Archive | November, 2014

Presents and Presence

30 Nov

My mom and her fabulous partner, Dee, are here visiting us this week. They arrived like Santa Claus last Friday, overdressed for the heat, two big suitcases nearly full of stuff and things for us. Much of it was stuff to improve our lives that we can’t get here. They brought more of those foldable cloth boxes for storing stuff (along with colorful duct tape to cover them in so the crickets don’t eat holes in them!). Dee brought us all kinds of new solar toys- including a solar-powered battery recharger, and some beautiful “garden decorations” that light up in different colors at night, which we’ll use to decorate Lucia’s room. My mom brought some other cool and yet inexpensive stuff to decorate Lucia’s room, all part of my wicked plan to lure her into sleeping in her own room before this new baby is born. 

happy visiting!

happy visiting!

“Nonna bring me book?” Lucia asked before she went to the airport to pick them up. “Probably so,” I told her, laughing at how well my two year old knows her Nonna’s habits and joys already. And indeed, despite having just sent Lucia a new book in the mail, her Nonna still had another one in her suitcase, among the other toys and surprises for my little one. (And I love how my sweet kiddo gets excited about anything we call a present.)

They brought things from other people, like hand-me-down maternity clothes from my best friend, and used baby clothes and some Lucia-size clothes from a friend of my mom’s. My dad and stepmom sent me some maternity clothes, and tons of stuff for Lucia- clothes, Elmo underwear, shoes, and a monkey that uses velcro to strap onto her neck, which Lucia hasn’t let go of since.

Lucia and her monkey from Paw-Paw and Gamma

Lucia and her monkey from Paw-Paw and Gamma

They brought things we don’t actually need which are just for fun and pleasure- TV series on DVD for Conan, a giant box of nutritional yeast for me and Lucia (Lucia insists that pasta must have both parmesan cheese and nutritional yeast), natural peanut butter (yes, most of the things I wanted were food-related), a small Woodford Reserve for Conan (I doubt the bourbon will last until after I give birth), puppets for Lucia, and all kinds of other small delights.

It was definitely like Christmas already last Saturday, like Christmas always was at my house as a kid- you’d get new sheets and other things you needed, and it was just as exciting as the fun new toy or the skateboard you’d dreamed of.

And then to top it all off, when we’d already had more than enough presents, they swooped in and rescued us from a severe financial stress. Our car was getting flats like every other day, running off some sad wheels from ten years ago. We kept getting them patched or replacing them with another cheap used tire that would bust on us soon. Conan and Dee and my mom conspired and researched and surprised me on Thursday with four brand-new quality tires, totally relieving a giant stressor from our life- yet another huge gift on top of the plethora of gifts they’d brought!

All of this help- the presents, the meals out, the new tires- was nothing compared to the joy of having them here. Conan’s mom visiting from Juquila is about the only visitor we’ve had since our wedding in February, so a visit from the north was feeling very overdue. I was nervous about how it would work with my crappy work schedule. We pulled off as much visiting as we could in the hours of my lunch break and the couple hours between when I get off and when I fall over in bed from exhaustion at night. They’ve come over to our house some for homecooking, and they’ve bought us lots of meals out. They’ve hung out with Lucia and let Conan get some work done while I’m at work. They kept Lucia over night. Last weekend and now this one, too, they’ve shared their hotel room with us, so it’s been like having a special beach vacation away from home. A vacation with internet, electricity, a refrigerator, a pool, and most of all, really good company.

Dee and Conan have had lots of good talks and male bonding adventures since Dee arrived. Dee is also great with Lucia and a general pleasure to be around. And of course, my mom is my mama, who I’ve always been super close to and have missed horribly since I moved. The past few months, as some things have gotten more difficult in my life, she’s been awesome at keeping in touch with me by phone and by email almost daily, which helps tremendously. But there is nothing like having your mama in the same town as you, talking and chatting live and in person, eating a meal together, hugging.

Today is the last full day they will be here, and I’m kind of in denial about it. I don’t want to think about the goodbye, now or later. I don’t want to think of another Christmas I won’t see most of my family. I don’t want to think about giving birth and my mama not being there the same day. It won’t be too many months before their next visit, but it still stinks to have all my family so far away. It’s fabulous to have Conan’s wonderful family close, but it doesn’t replace mine by a long shot. Presence is more powerful and more rewarding than all of the presents combined- even our new tires, which we would’ve gotten eventually without them.

