Chiapas

December 22, 2016

In Chiapas, a southern state bordering Guatemala known for its beauty, people live in poverty despite rich natural resources. They’ve been neglected by the government since “the beginning” says my father-in-law. Structural oppression is an established norm. For people living in the USA, this oppression would be unacceptable. That’s the word that kept coming to my mind as Waldir and I made our way through the state, driving a rental car over dangerous roads supposedly taken care of by the federal government: unacceptable.

The government pays for propaganda lauding the safety of the state. Waldir and I drove through mostly rural areas (no internet or phone reception, for example), but when we arrived in cities, we saw big billboards featuring a picture of a clean, well-dressed, smiling little girl that read: Chiapas: The Safest State in Mexico. Over our four days of travel, contrary to the billboards, we saw children who weren’t clean or well-dressed. They played on the side of the roads, at the edge of the jungles, in the dirt. Flea-infested, hungry dogs wandered around them.

Years ago, around the same time that the president of Mexico made a free trade agreement with the United States, a group of civilians called Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN)—the Zapatista Military of National Liberation—rose and demanded justice because of the poverty of southern Chiapas. Among many grievances voiced against the government, the Zapatistas asked why the president made this trade deal as it allowed the people of Chiapas to die from poverty.

My own anger against the government rose on our second night in the state when, after the sunset, Waldir and I found ourselves on a treacherous road to Ocosingo, driving over continuous deep, large potholes as we slowly winded through the jungle in the little rental car. The curvy roads were dangerous enough; factor in thousands of potholes, steep drop-offs, black darkness, and only half-repaired sections of road that force you to drive into one lane (the lane that oncoming traffic drives on)—and it’s a recipe for disaster. Our bodies tense and hearts racing in fear as we realized we’d driven into dangerous territory—something didn’t feel right, but by this point, an hour in, continuing forward was better than turning around—Waldir raised his voice in frustration as he drove. I held on to my seat, praying. Waldir had decided to take this route because it was over an hour faster than the alternate route, and when we began the drive, we didn’t know we’d be moving into a dangerous area not only because of the roads but also because of bands of robbers known for placing barriers across the highway in the night.

We didn’t encounter robbers, but one of our car’s tires slashed while crossing a pothole. By God’s grace, the flat tire happened in the one stretch of jungle without curves in the road; since we were on a straight stretch of land, any local vehicles speeding through the jungle would have time to see us before slamming into the back of our car. Had we been stuck on a curve, we likely would have been hit.

Rain fell as Waldir changed the tire. Although it took nearly an hour before we got going again, only two cars drove by and they didn’t stop (for which we were grateful). This was not a situation where we wanted cars to stop to “help”—fear of robbery is strongly present traveling in this area. As I said though, at the time—even though we were scared—we didn’t know what a local from Palenque would later tell us: Never take the road to Ocosingo, even in daylight. Better to drive a few hours out of your way to avoid it altogether.

After Waldir got the spare tire on, we got back on the road, prayed we wouldn’t get another flat, and felt great relief when we finally made it to Ocosingo around midnight. We crashed at a cheap hotel, got back on the road the next morning, and made it to the famous “Cascadas de Agua Azul” (Blue Waterfalls)—many waterfalls with turquoise water you can swim in—where we hiked to the source of the falls with a local guide, Ivan, who told us about the jungle that surrounded the water. There are lots of jaguars in the area but they’re afraid of humans and they don’t attack; besides, they’re nocturnal so our chances of spotting one were slim (although I would have loved to see one; I’m a cat lover). Ivan is part of a team that protects the jungle and the animals but unfortunately, he told us, there are “bad people here, too” who hunt jaguars for their skin. Recently they caught five hunters who had killed a jaguar; they were sentenced to eight years in prison. I was surprised and heartened to hear that these hunters were prosecuted since many, many people get away with horrendous crime in Mexico (especially the drug dealers) and since so often I hear about corrupted police officers who protect trafficking and/or accept bribes.

The beauty of Chiapas—the jungle, abundant fruit, rivers, great Mayan ruins we visited at Palenque on our 4th day of the trip—starkly contrasts the difficulty of life for people in the state. After Waldir and I spent our day in Palenque at the ruins and then visited an ecoparque—a rescue reserve for wild animals where we saw monkeys, jaguars, crocodiles, turtles, parrots and various birds, a bamboo forest, etc.—we decided to walk from the tourist part of the area into the city where locals shop, eat, and live. Within just a few minutes, just outside the area of restaurants for tourists and the local shops, we didn’t feel safe, and we turned around. Waldir shook his head as if to say, “This is a great shame.”

