The Compass at our Crossroads

12 Sep

I was sitting at a kid-sized picnic table in my mama’s dining room in Louisville, Kentucky, eating something exotic like Brussels sprouts and red beans with my kids, when my mama started talking about moving to Savannah, Georgia. She’d been there before and really liked it. She and her wonderful partner, Dee, had come to the realization that neither of them could realistically work their jobs from Puerto Escondido all winter like they’d hoped, but they both really need a change. My mom and I were both doing a fantastic job of not discussing our grief about the impossibility of spending more time together.


The first annual visit of my mama and Dee, back when we lived in Juqulia

Instead, we started researching Savannah. We delved into population and weather, colleges and parks, museums and general culture. “It’s close to the beach,” she hinted knowingly, “and you know your daughter is drawn to the sea like I am.” We started looking at houses. “Maybe a duplex,” said my mama, “For someday, in the future. For when you guys can move.” I nodded, trying to feel optimistic. “Yes. Perfect! Someday. Eventually. Hopefully. Maybe.”

The next thing I knew she was going through books to give some away, which meant she was officially a woman on a mission. You guys who know her know that she doesn’t easily part with any book from her library-sized collection. I realized immediately that she is moving to Savannah, and nothing can stop her. I had a blast talking and planning it with her. We’re still having a blast with it; just yesterday she sent me a message- “Did you know that Savannah has a bigger Hispanic population than Louisville? Yes, this is what I research on a Sunday morning.”

By the time I got back from our trip to Louisville, I was so taken with the idea that I found several different jobs I wanted on Savannah’s Craigslist. I was sending emails to my mom, like, “Look! I have these skills! I could totally do this!” and, “Look at this one! I would be great at this job!” I looked harder at colleges. “Look!” I wrote my mama. “Someday I could get a Master’s in Social Work or Adult Education! Choices! I might even want to study Public Health instead! So many possibilities for the future!!!”

I checked out all the public schools. I picked out an elementary school for the kids (a Montessori school, no less). I found the artsy high school I bet they’ll want to go to. I read lists of family-friendly activities, marveling at the thought of activities– museums, events, organized art functions, festivals- so many things that are rare or nonexistent here.

I nearly brought myself to tears in my office (it’s a theme for me, I know, this crying in my office) when I realized I could volunteer again. I found an organization I want to work for- an awesome place that works with immigrants and refugees and pregnant women and children, doing all kinds of work that I am interested and invested in. And I realized suddenly, even if I don’t get a job with them, I can still do that work. I could just sign up and then they organize everything and I just have to show up for a couple hours and bam! I get to do something meaningful and worthwhile. Aren’t you crying happy tears just thinking about it?

Conan and I started talking about it, and every conversation was more and more invigorating, more energizing, and more unabashedly hopeful, like a freight train of optimism slowly picking up steam. We started discussing topics that had become off-limits: the stuff that we missed so much that it hurt to talk about it, because it came with the reality that we might not ever have it again. Like potlucks. We could attend potlucks! Hell, we could host potlucks! We talked about stuff that we know of but have never even gotten to experience, since almost all of our parenting has happened here- like story time for kids at the library!

I told him how a friend made fun of me, for talking about how if I could ever move back, I was going to shell out the money for a moving van, by golly, all the way across the border. “I don’t want to start from scratch again,” I had told her. “Julia,” she reminded me, scoffing ever so sweetly, “You forget that we have Goodwill here. You can even find decent furniture in the alley during junk week.” I repeated that to Conan, and we giggled quietly, trying not to wake the kids, remembering, thinking how absurd and yet wondrous that fact is, comparing it to here where nobody throws out anything remotely useful, ever.


This is what starting over looked like when we first moved to Juquila.

All of our conversations were pipe dreams, though. All my job searches, all my ideas and activities were just in theory. I mean, it’s not like my family can just pack up and move to Savannah. I’d had a consultation with a lawyer in Louisville and he confirmed that yes, there is a possibility that we could return to the US as a family. If we took on the task, it would take at least a year, probably closer to two (and it could always be longer). Cost-wise, it would take at least seven thousand US dollars when all is said and done (just for the process of getting Conan into the country legally, not including any moving expenses- for more info, click here). I put the figure into a currency converter to change it to pesos, and my brain exploded. In other words: impossible.

Then I had the privilege and joy to sit around on my mama’s front porch with my very bestest girlfriend in the world- all of our children sleeping soundly, just the two of us talking. I was telling her just how impossible it would be- how daunting the process itself is- even with a lawyer, and how the only way we could get that kind of money ever would be to become uber corrupt politicians and steal it from the people. Or perhaps we could put the kids to work washing car windows at the big intersection? Or maybe my mom would win the lottery? “It’s never going to happen,” I said.

