Illegal: a true story of love, revolution and crossing borders [Ch.24]
I'm a journalist for publications such as The Guardian, Vice, The Diplomat and Narratively and my first book, a memoir, came out just over a year ago [Amazon link]. It's won numerous awards and sold thousands of copies. And now I want to give it away. This is the twenty-fifth installment [Prologue | Ch 1 | Ch 2 | Ch 3 | Ch 4 | Ch 5 | Ch 6 | Ch 7 | Ch 8 | Ch 9 | Ch 10 | Ch 11 | Ch 12 | Ch 13 | Ch 14 | Ch 15 | Ch 16 | Ch 17 | Ch 18 | Ch 19 | Ch 20 | Ch 21 | Ch 22 | Ch 23] and every few days I'll post another chapter. From the back cover:
A raw account of a young American abroad grasping for meaning, this pulsating story of violent protests, illegal border crossings and loss of innocence raises questions about the futility of borders and the irresistible power of nationalism.
The Agony of Borders [Chapter Twenty-Four]
I spent Christmas and New Year’s at the edge of the Amazon with Lucía and her family. I loved meeting and becoming comfortable with everyone, and was also fascinated by the new traditions I experienced. The year before I had spent my first New Year’s Eve in Ecuador and wandered the streets with Ana’s family. On each corner there were life-sized dolls filled with sawdust, and at midnight they fueled a bonfire at every intersection. People took old clothes from a close friend or family member to dress the mannequin and hung it outside someplace public for everyone to see. Each doll represented the person whose clothes they were dressed in. It was playful and mocking, but also somewhat of an honor. At the start of the new year, when your doll burned, it symbolized a new beginning, the cleansing of your sins. Some people wrote lists of their regrets from that year and threw them into the flames. The first days of the new year were filled with practical jokes, something like April Fool’s Day in the U.S., and whenever you were caught, the traditional response was, “I’m innocent,” and everyone laughed. Starting fresh, starting innocent each year, was a concept that really appealed to me.
As fun as the New Year’s festivities were, the big event that week was Christmas Eve or Nochebuena (the good night). It felt more like Thanksgiving to me: there was a big meal and lots of family, but there was no tree, no holiday sales at the mall, no stockings to fill, and no pile of gifts to wrap. All we gave to Lucía’s parents was a framed picture of us together. We’d visited a friend of mine in the Amazon for my birthday and he snapped the shot when we weren’t looking. We were laughing, my mouth open and hers in a wide grin, gazing into each other’s eyes, while a monkey wrapped his tail around my neck and his arms around Lucía’s waist, pulling us together.
We ate the big meal in Lucía’s parents dining room. The small room was empty save the table and the yellow walls had no decoration or ornaments except for a massive, wood-framed bronze relief of the last supper. There was a Christmas tablecloth and four red candles burning on top. While the table was almost too large for the room, it was not large enough for the family. Lucía’s child sat on her lap and her nieces piled on their mother. We settled in for dinner at midnight and began by standing for a round of toasts. Lucía’s mother, Mayra, went first:
“I look around the table and I am so grateful to have everyone here, so happy that all of us can come together today—but we are not whole. There will always be a place at this table for Maria and Paul and I wish that one day I can have all of my family here with me. I wish that we could all be together again.”
Lucía had been telling me about her family for weeks. The five children and two parents were all very close, if not always together. Her father spent much of her childhood living and working illegally in the United States in order to send money home, and since his return, two of the family’s children had left.
Lucía’s sister had taken a vacation to the U.S. a few years earlier, met a man, and married. She wed her husband without changing her status and asking permission from immigration and when her visa ran out, she was considered illegal. If she ever left the U.S., she wouldn’t be able to return. Before I had heard her story, I—like many Americans—had believed that marriage was a legal loophole to immigration, that when two people wed they automatically gained citizenship to each other’s countries. The reality, at least in the case of Ecuador, was starkly different.
After my deportation Lucía and I spoke more seriously about marriage visas and I had done a good bit of research into it. In the case of me and Lucía, it would have likely taken over two years to run through the multi-step process. It would also cost a few thousand dollars. A good lawyer could grease all the wheels and do much of the legwork but that would be even more money. Deep pockets always made immigration less of a hassle.
