44 hours in DF

Three weeks ago I received an email from a UK immigration officer letting me know that a decision had been made regarding my Student Visa request. Two days later I received another email, this time from the Visa Processing Office in Mexico City, saying that my passport and attached documents were ready for me to pick up.

At their office.

In Mexico City. (Which I will now refer to as DF throughout the story)

For those readers who don’t know this requires a two-and-a-half-hour plane ride (and another one back).  But I was the interested party so I did what I had to. The following Wednesday I boarded a flight at 6AM hoping that when I opened my passport there would be a shiny new sticker inside.

I arrived sleepy and nervous in DF and got in a Taxi headed for my cousin’s apartment. I figured I’d change my clothes and head straight to pick up my documents. But when I was checking and re-checking that I had the receipt to turn in at the Visa center I realized there was an actual pick-up time.

So my plans changed slightly.

I decided to take my first Uber ride to meet Romina Becker (for those who follow the blog, she’s the one behind the beautiful illustrations) and her mural-in-progress. As someone who had never used Uber I assumed that it would be set automatically on the cheapest setting. Low and behold my ride ended up being a glossy black sedan with leather interiors and a driver in a suit. As I have never used this service before I was unsure about what I was supposed to do and more importantly where I was supposed to sit.

I may have done a faux pas. Actually, I’m pretty sure I did once I sat in the back. But it was a short ride and I think my driver knew I was a newbie because, what girl wearing Doc Martens, an oversized henley, no makeup, purple hair, and a Fox-print backpack actually needs an UberBlack? The ride ended up costing what would be eight dollars and with traffic it only took about twenty minutes.

Photo taken by Maria SR.
Photo taken by Maria SR.

Romina is one of the many emerging artists part of HidroArte, a city program created through the Water department to bring awareness for water conservation. The walls being turned into murals are those surrounding the water pump stations, so each station gets three or four artists working there. This year they are painting in three different boroughs. It was pure luck that she would be painting in the same one I was staying in.

But it almost didn’t happen.

Two days earlier, as Romina and the other two artists were prepping their spaces, a resident of the area walked over and started asking questions: Who were they, what were they doing there, and what would they be painting in her neighborhood? The representative from the Water Department explained the program and all three artists showed her their sketches. Since the program is about water, the theme of the drawings had to be related to water.

The resident proceeded to tell them that this was an exclusive neighborhood and claimed that she spoke for all its residents when she said that nobody “wants to see fishes from their apartment window.” She suggested they do something closer to Diego Rivera’s body of work. I wish I’d been there to let the resident know that Diego’s work wasn’t seen as exclusive and high-end when he first started. Same could be said of Turner, Manet, Monet, and just about every other awesome modern and contemporary artist. Romina said she felt let down at first but then realized most of the artists that inspired her had gone through this kind of thing before.

Photo taken by Maria SR.
Photo taken by Maria SR.

So when I got off of the UberBlack, I was still in the same exclusive neighborhood but in the new location the three artists had been given. We talked about her inspiration behind the work (Greek mythology), the pitfalls of wearing a gas mask when painting (and the upsides after I started coughing), my upcoming trip and Master’s degree, her recent move to the city, and “The happiest place on Instagram”.

By lunchtime I decided that I would not get an Uber to the Visa Processing Office since it was only a forty-minute walk and I would rather spend my money on coffee. I got KrispyKreme donuts for the crew when I went for my very necessary 2PM Americano and then started walking.

Photo taken by Maria SR.
Photo taken by Maria SR.

The Polanco neighborhood of DF is home to most of the foreign embassies, luxury brand boutiques, upscale restaurants, and a lot of pretty apartment buildings. As I trekked towards my destination I felt like I’d seen some of the prettiest cars, bags, and people. But then I saw a lot of people begging and asking for food or cash. I gave my four remaining glazed donuts to a family sitting a corner only to cross the street and wish I had more sweets on me.

As for the question people always ask about walking in DF…

I know people who have been mugged over a cell phone or even Nike sneakers (Yes, you’re reading correctly) but I was not a worthy target. I don’t wear jewelry aside from my bracelets and Sacred Heart pendant, both of which are not exactly Cartier. As for my favorite backpack, it was bought at Target and its straps are full of pins I’ve bought at used bookstores. If you see me walking by I probably look like an overgrown Goth who has run out of makeup (actually that description is not too far off).

