Illegal: a true story of love, revolution and crossing borders [book serialization/ Ch.1]
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 second installment [Prologue] and every few days I'll give away another chapter/ section. 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.
Illegal tells the true story of love and deception, revolutions and deportations as it chronicles the trials of John Dennehy. Naïve New Yorker, Dennehy refuses to be part of the feverish nationalism of post 9/11 America. His search for hope takes him to Ecuador, where he falls in love with firebrand Lucia, who perfects his broken Spanish while they find solidarity in the brewing social upheaval. Amid the unrest, Dennehy is arrested and deported to the United States but he has found something worth fighting for.
Without Me [Chapter One]
It was a few hours after sunset when the plane touched down at Quito International Airport. There was no line at immigration and I walked right through. This was March 2005 and nearly two years before I was deported. I was twenty-two years old and holding a mostly empty passport—I had left the United States for the first time less than a year ago, while still in university.
Outside the terminal, taxis waited by the curb. They were yellow, just like New York. I hadn’t checked a bag and was the first one through from my flight. Drivers were shouting questions at me—I assumed they were asking where I wanted to go. A few ran up to greet me while they spat out streams of sounds. I took out my notebook and read a phrase I had copied from the Spanish/ English dictionary on the plane ride down, “Un hotel barato y cerca el terminal de buses por favor—A cheap hotel near the bus station please.”
A man with grey stubble and a too-big sweater grabbed my bag from me and opened the front door of his taxi. He smelled like diesel.
As we pulled off the curb I understood his first question and told him, “Yo soy de Nueva York.”
He nodded and followed up with another question, his brown eyes glancing at me, waiting for an answer.
I shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t speak Spanish.”
He smiled and said something else in his language.
We were each having our own conversation.
Once we got away from the airport the city was quiet. At first things seemed fairly modern; there were two and three story blocks of concrete made into apartments with occasional storefronts at street level. There were billboards hanging above the street, illuminated with spotlights. The road changed from smooth pavement to cobblestone. It began to look more urban, though the streets stayed empty. Storefronts were covered in sheets of metal pulled down and locked into hooks poking up from the sidewalk. A blue glow sneaked around closed curtains of a few windows but many were just dark.
There were now traffic lights at most intersections. We sped through green and red just the same—though the driver would sound his horn a few times when we approached red ones. The buildings became taller and narrower, pushing up against each other. We swerved round a concrete pole in the road. Ahead was a whole line of them, as far as the eye could see. Most of them grew out of the sidewalk but a few sprouted from the cobblestone street, forcing cars to swerve around them. A nest of wires stood atop each one, branching out in every direction.
The driver stopped at a green light and beeped his horn. There was a round woman sitting on a stool next to a wooden cart lit by a burning candle. He shouted something out the window to her and she jumped to her feet, grabbed something off her cart and rushed over to us. Her checks were almost red, though her skin was fairly dark. She wore a black felt hat with what seemed to be a peacock feather sticking out of it. I saw she had a blanket tied across her chest but only when she reached the window did I see there was a baby snuggled inside, hanging off her back. She handed over a pack of gum to the driver just as the light turned red. He opened the pack, turned toward me and reached his hand out.
“Gracias,” I said as he tilted the box and let a piece fall onto my open palm.
The next morning I walked across the street from my hotel and boarded a bus to Cuenca, a city eight hours south along winding roads that moved down the spine of the Andes.
I followed our progress across Ecuador on my map. Each time we stopped at a new town I found its little black dot and watched as we crept away from Quito and toward Cuenca. When the bus entered Cuenca I pressed my face to the window and stared out onto my new home.
The week that the Iraq War began in 2003 was also my Spring Break. I left my university in Hartford and went back to New York for a few days. On St. Patrick’s Day I joined a few friends and we took the train into Manhattan to see the parade. I knew there would be a lot of people out in the streets so I spray painted “No War On Iraq” across the front of an old T-shirt. I thought it’d be a passive way to get the message into people’s heads. Lots of other people, drunk at a parade and primed for war by months of build-up, saw it as provocative. All day people caught my eye and gave me dirty looks. A few shouted things such as “Communist!” and “Get out of the country!”
As the parade began to wind down I was standing on a side street, half a block away from the crowd on 5th Ave. My friend and I were waiting for a few other friends who had gone off to get food. A group of high school kids, about 16 or 17 years old, stopped in front of me.
“Why are you wearing that shirt?” asked one boy.
“Because there’s no reason for war.”
“What about 9/11? You think we should just not do anything?” His fists were clenched at his sides. Twelve of his friends stood behind him, crowding around, excited for some action. His arms were almost hairless. His face was pockmarked with pimples.
“9/11 was horrible but had nothing to do with Iraq. The problem is—”
Warm saliva splashed across my face. I reflexively wiped my hand across my cheek.
From the cluster behind the pimpled boy somebody yelled. “Hit em. He’s a fucking traitor!”