When we’re in Mexico, Waldir sometimes gets lost in thought and then turns to me with an idea or question about how to help his brothers and sisters in Mexico. As tourists, as we enjoyed richly beautiful and safer areas of Chiapas, I lightheartedly asked Waldir, “Would you ever want to move here?” and he said yes, “to help my brothers and sisters.” He talked specifically of helping in the church. We also talked about economic development. On a different day, I had made a comment about that fact that I sometimes say, “The gospel is the answer.”  But people living in such great oppression need structural change. They need basic physical resources. Yes, people often become more self-reliant and lift themselves out of poverty with gospel knowledge, but for people living in such oppression, there is no way out.

That last night in Palenque, after walking into the town and then coming back to the tourist area, we went to a café for dessert since we still felt hungry after eating dinner—which is rare for us, but we’d been running around all day in the hot sun and hadn’t eaten. It felt like a luxury. After we finished our dessert and sat at a table outside talking, someone approached us and asked for money. I sat facing Waldir, and as I turned around to look at the voice who spoke to me, I saw an emaciated man, probably in his 60s, standing in front of us, torn, filthy t shirt and pants hanging on his little body. We’re used to this; in the country of Mexico and in our home base in Boston (especially in Harvard Square), every day we see people asking for money. But during that trip to Chiapas, I hadn’t yet seen someone in the area who looked like he or she was legitimately starving. Ironically, on the night that we went to buy dessert—a symbol of the fact that we have money to spend on not only dinner but on more food after—here was this man, our brother born into very different circumstances than us, standing by our side. We gave him some money but as he walked away I couldn’t stop looking at him, and I turned to Waldir, and Waldir dug in his pockets to find more. By this time, the man had walked into a restaurant across the street and I thought the waiters might kick him out, but I watched as even they let him ask for money from the restaurant’s customers. Even the local waiters pitied this man. I waited a minute or two and he came out of the restaurant and started walking down the hill back toward the local section of the city. As I made my way toward the man, a little boy ran out of the restaurant, holding half a sandwich, saying, “Sir, this is for you,” and then I handed the man the money I held, saying, “God bless you,” and “take care.” I walked back to the café, crying, and felt too embarrassed to sit back down there; I went to the car and wept as Waldir paid our check.

The next day, Waldir and I got back in our rental car, drove to one last waterfall before the 7-hour drive (the long drive to avoid treacherous roads and roadblocks), back to the airport to take our flight into Mexico City. However careful with money we may be, however much we may talk about our student loans and cost of living in Boston, the fact is: we’re incredibly wealthy in comparison to the majority of people living in the world. We’ve got the privilege of food and clothes and shelter and also of education and the ability to get loans for education and of vacations and of being able to freely move in and out of places, going to nice areas of Chiapas to enjoy the beauty and then leaving when we want to leave. Most of all, we’ve got our Savior, Jesus Christ. I believe the people we saw in Chiapas have the same Savior. I believe He loves them equally. And I do believe that many of the people we met in Chiapas are happy. I don’t believe our friends are constantly thinking, “We’re in poverty and we’re unhappy.” I think people do what they need to do to survive. And I know my conceptions of “poverty” and “happiness” are likely very different from that of my brothers and sisters living in parts of the world I know little about (whether “wealthy” or “impoverished” by my standard). I do know that I’ve been fortunate in just about every way a person can be fortunate. As I reflect on the state of Chiapas, I think about the scripture: “Why do ye adorn yourselves with that which hath no life, and yet suffer the hungry, and the needy, and the naked, and the sick, and the afflicted to pass by you, and notice them not?” (Mormon 8:39).

It’s almost Christmas, and as I think about my brother who approached Waldir and me at the café, I wonder if he feels the love of his Savior. Does he know that he is known– cherished–by a God?

And although I believe the Savior’s love can reach the darkest of places, I wonder: Would I believe in a Savior if I were starving?

The Green Card

My husband grew up in a middle-class home in Mexico. He attended private school and learned English, went on to attend a top ranked university, graduated with honors and a degree in industrial engineering, and worked for an airline. After the airline went through bankruptcy, Waldir applied to the MBA program at Brigham Young University and, upon acceptance, came to the U.S. on a student visa. He intended to return to Mexico after completing his graduate degree, but then he met me.