I reached the building on the other end of the neighborhood and went up to the second floor. I started to get dizzy and sweaty. When I sat in the waiting area I know the man next to me was looking at me strange because I was panting like a puppy returning from the dog park. I turned in my receipt and waited for my name to be called. Once that happened I got up a little too quickly and almost passed out but managed to walk, sign, and retrieve my packet.

I ripped it open and took out my passport, searching, searching…

And there it was: my permit for entry for study in the United Kingdom.

Photo taken by Maria SR.
Photo taken by Maria SR.

I crossed the street to the Starbucks, ordered my usual iced coffee with coconut milk, and collapsed on the high chair closest to the power socket. I just sat there exhausted from the walk and the stress of not knowing if I’d be granted the permit or not. There was a guy studying at the communal table who kept stealing glances at me. I think he was worried. I mean what if you´re at a coffee shop minding your own business and then this girl comes in, plugs in her phone, and just sits in a chair for an hour staring into space (probably panting really loud too).

Once I finally caught up on my breathing, I called my grandmother, dad, and aunts, group texted my cousins, unplugged my phone, and started walking back to the apartment. It should’ve taken a quarter of what my previous walk had, but my Doc Martens felt heavy. My cousin and I ate our dinner watching Hot Pursuit and then I stayed up reading.

Property of Romina Becker.
Romina Becker.

The next morning I woke up and started walking to Romina´s mural. I figured that I would bump into a Starbucks at least twice on the way there but instead I was approached by Oxfam volunteers asking me for a credit card number so I’d donate and join the cause.

“I don´t have any cards on me,” I said.

“I don’t believe you, unless you have a lot of cash on you.” He answered. I hope these were real volunteers but still I walked away very quickly and zigzagged for a few streets. I only had 400 pesos on me (roughly twenty-five dollars) but I wasn´t taking any chances.

Luckily there was a small café in front of the mural in progress that sold Nutella chocolate chip cookies, so all was well.

Property of Romina Becker.
Romina Becker.

I stayed most of the morning chatting, relaxing, and checking my Instagram feed. But before lunchtime I said goodbye to Romina and left for the subway station.

As I walked to the station I noticed the American and European tourists, sunburned raw and hauling their backpacker´s backpack, amidst the street full of suits, fashionistas, newsstands, and street food.

I took the stairs into the Metro and searched for my platform. In front of me walked a blonde, extremely thin and tall girl in skinny jeans and a tank top, probably a model from Eastern Europe. To a passerby we would’ve seemed opposites with my brown and purple messy bun, dark jeans, grey long-sleeve and cherry combat boots (which were getting heavier by the second).

When I emerged back to the surface I was in the Condesa neighborhood where I was meeting my cousin for lunch. We ate in a pretty bookstore next to his university and then I took the metro back. It was then that I realized my feet were bleeding and when I emerged into the street it was raining.

Property of Romina Becker.
Romina Becker.

I took shelter in “El Péndulo”, the bookstore, and looked around the graphic novel and comics section and bought some beautifully crafted notebooks. Once the rain stopped I started walking to the apartment, every step proving to be more painful than the one before. It took an hour to walk what should’ve been fifteen minutes. But once back I costumed into my dressier clothes for dinner with my other cousin.

Romina and her mural. Photo is property of Romina Becker.
Romina and her mural. 

I went to sleep at midnight and woke up at 3AM to get changed and close my suitcase in the dark. I arrived at the airport at 4AM but, though I was checked in, was in the baggage drop line until 5:20AM.

I boarded the plane at 5:45 and passed out until the wheels hit the ground in Sonora.

In under 48 hours I walked, saw, talked, searched, and took one step closer to my dream.

The finished mural. Photo is property of Romina Becker.
The finished mural. 

Thank you for reading. For more information on Romina’s projects check out her Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook page. To find more Hidroarte murals and information about the projects search for the hashtag #HidroArteDF.


Rain, Passports, and Books

I was born during a monsoon. Two days later I was given a faith, a nationality, and a chance.  

My writing dreams began one day at a Walden Books in Tucson, Arizona. It was day trip across the border because my mother had gone back to university and needed some supplies: namely a large English-Spanish dictionary. I’m guessing that the reference to a now defunct bookstore chain and the need for a print dictionary lets you know that this was way before the internet. I was eight.