My friend jumped in front, trying to defend me, and took the first punch square in the jaw. They swarmed around us, knocked us to the ground and kicked us in the face and chest. My friend got up, connected a few punches and ended up on the ground again, sneakers smacking against him. I curled up in a ball and covered my face with my forearms. A dozen skinny legs wound up and kicked against the back of my head and my chest. Everything moved in slow motion. I watched the kicks connect but didn’t feel or hear anything. I felt empty. There was no impulse to grab one of them and fight back.
When they stopped and ran off I looked up and saw a crowd of spectators around us. A hundred people had watched and let it play out. My friend was worse off than me. Both his eyes were already swelling, and one of them was filled with blood.
Two days later the U.S. military started bombing Baghdad and invaded Iraq.
I sat down with my parents at the kitchen table and told them what I planned to do. Over the past year I had become quickly immersed in activism at the University of Hartford, where I was in my junior year of college. I was president of a newly resurgent Progressive Student Alliance which had become the largest student organization on campus. I sent my parents clippings from newspaper articles and told them about the various protests and teach-ins we organized. I think they knew what was coming; for weeks news stories had circulated that groups were planning massive civil disobedience if the war started.
“On Monday morning a group of us are going to block the doors to the Federal building in Hartford.”
“And then what?” my father asked. He was a business manager and always calculated everything in advance. “What happens when the police come?”
“We stay. The goal is to stop the government from working that day, at least at that one building.”
My mom, who was a teacher and volunteered at a homeless shelter, leaned forward in her chair. “They’ll arrest you,” she said. “You can keep going to protests and writing letters and all of that but if you get arrested it will stay with you. It will go on your permanent record.”
“I want this on my permanent record.”
On Monday we locked arms and blocked all the entrances before anyone arrived. “Government’s closed until the war’s over,” we told the employees as they arrived. The police came and dragged us away. I let my body go limp and four officers in riot gear carried me onto a waiting bus. It felt good to so forcefully declare opposition to what was being done in my name.
But it also felt pathetic. Bombs were falling on cities and the best I could do was block a door.
That night Hartford police officers brought a boom box down to the holding cells, now filled with anti-war protesters. They played the “Star-Spangled Banner” on repeat through the night.
That’s the night my faith began to crack. I kept going to protests. I kept writing letters and signing petitions. And I kept urging people to vote for good, progressive candidates.
But I didn’t believe it anymore.
When I dived into activism I thought we would win. I thought you could follow all the rules, and if you worked hard enough, you would win. All you had to do was work hard, every day, and government would listen, and society would change. Aided by the naiveté of youth, I thought I could change the world … until I didn’t.
The morning after my arrest, I was given a court date and released. There were a dozen supporters waiting outside and a few friends from university who drove me back and dropped me off at my dorm. My roommate was at class and I closed the door behind me. I didn’t want to wash off the dirt of a night in the cells just yet. I wrote poetry instead.
my country is going to war; without me
my nation is planning to kill; without me
my president has abandoned peace; without me
After the Iraq War started George W. Bush began referring to himself as a ‘war president.’ When he was re-elected a few months later I decided to leave the country. I was in my final semester at the University of Hartford and the timing was right; I just needed a place to go. I had read about workers taking over factories in Argentina and Hugo Chavez winning elections in Venezuela but not much else about South America. There was almost no one paying attention to the continent, except for this vague notion that American style capitalism was being challenged there, and that drew me toward it. I wanted to find something that stood in contrast to America, and I also liked the idea of a fresh slate that I would mostly color with firsthand experience rather than preconceived notions. Cuenca, Ecuador was simply the place where I found a job from an online posting.
When I arrived at the Cuenca bus station for the first time in March 2005, there was a large plaque honoring the city’s recent designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I had the address of the school that had hired me and it was close enough to walk. I had only a single duffel bag with a few changes of clothes so I didn’t mind exploring a bit on my way. The city was full of narrow cobblestone streets and they were crowded with people. The first thing that struck me were the colors. In the late afternoon sun every building seemed to be painted a different shade. Bright oranges and greens and blues were framed by the red clay-tile roofs that hung over most buildings. Even window frames and shutters were painted purple or magenta or some other wild color that stood in contrast to the wall around it.
There were a lot of round women with rosy cheeks like the one I had seen in Quito. Some also carried babies in the same style, tucked in a blanket behind their backs. All of them wore long skirts that hung down to their ankles. Mixed within the crowds were a lot of foreigners. Some were wearing big backpacks and studying maps at corners while others walked confidently down side streets and into houses. I heard some of them speaking English and when I got lost, I asked one group for directions. “Do you work there?” asked a man with a mid-western accent.
“Yeah, starting next week.”
“Sweet. I have some friends working there too.” I was close and he gave me directions to get me to the front door.
“No problem. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you around. Welcome to Cuenca.”
At my new school I met the director, Fiona. She was from Ireland and had come to the school to teach two years before, and had quickly moved up the ranks. Her office was sparsely decorated, and the walls were freshly painted a bright lime-green. We sat across from each other in plush office chairs, her desk between us filled with workbooks and lesson plans.