The best gift is their presence, and the memories I’ll hold onto in these coming months while we wait for the next visit- from them, from my dad and stepmom, and who knows who else. Second to that, though, is another material thing that my mama brought me. I don’t know how much money it cost, and it doesn’t have any concrete purpose like the duct tape or the DVDs. But symbolism has a powerful effect on our lives and can carry us through moments of loneliness, heartache, and worse. This is what she brought me:

circle of women

It is a circle of women- my womenfolk, my strength, my source, much of my joy in life. It is a representation of all who can’t be physically here with me in this moment- because of geography, or death- but who are always with me. It is a reminder of their presence in my life, which, short of their physical presence, is the best present I could dream of. 

The Science of Magic (A Visit to the Partera)

23 Nov

I didn’t really want to go to this particular midwife (partera), because of our friend Chica’s telling us about the woman’s uncanny ability to accurately predict a baby’s sex. Conan and I are into surprises. We didn’t find out Lucia’s sex and we planned the same exciting ignorance with this current creature in my belly. But said creature was killing me with his/her positioning and movement and I was desperate for a cure. I was on my second day of come-and-go pain that in moments was so bad I had trouble walking and talking normally.

I’d already been to the doctor to rule out an exploding appendix or other non-baby-caused problems. As soon as I lay down in the office, late that evening of day one of pain, I’d felt some very hard appendage (foot? elbow? I don’t know) move up even further to the top of my giant belly and push out so far it protruded, like a cruel little taunt. The doctor pressed on it and I almost screamed. I went ahead and diagnosed myself with Mean Acrobatic Baby Syndrome. The doctor told me to come back the next day for an ultrasound to confirm that the pain was being caused by baby’s crappy positioning (he called it “compound presentation,” but whatever). “So, the point of the ultrasound is just to tell me that yes, this creature is in a bad position. It won’t actually help anything. Correct?” I asked. He had to admit that was the case. “And how about if I just go see a midwife, then, and get her to correct the positioning?” I suggested, although I’d really already decided by then that that was my plan, regardless. The doctor agreed that this was a reasonable thing to do, because here in Mexico even doctors respect midwives’ knowledge and abilities for the most part. 

Part of what midwives do down here is give massage- therapeutic massage, not a nice little relaxing massage. If you’ve had a miscarriage, you’re likely to go to a midwife to get a massage that’s supposed to help make sure the miscarriage is complete. If you want to get pregnant and haven’t been able to, they give massage to help with that. Some give massages related to other problems besides pregnancy. They are often skilled herbalists as well. And of course, being midwives, they assist in giving birth.

Chica led us (in the car) down a rocky dirt path to the midwife’s house. Chica is related to her, somehow or other, addressing her as “Tia” (Aunt), which here can also be a second or third cousin or any manner of other connection via blood and marriage. The midwife is 95 years old and retired now. At her request, Conan got some plastic chairs out of her second room, and we sat out on her porch to chat. She told us a bit about her life as a midwife, which she had been her entire adult life. Then she told us “something you won’t believe.” She said she had lost all of her teeth and couldn’t even eat tortillas, and then they started to grow back. They didn’t look like new teeth, and they certainly weren’t false teeth, either- there were only a few on the bottom of her mouth, and they were crooked and yellowed and some were just little nubs of teeth. But Chica and her husband swear that she had no teeth not too long ago. It sounds to me like something straight out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. I decided to maintain a skeptical belief;  I can’t prove that it’s true nor that it’s not, so I’ll just go with the “anything’s possible” attitude. It is, after all, a strange and mysterious world that we live in.

Finally we got down to business. She set me up in her bed with a shawl underneath me. She started feeling around on my belly, much softer and gentler than what I was expecting to move this stubborn confused baby around.

getting adjusted by the partera

amazing hands moving around the baby

the partera working on me


“Es niña” she says matter-of-factly, it’s a girl, without asking if we want to know, without asking if we already know or not. “How can you tell?” asks Conan. “You can tell by feeling it. They let you know right away.”  Conan tries to insist on further explanation. “But how do they let you know?” She says she can’t explain it; you just have to feel it. I decide she’s probably right, but I will stubbornly remain in “ignorance,” waiting till this child presents him or herself to know “what it is.”

She finished moving the baby around and then grabbed each end of the shawl underneath me and sort of shook me around, as much as a frail 95 year old might. We thanked her profusely and gave her 100 pesos for her time. She told us to come back when I go into labor and she can give me a tea to speed up the birth “so they don’t try to operate on you.”

The adjustment was not a magical fix. I was pain-free for a couple hours, but by my 4pm class I was in terrible pain again. After that, however, I rubbed around where the baby was and talked to it when it started giving me problems, and the pain lessoned. In the morning I had cinnamon tea, recommended because she said my belly was very cold (whatever that means). I had some more pain that morning but then it was over. Days later I haven’t had any more pains. Is this attributable to the midwife? To some tea? Did the baby just get their act together? Does it matter why?

