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?
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.
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).
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.