“Eres gato también,” she said.
“Oh sorry, sometimes I forget which language I’m supposed to use.” She smiled. Her green eyes blinked and made contact with mine. “I was just noticing your light blue eyes. Almost all Ecuadorians have brown eyes so green or blue is a novelty here. Everyone will call you gato when they meet you. It means cat. It can become annoying but it’s definitely a complement; everyone wants to be gato here.”
After our casual introductions, she asked me a simple question that would have far-reaching consequences over the next years of my life: Did I want the school to get me a work visa?
“That’s optional?” I asked, confused.
She laughed. “Well, most foreigners who work in Ecuador come with governments or large international organizations, like the Peace Corps or WorldTeach, and work visas are part of the program. Not many people come here independently, and the ones who do usually just renew their automatic tourist visa every ninety days.”
“Oh, and how can I renew my tourist visa?”
“All you have to do is leave the country and come back. There are some nice beaches a few hours away in Peru that a lot of people go to. Of course we could get you a work visa and then you won’t have to worry about it. You just need to give me your passport and $180 and the school will take care of everything.”
“Can I think about it?”
“Sure. Just let me know before the first week of classes finish.” She paused and then asked, “Have you seen the library yet?” She smiled, and though it was our first meeting, she seemed more like an old friend. Our minority status in what was a very different world from ‘home’ provided an instant bond. “You may take out as many books as you want; it’s one of the perks of working here,” she said as she stood up to lead me downstairs.
I checked out Walden and Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau and left the school. It was warm and sunny. A few blocks away I stumbled upon a school with a small plaza at its entrance. I sat down on a bench, the sidewalk and street in front of me and behind me a low concrete wall that held soil and a small garden. I had already read Thoreau in a literature class at university but wanted to read him in a different context. I wanted to let his ideas flow through me as I set out on a new beginning.
Fiona made the visa decision sound unimportant, and I believed it would be. But I was still high on symbolism and the idea that I could do things differently—I was bitter about having followed all the rules in the U.S. but having it amount to nothing. Perhaps the choice would only be symbolic, but I resolved to begin my new life outside the United States by living as I thought things should be, rather than how they were.
Before I moved to Ecuador I’d never had to think about borders very much. I would have said I didn’t like them but it would have been based on vague emotion more than reality. That wasn’t good enough. I wanted to break down the logic of national borders and decide what I thought would fit best into my hypothetical ideal.
Borders are lines between nations, deciding where one government’s power begins and another ends. They are barriers designed to control the flow of information, commerce, goods, services and people. In theory, a border will keep out the bad while allowing the good to pass through, something akin to how a window screen will let in fresh air but not mosquitoes. A great theory, but the more I thought about the reality of the border, the less I liked it.
In modern times barriers to commerce have come down significantly, if not entirely, to allow for easier trade. The world has never been smaller or more connected, so rather than acting as barriers, borders have become little more than ports of entry—unless you’re human. With the rise of globalization, goods and services have gained greater freedom of movement and humans have lost it. Sneakers can travel anywhere in the world to be sold, but the person who made them cannot follow.
I went to a bookstore Fiona had told me about and scoured the shelves for information to back up my gut feelings about borders. I bought a used copy of Opening the Floodgates: Why America Needs to Rethink its Borders and Immigration Laws by Kevin Johnson and I covered the margins with notes.
Johnson says that migration flows are hindered mostly by culture, language or distance rather than strict border restrictions. People tend to stay in their own comfort zones except in cases of extreme inequality or threat of violence, and in those cases fences don’t do much good anyway.
That was the intellectual argument, but there was also an emotional one. Why should I be able to travel to Ecuador because I was born in the U.S. while an Ecuadorian could not travel to the U.S. because he was born in Ecuador? Borders seemed designed to help keep transnational economic power dynamics stagnant, to entrench inequality.
I also read and reread Civil Disobedience, and let Thoreau’s message guide me: “Let your life be a friction to stop the machine.” The institutions of power pull their force from the individuals who submit to them, and participation in them, even in opposition, strengthens them, lends credibility and can actually be one of the biggest obstacles to fundamental change. Therefore, abstaining from the system completely, depriving it of your power is the true revolutionary act. “[The state] can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it.”
I decided to forgo the work visa. I was choosing not to participate in a global system that made vastly different rules for world citizens based solely on place of birth. There was a fair bit of irony in that I was only in a position to make that choice because of that same privilege; only because of my U.S. citizenship could I travel freely between Ecuador and her neighbors to automatically renew my visa.
At the time it seemed that it wouldn’t matter much either way, so I made what I thought was a mostly symbolic choice to never ask permission.
I'll be releasing the entire book this way but if you want to buy the paperback with Crypto-currency, email: [email protected] with your mailing address (U.S. only) and your preferred crypto and I'll respond with a wallet address and mail the book. $10 USD including shipping, limited time/ crypto only