Do I believe that her teeth grew back, or that she knows my baby’s a girl? I’m sticking to my skeptical belief. Maybe it’s so, maybe it’s not. It’s living that line between needing to question everything but also knowing that there are some things that are not really explainable. It’s trusting centuries of women’s wisdom in midwifery while also appreciating seeing a baby via ultrasound. It’s trusting how I feel and what I know about my body, sometimes more than what a doctor says. It’s believing in the science of magic, which is definitely what it means to me to produce a new human being anyway. 

Laughter is my Number One Classroom Tool

17 Nov

My level one English students had an open-book quiz the other day, where they were supposed to write 5 things they had learned that week from the article we’d read (and thoroughly dissected) in class. This is more difficult than it might sound for first-level students of a foreign language. I believed my students were capable of it, to greater and lesser degrees, depending on the student, but writing assignments for this level never come out quite like I had imagined, and grading them is always a bigger chore than I’d remembered.

The title of the quiz, written at the top of the page, was “What I Learned”- a fitting title considering they only had to convince me that they’d learned something that week. As I was doing a first glance-through of their answers, I looked at the bottom of the page of one student’s paper. In all caps, this student had written:


which translates to: I can’t learn this week sorry! because I missed class for two days I know I’m going to fail this quiz!

I exploded in laughter and went to go show the other teachers. I appreciated his honesty and forthrightness, and his expression of it got points for cuteness, too. It’s these little things that are so important to my day, to my teaching, to my psychic survival in general. A silly note to break up the monotony in trying to assign fair values to someone’s writing made a difference, made me laugh. These past couple of weeks I’ve been focusing on remembering to lighten up and laugh, even when (especially when) I’ve been thinking about running out of the room screaming in frustration because five students didn’t bring their book, two students don’t even have their notebook, and at least 75% of them are asking me what a word means that was vocabulary I “taught” them the day before.

But there’s still plenty to enjoy, and things to laugh about. If you don’t find those moments of laughter you risk converting yourself into one of those grumpy, bitter teachers that nobody likes  and who are not effective teachers because students avoid their classes and have their guard up the whole time, which is not conducive to learning. NOT who I want to be.

And I’ve never been at risk for this before because when I was teaching in the U.S., most of the immigrants and refugees in our adult education classes were trying their damnedest all the time. You expected problems and setbacks and slow progress. You expected someone to show up 30 minutes late, probably because of some problem with their kid or their job, which you can’t really be upset about. There were lots of limitations and problematic aspects, and accomplishments usually happened very slowly (particularly with my beginning level students), but for the most part people were there because they wanted to be there and truly wanted to learn English. That, in turn, helped motivate me more to want to be there and give it my all every day. Plus, my grown-up immigrant students almost never tried to cheat on tests. Totally different universe from now.

With my university students we’ve just implemented a new curriculum, which is focused on reading comprehension and the necessary vocabulary that goes with that, skills they need to be able to read scientific articles related to their majors in English. There’s less time and space for games and speaking practice and the like, and so my teaching style is adapting and changing.

I’m not sure if it’s just the change in curriculum, or personal problems, or what exactly, but suddenly I found myself fighting with students on a daily basis over something or the other. For talking while others are talking, not being prepared for class- all the normal stuff, even if some of it is stuff I think university students should be above and beyond. The problem is that I don’t want to be fighting with them over these things, because it puts me in a bad mood. I want my class to be fun and interesting and comfortable (for them and for me), and I was failing at creating that atmosphere for a good couple of weeks there.

So I had to start letting go of some things, and bringing other things back into my classroom. I had to bring back games, at least occasionally. I had to find a way to show them that I care beyond just scolding them all the time. I had to just tell myself that the next class would be better when I had a horrible hour full of blank stares and mounting confusion despite all my attempts at detailed explanation and modeling.

So sometimes we play jeopardy-style games with comprehension questions, even though most of them are too excited to listen to the reasoning behind the answer when we do it as a game. At least they’re participating. I started being more exaggerated in my scolding, wagging my finger, or feigning shock so intense I could faint at any moment, which at least made whatever I was reminding them about lighter and funnier. I brought back my sunshine and lollipops I’m-so-happy-to-be-here-and-I-know-you-all-are-too attitude when I come into class. When I told them they’d have to miss English class for a couple of days (because I had to go to Oaxaca), I told them, “Now try not to cry. I know everybody’s upset about missing class, but that’s why I came up with some practice for you, so you don’t spend all that extra time moping about English class.” The ones who understand sarcasm are always highly amused by these kinds of statements. It helps.