After we got married, we spent a few thousand dollars on application fees in order for my husband to apply for his green card (which grants permanent residency in the U.S., not U.S. citizenship). In the laborious application process, we sent the U.S. government tax records from both of us; tax records from my parents (who agreed to financially sponsor my husband if he cannot secure employment and provide for himself); medical examinations; background checks; proof of a joint bank account; pictures from our wedding and letters from friends who attended our wedding.

We submitted the final application and waited. In July, we were scheduled to attend one last interview, but U.S. immigration—via snail mail (immigration headquarters won’t contact applicants via email or phone)—canceled the interview without explanation. When we finally received notification of a new interview date, we’d been pushed back to September.

Desperate for the green card so my husband could start his career and support me while I work through my graduate program, we showed up at the U.S. immigration office and waited in line to request an interview on the spot. We were refused. I’d anticipated rejection, but I hoped I could talk our way into an appointment. I erroneously thought my status as a U.S. citizen and a graduate student might help us get an interview from someone. “We can’t do anything for you,” said the man attending us. “If headquarters canceled the interview, it’s done. You’ll have to wait for another letter,” he explained. Seeing my face—reddened and on the verge of producing tears—the man added, “We know the system is ineffective—I’m sorry.”

My husband–with two professional degrees, a fluent command of the English language, and a marriage to a U.S. citizen–couldn’t get a job. In interviews, companies asked the same question: You’ve got your green card? Not yet, he said, but I have work authorization.  And it’s true; he had a card authorizing him to work in the U.S. for a year. Still, companies wanted the green card.

I think about the millions of undocumented individuals living in the United States. Waldir received his green card in October, over a year after we got married. (And he received two job offers the same day.) If getting a green card was so hard for a guy with two professional degrees who speaks fluent English and is married to a U.S. citizen, what can people in less privileged positions do to get by? How do they secure rights to live and move in this country?

Eating Vegan in Mexico

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Breakfast at a juice bar/taco restaurant with Aunt Carmen, Uncle Carlos, Elii, Emma, and Dafne.

Before Waldir and I traveled to Mexico to spend a month with his side of the family, we sat down to have a conversation about food with my in-laws via Skype. They were worried because Waldir had mentioned, in a previous conversation, that I’d become vegan. They didn’t know what that meant and what sort of food I’d be eating, so I explained what vegan means and then asked them to please not worry about feeding me. At the same time, I realized they were going to worry no matter what, because as our soon-to-be hosts, they wanted to make sure everyone would be comfortable.

“We need to make compromises on both sides,” said Waldir—which meant that I would sit down at the dinner table while the family ate animals, and in return, the family would not expect me to eat what they eat. Edgar, my father-in-law, promised me that the family would not be offended when I said “no, thank-you” to dishes they cooked.

With that in mind, I said “no, thank-you” often in Mexico. And my family, extended family members included, took it pretty well. There were a few funny comments that took me by surprise, like, “You need to eat! What are you going to do when you want to get pregnant? You need to be strong to get pregnant!” (as if me not eating animal products means that I’m not eating and that I’m not strong). But no one shoved food down my throat, disowned me, or got terribly offended. My mother-in-law, Lili, repeatedly went out of her way to help me eat well. On Christmas Eve, she made two pies: a traditional pineapple pie with cream cheese in it (a favorite in the family) and a pineapple pie without cream cheese so that I could enjoy a dessert. I didn’t ask for that; she just did it out of love. A few weeks later she surprised me by bringing home large quantities of vegan food for me from a special vegetarian restaurant.

When a few friends invited us over to eat, Waldir warned them that I don’t eat anything from an animal. Then I learned surprising things about our friends: they had also, for a time, eliminated animals from their diet! The Camarillo family ate vegetarian for about a year in order to cure a stomach illness that one of them had. Leti explained to me, “We loved it! We felt so good! Our skin and hair glowed.” But it was hard, she added, so they didn’t stick with it. “I would like to go vegetarian again someday,” she explained. Leti made potato tacos for us with different salsas and lettuce and cucumber on the side. It was one of the best vegan meals I’ve eaten.

A few days later at Franco and Perla’s home (other dear friends who invited us to dinner) we arrived to a colorful vegan spread on the table: lentil salad, quinoa, lettuce, nuts and cranberries, strawberries and blueberries. Perla explained that she changed her diet a few years ago, eliminating animal products, in order to get pregnant. It worked. Her baby is 18 months old now.

