One and a Half Degrees of Separation

11 Mar
my mama, visiting me and her granddaughter Lucia.

my mama, visiting me and her granddaughter Lucia.

Long ago, my mom and I developed this theory/joke that while there are six degrees of separation in the world, in Louisville, Kentucky, there’s only one and a half. Despite being the 16th largest city in the U.S. (don’t ask me why Louisville thinks that’s something noteworthy), if you’ve lived in Louisville long enough, it is pretty difficult to meet somebody you are not connected to already in some way, shape, or form. Louisville is the ultimate decent-sized city with a small-town feel. Louisvillians even manage to run into each other in other cities, no matter how unlikely.

I should’ve remembered all that when the woman in the mini-van (public transportation) started speaking English to me. Unfortunately, being the movie star/circus freak/outsider that I am here in this small town has taken a bit of a toll on my friendliness, without me even realizing it until now. We were going from Puerto Escondido to Rio Grande, the first leg of the trip back to our home in Juquila, with my mom and her partner, Dee. Partway into the trip, the woman in front of me turns around and signals Lucia, asking, “Is it a boy or a girl?” in English. Usually when people speak English to me it is some token phrase, not a conversation, or else they think that I can’t speak Spanish. “It’s a girl,” I tell her, in Spanish.

I’m surprised when she continues in English, this time addressing my mom as well. “Where are you guys from?” “Kentucky” says my mom. I await the usual response- something about Kentucky Fried Chicken, if there’s any “recognition” at all. But instead she says “Oh that’s my state. Where in Kentucky? Louisville?” Her English is great, and her accent definitely passes as a U.S. accent, although she pronounces Louisville the way it’s spelled (loo-ee-vill), the way outsiders pronounce it, not the ridiculous (correct) way Louisvillians normally pronounce it (loo-uh-vul).

“Yes, we’re from Louisville.” My mom or Dee replies. “That’s where I grew up,” she says. My mouth probably would have dropped to the floor with surprise, except that I was so excessively surprised that surprise turned to disbelief. How could she possibly be from Louisville? Other Louisvillians couldn’t possibly be living close to me, couldn’t possibly be taking the minivan from Puerto Escondido to Rio Grande. She must be bluffing, or teasing, or something, I thought. But how could she make that up? I mean, who around here’s heard of Louisville, unless they really have been there?

“Really? Where in Louisville?” I ask her, part friendliness, part curiosity, part test. “Jeffersontown,” she replies. The same neighborhood as my aunt Julia. Close to where my mom and Dee live. She tells me the middle and high schools she attended, a job she had on Taylorsville Road. She absolutely positively is a Louisvillian.

Technically, she’s from El Salvador, but she got to the U.S. very young and lived there until two years ago, when she moved down here with her Mexican husband to the town where he’s from. She is like my future, I think; I’m only 6 and a half months in, while she’s had two years to adjust. I try to investigate from that angle, asking her things about her adjustment. She’s living in a much more rural town, which means it’s also a lot harder than my situation in a lot of ways. “It’s really different, but I’m getting used to it,” she tells me, all positivity. Mentally I translate that to Spanish, since that is what I hear all the time. “Te acostumbras? Se acostumbra tu mujer/tu nuera/la gringa?” Meaning, “Are you getting used to it? Is she getting used to it” (when people ask my mother-in-law or my partner about me)? I am sure that she hears the same question, and I imagine her response is similar to mine. I always tell people yes, even when it’s a boldface lie, even in my most miserable and loneliest moments.

“Do you make tortillas there? Did you have to learn how to make them” she asks later. “No,” I tell her, “we buy them usually. I kinda know how to make them; I’ve done it before. But there’s a lady that passes by everyday that makes them to sell. And there’re also plenty of tortillerias that sell them.” I think about what her day must be like. I reflect on the fact that for me, coming from Louisville, there’s nothing to do and almost no conveniences in Juquila. So for her, also coming from Louisville, there must be like a negative 10 on the scale of things to do and conveniences in her town.

“Have you made friends there?” I ask, hopeful that she has, and that maybe it took her a long time like it’s taking me. Or that most likely people are friendlier there than here in Juquila. And if not, then we can swop stories about how hard it is to not make friends, about how closed and unfriendly people are, reminisce about the friends we used to have back in Louisville. “Yeah, I’ve made some friends.”

“Oh, good!! That definitely helps. Are people friendly there, then?” I ask her. And then she kinda backtracks, saying something about how she doesn’t always remember people’s names, but she knows their faces. And I wonder how many real friends she’s been able to make so far, with even less people in her town than in mine, with even more space between them. She tells me she has three kids- five year old twins and a three year old, and I add on an extra 20 points to the isolation calculations in my head.

“What do you miss about Louisville?” I ask her. “Everything,” she says, the only hint of despair I hear in our conversation.