I started being “meaner” and stricter about some things, kicking people out of class when they’re totally out of line. Like those three girls that insisted their private conversation was more important than the student explaining her answer, despite a couple warnings. Or the students who still didn’t bring their book after days of warnings (and really, guys, you have English every day; just leave your book in your backpack). Or for talking during a test (yeah, yeah, you were talking about lunch, that’s great, bye.) Some of my students have started imitating me when someone comes without their book, telling them “See you tomorrow!” and waving good-bye like I do, which I think is pretty hysterical. This more focused strictness, in turn, lets me have a better attitude with my remaining students, and the next day the student can return to class and I, at least, don’t hold a grudge.   

And I’m reevaluating how I measure success. For example, if a third of my class is missing all week long (a different set of students every day, to boot) because they all have to go renew their health insurance plan this week and they’re waiting in line all day, well, so be it. They know it’s their job to catch up, and they either will or they won’t. Unless they come to my office with questions about what they missed, it is all on them. When they ask me in class the next day something we saw in class the day before, I smile while I tell them to ask their classmates. I cannot be angry or upset about it. I know English is not their top priority, to say the least. I know many of them won’t learn even half of what I’m trying to teach. Thus, the measure of my personal success can’t be all 120ish students getting every point I teach. Can I continue to care about each and every student and their learning? To a greater or lesser degree, yes. But how I feel about my teaching has to be based on how well I think I’ve done my part, keeping in mind that they’ve got a part to fill, too, and some of them won’t fill it for reasons that are not my fault or my problem.   

Really my top two priorities in my classroom are respect and laughter. Yes, critical thinking is high on my list of important things for them to practice in their reading comprehension. I did a big dance of joy when some of my level one students starting arguing the correct answer and asking “Why? Por qué?” just like I do. Of course I have to give them the right tools to accomplish what they are supposed to accomplish. But I think mutual respect and a sense of humor are completely necessary parts of my other goals, because I think they help create a positive learning environment, and effectively prevent me from killing students.

So I take a moment and argue with my level 3 students who are trying to convince me to have the quiz tomorrow instead of today. “That’s what my two year old says every day when it’s time to wash her hair, too. ‘No, tomorrow’- just like you guys.”

I can laugh when one of my male nursing students ignores my question about the reading to tell me earnestly, “Teacher, let me know when your baby’s kicking so I can feel it,” despite the fact that men here normally don’t go near anything related to pregnancy. “Have you ever felt a baby kick before?” I asked him, instead of being offended. “No,” he explained, “that’s why I need to feel it!” I laughed and told him I’d see.

I corrected a student who was talking (in English) about going to buy a “box” of beer (what we would call a case of beer) and somehow got into a conversation about learning obscenities in English (no, sorry guys, I cannot teach this during class time. Just go to the beach and talk to tourists.)

I’m remembering to have fun and enjoy my job. While I don’t have any proof that it’s getting me better results in terms of student learning, it’s sure not hurting them, and it’s doing wonders for me. You can’t underestimate the importance of a little laughter in the classroom, or a personalized note on why you’re failing the quiz. It’s these things that make all the difference in the world. 

Fighting with Bureaucracy, Oaxaca City Style

9 Nov

It´s a bit confusing to have a daughter with dual citizenship, and it´s about to get more complicated, with a new kiddo born here soon. Lucia was born in Kentucky and moved down here at 7 weeks of age. We barely managed to get her US passport, her birth certificate, and her Mexican birth certificate from the consulate while we packed up and sold all our stuff and learned how to be new parents at the same time. It was a whirlwind, but we made it.

Lucia and I both entered Mexico on a 6 month tourist visa, although we knew we´d need to sort out that situation for both of us sooner or later. We´ve been out of Mexico enough times so far that it hadn´t been a problem, until this last trip when her tourist visa was expired by one day. They wouldn´t let us get on the plane in Mexico City until we sorted it out with immigration there, which is a totally different epic story. Luckily I had her Mexican birth certificate and other relevant documentation, and we did make it to the plane on time. But they warned me then that we had to sort out her status before her next tourist visa expired.

Apparently, the way to sort it out is by obtaining her Mexican passport. So even though technically she is already a Mexican citizen by virtue of her Papi´s citizenship, we still needed another document. I put it off and put it off, because Mexican passports for children under 3 years old only last one year, so it´s a lot of hassle and money for something very temporary. On top of it only lasting a year, the three of us all have to be present in Oaxaca City to get her passport. So what would only cost about one day´s salary is really a multi-day expensive trip, including me having to take off of work unpaid for 2 days. And it has to get done before her latest tourist visa expires in a couple weeks, or we would be fined.

