flashing colored lights

November 27, 2006

The first Christmas after we bought our house, I was totally excited to get my first Christmas tree. Like many mid-20-somethings, I had lived in a state of transition for years – from dorm room to dorm room, apartment to apartment, I moved. I could only reasonably accumulate enough stuff to fit in a station wagon, and for better or worse, Christmas decorations were not part of that equation.


So two years ago, as my heat bill went up and my newlywed-ness toned down, I was longing for the scent of pine and the twinkle of lights in my new (to me) old house. However, my husband and the family members that live with us are all from Mexico. Traditional holiday activities for them center around las posadas, which involves neighbors traveling house to house, showing up at each others doorsteps for tamales, atole and fruit during the nine days leading up to Christmas. The idea springs from Joseph and Mary’s search for a place to stay some 2000 years ago, and perhaps stems from the same root as Christmas caroling.

In my house, we are always in some state of cross-cultural interaction, and despite my great interest and enjoyment in learning about and experiencing all Mexican culture has to offer, I knew I wanted the house decorated for Christmas the way I was accustomed to.

That first year, I did ninety percent of the decorating myself. I bought ornaments, lights and garlands, picked out the tree, brought it home in my handy Hyundai hatchback, got it out of the car with a little help and then proceeded to single-handedly turn my living room into my own makeship winter wonderland. I have to imagine now that everyone in the house was impressed. One day the room was just a white room with inherited purple carpet and old covered sofas and the next it was twinkly and pretty and smelled wonderful.

Last year it was more of a group effort. I took the initiative to pick out the tree, but once I got home and started getting out the decorations, everyone started to help. A few days later, to my chagrin, strings of colored lights, some of them flashing, were mishung around the front porch of my house. I am really a white-light, non-flashing kind of girl, but how could I protest the tacky lights when I had apparently converted someone to the joys of holiday decorating? Besides, in my neighborhood, there are far more colored flashing lights and lawn ornament Santas with reindeer than simple, elegant white lights.


A few days ago, my sister-in-law Alba, whose husband and adorable 18-month-old son also live with us, asked me how much a tree costs. I told her around $30 or $40 dollars. She looked at my funny and said she saw them advertised at Sears and Wal-mart for more than $100, and thought I had spent a lot of money the last two years. I laughed and explained that any of them being advertised in the Sunday paper for more than $100 are most certainly fake plastic trees, of which at this point in my life, I want nothing to do with (sorry Mom and Jill).

We got to talking about it and wondered how quickly the baby (who is at the height of grabbiness) might pull the whole thing down on himself. I admitted I didn’t have a lot of time this holiday season and would be gone for the 10 days leading up to Christmas, and by the end of the conversation I thought we had agreed to not get a tree this year.
Fast-forward to last night, when I arrived home from my brother’s wedding reception, finally at the end of the week and a half of crazy work, crazy family time and crazy baking. As soom as I stepped into the kitchen I smelled the tree. In the living room, someone had picked out a really nice tree, brought it home, put it up, lit and decorated it, all while I was gone at a wedding reception. Someone had put my favorite ornaments in special places and bought some really cute new stuff to decorate around the house.

I was shocked, but secretly pleased, and touched. I went to find Alba, who said she had talked to a woman that had a baby about Carlos’ age around Christmas last year and that after a few days of telling him no to touching the tree, he had left it alone. She then went on to say something about how they wanted to do this for me because Fermin is gone and its important to have family and enjoy the Navidad.

Carlos, meanwhile, was looking at me, pointing to the tree and making happy baby sounds. He walked up, snagged a globe ornament and ran away. We sighed and chased after him, and began his training, not only in looking but not touching, but also in the holiday spirit.


bitter thanks

November 26, 2006

I haven’t stayed up this late, especially not to putter around before composing a 2:00 am blog entry, in quite a while. I made it through the craziest consecutive two weeks I’ve had in a year or so and now have clean clothes and a relatively tidy living space again. My mom and I made eight cheesecakes for a party tomorrow and this evening I just hung around at home, wrote Christmas cards and while half-watching an obscure but charming documentary called Cowboy del Amor, and then Rebel Without a Cause for the first time.

Thanksgiving was nice, for the most part. Being perhaps the only liberally minded person in my entire family, I tend to get myself in trouble sometimes, and this year was no different. I’m still chewing over our pre-turkey argument, but I can say for certain that one of my uncles will appear my next JS column, and that’s about all I’ve decided for right now.

