hope in the winter

January 20, 2008

Despite being the month of my birthday, January is not my favorite. After a snowy early winter, things melted in the last few weeks, to the point that I went to work with no coat one day, and saw damp, green grass peeking out from under the disappearing foot of snow in my yard. I received my seed catalogs – it’s hard not to get excited looking at exotic varieties of peppers and potatoes, dreaming of the days of fresh tomatoes again. My mom gave me some gorgeous flowers for my birthday, which I keep staring at, wishing for spring outside as well. But today the high temperature is in the very low single digits — a good day to stay inside all day long, maybe even turn on that insanely hyped Packer game. Good Wisconsinites know winter drags on through April most years anyway. With the holidays over, the busiest time at my job long gone, and many months until real spring, it’s hard not to become seasonally affected.

Which is why the last few years, I have planned a trip, to keep hope alive, so to speak. Last year I returned from Mexico on Christmas Eve after 10 days with Fermin only to immediately want to leave the country again, to get back to somewhere warm, to escape the long, cold, northern winter. After a few weeks figuring out how I could possibly afford it – financially and vacation-time-wise, I booked us a trip to hot, glorious Acapulco at the end of February. We stayed on the Mexican side of town and enjoyed the sun, the swimming, the flowers, the seafood, walking across the hilly town to see the legendary divers of La Quebrada.

With the new freedoms of a lawful permanent resident, Fermin went to Mexico in November, but it didn’t make sense for me to go along for a short trip when he would be occupied navigating Mexican bureaucracy and looking at pieces of land. Then I was jealous from the day he left all the way until he returned, and knew that by January and into agonizing February I was going to be aching for some time away.

I started up with my thorn tree trolling and kayak-ing, searching for flight prices and considering all the wonderful places neither of us have yet to visit – Guanajuato, Oaxaca, Merida, etc. After finding round-trip tickets from Chicago for $300 (oh, how I love living an hour from O’Hare) I knew we were going somewhere. A week or so later I was working an event with my friend Britta, who owns her own personal chef business and is a world traveler in her own right. She had been talking about Thailand, and I said I couldn’t go because I was planning a trip to Mexico in February. You should go with us, I said. And a few weeks later, that was the plan. I used to dream about bringing my family and some of my closest friends to Mexico. But times change. Most of my closest friends are engaged or married and aren’t able to prioritize international travel. I don’t blame them, it’s just that I’ve prioritized travel over other things for a long time, and it’s great to know someone like Britta, who in some ways feels the same.

After we bought the tickets, the quasi-planning began. Not exactly planning, because in my travel style nothing is worse than set itineraries and schedules, but I love to do trip research. I like to read stories of people’s adventures in discovering different culture, and find it immensely satisfying to arrive in a new place with at least a decent outsider’s understanding, yet still know that every day there will be some sort of discovery. We decided to spend most of our time in Oaxaca — Fermin and I have always wanted to go there, and it’s the indisputable food capital of Mexico. With Britta along, this trip will more than ever be a culinary adventure. We’ll spend a few days with my mother-in-law, visiting and hopefully making tortillas and perhaps mole poblano, then on to Oaxaca where we’ll visit the markets, sample as many new things as possible and hopefully score some impromptu lessons on Oaxacan cuisine.

I have been lucky to make use of my online contacts to get a lot of help with this trip. Through immigrate2us.net I met a woman who is living in Oaxaca while waiting through her I-601 waiver process, and she happens to have a sister we can stay with and another sister who works for an eco-tourism start-up in Oaxaca state. In the meantime I had been sharing information with an acquaintance from Thorn Tree on the immigrant visa process in Ciudad Juarez when he mentioned something I had posted about visiting the Oaxacan coast at the end of our trip. It turns out he actually met his fiancee (now wife actually – as they got their visa successfully) on the Oaxacan coast and has traveled in the area where we plan to spend the last few days of our trip extensively. These two contacts have helped me immensely, but with lodging and transportation. Staying with my friend’s family in Oaxaca is going to help us save money, for sure, but it also allows us the chance to spend time with a Mexican family, to sample their food and learn from their knowledge about the city and hopefully make some new international friends.

In two weeks we’ll be in Libres. I can’t wait.


Christmas evening

December 25, 2007

A lot has happened this month. I took the LSAT, finished my application for Marquette law and got an insane job offer from the person I would most like to work for in the world – in Houston – and after serious thought, had to turn it down. If I were single, living in an apartment and had not gotten so attached to my life in Milwaukee the last few years, I would have gone, but besides the opportunity to work on something I am passionate about, all signs pointed away from moving. I got my LSAT score – not amazing, but hopefully, probably good enough for Marquette.

Fermin and I decided to go to Mexico in January. Then I convinced my avid traveler friend Britta, who runs a personal chef service called Private Palate, to come to Mexico too, and we bought tickets to go for two weeks and spend a solid week in Oaxaca (see amazing Oaxaca photos by one Scott L. Robertson here), learning about traditional food and soaking up some much desired sunshine.