The good news was that we worked it out to get a ride with a good friend of Conan´s who had some business to take care of in Oaxaca City this Thursday and Friday, and we have a fabulous family friend who lives there who was willing to put us up for free and keep us company to boot. I got the official permission to miss work on those days, prepped my classes accordingly, got us packed during my break on Wednesday, and was feeling pretty optimistic about the whole situation when I walked out of work right at 7pm, where I was going to get picked up so we´d arrive in Oaxaca City around 2 or 3 AM.

There had already been some obstacles that I hoped we had overcome, but that I was still nervous about. First off, to provide identification for a two year old, you have to get a special note from their doctor, with the doctor´s signature on top of the photo and some other special details. Nevermind that my child already has a US passport, it has to be the doctor´s note to prove it’s her (bureaucrat logic). Since we don´t have a doctor we like to take her to regularly in Puerto yet, our only option was to either bribe a doctor, or go to the doctor that knows her in Juquila (a 3 hour venture from home). We went to Juquila for Day of the Dead last weekend, so we thought we´d get it then. But her doctor said he wouldn´t have time to do it till Monday afternoon. Paulina said she’d send it to us in one of the vans that go from Juquila to Puerto, but I was terrified it wouldn´t be how we needed it and we’d be scrambling at the last minute to bribe someone in Puerto. But we got it on Tuesday and it appeared to have all the requirements listed on the internet, so I was hopeful.

My other big fear was over our appointment. When I went to make it online, I had to put in a CURP (Clave Unica de Registro de la Población, sort of like a Social Security Number in the US). We haven’t gotten Lucia’s CURP yet, so I asked the online help line if I could put in my CURP to make the appointment.

“No,” Marta or somebody told me, “it must be the CURP of the person the appointment is for.”

Breathing deeply, I argued my case. “But they told me when I called for information that we didn’t need her CURP to get a passport.”

She wrote back, “Correct. You don´t need it for the passport. You need it to make the appointment, which you must have in order to get the passport.”

“So I can’t actually get her passport without her CURP then.” I gave up on Marta and her online unhelpfulness and tried to call the 800 number to make appointments. The nice guy on the phone let me make the appointment with my CURP. But I was still crossing my fingers they wouldn’t turn us away at the door for using my CURP instead of Lucia’s. After all, we are talking about bureaucrats, who I often believe are not in their human form while on the job.

But there we were, ready to go, múltiple copies of everything filed away, pretzels and oatmeal cookies for the road, and the first glitch happened. I walked out of work and Carlos’s car was nowhere to be found. Conan’s phone was busy. Not a good sign.

“Carlos is going to Oaxaca next week, not tonight.” Conan announced when he called me a few minutes later. I still don’t know if Carlos changed his dates or Conan misunderstood or what exactly caused this glitch, but it didn’t matter because the result was the same- we didn’t actually have a ride to Oaxaca. I utilized all of my I-have-a-toddler-and-it’s-also-not-my-first-day-in-an-unpredictable-country skills to not have a panic attack. I did send my mom a message that was more curse words than real words, however, and then I continued to breathe.

We went and got tickets for tbe 9.30 PM van trip to Oaxaca City. It was just too risky to take our car on those winding mountain roads with zero preparation and zero extra time before our appointment the next morning if anything went wrong. The worst part about the van situation was that we now weren’t taking Lucia’s car seat. Partly because we didn’t have the money to buy her own seat and partly to not lug around a car seat in the city. I briefly entertained the super nervous Mommy guilt of “so if something happens to Lucia I have to tell the family it was because we didn’t spring for her own seat on the trip”…. and then I continued breathing and let it go.

We got to our friend Argelia’s house around 5.30 in the morning with no accidents and no major glitches, thank goodness. Except that I hadn’t slept at all, had only dozed for about 3 hours in that half-awake, making-sure-my-sleeping-kid-doesn’t-fall-out-of-the-seat way that parents do. But Arge’s warm reception and good conversation, combined with coffee I made stronger with Nescafe and a warm shower, did wonders for me, and we were ready to go to our 9AM appointment by 8.

We arrived early and waited in the first line, for the preliminary inspection of our documents. “This letter from the doctor isn’t right,” the woman told us, and I almost stopped breathing. “Where did you get this? You didn’t get the format from here, did you?” She asked, showing us a generic example format for the letter.