Besides my “conversation” with my uncle, I was asked the usual question of where Fermin (my husband) was. Here’s how it typically goes:

Cousin X: Hi Laura, (small talk, chatter) Is Fermin working today?
Me: No, he’s actually in Mexico for about six more months.
Cousin X: [very blank stare]
Me: It’s related to immigration, we knew it was going to happen, it’s basically a waiting period.
Cousin X: Wait, but isn’t he a U.S. Citizen now? I mean, he’s married to you, right?

Ahh the iconic ignorance of the American. Now, for anyone who doesn’t know me or hasn’t read my blog for long, or doesn’t know about immigration, when I use the term “ignorance” here, I am truly not insulting you, it’s simply that I have been asked this question in some form by almost everyone I have met and discussed my husband with for the past three months. And frankly, had I not stumbled into a four-year career as a restaurant manager I might never have known anything of it at all.

People tend to think immigration is simple. But it is so rarely so. First of all, no one becomes a U.S. Citizen upon marrying one. Even if the foreigner has only spent legal time in the country, citizenship is not the first step, and in our case, it is years away.

My grandma asked me Thursday how Fermin or someone like him (such as the girl known as Maria in my last JS column) might become a legal resident of the U.S. were he/she not fortunate enough to marry a U.S. Citizen. As was expected, she was surprised to hear there is almost no possibility of that. There are several types of immigration, and none of them even come close to admitting relatively low-wage, low-skilled foreign workers that large sectors of our economy like service and agriculture now depend upon.

There are visas for immediate relatives, like Fermin, because he is my spouse. There are visas for so-called “special” immigrants — highly skilled, highly educated, extremely talented people – engineers from India, computer geniuses from China, famous Brazillian musicians all apply under this category. Then there are visas that employers apply for for a specific position they can prove cannot be filled with an American worker. There are instances of this, even in the restaurant business, but for the employer, it is expensive (think lawyers), time consuming (years) and extremely cumbersome (forms, fees, ads in the paper, “proving” an American cannot do a particular job). The average restauranteur, much less farm-owner, cannot even begin to think about this process for someone they will end up paying $6-$12 per hour for. So they blink a few times when the documents are inspected and do what everyone else who can is doing, hire undocumented workers.

My grandma mentioned that when her grandparents came here, they had lived in Canada and simply moved here, probably registered somewhere, and set up a home. Unfortunately there is simply no longer any legal channel for an average foreigner, particularly for those who are low-skilled, to enter the United States and work legally. I often hear people say they support immigration, legal immigration. They never consider that their grandparents or great-grandparents simply saved money until they could hop a boat, showed up at Ellis Island and registered to become Americans. They didn’t need a job offer in the U.S., they didn’t need to process years of paperwork, they didn’t get backgrounds checks or need a specialized skill and they certainly didn’t have to marry someone who had been “lucky” enough to have been born in the U.S.

They just showed up here. Like most Mexican migrants, they probably had a family member or ten in the city they went to live in. The first generation were probably universally hard-working, family-oriented, persevering types. It takes a lot of courage to leave your nation, your home, and start over somewhere else.

Times have changed. We consider this a dangerous world, paranoia and xenophobia rule the local news, yet in America we live longer, healthier and more prosperous lives than ever. We consider foreign things risky, dangerous and strange. We fear germs and ban tag. We ensure our entire lives, constantly trying to beat sickness and death as though we can control them fully with our technology, our brainpower, our sheer will to be clean and important and successful.

We’ve turned the American dream from its roots in work ethic, innovation and family life to something sick, materialistic and consumer-driven. Shoppers go to blows over a $200 laptop and shoot each other for a new Playstation. Our major newspapers cover “Black Friday” shopping on the front page. While we mull over redecorating our bedrooms and complain about cold weather in heated houses, people all over the world live happily in tiny, one-room shacks and are thankful for their family. We feel entitled to much more than a good life; we all want “the” good life.

We’ve forgotten our heritage, we’ve forgotten that immigrants have always boosted our economy, that the vast majority of people who will flee their native lands in search of one with more opportunities are the type of people we need in this country. We don’t realize how very much even those of us on the lesser end of the American payscale have, how people are literally dying to come here. Instead, we push them away, we suggest shooting them people at the border because lots of other countries might do it. All the while we get fatter, richer and more isolated from the reality of the rest of the world. The world where people have real problems — food, water, clothing, shelter.

