Pay No Attention To That Man Behind The Curtain

dorthy and dog

Once my husband Picasso received his U.S. permanent residency approval, I thought, “this is it.” 

In my ignorance and privilege as a U.S. citizen, I figured that it was time to cue the happy ending music.

What I’ve learned this past few weeks since returning from our home-closing trip to Mexico is that there’s so much more for me to learn.

Me, who thought incorrectly and arrogantly that I already knew a lot about issues around immigration.

Me, who confidently thought she already knew a lot about herself and her husband and our relationship.

And while it hurts like a motherfucker, I want to name here how my sadness and rage against U.S. immigration morphed and worked its way into my relationship with my husband over the years.

I want to name how sometimes I wasn’t as tough on my husband around specific issues that we tussled with, because I secretly felt bad that certain doors in this world were closed to him because of his immigration situation.

I want to name here how sometimes I treated my husband like a hothouse flower, to be tended to very carefully, because I felt that he suffered a lot already over the course of his life, immigration and otherwise. 

I want to name here that sometimes I was the cause of his suffering and reacted by tending to him even more, my guilty feelings building another addition to my hothouse.

I want to name here that I’m disappointed about having to be the main breadwinner for at least the next year here in the States, while my husband gets his GED, gets a job, builds his credit, get’s a driver’s license, works on his English, gets his footing in the States. I was excited to put that main breadwinner pack down, after 14 years. I saw how I mentally flung that pack into the creek that flows by Heather Wilhelmina and Mr. Vulcan’s house a few weeks ago.

I watched myself sheepishly fish the pack out of the creek last night.

What shocked me this morning was looking out the window and realizing that when my husband entered the U.S., I naively thought that we were going to be equals now.

That in this new chapter, he was just like me – a visible and active member of this society.

Yeah, you can laugh now. It’s O.K.

Because clearly, in my privilege disguised as naivete, I didn’t think about where we are not the same, in terms of formal education, mastery of English, class, race and access in this neck of the woods.

The simple fact of how my name Giselle Stern doesn’t scream out “Mexican” on a resume, but Picasso’s full name does. And the conclusions people draw, conclusions based on our names alone.

I’m tired and tattered. Periods of growth and change will do that to you. 

I want to be clear here – it means the world to me that my husband and I get to live together with our cats in a supportive household. The reunification of families destroyed by U.S. immigration policies will always be a priority for me. 

But I do feel that there’s a dirty little secret that’s not talked about a lot – the next chapter for immigrants who have complicated pasts and are suddenly brought to the front of the line. It’s like the U.S.-born family members are supposed to shut up and be grateful. Not talk about the challenges, because there are so many people who want to be in our shoes.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately what I was taught about the U.S. as a young child, i.e., the U.S. being the best and most powerful nation of them all.

Do you all remember that line from The Wizard of Oz?

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

I’ve been feeling a lot like Dorothy lately, when she says this:

“If you are really great and powerful, you’d keep your promises.” 

Amen, Dorothy. Amen.

Spines Made of Steel

44 california

Today’s my birthday. I’m 44 years old. Closer to 50 than to 30 by this point. But overall, I’m cool about that fact. 

When Picasso and I were dating in New York, I turned 30 in 2000.We’d been together eight months. That New Year’s Eve, I drank so much and for so long that I practically pickled myself permanently.

My one strong memory from January 1, 2000 is our room that we rented in a house in Long Island City, in Queens, NY. While we had kitchen privileges, we didn’t really like to go downstairs to cook.

Picasso had an electric kettle plugged in on the opposite side of the room from where I was sprawled out on our mattress on the floor.

We had a fancy bag of some kind of pre-prepared organic soup. All you had to do was throw it into the electric kettle and heat the damn thing up.

My one strong memory from January 1, 2000 is of me waking up around four in the afternoon and crawling on my hands and knees across the room, from our mattress to the kettle, dragging the pre-prepared bag of organic soup behind me like a rag doll.

I crawled because I couldn’t stand up right just then.

After that year, I made a promise to myself that I didn’t want to continue meeting the new year and my birthday in an extremely pickled state.

So I don’t. Depending on the year, I’m anywhere from stone-cold sober to lightly buzzed, with my husband Picasso always and our cats Leche and Pixie Bella usually by my side.

This year was a little different. We needed funds for our upcoming move out of Mexico. Picasso took a temporary gig in another state that started on October 17th of last year and ends on January 10th of this year. Our cats are in Mexico, being taken care of by a good friend.

All that to say that my husband and I weren’t together for the holidays. And we aren’t together for my birthday today. After everything we’ve been through as a result of U.S. immigration laws, we’ve never been separated during this holiday/birthday period in all of our years as a couple.

However, this moment of holiday separation that I’ve never gone through before is one that so many of you have. Many of you are going through it right now. And many of you don’t have the huge privilege, as I do, to know that you’ll see your loved one soon.

That difference in our experiences is one that I carry in the center of my being.

So my good friends Mr. Vulcan and Heather Wilhelmina saw me through New Year’s Eve 2013 here in Oakland, California. I’m sitting here writing this as they’re preparing a lovely 2014 birthday breakfast. In my very happily sober and not hungover state, I’m also thankful for the magic of technology that keeps my heart connected to all of my loved ones on this doubly special day.

As my good friend, Ivan and Posey’s Mama wrote to me in a sweet birthday text this morning: You are surrounded by people who love you.

And she’s right on the money.

Today, as I reflect on my birthday as well as the year that passed and the year to come, one of the things that I’m thinking about is that those of us who’ve had justice restored to our loved one’s immigration cases, we have a particular responsibility to continue to fight for the rest of our communities affected by U.S. immigration laws that separate families.