“No,” I explained, “We got the requirements from the website. And I called and talked to the Subdelegada who told me that all the requirements were the way it is detailed online. That example format is not online.” Did they really expect people to travel from all over the state just to pick up an example form, travel back to their town and show it to their doctor and then make the journey all over again? You just can’t be sure about these people. I mentioned that we’d come from Puerto Escondido, that I’d taken off work for two days to be there, just in case there was any bit of sympathy in her little bureaucratic heart. “I’ll go check on it,” she told us, only a little reluctantly.

“Okay, you can use it,” she told us when she came back to her post. She gave us another form to fill out and sent us to go fill it out on a bench. She did not give us a pen (but I always have about 10 in my purse, so no glitches there).

After filling out the form we went and stood in line at a different counter. I realized the appointment thing was only another excuse for them to turn people away, and did not signify anything in terms of when our paperwork would be seen. But it was our turn pretty quickly with Mr. Grumpy Older Guy, and the process continued. We started signing and fingerprinting and all that other good stuff. It seemed that things were going smoothly until we got to the backside of the form, almost at the end.

“I need the father’s birth certificate,” Mr. Grumpy announced.

“What?” I hoped that I was hallucinating that. Surely he’d said something else, because there was no indication or mention anywhere about bringing Conan’s birth certificate. Not in the online requirements. Not in the two phone calls I’d made to ask specifics about our situation. Not in the online help center chats. I most certainly did not have Conan’s birth certificate with me.

“You have to prove the little girl’s right to Mexican citizenship.” he explained. I guess the Mexican birth certificate was not enough.

“I have his Mexican passport!” I announced hopefully, smiling a tense, clownish version of a smile.

“Let’s see it.” I handed it over, along with the copy I’d made (yay for being prepared!). Mr. Grumpy pulled out his white out and started blanking out the numbers of Conan’s other ID on the form. He let it dry and tried to write in the passport numbers in its place. It looked messy. He frowned harder. “No, it’s no good,” he said, and I held my breath again. “You’re going to have to fill out the form again.”

Once I realized that we just had to redo the form and not this whole trip I proceeded to breathe and went to go rewrite the form. I finished that and we got back in Mr. Grumpy’s line, beginning the fingerprinting and signature thing anew. Finally we successfully completed that round and Mr. Grumpy smiled at us and sent us to the next step- the photographing area.

We’d already gotten Lucia’s photos made but in that room we did digital fingerprinting and signatures. Then we got sent to the next counter and turned it all in to a different lady and another inspection. “Come back at 1PM to pick up the passport,” she said, and my heart did a little dance of joy.

We had breakfast and strolled around Oaxaca’s pretty downtown with Argelia to pass the time. We returned to the office shortly before one and approached the final counter. The lady handed Conan the passport, telling him to make sure it was correct, and then sign that he’d received it. Then I looked at it and was about to sign when she said, “Oh, wait, let me go check on this problem.” I breathed deeply. The passport was already printed and ready to go- what could be the problem now?

“Can I see your identification again?” she asked wheen she came back. I handed over both my passport and my permanente resident card. “Ah, yes.” she said, almost to herself. “Here’s the problem.” She pointed severely at my signature on the the form we’d filled out twice that day. “Look at this.” I looked. It looked like my signature. I was sure I had been the one to sign it. I nodded. “Now look at this.” She pointed at my signature on Lucia’s Mexican birth certificate that I had signed over two years before. Also definitely me that signed there. I nodded again, without a clue what her point was, but understanding that I was in trouble for something. Sloppy handwriting? I waited for the punchline.

“They look nothing alike. Can’t you tell?” I think I just looked at her, unsure what I was supposed to do. It’s true that I have a sloppy signature that I rattle off quickly, the letters not forming their true cursive form, and that is never, ever exactly the same. It always has enough resemblances, though, that I’ve never been questioned before. But Ms. Patient Teacher was not pleased with me.

“Okay,” I told her, like I’d learned my lesson. “Sorry. You see how it is a bit different on both of these IDs, too.” All of them were my signature, though, was my point.

“Well, to prevent the theft of children these signatures have to match,” she told me. “You’re going to have to sign here,” she pointed to the place beside my unacceptable signature on the form, “exactly like you signed here.” She pointed to my signature on Lucia’s birth certificate. “If you can’t sign it the same then we’ll have to do all of this all over again.” I’m pretty sure all the color drained from my face.

“But here,” she said cheerily, “I’ll make you a copy of this form with your correct signature and you can practice it.” And I practiced. And practiced. And every single signature looked different, like always. Argelia tried to help me trace over the copy, but the light wasn’t good enough to trace effectively.