And I don’t know what to be thankful for, because some days I find my own American-ness, the type all the immigration hawks are trying so desperately to protect, so distasteful, so disgusting, so detached from the reality of the world I have seen outside our borders that I wonder why I even fight for the right of my husband to live within them.

pause for just a moment

November 20, 2006

I hate the word busy. I use it all the time, and I hate it every time it comes out of my mouth. What is more cliche than to say one is “busy,” when someone asks how you are? Yet, in English at least, we don’t have a variety of words to use for a state of constant activity spanning a long number of days, weeks, etc.

More than a month ago I agreed to work some extra shifts at Qdoba Thanksgiving week because I didn’t think I would be that busy. Then, my parents informed me that in order to attend their Thanksgiving party I would have to, (gasp!) bring something?! (This is a sign of being a real, independent adult in one’s family). Then, my brother and his new wife announced a wedding reception to be held the Sunday after turkey day. My mom and I have a reputation for making cheesecakes after my own January 2005 wedding reception (for which we made 14 cheesecakes for a little more than 100 people) and surprise! she volunteered (us) to do it again.

So basically this week I work, I bake, I work, work, work and work, I eat turkey (twice), I work and work, I bake a lot, and then Sunday, I get to party. Somewhere in there I also have to do about four loads of laundry, see and review a movie, perhaps take a nap, the usual. I don’t mind being busy, per se, but it always give me a sick feeling when I can look two weeks ahead in my schedule and see that I have nary a free day or evening to have coffee with Sara or read a book or write a column.

The only time I am not busy lately, ironically, is at my day job, which explains why I can take a few minutes to write this fascinating post for you all.

I leave for Mexico to see Fermin in 24 days. I’ve finally started to think about it and get excited. The New York Times ran a travel piece on the city of Puebla a few days ago and I’ve been scouring the Thorn Tree forum on the Lonely Planet site for stuff we can do around Fermin’s town.


The most intriguing right now is the small city of Cholula, which offers some spectacular views of the volcano Popocateptl, the second highest peak in Mexico. It’s also an ancient Mexican city with a lot of history to explore. El Popo (as the volcano is called) is visible all around Fermin’s state of Puebla, but I’m looking forward to getting some better shots of it this time.

And that’s about all that’s going on…. Have a happy Thanksgiving!

play a game

November 14, 2006

Spend your lunch doing something fun. I was reading one of my favorite sites, Burnside Writers Collective, and came across this request for readers to send in their top five favorite states of the union.

That took me to this little geography game. I finished it with a score of 82%, an average error of 47 miles and a time of 646 second. Had I realized I was being timed I wouldn’t have been eating a sandwich and flipping between programs while playing. I could have done better. My mouse slipped and I didn’t get Illinois right the first time. Shameful. Also funny how I placed Ohio on the western half of upstate New York, despite being very familiar with the east because of my job.

movie night

November 10, 2006

I don’t cry at movies often, especially not hilarious ones.

My friend Erin was going to come into town tonight, but the freak 4:00 pm darkness and sleet storm postponed her drive from Madison. As I left the office I decided this was the worst weather I had ever driven in and that a cold, snowy evening was perfect for a solo movie night.

I drove straight to Mayfair, bought some unnecessary tea, grabbed a bite and headed to see “Borat: Cultural Learnings of American For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.”

I had heard plenty of superlatives about this movie, and surprisingly, it lived up to all of them. I laughed almost the whole way through, so hard at one point that I created tears. I have never seen anything so irreverant, ridiculous and hysterical in my whole life. (If you haven’t read/heard about the premise of this movie, please read here, but don’t read too much, you’ll wreck it for yourself).

Every time a new “subject” came into view, a collective cringe rippled through the theater, everyone knowing something completely inappropriate was coming. I’m trying to think of my favorite part to share with you, but its truly hard to pick just one.

I think it may have been the scene where Borat dines with three wealthy, middle-aged perfectly mannered Southern couples: After asking if one of the men is married to the woman at his left with the “erotically formed body,” the man replies that his wife is, in fact, another woman across the table. Borat proceeds to comment that men in Kazakhstan “would be crazy” for the two women at either side of him, but, referring to the third woman, says, “that one, not so much.”

It’s cruel and awkward and disturbing to a degree that you don’t know how to react other than to laugh. The reactions of everyone at the table are of shock but not quite disbelief. There are so many levels of cultural misunderstanding going on at once its mind-boggling.

Numerous times during the film the happy-go-lucky Borat makes his signature racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and homophobic remarks in conversation with generally average American-seeming subjects. In many cases the American responds in a way that reveals their own feelings of prejudice.

This is a new kind of comedy. It shocks but it also awes. It is neither delightful nor cute. It breaks through your comfort zone. You feel sorry for the duped subjects, but you also laugh at them. You wonder how Cohen and crew could have scored the interviews and appearances in the movie.

