Love beyond borders When the other becomes us

PHOTO: Pepe Villatoro and Lindsay Walsh eat tacos and tlacoyos in Mexico City.

By Ariana Sawyer
Photos by Paulina Pepper

SEE RELATED STORY: Securitization for whom? An academic look at the shift in U.S. border policy

MEXICO CITY — They never planned to fall in love; it just happened. They met because they’d seen each other around, part of the club scene. They met on a solo surfing trip, at a mutual friend’s birthday party, or because they were coworkers at a startup.

There are more than 7 billion people on the planet, and from tiny villages to seething metropolises, across time immemorial, we are most of us longing for love. It’s hard wired into our brains by both biology and culture. So what happens when the object of our affections hails from beyond the U.S.-Mexico border?

“Us” and “the other.” The border divides. It decides who belongs and who doesn’t, invokes a frothing fear in the minds of many white conservative Americans. The border remains the preeminent symbol in the Trump administration’s effort to portray immigration as a threat, not only to national security, but also to national identity.

Contrary to images of barbed wire fences and massive concrete wall prototypes, borders are not tidy demarcations, neatly defining where one world ends and another begins. This is especially true at the porous U.S.-Mexico border, where more than 1 million people cross legally each day.

And this is especially true for those of us whose love goes beyond the border. When lovers come from either side of the borderline, their relationship is rebellion in the face of state powers that would see us divided.

For people in such relationships, there is no “other.” There is only us.

Rey and Jhonny

Rey Morales’ mother was dying, the sound of her coughing on a delayed Skype call probably the last he would hear from her. She couldn’t speak well after the cancer had spread to her trachea and lungs.

Rey hasn’t seen his mom in years. On a warm and sunny day in August, though tears trickled down his face, he spoke clearly about the pain of knowing he would never see her again.

“It could be a matter of days,” he said. And it was.

Although his husband, Jhonny Bejarano, is a U.S. citizen (with dual citizenship in Colombia), Rey has spent the last 15 years undocumented in Santa Cruz.

“A golden cage,” he called it. His status makes travel difficult or impossible, particularly so under a series of presidential administrations that worked to securitize U.S. immigration policy.

The two have built a life together, surrounded by the succulents and ferns Morales loves to grow, though his latest is something new — an amorphophallus konjac, or voodoo lily. It was his mom who first taught him to love plants.

Jhonny teaches Zumba while Morales manages several nearby properties. Rey is the quieter of the two, soft-spoken and thoughtful. Bejarano is taller, louder, sharp witted. He says Rey is like family, and Rey always says no, they are even closer than that. “You’re my infinite,” Jhonny says.

Jhonny’s family is also dealing with a recent loss; by the end of August, both his grandmother and grandfather were dead, and he’d spent the summer in a series of Medellín hospital rooms. But with a U.S. passport, he could.

“When he was going through this pain . . . it’s not like I could go there and hug him,” Rey said. “It’s just impossible.”

Rey has to choose between the life he and his husband have created together and traveling to the little town in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, where he was born, to see his mother one last time. He’d been sending money to help with his mother’s treatment, but a wire transfer isn’t the same as being physically present. A body to lean into.

If he goes, he can’t come back, and he’ll lose everything. If he stays, he’ll never see her again.

Because Rey was deported before, the two have been hesitant to make U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services aware of their marriage and begin the process of gaining legal status. They plan to do it soon, but the Trump Administration’s immigration policy has driven them underground for the time being. The last lawyer they talked to gave them 50/50 odds.

When even U.S. citizens and asylum-seeking children are being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the couple sees coming forward as a threat to both Rey’s own freedom, and their freedom together.

In the end, he didn’t go.

“This is my home,” he said, shrugging defeatedly and gesturing around him.

Luis and Chelcey

Their fathers met for the first time at their wedding rehearsal in late June this summer. They don’t speak each other’s language, so the wedding planner doubled as translator.

Luis Imbert and Chelcey Adami live in Salinas, but they’d decided to have the ceremony in Mexico City. Adami’s family flew in from Texas, and Imbert’s family drove the two hours from the nearby city of Puebla.

“They were talking politics about Trump, and (Chelcey’s dad) was apologizing,” Luis said. “He said, ‘We are terrible. I’m so sorry.’”

The following day Luis and Chelcey walked together arm-in-arm out of La Iglesia de San Juan Bautista and down steps that lead to the old cobbled neighborhood of Coyoacán.