I practiced some more. I shed a few furious, frustrated, sleep-deprived, indignant tears. “This is so ridiculous!” I raged quietly to Conan. “I have multiple forms of ID. They watched me sign the form. They have my fingerprints. My child is here calling me Mommy. And I’m not going to get her passport because I can’t appropriately forge my own signature!”

Some of my 80,000 attempts to write my own signature "correctly"

Some of my 80,000 attempts to write my own signature “correctly”

Finally I managed one that I believed looked more or less like the target signature. I went to ask Ms. Patient Teacher if it would pass. She went to get approval from her boss. I got the ok. I got a no on whether I could just cut and paste the approved signature. I had to reproduce it on the correct form. I tried to continue breathing and not cry. I practiced it some more, trying to copy exactly what I had done, the slowest form of my signature ever. At last I announced that I was ready to try it on the real thing. If it didn’t work, I supposed we’d come back the next day and try again. I was out of energy.

I signed next to my inappropriate signature, slowly and steadily. And then I had to sign exactly the same again to say that I’d received the passport. I got a bad start the second time and had to lift the pen and take some deep breaths before I could continue. I hadn’t been prepared for the second one. But I signed it, and Ms. Patient Teacher went to go see if it was okay or not. I held my breath.

She came back and handed me the passport. “Here you go. Bye.” And that was that. I was actually in possession of Lucia’s Mexican passport. A miracle had happened. It was over, and we accomplished the feat we’d set out to accomplish, despite all the unexpected demands and absurd obstacles. It was another win for humanity, another triumph over mindless, cruel bureaucracy. Granted, they got a point or two in for my near panic and those couple of tears shed, but we walked out of the office in just one day with our desired document in hand. And now I have several months to keep practicing my signature before we have to go back and do it again. Bring it on, bureaucracy, I am ready for you now.

TA-DA! Mission accomplished! Dual passports for our first little dual citizen!

TA-DA! Mission accomplished! Dual passports for our first little dual citizen!

Trading Out Halloween

2 Nov

“Look at this sweet baby, 100% Mexican now” my father-in-law, Arturo, would say about Lucia soon after our arrival. Although even then, despite my hormones still raging, I suspected that his intentions were not malicious, it was still difficult not to let the steam shoot from my ears in offended rage. “Nope, she’s still just 50% Mexican,” I had to insist every time. Because it felt like I was being written off in that equation- my half of the genes, my more than half of the work of bringing her into this world, not to mention whatever unquantifiable portion of raising her that I am responsible for. It felt painful and malicious, even if my vague sense of rational brain 2 months postpartum could theoretically not take it personally. I think I can assert now, 2 years later, that Arturo was mostly just excited to have Lucia here (mostly, though, because he does have a bit of a nationalist streak, too).

I can’t predict exactly how Lucia will feel about or choose to represent and explain her “50/50” identity when she’s older. I imagine that it will change tremendously at different points in her life, just like everyone’s identity does. All of us, of course, no matter where we grow up, are a giant mix of influences. I doubt anyone thinks of themselves as exactly 50% like their father and 50% like their mother. So what does it mean to have parents from two different countries? What does it mean to have dual nationality? What does it mean for my “half” of the heritage that she grows up in her father’s land, in this culture? And when my half is a weird mix of a mix of cultures anyway, thanks to the strong Italian influences on my mom’s side of the family?

All parents want their kids to be like them in the good ways, and hopefully not follow in their footsteps in their faults or weaknesses. If only life were that neat and tidy, right? Similarly, I would like Lucia (and her future brother or sister) to have only the best of both (all) cultures, please and thank you.

I hope she appreciates all the fabulous parts of Oaxacan culture, and can reject some of those nasty sides, or that we can minimize their impact at least. For instance, I hope she shares her bag of chips or cookies with those around her without needing to be asked, the way people automatically do here (such a small gesture,but poignantly important). I hope she can learn how to rely on friends and family for help without having a complex about it, just knowing that we all have to help each other to get by in life. But we’re gonna have to figure out some alternative educational situation, because the public school system down here is a famously poor and corrupt one. (Although her Papi went to public schools and still managed to have enough outside influences in his education to actually learn things, so there is hope.) I’m sure her Papi could give a much bigger list of things he hopes to impart to her from his childhood culture, and pitfalls he wants to avoid. But that’s his part to tell, not mine.