While my mother compared the two boulder-sized books, I stayed in the children’s section. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for but decided to go through a shelf. And then I saw it: A Babysitter’s Club Mystery novel (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has brought back so many memories I thought long gone).

I’d seen the TV show on Disney Channel but there was something incredible about seeing entire shelves of stories that were there waiting for me. And not just that, there were books about other characters and their stories. By the time mom picked a dictionary I had my own boulder of books in my arms.

Stories have been my companions in the best and worst days of my life; and most of the ones in between as well. So it’s not much of a surprise that twenty years later I decided I wanted to do a Creative Writing MFA.

That’s when it got a little complicated.

After applying to four programs in the fall of 2013, my heart got broken four times when the response letters came back. But then last fall I decided to try once more.

I worked on my manuscript and sent it only to schools with a more experimental and transmedia approach to writing. This time I only applied to three and I got accepted into all. I chose the one I felt in my heart was the best choice.

Today I sit waiting to know if an immigration officer who has never met me in person deems that I am able to go and fulfill my dreams. I got an email about a decision being made and that I can collect my passport next week but no answer on whether or not I have a student visa. I shouldn´t be nervous since I sent a lot of documents to prove I can speak and write English, that the school does believe me qualified to be in this program, and that I can support myself during those twelve months. And yet I’m nervous as if I haven’t gone through this before.

I got my first American visa before I was even a month old.  That doesn’t make me special it just makes me a border kid. However I don’t know how my life would’ve turned out had things been different.

Monsoon months in Sonora are special in the way that you can smell the rain and the damp earth before the first drop falls. You go from this dry acid-like heat to this dust storm that swirls dirt everywhere ,and brings down trees and telephone poles, to finally this crazy downpour that floods the streets in under thirty minutes. We were lucky we had a truck because my mother went into labor on such a day.

She said she saw something odd when I was born, but I was rushed away too quickly for her to get a better look. The next time she saw me she noticed a large kind of bump on my back. The pediatrician came in and told her that I had Spina Bifida and, that if by some miracle I was ever able to walk, I would need crutches or braces for the rest of my life.

Well, I happened to have the miracle of family.

Back in 1986 I doubt there were loads of neurosurgeons in my town so the women in my family got to work getting me an appointment with a doctor in Tucson ASAP. But before I could be taken there I needed a few things:

I was baptized the day we left the hospital. It wasn’t a big party like it usually is with christenings. It was just my parents, my grandparents, my aunt and uncle who’d be my godparents, and my brothers. I was baptized one rainy afternoon in the sacristy.

That same day I got my first passport photo taken. My first passport and first American visa feature a days–old me crying wrapped in a blanket. I don’t know if that would fly today with all the particulars that are asked of a visa application.

Once in Tucson, I was checked and studied. The doctor told my parents that their daughter indeed had a form of Spina Bifida. But luckily because of the type I had, I was a candidate for a procedure that was still pretty new. Eight months later I went into surgery for about eight hours, if not more. Flash forward twenty-nine years and I still carry a large scar that reminds me everyday to be thankful. I’m a dancer who plays with trapezes, hula hoops, and lyras, and an aunt who picks up her nieces and nephews. I have walked through many cities and towns in different continents. I am lucky and blessed.

Dreams turned words. Another beautiful piece by Romina Becker
Dreams turned words. Another beautiful piece by Romina Becker

So maybe that should be enough.

I get that last comment a lot when I tell someone about writing and how I hope to one day write fulltime. Or when I tell them about my disappointments and then how I’m currently working to get that visa for the UK. I hear, “Just be thankful you can walk, now grow up, and get a normal job,” at least once a week. It’s not that the people who say this mean to be negative (I actually think they believe they’re helping), but their own experiences and circumstances have given them these murky-grey-colored glasses.

I know that there are these incredible people who have overcome every odd in order to fulfill their dreams. But most of us need a little help. It doesn’t even have to be someone who stands with us for the whole thing. My mother is no longer physically in this world but it’s because she fought so much for me that I know better than to listen to the people who tell me to give up.

I just wish I could know what those other people’s dreams are (were) and maybe give their glasses a cleaning.

Next week I find out if my application was a lot of work but successful or very expensive and unsuccessful.