But Holly, my BFF (best friend forever), that friend who’s always rescuing me in moments of need and doubt, came along and burst my little bubble of dejection. She went ahead and snatched the bubble wand right out of my hand. “Julia, we’ll ask for help,”* she said, in that gentle but obvious tone like when I remind my four year old that she has to close her eyes if she wants to go to sleep. “We,” she said, already including herself in the work. (I know. I don’t even know what I did to deserve such a good friend.)


Me and my BFF! Funny faces are better than tearful goodbyes.

I started off telling Conan, “Holly thinks we could raise the money. Maybe in a few years we could give this a shot.” I side-eyed him tentatively. “How about now?” he responded, adding some speed to our freight train of hope. “I feel like I’m stagnating here,” he said later, and I would have fallen over in shock if I weren’t in bed already.

See, Conan’s spent the past four years carefully refraining from complaining, refusing to discuss his feelings about leaving the US, denying that he was devastated like I was. He’s gotten really good at shoulder shrugs and silence instead. Suddenly, with this lemonade shake-up in our possibilities, a rift opened up in the hard patch of earth that used to be the before/USA section of his heart. “Let’s do this,” he said, finally ready to talk about all the things in the US that we want for our family, for our children, for ourselves.

Every conversation we had about it added more steam to the engine of our pipe dream-freight train, and the next thing I knew we’d clasped hands and hopped right on. To attempt such a wild journey- trying to get permission for Conan to re-enter my home country- we’d need motivation galore. We made a list of reasons a mile long.

Which is not to say that there weren’t- aren’t- reasons to stay. There are- starting with Conan’s mama, who we also love dearly. But embarking on this isn’t as simple as leaving one thing for the other. We’re adding to our possibilities, expanding our family’s options. We’ll be able to visit each of our families all together. The door to our other home will finally be open for Conan again, and by extension, to all of us.


Reason #1: Who wants to separate this awesome Papi from his children? Certainly not I.  This is Conan and Lucia in Louisville. (Just before we gave this couch away, lol)

Let me show you what some of our other reasons look like:

Because I want to see my mama’s shining face much more than a couple times a year. Because my dad passed away and I couldn’t even make it to the funeral. Because a cousin nearly died and I couldn’t go visit him in the hospital. Because I miss every single one of my niece’s birthdays. Because two years passed between soul-nurturing get-togethers of Team Julia (the aunt that I’m named for and me). Because my goddaughters barely even recognize me between visits. Because I have felt the reality of this short life a bit more acutely and I miss my family dreadfully.


I want this more often, please!


the other half of Team Julia

Because Holly promised me she could visit me at least twice a year if I lived in Savannah, versus the current situation where her chances to visit are zero. Because the possibilities for all of our friends and most of our family in the US to come visit is currently zero.

Because I can’t go visit the US at all unless my family pays for it. Because every visit gets more difficult financially, and our yearly visit without Conan gets harder for all of us. Because on our last visit Lucia said, “I wanna live in Kentucky with Papi,” and I couldn’t even answer her.

Because teachers here were on strike for months this year, and I learned that they’ve gone on strike every year for the past ten years. Because even when teachers are working, the Oaxacan school system is abysmal. Because I’m an educator and a mom and I’m totally depressed about three year olds copying words when they haven’t even learned their letters yet. I’m totally dispirited about all kinds of other woes of the curriculum and methodology in both public and private schools here. Because folks in the US think schools there are underfunded but y’all haven’t even seen schools where there aren’t basic things like desks, or there are no books, or the building is inadequate, or where some kid just out of high school is teaching because that’s all there is.**

Because we can’t get allergy testing for my asthmatic daughter here. Because if there’s a true and serious enough emergency, treatment might require a seven hour drive to the capital city. Because we’re lucky to have an amazing pediatrician for our children, but she’s not available 24/7 and I worry about what we’ll do if she moves away someday.

Because the healthcare provided by my insurance company is of such a dubious quality that I haven’t even signed my family up with them, and I avoid it like the plague for my own health, too. Because doctors here often don’t even assess you before they prescribe you something. Because even expensive, private clinics do things like send my daughter home in the middle of a critical asthma attack. Because paying out of pocket for our whole family’s healthcare is breaking our bank.

Because in the US there are libraries upon libraries, filled with so many books. Because our old home has used book stores (yipeee!). Because there is easy access to books and therefore a culture of reading there. Because I had easier access to books in Spanish in Louisville, Kentucky, than I do in Southern Mexico.

Because my work schedule here- this split shift, 8AM to 7PM with a weird break in the middle- is brutal for my parenting, for my social life, for my marriage. And there is no possibility of changing my schedule in this job. And any other teaching job that I know of is going to pay me less money, which is unacceptable since we’re barely getting by as it is.

Because seeing Conan have hopes and dreams for himself again is magical, and I want that to continue. Because parents with goals are happier people and set a good example for their children.

