebellious as a kid, even if it meant being pulled around by his ears and whipped with wires. 

But my suegra and I had much in common on the subjects of food, herbs and a love for the outdoors. It was harder for her to move around, but I could make tamales with her or pick things up from the market for her. 

Years later, after she had her stroke while I was away in New York, I came back to the sight of her lying on her bed, her entire left side paralyzed. She looked up at me, her face crumpled into tears and she said, “I don’t want to be like this.” So I put aside my rage about the failings of the Mexican government’s medical system and made Arnica massage oil for her from the flowers in my back yard. With Margo at my side, himself paralyzed by his own inability to convince his father to attend to his mother’s needs, I rubbed it into her dry, wrinkled arms and feet, covered with the sunspots of seventy decades in the hills, half wishing it was my own arthritic grandmother. 

Then she confessed to me: “I think I did this to myself, all those years of work.” And I responded, “No, it was not your fault, but please just let others take care of you now.” I remembered a story she’d told me about how her father hadn’t let the sisters take her to the convent although she’d wanted them to when she was a little girl. Her rigid Catholicism is now to me just a shared spirituality, just as we share our love for Margo. I think of her face when she saw Margo that first night after his five years of absence: “Dios mío, ya estás aquí.” And when things got bad enough, I let her best habit rub off on me. I started to do something my own mother long ago advised me to do, no matter the spirit I chose: I prayed.

In remembrance of David Miranda, d. May 2023 (from Ch. 10, Legal Strangers, by Nathaniel)

Glenn Greenwald, the popular civil liberties blogger at The Guardian and a former civil rights attorney, earned permanent residency in Brazil through his Brazilian partner David Michael Miranda. Greenwald met Miranda in 2004, during a vacation in Brazil, as he contemplated getting out of lawyering and getting into journalism. Miranda, who grew up in poverty, had never been to the United States and had very little chance of getting a visa. But Greenwald set up shop in Brazil, established his blog, and applied for same-sex partner immigration benefits. Brazil is, in many ways, quite conservative—it’s an overwhelmingly Catholic country that was run by a military dictatorship until 1985. But since 2003, Brazil has allowed permanent partners,

regardless of gender, to apply for immigration benefits. According to Greenwald, it was viewed as a humanitarian issue, not a gay rights issue. Denial of immigration benefits to certain Brazilian citizens was seen as discriminatory.

“Congress is not going to vote to even get close to issuing federal benefits to same-sex couples

because it has the stench of legalizing same-sex marriage in their eyes,” Greenwald said of the United States. In Brazil, immigration authorities just want to know if you have a legit partner or not. “You have to provide a ton of documentation to demonstrate that your relationship is the spousal equivalent of a married couple,” Greenwald said. 

Greenwald had to show that he and Miranda lived together, maintained joint bank accounts, appeared on one another’s wills and had to provide sworn affidavits from Brazilian citizens who knew them as a legitimate couple. They also had a home inspection by an immigration official. Greenwald was able to stay and work for three years, while their application was considered and then granted. 

In the meantime, Miranda is now in graduate school studying corporate communications, or “propaganda,” as it’s called in Brazil. He has obtained a tourist visa for the United States and can accompany Greenwald on short visits. Greenwald said that they would like to live in the United States at some point, as it would be convenient for his work as a frequent television and radio commentator. But they are also happy in Brazil. He also does not want to be a poster child for same-sex couples in exile, though he writes about it from time to time.

Greenwald, a frequent critic of President Obama’s continued War on Terror policies and other federal issues, says that the Obama administration’s refusal to defend DOMA is one of the best things the administration has done. The courts will overturn the law and immigration judges will be able to grant spousal benefits to same-sex couples, he says. But granting same-sex couples immigration benefits will also bring gay couples parity on the exile front. 