I also learned that most nations offer their own version of the ‘investment visa.’ In Ecuador you needed to deposit $25,000 in an Ecuadorian bank; in the U.S. it’s an investment of $500,000 or more in a U.S. based business (called the EB-5 ‘Alien Investor’ visa, which also puts you on the fast track to full citizenship). Most people pay coyotes or bribe police, but the rich just need to make a deposit into their own bank account.
My own experiences and research taught me that while it is often easy to independently visit other nations, it is usually problematic to live there independently. If you work for a government, corporation or NGO and have their support, or if you have a lot of money, everything is streamlined, but borders are less kind to individuals.
In Ecuador, for however long the marriage visa process took—and I found one couple who told me theirs lasted seven years—I would not be allowed to leave the country. So it was inconvenient and expensive but there was a much bigger issue that kept us waiting—Lucía was still married. Every time I asked her about it she told me there were just small details to take care of and everything would be finalized “in a few weeks.” It made my visa options unclear and put both that and our relationship into a holding pattern.
In addition to a sister in the United States, Lucía’s brother was similarly stranded in Europe by work and love. In a culture that placed such a high value on family, borders so often tore them apart. Mayra’s speech struck a chord with the table and a somber air hung over the group as I began my short monologue. I told everyone how touched I was that they welcomed me into the family with such open arms, and water began to fill my eyes, forcing me to stop abruptly. I’m not sure if my tears were from pleasure or pain. I was overjoyed to be a part of such a special and intimate moment with my new family, yet there was a certain emptiness because of the distance I felt from my family in New York.
After missing a full semester of work at UTC because of my deportation, I was rehired and began working again after the new year. I was able to earn some much needed money by teaching an intensive seminar during the semester break and would work regularly again in the new semester starting in February.
Almost a year earlier, when I had first seen my students on the streets, choking on tear gas but holding their ground fighting for a better tomorrow, I had been proud. The students’ noble struggle became the national cause and the tiny party with influence at the university exploded, and everyone rushed to it.
Now I had a new boss—one whose background was more political than educational. Qualified teachers were being replaced by men and women whose only qualification seemed to be their ability to hang up large amounts of propaganda each night. The university I once held in such high esteem seemed more and more like a political tool rather than a leader in the fight for free public education.
President Correa had taken office and his army in the streets grew larger by the day. Congress tried to block his power grabs, and in response, the nation watched dramatic live television coverage as his supporters surrounded Congress and fought their way in. When politicians tried to meet in other cities, Correa’s new citizens’ army would instantly appear and chase them away. El Universo was full of headlines on the power struggle: Protesters Continue to Block the District Attorney's Office; Correa Supporters Take to the Street to Support a New Constitution; Demonstrators Interrupt Session of the National Election Committee.
“Correa was the first politician I believed in,” Ana said to me as we discussed the latest flash mob that violently attacked the opposition. “But he’s just like the rest. He’s turning into a dictator.”
“Yeah, he’s definitely not what I had hoped he would be, but maybe he will still come around,” I replied.
Ana lifted her head from the flowers she was pruning and rolled her eyes. “He’s no good, and you know that as well as me. You’ll admit that soon enough.”
Opposition leaders began fleeing the country, mostly to Colombia, and the Citizen’s Revolution steamrolled forward, consuming everything in its path.
In mid-January Lucía met her husband and his lawyer in Ambato to discuss their much-delayed divorce. I was reading in bed when she came home.
“Hola amor.” She greeted me cheerfully as she put down her bag and came over to give me a kiss.
“Hola… So, how did it go?”
She sighed. “It was alright. It should all be finished in a few weeks.”
“But that’s what you said a few weeks ago.”
“I know, and I’m sorry. He was being difficult. He also said that he wanted to hire someone to kill you.”
“What?! What do you mean?”
“Yeah, he said he was looking for someone.”
“What?! He wants to kill me?”
“I told you he was being difficult.” She shrugged.
“Well, this is different. Is this serious?”
“I don’t know. He is military but maybe he just said that to make me upset.”
“You don’t seem very upset about it.”