Because those of us with justice restored can speak to the deep pain, fear, frustration, anger and loss. The financial toll. Our broken, betrayed hearts. The years, on the bad days, that felt like they were lost in an abyss.

But we can also speak to never giving up, love, humor, personal growth. Our spines made of steel. What we’ve gained. And what our post-permanent residency lives look like.

I didn’t know what I stood for in life on January 1, 2000.

Today? I know what I’ll stand for permanently ’til the day I die.

Salt In The Wounds


Yesterday I signed up my husband and myself for health insurance, through the Affordable Care Act. The infamous Obamacare. 

For the past three years since my return to the States, I’ve had health insurance for a total of about a year, broken up between two previous jobs. During one of those times was when I was diagnosed with Essential Thrombocytosis. 

My husband Picasso? He never had insurance in the States, because he was undocumented during all of his years in this country.

The process took a crazy long time yesterday, mainly due to me not being able to input my husband’s social security number correctly.

Yup, you read that right. I’ve got a Masters and a temp job right now that involves data entry, but I wasn’t able to input Picasso’s social security number correctly. I kept putting three numbers in the middle section, instead of two.

I’m learning to work with this new number of his.

Heather Wilhelmina finally pointed it out to me after sitting next to me for three minutes and watching what I was doing. While I typed in my social without any problems, I’d been putting in his number completely wrong all day long.

However, after that was all settled, the application was in. I’ll have to supply additional documentation, but after that, we should be good to go.

I looked at my computer screen with the Covered California flow chart showing that the application was submitted.

I thought about the time that Picasso coughed up blood when we were first living together in New York in 1999.

I thought about the time when I went to the hospital last March, the fear that I was stroking out hanging over my head, my lack of insurance making a difficult situation that much more frightening.

I thought about how I received my initial diagnosis of Essential Thrombocytosis because I was insured and I could go to the doctor without worrying how the hell I was going to pay for it.

Yesterday I was also thinking about how for every one Picasso that received their U.S. permanent residency this year, how many undocumented, detained and deported immigrants stand behind him, behind us, watching, waiting.

How many U.S. citizen family members will be able to fill out a healthcare insurance application for themselves, but not for a loved one?

I know that feeling only too well. 

After a year of stalled immigration reform, these looming deadlines of signing up for health insurance?

They’re just salt in the wounds for too many in our community.

Up Against That Cool, Cool Glass


While the politicos twiddle their thumbs,
I want them to press their hands
Up against that cool, cool glass.

So smooth, that pane, so transparent.

I want them to pick up the phone receiver to speak.
What can be said right just then?
The speechwriters seem to have lost their pens.

The guard will only allow one minute.
The room so cold.
The glass so thick.
The chair you sit on so

Danger: Do Not Lean Against Doors


this morning i’m thinking about the kids singing christmas carols in politicans’ offices in the name of immigration reform. i’m thinking about the fasters. i’m thinking about the protesters who lay down their bodies, locking and linking their bodies to buses. to fences. to each other. this morning i’m thinking about the days that i can count on one hand that are left to the 2013 legislative session. i’m thinking about how cir’s chances in 2014 are the same as mexico winning the next world cup. i’m thinking about the dream9. the dream30. the interrupters and infiltrators. i’m thinking about the petitions, the phonecalls, the lawyers and the vigils. this morning i’m thinking about how president obama’s words rang hollow and flat and fake at nelson mandela’s memorial service, because the deportations in the u.s. continued while he spoke in south africa. this morning i look at the bart doors across from me. the warning of danger: do not lean against doors. the doors of power, the doors of privilege, the doors of access that are so closed to so many. i’m thinking this morning about what it’s going to take to blow these doors off their hinges for good, for the good of us all.

Family Album


Long Island, New York, 1987. Saturday morning in my house, my house where our family had been through enough by that point to know that we were never going to be the family that poses together on a Christmas card by a decorated tree.

This is still the time of records. That Saturday morning, my Mexican mom slides a record out of a new sleeve and walks over to the record player. The woman, Linda Ronstadt, is singing what seems to be Mexican songs. In Spanish. My mother wasn’t as in touch with her Mexicanness back then. Neither was I. I jerk my head around to stare at my mother. What was this? What was my mother doing? What happened to her Donna Summer record that she usually liked to play Saturday mornings as she cleaned the house?

My Mom’s eyes go far away. She sits at the kitchen table, her cold hands wrapped around her warm cup of coffee.

And right on cue, my supposedly tone-deaf mother who has no sense of rhythm, perfectly belts out the mariachi’s grito, or shout of,”Ay ay ay.” She gives me a rare smile from that far-away place. Then she says no more and continues drinking her coffee.

Chicago, Illinois, 2000. Christmas Mass at St Sylvester’s’s church. The mass is in Spanish. Mariachis come out to play at the end of the service. I turn to my husband Picasso and notice he has tears in his eyes. I’ve never seen him with tears in his eyes before. He squeezes my hand to let me know that he’s O.K. He smiles at me lovingly from that far-away place. While Linda Ronstadt is not at the Christmas mass at St. Sylvester’s in Chicago, the music sounds similar to that Saturday morning record that my mom started to play on a weekly basis.

San Francisco, California, 2013. At my temp job, I listen to a moving interview with Linda Ronstadt on NPR and I remember that Saturday morning album, Canciones De Mi Padre.

I look it up on YouTube.

I hear this song.

The memory of those Saturday mornings, that St. Sylvester Christmas mass force me to stop my data entry temp work and simply listen.

The scent of my mom’s strong cup of coffee mix in with the almost overpowering scent of myrrh and pine from our first and last church Christmas in Chicago.

I discreetly wipe my tears away while “reviewing” a stack of papers.

And if someone passed by my cubicle right then?

I most certainly would’ve smiled at them from a far-away place.