The holidays are in full swing – and this year I ate turkey and tamales and drank eggnog and ponche. Next weekend we’ll cook Mexican at my mom’s house for our belated Christmas and spend New Years’ with dear friends in Madison. I know I’ll spend the rest of January dreaming about two weeks in Mexico in February. Then we’ll be approaching spring.

I’m cautiously optimistic that I will have the opportunity to start a 16-hour per week class schedule come August, and concerned about the discipline it will take to pull that off while working full time. I do realize I need to value my free time now as much as possible. Once I start school, things are going to be more than a little intense.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year – see you all soon!

life and liberty

December 6, 2007

I have a great calender hanging on the beige wall adjacent to my computer monitor at work.  I picked the calendar carefully, knowing it would provide, besides whatever I view on the web each day, the only source of art during the many hours I spend at work. After perusing the racks of my area bookstore, I decided on a Graphique de France black & white photograph calendar of New York City scenes. It’s significant because I have never been to our nation’s largest city, very much want to visit, and the majority of people I speak to while doing my job live and work in New York City and the surrounding boroughs. This year I have looked at a 1950s photo of the Brooklyn bridge for one month and a gorgeous shot of the inside of Radio City Music Hall on its opening night in 1932.

Monday morning, December 3, I was feeling stressed. I was thinking about waiting three whole weeks to hear about my LSAT score, and wondering if I might have scored terribly (or rather, far worse than what I am hoping for) and trying to balance that with feeling like the test went fine. It’s a little bit of a crazy time at work, and I was thinking about needing to complete my Marquette application, and what my “optional” statement should be about, and what if there was a typo on the resume I submitted to UW-Madison, and why am I doing this anyway? I have a great, relatively easy job that I am good at and earns me a nice living. While Fermin is totally supportive of me going to law school he doesn’t really understand my desire to have a career that assists other people. He feels that no one is ever going to appreciate the stress I will eventually feel over my cases, and that it’s not worth it to lay awake at night, as I was telling him my attorney friend does, worrying about other people. Obviously I disagree, and that is fine.

So Monday morning I looked at the November photo of the Flatiron building at Broadway and Fifth Avenue, just a block from a doctor’s office I would talk to later that day, and got up to switch it over to December. I didn’t know what the last photo was, and encountered a close-up with the face of the Statue of Liberty, my favorite representation of what I wish America could be. It reminded me of why I want to pursue law, and that I’m too young to be so cynical, and that having a job that makes a person feel like they have accomplished something good in the world, even if that’s just helping relatively few stay together, one immigrant at a time, will be totally totally worth it.

It’s time to get a new calendar for 2008, but I think I’ll cut out lady liberty and leave her up as a reminder of the values I want my life to be about.


September 13, 2007

My office is in an industrial park developed over a wetland, but thankfully a good chunk of the wetland has been preserved. It’s actually quite serene, and we see a good number of interesting birds, including wild turkeys, indigo buntings and sandhill cranes.

Last summer, less than a year after the building was completed and the company moved in, wild turkeys would occasionally walk right up to the building, and in some cases, tap on the glass. One morning a few months after I started here, I heard a co-worker sitting in the next area shouting, “the turkeys are tapping on the window, come quickly!” and everyone around did come quickly. There were two turkeys sitting right next to the window, tapping their little beaks on the glass. Then they ran away.

The turkeys haven’t been around this summer, but right now, there is actually a crane standing about 10 feet away from me, just on the other side of window that I sit about 6 feet from. The cranes have become gradually more adjusted to their human neighbors this summer, to the point where they routinely hang out a few yards from the building for a good chunk of the day. They are really funny, and it’s great to see them up close. I wish I had my camera.

Rumors of major enforcement

August 7, 2007

I know exactly what a Social Security Administration no-match letter looks like. We receive them yearly, sometimes all in one day, five or six in one stack on the dining room table. To be honest, they sort of make me laugh, announcing the government’s lame attempts to cover its large ass.

Until, well, apparently next week, an undocumented worker using an invented Social Security number would receive said letter each year, proclaiming that the name and number did not match the Social Security Administration’s records, and requesting the employee do something to fix this discrepancy. Considering there is no enforcement whatsoever, the employee, and the employer, also notified, did nothing.

I recall the first time we received these letters at the Asian fast-casual restaurant where Fermin and met and worked for several years. I was given the task, with my meager Spanish, of explaining that each employee had to sign a piece of paper stating they received notification that their Social Security number did match. That was it. I was sort of freaked out, and my boss said this was completely normal. Wink wink.
This was possibly the start of my education in the ways of the undocumented worker and the companies eager to hire them. I’m not saying this restaurant went out of its way to hire undocumented Mexican workers, but those were the only applicants, for the most part, that could handle the kitchen. In fact, when we opened, we had a rather diverse kitchen staff – a few Asian high school kids off for the summer looking for a fun job, a few Mexicans, a few aimless recent high-school grads forced by their mom to put down the remote/video-game control and get a job. Guess which ones worked out? I eventually became the supervisor of this wonderful group of Mexican employees, and they taught me a TON. One excellent kitchen manager made $12 per hour, so these weren’t minimum wage employees.
For many restaurants, this scenario is completely normal. There is no virtually no enforcement of the Social Security number mismatches, yet state, federal, Social Security and Medicaid taxes are deducted as with anyone else. As the immigration debate has boiled over in recent years, there is the occasional comment that if employers and the government would simply enforce the laws as they stand now, we would not have this problem. And in one way, this is completely true. Many people blame the immigrant workers, but neglect to ponder how much government-employer-undocumented immigrant collaboration actually has gone on to make this whole system work that way is is, or isn’t.