For my part, for her Kentucky (and Italian-American!) half, I’d like Lucia to have some fabulous corn bread and greens recipes, for example. I’d like for her to avoid entirely that whole “the U.S. is the biggest-baddest-bestest place on Earth that should control the rest of the world because it’s really the only place God approves of” sort of mentality. I hope she can appreciate a good bourbon with her mama (and her papá) when the time is right. I hope that she can spend enough time in the U.S. or somewhere else with more racial and ethnic diversity than here. That she can learn first-hand about many people’s customs and heritage that are different from hers (and not just different because she’s the weirdo half-gringa)- something possible in Louisville, Kentucky, but not too likely here. I want her to be able to appreciate the importance of a good stoop or porch, to sit out on in the evening and be social with the neighbors, perhaps with some iced tea (or bourbon!). I hope that despite the distance she can have some equally strong bond and pleasant associations of her grandparents in the U.S., the way I think about my Nonna getting together with my mom and my aunt, eating Doritos and Diet Coke, salami and really good quality whole wheat bread that my Nonna would buy.

We can already see some of this working itself out. Conan and I, thus far, are her biggest influences, and she mostly does what we do. She eats her vegetables and tries chorizo with her Papi. She devours tamales and al dente pasta with equal gusto. She speaks English and Spanish. She says please and thank you and washes her hands before meals, because that’s what we’ve taught her, mostly by example. Most of the things from my upbringing and heritage that I want for her I can (attempt to) instill in her myself. I can cook her cornbread. We can listen to Hank Williams (Sr.) together. We can even catch fireflies and sit out on the porch.

But there are some things that I loved as a child, some things that I still hold dear, that I probably won’t be able to provide. I can’t teach her to lick honeysuckle. She’ll probably never know about snow days, and getting off school and going sledding. And sadly, tragically perhaps, I don’t get to share my joy of Halloween with her.

Missing Halloween is a really big deal to me. Bigger than all the other U.S. holidays that we’re not there for. (About as heartbreaking as missing WorldFest, the yearly festival of cultures in Louisville) I adore Halloween. Starting with costumes and the whole idea of dress-up. When I was a kid, I loved deciding on a costume, which usually my parents would put together (not those store-bought costumes). I dressed up as things like a camera, a 3-headed alien, and Catwoman (with homemade “boots,” shiny plastic-ish material with holes cut for laces to put on my shins). As I teen I had fun with ironic dress-up, going as Barbie one year, helping my mom dress up as a punk rocker. I still love seeing what my outlandish friends can come up with, too, although perhaps the trio that one year that did the twin towers with airplane costume crossed the line.

As a kid, we would trick or treat for hours on end, my friends and my sister and I complaining that we were ready to go home, my mom and her friend denying us, telling us we were crazy to give up on the candy so early. They’d convince us to go a while longer, and sure enough, it was always worth it in the end. My dad would go crazy in competition with the neighbors to have the scariest, most creative Halloween decorations on the block, adding new stuff every year- a skeleton hanging from a noose, a stuffed Jason-like character sitting on the porch swing.

I love the idea of Halloween as a night when the veil between the worlds of the dead and the living is thin. I love the scariness of it all, the horror film reruns, the possibilities that come with invoking something beyond the day-to-day. I love that it is a day (a night, really) of fun and magic and sweets, and not the sort of high-pressure let’s-hope-the-family-can-get-along holiday like Christmas. It’s not a shady celebration of colonization like Thanksgiving, nor a holiday based on a religion that I have lots of issues with. It’s the U.S. holiday I most want to share with Lucia. And it’s not celebrated where we live.

But there is Day of the Dead, a two-day long celebration which is equally fabulous, although different from Halloween (I wrote about it in detail two years ago- It’s something her Papi grew up with and loves, and it’s a holiday for the whole family. I have to accept that I can’t give her all the same good things from my childhood, but there’s lots of good stuff from Conan’s childhood, too. There is plenty of joy to be shared, from here and from there, adding things we make up all our own as a family. So I’ll keep cooking pasta al dente for the Day of the Dead altar, to honor my Italian grandmother alongside the mole for Conan’s grandmother. We’ll have to appreciate all the good stuff no matter where it comes from, take some bad with the good, just like everyone else. And Lucia will be 100% Lucia, Mexican and Kentuckian and Italian and whatever other bits and pieces of identity get thrown into the mix. Perhaps the most important thing is just to instill in her that her identity is perfect and right just how it is, no matter how different from everyone else’s around her. I hope that she can learn to appreciate all the parts of herself, without having to put anyone else’s identity down, still knowing that everyone else’s culture and identity is just as unique and wonderful as hers, in their own way. If we can pull that off, then I can deal with not sharing Halloween with her. After all, parenting is always an exercise in compromise.