They’d actually been legally married for a while. They met when were going through what they both described as rough patches in their lives, in November of 2013. A mutual friend invited them to Tijuana, Mexico, to celebrate his birthday for the weekend. That friend would later confess to playing matchmaker, and so he wasn’t upset when Luis and Chelcey ditched the group to go watch the sun rise at the beach near the border.

Driving home after a tearful goodbye, Chelcey vowed to marry him someday.

Their first two years living together in Mexicali, Mexico, were marked by an oppressive fear that authorities on either side of the border would revoke their permissions to cross, Chelcey to reach work at the Imperial Valley Press and Luis for his volunteer position at the Cancer Research Center of the Desert. Chelcey was living without legal status in Mexico back then.

Once, on the way to work, an orange rolled out from under the passenger seat of Chelcey’s car, and she prayed border agents wouldn’t notice the accidental (but prohibited) transport of produce. Another time, her car insurance had expired by one day, and the authorities warned her that they could take away the pass she used to expedite her border crossing. Losing the SENTRI pass would have meant losing her job or moving away from Luis.

When the newspaper she worked for was bought out, she landed a job at the Salinas Californian, and so they planned a move to the U.S. side of the border.

So with the car full of their furniture, a fish, and an overheated housecat, they crossed the border. When they reached a second checkpoint on the U.S. side, dread began to sink in. There was a problem with Imbert’s visa; he was restricted to stay within a certain distance from the border, and the destination they’d given the agent was too far. They were sent back to Mexico.

The next morning, they tried again.

“I was so nervous, but you can’t be nervous because they can sense it,” Adami said. “So I was just there with my cup of Starbucks, trying to channel my inner Taylor Swift.”

When they reached the second checkpoint again, the agent from the day before didn’t recognize them. They were simply waved through.

Soon thereafter, they got a quick and mostly secret courthouse marriage.

“It was like, I’m going to keep you, and this is how,” Chelcey said.

Today, they live in a small bungalow near downtown Salinas. There is an ease between them, their few cultural differences having long been negotiated into a rhythm they understand.

Luis is a legal permanent resident who works for GRID Alternatives as a workforce development and volunteer coordinator. The organization works with low-income families in several states to install solar electric systems and to make green-tech jobs more accessible. Part of his job involves going door-to-door in what are sometimes dangerous neighborhoods.

“If you had talked to me a few years ago about whether I was worried about him getting pulled over, I would not have been concerned,” Chelcey said. “Now I’m worried about him on a regular basis because of the ever-changing immigration policy, which is so drastically different from how it used to be before.”

They’ve seen reports that even U.S. citizens or legal residents have been taken by ICE and detained, sometimes for months or years at locations devastatingly far from their families.

“The romantic side is that they’re going to split you in two,” Luis said. “But really they’re going to take you to one of these facilities, they (block your communication), they take total control over your destination. It’s not like they just drop you off on the other side.”

Government in the bedroom

Policing who can and can’t be together is not new, but neither is citizen resistance to that authority.

Michel Foucault, a social theorist and philosopher, developed the concept of biopower in his book “The History of Sexuality: An Introduction,” where he describes the state’s interest in controlling sexuality, population size, life expectancy, birth rates, etc., all understood from the government’s point of view as economic and political problems requiring management and intervention. Foucault writes that these attempts to control bodies “became anchorage points for the different varieties of racism of the 19th and 20th centuries.”

The U.S. government began imposing controls on romantic relationships in the 1920s, when it made interracial marriage a felony. The law also outlined which immigrants that whites were not to marry (primarily those from East and Southeast Asia). More recently, the Trump Administration has said he will end birthright citizenship for children born on U.S. soil.

The state perpetuates itself in part by defining borders and people, according to sociologist Max Weber. When people act outside of those definitions, the state sees its sovereignty as being in question and seeks to punish those who’ve disobeyed.

In contemporary history, migrants have been alternately celebrated or condemned for their labor contributions or their crimes, depending on how immigration is perceived on the political agenda.

The simplified portrayal of every immigrant as either an “unskilled laborer” or a “criminal alien” rather than a person — a human being in their own right as well as a part of a community  — eliminates space for more complex realities that might inspire empathy, compassion or solidarity.

Foucault understood that human lives could become a source of resistance to these power formations, and binational couples undermine such authority by becoming more complex to one another and to the communities that surround them..