Not every day went as smoothly. Restaurants could be a little tricky; sometimes waiters seemed confused when I asked them to serve me something without cheese and with beans instead of meat. I asked for modified dishes and repeatedly explained: No carne, no pollo, no crema, no queso. No meat, no chicken (in Mexico, chicken is not considered meat), no cream, no cheese. Things turned out funny sometimes, like when I asked for a burrito with beans inside and instead the waiter brought me a burrito with only shredded lettuce and tomato inside. Both Waldir and I explained again that I wanted beans, so the waiter returned with a tiny spoonful of beans beside the burrito. We explained a third time. “She wants beans instead of meat; she doesn’t eat meat. Her meal is going to be beans, lots of beans, instead of meat inside the burrito” said Waldir. This all felt rather awkward, because the exchanges of plates had taken place over a 15 minute period, and my family had almost finished eating. The waiter once again whisked the plate away as I, embarrassed and frustrated with my face rapidly turning read, stared down at the table. “Never mind,” I said, shaking my head, “it’s fine.” I thought the waiter had taken the plate away for good because he was angry. But five minutes later, he returned with beans inside the burrito. “I’m sorry about that,” he said, “I didn’t understand.” I’m still confused about that misunderstanding (I thought we made it clear). Learn from my experience–when you go to Mexico, be prepared: bean burritos aren’t a thing there.

In general, though, subbing beans for meat in dishes at restaurants wasn’t a hassle. And outside of restaurants, I was surprised to discover that eating vegan in Mexico was far easier than eating vegan in other places I’ve lived, because the produce is much more affordable, abundant, and better tasting. The fruit is ripe, juicy, and sweet. The vegetables are fresh and flavorful.

Enjoying ripe, delicious produce in abundance was a highlight of my time in Mexico. Waldir and I loved to go walking in the morning and then stop at a local juice store to purchase fresh squeezed juice or smoothies for about $1 a liter. When we didn’t go to our favorite juice stand, I made my own smoothies in the morning: almond milk, spinach, bananas, and frozen berries blended together.

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On the way to the Mexico City temple one day, I was hungry but we didn’t have time to stop anywhere. Instead, when we were stuck in traffic, Waldir rolled down the car window and purchased a bag of freshly picked mandarin oranges (with beautiful green leaves and stems still attached to the fruit and poking out of the bag). I happily peeled the fruit and ate it on the way to the temple.

My mother-in-law made rice, beans, and fresh salsa that I stuffed inside tortillas. She cooked nopales (cactus) that I ate inside tortillas, too. She took me to the market and I picked out ripe fruits. I walked the streets of Mexico City, passing vendors selling fresh fruit cocktails and smoothies, and bought a cup of freshly sliced mangoes for $1.

We went to a popular chain restaurant called “La Casa de Toño” and I ordered vegetable pozole (broth with mushrooms, pumpkin flowers, and corn) and a no-cheese quesadilla with pumpkin flowers inside. In Cuernavaca, we went to a taco restaurant and I ordered a huge plate of grilled veggies—mushrooms, peppers, onions and pineapple—and ate the veggies in tortillas with copious amounts of salsa. I drank cucumber water. Also in Cuernavaca, I went jogging with some of my cousins in the morning and then feasted on ripe, juicy, yellow mangoes from a local fruit stand. Waldir even ate fruit for breakfast, too. “I’m only eating this because I’m sick,” he assured me, which made me laugh (he would have been eating carne asada for breakfast had he not been sick).

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When we visited Aunt Carmen and Uncle Carlos in Querétaro, Aunt Carmen prepared a vegetable soup and stir fry for lunch. And she and tío Carlos took us to breakfast at a local juice bar because “Jenna likes to eat like that.” I ordered a big fruit smoothie and tacos with mushrooms and cactus inside.

I realize that cooked cactus and pumpkin flowers might not sound appetizing to you, but let me tell you: it’s good stuff. The whole country could go vegan and live off these foods without missing out on a thing. Now that I’m back in Boston, I feel like I’m definitely missing out. And I don’t have any cacti or pumpkin flowers to cook. I can’t find a ripe, juicy mango at the grocery store.  A liter of fresh fruit and veggie juice would cost me $12-14 (I’m not kidding) and I don’t have that kind of money to spend on juice.

Mexico, I miss you. You are a vegan’s paradise. I will love you forever.

Family, I miss you even more. Thanks for spoiling me and for being so kind and respectful, for caring for me and providing me with abundant, nutritious food.