In remembrance of Joseph W. Lown, d. November 19, 2023 (from Chapters 1, Love in the Time of Deportation & 10,  Legal Strangers, by Nathaniel)

The relationship began as a class project of sorts. For Gabriel, it began a bit earlier. He first met J.W. Lown at a party for the international students at Angelo State. J.W., then in his third term as mayor of San Angelo, a mid-sized city in West Central Texas, was the guest of honor. Gabriel met J.W. briefly at the party and became good friends with the mayor’s assistant, a fellow student. Gabriel is not his real name and some details of this story will be left out to protect the privacy of his family. A semester later, in February 2009, Gabriel took a speech class and one of his assignments was to interview someone whose job he might like to have. He thought of J.W. and emailed the former mayoral assistant, who had since transferred to another university. Gabriel asked for a phone number for the mayor but got an email address instead. He emailed a request for the interview and within a few days, J.W. called him. “One day when I was walking to my room he called… and he’s like, ‘I can’t do a personal interview but we can have it over the phone.’ So I’m like, OK,” Gabriel recalled. Gabriel asked the mayor to give him a few minutes, ran up to his room and opened his notebook, where he had already outlined his questions. They got through the questions but it did not go that well. “Throughout the interview I felt that he was not very comfortable,” Gabriel said. Gabriel sent a thank you note to the mayor along with a photo from the party the semester prior, to remind J.W. that they had once met. J.W. wrote back thanking him for the thank you note. This exchange may seem very formal and awkward, but for Joseph “J.W.” Lown it was just the way things were done. 

J.W. grew up quickly in San Angelo, taking charge of his family estate as a teenager, after his mother got sick with cancer and died. He learned how to manage money and properties and other society skills as well: golf, how to sit on antique chairs, how to work a room. On the other hand, J.W.’s youth was not completely sheltered. His family experienced some hard times in the 1980s and he spent two and a half years in the Peace Corps, living in impoverished rural Bolivia. When he decided to become the mayor of his hometown at twenty-six years old, J.W. sought out constituents on both sides of the river in San Angelo. J.W. keeps a bank of file cabinets in the shop on his ranchito in Christoval, a small town twenty minutes south of San Angelo. The cabinets are full of correspondence from his six years as mayor. He saved every note from every gadfly, second grader, clergyman and critic who wrote to him. And he wrote back to every single one. J.W. maintained a mayoral calendar that took him to more than 1,500 civic events a year. And he was just a ceremonial mayor, with a salary of $600 a year. J.W. says he dislikes politics, but he is a natural-born politician. He liberally dispenses hugs and handshakes, remembers random anecdotes about his constituents and genuinely cares about his neighbors. 

And so when a Mexican student from the college asked for an interview, it was not strange in the least that J.W. agreed and then followed up with a note. The next weekend after the interview, when he called Gabriel again, he may have been pushing it, but J.W. insists it was still common courtesy or a form of Southern hospitality. He just wanted to know how the project had turned out, but Gabriel had yet to turn it in. J.W. recalls that it must have been on Sunday because someone had canceled a dinner date with him and he suggested that Gabriel join him at Cheddar’s, a Texas comfort food franchise, and ask a few more questions. J.W. picked him up at his apartment and they went to grab a bite—just to talk. “That wasn’t a date, that was just taking an interest in how his project unfolded,” J.W. said. Gabriel was interested in politics and had considered becoming a politician in Mexico. He asked J.W. a few more questions for his homework assignment. Then J.W. asked him what he was doing to help the community. Gabriel actually did a lot of community work, in part out of gratitude for the multiple scholarships that allowed him to go to Angelo State. He worked with a faith-based drug and alcohol abuse program and he volunteered at the multicultural center at the college. He also gave free salsa lessons and mentioned this as well. J.W. grew animated, talking about his time in Bolivia and his taste for Latin music. Gabriel thought the mayor was interesting and he was happy to get to know him a bit. J.W. and his sister Alicia showed up at the next salsa class and had a good time. They went out to eat again after that class and started spending more time together. 