Because I don’t want to stop having dreams for myself. Because I labor at my current job with sincere enthusiasm and delight, but I’m already at my peak professionally; there’s no room for me to grow into some more challenging position later, because such a position doesn’t exist at my job. Because I can’t find any other job around here to get excited about. Because I feel like I have so much more to give and learn and share, so many skills that I can’t put to use or continue developing here. Because I have no chances of furthering my own education around here.***

Because during my last visit to Kentucky I got chills, a positive electrical charge shooting through my spine, being in close proximity to young, fiery activist folks just radiating with power and hope for our world. Because I want to keep feeling that excitement, that we the people can change our world for the better. Because I want my kids to grow up surrounded by copious amounts of that kind of heart and spirit.

Because there are 100,000 more people in Savannah than in Puerto, and I’m an extrovert, for crying out loud! I’m a people person, and a city girl through and through. Not a NYC or Tokyo or Mexico City kind of girl, but, say, a Louisville or New Orleans or Savannah, Georgia, kind of girl. I need people and activities! I want parks and museums and arts! I want to be stimulated and inspired by a more diverse crowd of people than what you can find in our sleepy, semi-rural beach town here. Here is just too small for my loud, extroverted self.


This year’s potluck at Dee and Fausta’s (my mama) house. So much love! So much food! The best of all possible worlds.

Because this random, idle talk of moving to Savannah, Georgia, where neither Conan nor I have ever been before, slowly morphed into a very real goal, and it’s made things finally click into place for us. The lawyer gave me facts, and confirmation of a legal possibility. Holly gave me hope, and changed my certain impossibility into a concrete possibility. But I was driving around Louisville thinking, “Why does this feel off? I love this city so intensely and passionately. Conan loves this city tenderly. My children love to visit here. Why doesn’t it feel right to imagine our whole family here again?”

I realized, though, that it felt like backpedaling. I had spent too much time frantically praying to the universe to magically transport us back in the space-time continuum, back to our days in Kentucky when everything seemed so perfect for Conan and me. For so long, I would have given just about anything to go back to Kentucky, the three of us together.


A trip to the zoo in Louisville, pre-children. Relationships are so easy without children, money stress, and immigration problems, right?

But it was partly a longing for my old life. And now I don’t want my old life. I want to keep shedding my skin and growing; I want to go forward. Conan and I are different people than we were four years ago- better and wiser and more loving than before. Our hearts and minds have grown, as has our family. I’ve lost my longing to relive my old life.


What a difference a few years makes. Going back doesn’t mean going backwards.

My mama’s at-first-glance outrageous idea to move to Savannah changed my idea of what “going back” means. It gave Conan and me a new direction. The convergence of all these factors, all this hope, this love, this encouragement, brought us to a new crossroads, to paths we thought were closed. All these helping hands pressed a shiny new compass tightly into our hands, and asked us to look again, to reimagine the impossible.

Granted, I’m still trying to stifle the judgmental voice in my head that’s shamefully scolding me that that I should just keep trying to improve things here in Puerto, that I don’t deserve to ask for help because our situation isn’t as dire as some folks’. It’s a nasty, nagging voice also trying to convince me that I’m forsaking Conan’s family and all the other wonderful people that exist here in Puerto.

But we can love and appreciate people and aspects of our life here and still know that it’s best for our family to return home. We want to go back to the country where I grew up, the country where Conan learned what it meant to be an adult, the country where we started our family. We want to go back to the open-door, heart-on-your-sleeve, porch-sitting, conversation-with-strangers culture that is the USA. We want to go back to the country where both of us felt like we found our community, our people, those folks that share our values, those folks that we love and support like family. We want to return to the never-ending mix of cultures and histories and colors, the land of every attitude and opinion that you could possibly dream up. A country where we can make things better together. It’s not a perfect country and our lives there won’t be perfect, either. There is no true perfection; we get this about life. But this is what we want, resoundingly.

It’s going to be a lengthy and wearisome journey to get there. We need your help! This gargantuan change will only be possible because of our wonderful community on whatever side of the border you’re on. We need your cheerleading spirit to encourage us. We need a few bucks sent our way if you’ve got it. We need periodic reminders about how it’s going to be worth it to wade through this intense bureaucracy. We need continued accompaniment from all the fabulous folks we love here in Puerto.You, our gente, our families and communities, are our compass. Help lead us home.  Love, Julia, Conan, Lucia, and Khalil

*Click here if you are interested in supporting our journey to return to the USA.  

**Granted, the absolute worst situations like this are mostly in rural areas, which, despite all the farm animals on our block, is not where we live. That said, we still feel extremely disturbed about the quality of education that’s available for Khalil and Lucia.

***There are a couple of Master’s programs where I teach, but not in anything I’m even remotely interested in or qualified for.

One Response to “The Compass at our Crossroads”


  1. Disability, Different-ability, Difference, and Determination, Oh My! | exile to mexico - August 14, 2017

    […] more about our family immigration situation, you can read The Compass at our Crossroads and Ending our […]

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