And while part of me wishes we could return to the days when the media and the politicians ignored these people and just let them go about their hard-working business, I know that will never happen. And if our elected officials are too afraid to pass laws that will actually expand legal immigration to meet the needs of our economy, I guess all we can expect is to watch the Department of Homeland Security start enforcing what it has to enforce, no matter what economic, social and cultural consequences it may have.

(In addition to the link to an LA Times article under the words “apparently next week,” above, a more comprehensive piece was published today in the New York Times).

liberty and reunification

July 19, 2007

Although this separation has changed our lives in many ways, life goes on after immigration. I feel grateful to be with someone who makes me happy. I was not terribly unhappy during the last year, but I was lacking. I tried not to let it bother me, and was mostly successful, but that does not mean it was not difficult. It is so simple to take one’s daily communal life with a spouse or significant other for granted, until, that is, it is taken away.

So in a rare moment of sappy-ness, let me tell you: do not take your people for granted. They are what is important.


Now when I am at work I call my husband and ask what we should make for dinner.
We cook stir-fries together, reminiscing about our days at Chin’s Asia Fresh, where we met as co-workers more than five years ago.
When he takes my keys and says he’s going to do an oil change, I wonder if he might be disassembling my car while I watch “So You Think You Can Dance.”
He bothers me to place chess with him and I say no because I don’t like to lose.
He plays along while I get excited about the tomatoes and cucumbers that are appearing all over my garden.
(Gardening after a suburban childhood is a wonderful thing).
I don’t wonder how many hundreds of dollars of phone calls he and I have made to one another in the past month.
(Free mobile-to-mobile doesn’t extend across the border).
I feel guilty enough subjecting someone else to my snooze-button habit to cut the over-sleeping nearly in half.
(This increases the number of days I arrive at work on time).
We discuss a future trip to China. Next year, maybe in fall, cost of flights, where to stay and where to visit.
We discuss *another* sort of future after a trip to China.
We can relax, we can travel, we do not worry about immigration.
We can live.

Yes, we’re back.

July 16, 2007

A little review:

As I mentioned before, everything went far better than expected on Tuesday. In fact, Fermin was in and out of the Consulate in less than three hours, which is very unusual. Most people seem to wait for hours and hours, only to turn in their passport and wait more hours while they affix the visa sticker and get around to giving it back to you.

One oddity was that he was not interviewed at all during his entire time there. He handed in the letter that said he had an appointment, turned in his passport and went to another area to wait, where he sat with Pablo, the husband of a friend from immigrate2us. Everyone else in the area seemed to be called up to answer a few questions like, “is your wife here?” or “did he/she come to visit you in Mexico?” and then told to wait a while longer. He was never called up, but after an hour or so they called a bunch of names and handed him, the friend’s husband and some others their new-visa-containing passports.

I was back in the hotel, thinking I might as well sleep in, imagining I’d have hours to sit on the porch of the Meson de Maruca hotel reading The Life and Times of Mexico while waiting for Fermin. About 10:15 a.m., just after I had gotten out of the shower and dressed, someone knocked on the door. I expected the maid far more than my husband, but it was him, and he had his passport in hand, announcing he was already done.


The friends I mentioned before had flights out of El Paso Wednesday morning, and were heading to cross the same border bridge we had to go to for the final fingerprinting and processing. We followed the other couple and hung out together in the building at the border while Fermin and Pablo followed the directions of an amusingly strict border patrol woman.

Imagine a waiting area ala your local DMV. There are a few signs, but generally people wander in with their residency packets and sit down somewhere in the chairs. As soon as one of the agent realizes these newbies are out of place, they sternly direct them to where they need to go. The family members (like us) sit in the back, and depending on how full the area is, another stern agent herds people “para atras,” as he sees fit. We were there for almost an hour, so after we say how the flow worked, we would watched amused as someone would wander in, sit down with their spouse in the line to get fingerprinted, and then be reprimanded and sent to the back of the room.

All in all, this part of the process was surprisingly efficient. Every time the lady would walk out with a handful of stamped passports, we hoped our hubbies were next. Then they were, and then we left. Fermin and Pablo walked across the checkpoint, while I got in the car and drove about 30 feet to the inspection area. There, the bored agents tapped my car, checked my spare tire area, and asked me where I had been and where I was going. They stopped to chat behind my trunk, and generally seemed to be taking their sweet time to get people through. It took at least 20 minutes for them to inspect the two cars in front of me and mine. So much for efficiency.

Our first stop when we crossed into El Paso was for food. Neither of us had eaten all day. We got off the freeway near a suburban commercial area and ate our first meal back together in the U.S., at the very exciting Nothing but Noodles restaurant, which is basically Noodles & Company Deux.

I’m leaving work now, so more updates later tonight and tomorrow.