J.W. told Gabriel that he was attracted to him and Gabriel took some time to think about it. He did not think about it very long. “It quickly became quite a pressure cooker,” J.W. said. “We probably spent two to three weeks together and really felt a relationship.” In some ways the relationship was a first for both of them. J.W. realized he was gay while in the Peace Corps and had dated men for a few years, though he never had a serious relationship. Gabriel was attracted to men but had always dated girls—he was struggling with his sexuality when he met J.W. “I didn’t see any reason to tell everyone, ‘Hey I’m gay,’” Gabriel said. But that was before he met J.W. “When I met Joseph and we started dating then I was like, ‘OK, so I won’t be lying to anyone about my sexuality,’” Gabriel said. He told his friends, mostly other international students, and they supported him.

As J.W. and Gabriel fell more deeply for one another, they were both fully immersed in their respective worlds as well. Gabriel was a serious student and athlete who had midterms coming up and lots of extracurricular activities. J.W. was in the midst of a re-election campaign. It was his fourth and he did not face any real opposition, but he took running for public office very seriously and had lots of work to do. A few weeks into their relationship, J.W. confided in his political mentor that he was dating someone, but gave few details. Gabriel had told J.W. that he was living in the United States illegally. He had crossed the border at fifteen years old in order to further his education—to finish high school in Texas and maybe go on to college. Texas is among a handful of states that allow undocumented students who graduate from state high schools to attend college at in-state tuition rates, so Gabriel went on to study at Angelo State.

J.W. knew this was a huge piece of information. He was a public figure, an official who swore an oath to uphold the Constitution. He went back to his mentor, Mario Castillo, a San Angelo native who had introduced J.W.’s parents to one another and then went on to work on Capitol Hill. Castillo is now a very well-connected Washington, D.C., lobbyist and he made a few calls for J.W., including to an immigration attorney. They were told that J.W. could not do anything about Gabriel’s status and that the mayor could face charges for “harboring an illegal alien” or other offenses. 

“At that moment I realized I had to make a decision—politics or Gabriel,” J.W. said. He decided to break off the relationship before it became public. It was a week before the election. J.W. went to Gabriel’s apartment and told him they couldn’t see each other anymore. It felt like sticking a knife in his own heart, he said, but he did not see any other way. Gabriel was crushed as well. He called some friends from the city a few hours away where he had attended high school and they picked him up. He laid low for the weekend, read a good book and sent J.W. a text, congratulating him on his fourth win. When Gabriel got back to San Angelo, there was a letter waiting for him. J.W. wrote and told him that he wanted to be with him but that it was very complicated. In all, he mailed three letters that week between the election and his swearing in. “In the letters I said please work with me. I’m in the middle of a very difficult situation. I love you. I care about you deeply… I can’t be an official and be with you,” J.W. recalled. Gabriel wrote back and told J.W. he trusted him and that he knew he had to figure out what to do. “It’s his decision—just like when he broke up with me,” Gabriel said. “I cannot think for him. We each have to make our own decisions.” “It was like we were oceans apart, and we were in the same town,” J.W. said. 

By the third letter the two had hatched a plan. It was tentative but it was a plan. J.W. continued to make inquiries about getting a green card or student visa for Gabriel. He told his childhood friend what was going on but no one else. He did not see Gabriel, but Gabriel was the only thing on his mind that week, despite the headlines and the speeches and the post-campaign wrap-up. They would have to find a way to be together.

(…)

Even if DOMA is overturned or if the Uniting American Families Act passes Congress, couples like J.W. and Gabriel—with three and ten year bars—will still be kept out of the country, just as Nicole and Margo are. J.W. and Gabriel are not in a rush to move back to Texas, but they would like to go home to J.W.’s ranch and spend Christmas with his sister and many dear friends. J.W. is not in a rush to get back into politics either, but he would like the option and many of his former constituents would like him to return as well. “It would be nice to have the flexibility to make a life with Gabriel in the United States, but this is the second best option,” he said. In many ways, same-sex binational couples have made more progress on the immigration front than any other group of immigrant families. They will most likely win access to immigration benefits and all of the other federal benefits that DOMA denies them in the near future. But as long as the three-year, ten-year and permanent bars remain, it’s still a race to nowhere for Gabriel and Ottie and their American families.

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