I ask about her husband, who is sitting in the seat next to her but hasn’t turned around to join in the conversation, or even to glance at the gringa from the same city as his wife, this whole time. My shy partner Conan, who’s sitting in a seat behind me, hasn’t jumped into the conversation, either, but I know he’s listening intently and he has said a few words. Her husband lived in the U.S. for seven years, she says- not as long as she did, but long enough for him to not be getting used to his hometown again. Interesting how it’s easier to talk about someone else not adjusting, but if you’re the one who’s not from there, it’s like admitting your weakness, or maybe even your defeat, if you can’t/don’t/won’t “get used to it,” if “no te acostumbras”. I wonder if she told me she’s getting used to it the same way I always tell people that yes, “me acostumbro” just fine, thanks. Force of habit, and maybe a (reasonable and realistic) fear that if you really started to talk about how lonely and difficult it was, how homesick and isolated and trapped you feel some days, then you’d probably break down and cry right there in the middle of the street, or the minivan, or wherever you were.

I wonder, too, about the reasons for them moving down here. Did he want to move back, to be with his family, to show the kids to their grandmother, to be in his country again after seven years as a foreigner? Or were they forced out? Was he deported, or up for deportation? Or was she? I don’t ask, because I don’t want to get into our story either, here in the minivan. Surely if we see each other again we can chat about it.

Meanwhile we talk about her family, how they’re all in Louisville, just like all my family. She answers my unspoken question when she says at one point, “At least you can go back and visit anytime you want.” Well, “anytime we have the money,” I tell her, and then shut up when I realize the implications of what she’s said. While getting together enough money for a plane ticket when your family earns pesos instead of dollars can feel ridiculously out of reach, it is, at the very least, a possibility, a glimmer of hope. And with family in the U.S. earning dollars, willing and able to help me out, it’s a fact that I will be going to visit, sooner rather than later. Not only that, but my family can come and visit me here in Mexico; there’s my mom and her partner in the minivan with us as testimony.

And what about my fellow Louisvillian? Not only will she never be going to her high school reunion, she couldn’t even go to her mother’s funeral last year. Her siblings can’t come see her. She is homesick for a place that she has no legal right to return to. Just to visit her adopted hometown she’d have to risk her safety, her liberty, her life, and probably have to leave her kids behind to boot. She is like millions of other people who went to the US as children, only to later find themselves country-less.
(In 2008, there were 1.5 million children in the US who were unauthorized immigrants, according to the Pew Hispanic Center).

I can’t really imagine how much strength she must need. As I write this, it’s been seven months since we got on a plane to move to Mexico. Becoming a mother and simultaneously moving to a very unfriendly, geographically isolated small town is thus far the hardest thing I’ve ever done in life. I think about the black raincloud of despair that drifts over me for periods of time on more days than I’d like to admit. The despair attacks me despite the fact that my family and some friends can come and visit me, despite the fact that my daughter and I can go there and visit, despite the fact that maybe, theoretically, potentially, possibly, someday, Conan and Lucia and I could all move back to the U.S. together. Despite all those glimmers of hope, and despite all of the good things I have going in Juquila, I still feel exiled and alone more often than I’d like.

So I think about this woman leading a parallel life, my fellow Louisvillian, a fellow mother, a fellow immigrant in Mexico, a fellow lover/partner/wife/whatever-you-wanna-call-it who loves her partner enough to move to another country with him…. I think about just how connected we are, just how connected we all are, and it leaves me baffled. How can we be this similar, how can we be from the same city, and be living in the same area, and not have known about each other before? What synchronicity to meet like this! But more importantly, how can she and I be in such a similar situation, and yet I have all these legal rights and privileges that she doesn’t have?

It reminds me that there’s a lot left to fight about when it comes to equality. It reminds me that as much as I love Louisville, I’m not sure I want to raise a family in a country that is so anti-family if you have the wrong color skin- a country that every year deports more and more people, no matter the circumstances, no matter their how dug in their roots and family ties are. And it reminds me that no matter how small a world it is, no matter how many or few “degrees” are separating us, as long as there are laws that value some people more than others, we’re all a lot more separated from humanity than we’d like to believe.

2 Responses to “One and a Half Degrees of Separation”

  1. Lee March 11, 2013 at 4:26 pm #

    So well said Julia! I am known to rant regularly and loudly about the ridiculous so called immigration policies in our country. Of course, I am grateful that I live in a country that gives me the right to voice my vociferous objections. But that is a different post! I think a country that literally is built on the backs of immigrants needs to look long and hard at how we treat those who want to come here. I see the situation with children coming as children and going through high school. Sometimes that is when they find out they are not legal–somehow their parents have not passed on that info. College is suddenly beyond their reach and promising young minds wind up sent back to a country they have not seen since they were infants.

    • exiletomexico March 11, 2013 at 6:43 pm #

      yes, yes, and yes. it is madness. (although i prefer to talk about people being authorized/unauthorized, documented/undocumented, having papers/not, etc…. hearing the term legal/illegal gives me chills)… i’d love to hear more about your job sometime!!! message me maybe if you get the time??

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