Pepe and Lindsay

In Tuxtla Gutiérrez, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, Pepe Villatoro grew up with Zapatista roots bent on defying authority. According to family legend, his grandfather once turned away a mob of torch-carrying villagers who wanted to burn the house down when the family refused to go to mass or to stop selling bootleg alcohol. Pepe’s father provided his children with a private school education and a comfortable middle-class household, but he also forbade them from burgers and pizza, symbols for the hurtful power of American imperialism.

“I grew up saying I would never end up with a gringa,” Pepe said, laughing beside his American girlfriend, Lindsay Walsh, in a small Mexico City cafe. His family is fond of Lindsay, though they reserve the right to crack a few jokes at her expense.

Lindsay had a very different upbringing in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she was first introduced to Spanish by a beloved nanny she calls a second mom. Her parents are rule followers, having climbed the corporate ladder, and Lindsay expected to follow in their footsteps.

Pepe and Lindsay began spending time together when he hired her at the startup company he worked at. She had been living in New York City, and moved to Mexico’s capital to take the new job. (They both work elsewhere now.)

“My plan was that I was going to come to Mexico, work at the startup for a few years, go back to school and study business in the U.S.” she said.

But falling for Pepe changed things, and on a vacation to visit her family in the states, she began to panic. Pepe picked her up from the airport, carrying a letter he’d meant to read her once they got home. In the end, he couldn’t wait that long. So he pulled off the freeway, parked the car in a dark neighborhood. In a mix of Spanish and English, Pepe told her he needed to know if she would commit to him.

“The answer was yes,” she said. “So that’s why we’re here today.”

Lindsay’s family worried she would never come back or else that she’d get hurt. It is a legitimate concern. Since 2014, murders are up 45 percent in Mexico City, and were on track to break the record again in 2018, according to a Reuters report over the summer. Violence against women is especially problematic.

But the two enjoy a certain quality of life they feel would be hard to replicate in the U.S. Pepe founded a company called FuckUp Nights Global (FUN), which works with companies all over the world to share and workshop career failures. Meanwhile, Lindsay is founder and director of TransCultural, a communications company that helps Spanish-speaking organizations reach an English-speaking audience. They also love Mexico City culture.

“For many decades, or for a century and a half, the U.S. has been building a very standardized society and as a country has praised that ‘being normal,’ not breaking the rules,” Pepe said. “And I hate that.”

That standardization — big-box stores, strip malls, the ability to get out of one’s car anywhere and have everything be exactly the same — wears on them both. But so do border politics.

Though Pepe has visited the U.S. and has family in New England, crossing the border means undergoing humiliating searches and time-consuming interrogations. And Lindsay said spending time in the states means subjecting Pepe to racism and mistreatment from both the U.S. government and its citizens. As a result, there’s a part of herself she can never really share with him.

“My partner knows Lindsay in Mexico, but Lindsay in the U.S.A. is a slightly different person, with cultural and social signifiers that just don’t translate to Mexico or to Spanish, and he’ll likely never fully know that person,” Lindsay said. “The reality is that my partner spends less time with my family and friends in the places that shaped me and made me who I am … a country that seems increasingly willing to paint him and all other Mexicans as fundamentally less human than people that happened to be born (there).”

Rachel and Miriam

Not everyone likes to travel. In fact, more than 96 percent of people remain in their country of birth, according to the United Nations.

Rachel Finklestein, a Boston native, is not among them. She left the East Coast about two years ago on a bicycle, crossing the country and traveling up and down the West Coast. She eventually biked out of the country entirely and made her way to Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, one of the southernmost states in Mexico.

“I was going to continue biking south, but I was tired,” Rachel said. She would paint her way through Oaxaca instead and decide where to live later.

“Let’s see where things take me,” she said. “Let’s see where things go.”

She met Miriam Gonzalez when an acquaintance giving Miriam surfing lessons at the time set them up. Their story is in part one of opposites attracting. On their first date, Miriam wore high heels and a dress, while Rachel wore the only set of clean clothes she had. Miriam comes from a traditional Catholic family, and while Rachel grew up culturally Jewish, she was embedded in a radical and diverse queer community.

In the beginning, Miriam considered her girlfriend a potential flight risk. Rachel always seemed to be going somewhere and became anxious if forced to stay in one place. A wanderer. Miriam on the other hand is more static and down to earth.