Then, you wonder at how you react in such situations. Perhaps this is the lingering lesson of the movie. Put in the most socially awkward and uncomfortable situation, would my inner prejudices be revealed?

links for a happy hump day

November 8, 2006

I admit I am foolishly excited about the election results, because politicians are still politicians, but I can’t help it. Offensive-on-immigration issues Mark Green soundly defeated in the Wisconsin gubernatorial race, the Nancy Pelosi-led Democrats taking over the House and maybe still a win in the Senate, even if it doesn’t all turn out as grand and successful as the liberals say today, I can’t help the excitement. And then I saw this:

Rummy says goodbye

and I was ecstatic.

Finally, a blog entry from New York Times’ David Brooks, who admits he is a conservtive but was happy about the way the election turned out in certain ways. I think he puts it well. No one in any circumstances should be able to act the way the current leadership has and get away with it.

a most unexpected home

November 4, 2006

I’ve lived in the same spot for more than two years now, the longest I have lived anywhere since I graduated high school and proceeded to change at least my street address once a year for nearly seven years.

My house is not in a cool neighborhood. My neighbors are a deaf couple and their children who have loud dogs, a typical Harley-riding Milwaukee man, a lot of young Hispanic families and a few houses so still and quiet I can only assume the residents are elderly. At the nearby Target I see young professional women like myself, but on my street, I am the only 20-something college-educated white woman around.

My house is oddly decorated, cluttered and full of people. It’s essentially a Mexican house that the I own (well, me, Fermin and the bank to be exact) and live in. My sister-in-law cooks for about ten people at a time, depending on who might be stopping over in the coming day. Whenever a birthday rolls around a birthday cake from the local Mexican grocery is cut and eaten around midnight, when everyone is home from their respective restaurant jobs. The oven, while not a storage cabinet as I have seen it used in Mexico, is hardly used by anyone but myself. We eat far more tortillas than slices of bread and the forks rarely make it out of their drawer.

When we bought the house, I had big plans to tear out all the grandma-print wallpaper in the dining room and kitchen and turn them into sights straight from a Pottery Barn catalog. I imagined buying nice furniture by our second year, perhaps even tearing up the carpet and refinishing the hardwood floors.

The things we have accomplished in the house are much more practical than what I originally imagined. When we added a second bathroom upstairs we had to break through the wall in the first floor bathroom (that I had already de-wallpapered and painted) in order to fix a pumbing problem. We carpeted part of the basement to allow more living space and replaced the old windows to save on the heating bill. I painted the upstairs living area a blue that I no longer like and want to re-paint.

I’m not sure what people think of the way I live, but I’m not really too concerned about it. My house, like my marriage, has become an unintended experiment in cross-culturalism. I no longer worry that I don’t have nice furniture and trendy paint colors. The decorating I like is not what the rest of my Mexican family likes, and new furniture is not practical in a house with an almost-toddler and several men who work in restaurant jobs.

For a while before we found out about Fermin’s interview I thought we might buy another house for ourselves and rent this one to everyone else. Some days I want to do that, others I really don’t. So I’ve traded the “American” way of a married couple living together in their own quiet house for a community of working immigrants. So it always smells like Mexican food and there are about a hundred shoes in our front entry. So I’ve given up my compulsions to have everything neat and orderly. These things just don’t matter to me anymore.

Every weekday morning I leave a relatively low-income, urban neighborhood and pass the wealthy suburb I grew up in on my way to work. My dad and stepmom still live in the brick ranch with the wooded backyard and the corner lot in the quiet suburb of Elm Grove. My mom lives in a meticulously kept suburban condo that she swears is sometimes messy when no one else is around. My lifestyle, at least on an American scale, is vastly different than my parents, and many would consider it lesser.
I get to play with my nephew every night. He’s hopefully learning English as well as Spanish because I talk to him every day. I’m forced to use Spanish on a daily basis, but I also get to help my housemates with their English homework. I love that I can hop on the freeway and arrive in downtown Milwaukee in less than ten minutes. Soon a brand new Menards and Pick ‘n Save will be added to the list of stores within walking distance of my house. I know all the ways I can drive to miss traffic, where all the bad potholes are on my way home from the gym and where to get the best tacos in Milwaukee.

I work my day job, my ten hours per week at the restaurant because I love it, I write my blog and my columns, and I go home, to my full bungalow on Milwaukee’s south side. I could never have predicted I would live here, like this, at any time, but nevertheless it is good, it is comfortable, and it is home.