Yet after a lengthy abusive relationship, Rachel’s brand of open space and acceptance became to Miriam a balm for old wounds.

“She helped me to feel like a person again, like a human,” Miriam said. “My vision of the world has been enriched thanks to her, and I will always thank her for having stopped on her journey to share with me in my country.”

Miriam’s protectiveness created friction at first.

“I’m not used to being with someone who is like, ‘Let me take care of you,’” Rachel said.

But in their understanding of relationship as process, as something that requires a meeting in the middle, they both came to feel loved and cared for.

As one-half of a queer couple, Miriam had to come out twice: once as having fallen in love with an American and then again because that American is also a woman. At first it was tough. Her mother struggled to replace the version of Miriam’s life she had imagined with the one that was.

But in August, after spending the weekend at a yoga retreat in the mountain town of Zacatlan de las Manzanas, so named for the sweet apples that grow there, the two were headed off to spend quality time with Miriam’s family. They say Rachel is their favorite daughter-in-law now.

Rachel and Miriam have been together for a year and a half now, and though neither of them have anything specific planned, it’s hard to get around the fact that national immigration policies will have some role in where they go next.

“I’m aware that as a white person with privilege, it’s easier for me to do well here,” Rachel said.

She works at the language school that sponsored her work visa in Mexico where she assesses other instructors’ classes. She also teaches online English classes on the side, something she can do anywhere.

If they moved to the U.S., finding a job, becoming fluent in English, and dealing with a climate of anti-immigrant sentiment would make the transition difficult for Miriam, who would have to leave her job doing clerical work for the government.

“If we were to get married and you were to be there legally, it would be safe,” Rachel said. “But there’s a different ambiance. Everything’s changed and people feel scared.”

Nonetheless, Miriam would like to try.

“Maybe it’s my turn,” she said.

Whatever they do, Rachel believes people should have the right to move freely, and Miriam says that while some border control is necessary, it shouldn’t be arbitrary or infringe on human rights.

“The need to belong is something inherent to the human being,” Miriam said in Spanish. “I would be lying to you if I told you that I don’t feel Mexican or that it doesn’t make me uncomfortable or hurt a bit when I’m discriminated against when saying I am [Mexican].”

But that patriotism should be balanced, she said, not given to an extreme where other groups are seen in the context of an endless war for whose people are better.

“I was born [in the U.S.], by luck or chance or whatever, and my family resides there — so, in that sense, it is home,” Rachel said. “Instead of patriotism, we should weave a web of humanism, where all individuals — regardless of where they are from, regardless of their religious beliefs or color of their skin or gender or sexuality — are treated with utmost respect and have opportunities to grow and thrive.”

Healing the divide

Humans are shaped by any number of identities that change and shift depending on the contexts in which they find themselves. To be human is to be in flux.

Rey Morales identifies as Mexican, the country in which he was born. But over time, he’s come to identify as American and Californian too. He has long been embedded in the Santa Cruz community, where he lives and works, has family and friends.

“There wasn’t a life for me (in Jalisco) as a gay person, and I just wanted to be myself,” he said. “And from the first day that I was here, I felt a sense of peace and freedom, and I said to myself, ‘That’s it.’”

Deporting Rey would leave behind a gaping wound, not only in his marriage, but in the American community he has become a part of.

“I am not a threat to society here,” he said. “Santa Cruz, the Bay Area — I feel at home here. I fell in love with this area.”

Not long ago, Lindsay Walsh wrote about the incongruity that exists between politics and human relationships.

“By necessity, government efforts to demonize Mexico and Mexicans or any other group of people seek to generalize,” she wrote. “They make blanket statements that further politicians’ personal political goals or purposes and that feed on a fear that stems from a lack of personal relationships (it is so much easier to blame/fear the ‘other’ if you’ve never met/interacted with them). There’s no room for personal relationships in these generalizations. Despite these rhetorical efforts, our relationship makes me feel the safest I’ve ever been in my life.”

We do not love to spite narrow-minded politicians; we love in spite of them.

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Ariana Sawyer

About Ariana Sawyer

Ariana Sawyer is a freelance journalist and graduate student of international policy and development at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif., where she specializes in migration, trafficking and human security. Her partner, Paulina Pepper, is a graphic designer, photographer, writer and Mexican national. This project was part of a directed study program at MIIS under Dr. William Arrocha, whose research focuses on migration, development and human rights.