Whatever happens, I’ll just keep searching for that one chance. Because if my family saw a chance where they were told to make due, I can certainly make one for myself and my future.

It starts with a song

Before starting this post, I’m sorry that I’ve taken so long between the first one and today. You can follow my blog to get an email when there’s something new or you can follow me on Instagram. Thank you – M I remember being newly seventeen in a Target in Anaheim, California and buying Brand New’s Deja Entendu in the summer of 2003. I got in the car, ripped the plastic off, and immediately started listening to it on my discman. As the second track began I started thinking that maybe I should’ve saved those thirteen dollars for my Barnes and Noble fund. But as the album continued to flow from my earphones something happened. I fell in love with the music. As that summer progressed it became my soundtrack and quasi BFF. A few months later, when I left school to travel with my mom, those lyrics roamed the Tube carriages and the tiny hostel room. But then six months after that I borrowed it to a friend where my CD met its fateful end. I used to accompany this story with a never-give-your-CDs-to-anyone-ever speech, but technology has made it so nobody has to suffer through the pain of handing out a beloved cared-for CD and getting back a scraped disc. So back to the album… When I saw the CD with the astronaut in the orange background I remember thinking about that one song I’d heard on an alternative music message board (at the time if you lived in provincial Mexico and wanted something other than what MTV had to offer this was how you found it). The song was called Guernica. I thought it was a cool name but had no idea what it meant. A few years later while overhearing two strangers I found out it was the title of a Picasso painting. It would not be until I graduated college and had to take Advanced Spanish for my translation degree in Arizona that I would know the story of Guernica. Being required to take Advanced Spanish when your first language is Castilian (the actual word for the Spanish language) is a curious experience. But when it’s the first language of 95% of the class I pray for whoever has to teach that course. Luckily not only was our teacher used to this situation, it was also her mother tongue (and don’t worry the other 5% were heritage speakers so no translator was left behind). Aside from the grammatical aspects of the course every week we’d see a piece of “El Espejo Enterrado” (The Buried Mirror), a documentary series narrated by poet Carlos Fuentes on Hispanic culture and history. It was during one episode where Picasso’s work filled the screen and then the story behind his inspiration was narrated. The title of a song I had heard and loved for almost ten years had been inspired by a painting that was inspired by the tragic bombing in 1937 of a town of that same name in the Basque Country. In 2011 I visited the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid and was overwhelmed by seeing it up close. There is an entire room reserved for Guernica not only because it’s one of the most popular works displayed but because it is so big. The canvas takes up most of the wall space. I found myself being enveloped into the painting á la Alice in Wonderland. The room was full of people and yet I felt as if it was only me and Picasso’s baby staring at each other. But it did not last long. Those few minutes I felt the pieces of asphalt crunching under my feet and heard the mother’s calling for their children. I looked away and left the room ashamed that I could not stand to look at it as the others. My friends were waiting in the hallway. They’d been in there even less than I had. We left without a word and walked a block or two in silence then sat on the stairs of a large building. I was thinking about the tragedy, the painting, and if I would ever be able to listen to that song again. I looked over at my companions and saw a faraway look in each of their eyes. I had met the three friends just a few days before at our volunteer accommodation and they had welcomed me into their group. They were from the same small town in Poland and had moved together to Warsaw when they went to university. Their Spanish was better than most native speakers’ and they broke into giggles whenever I’d accidentally answer in English. One of them finally looked up and said, “Sorry Maria, there was something in the gallery before the Picasso.” In my mind I retraced my steps to the hall full of people saying ooh and ah that I’d rushed through to get to Guernica. I looked at the map and understood. The room was dedicated to political propaganda artwork, specifically World War II. I looked at my feet and felt silly about not realizing that maybe some of the art hit too close to home to my friends. I looked up cautiously and saw the youngest one shrugged and smiled shyly. “The Prado’s free at this hour.” We got up and went to see the Flemish painters and The Countess of Vilches (one of my top favorites). As I stood looking up at the countess, Ola walked over and smiled up at the lady in the blue dress. “I could live here forever.” “Me too.” I answered.

Music takes me to unexpected places... Another awesome piece by Romina Becker.
Music takes me to unexpected places… Another awesome piece by Romina Becker.

I have heard Guernica, the song, since. It’s painful because twelve years after hearing it for the first time I have twice lived through the subject of the lyrics. I still love and respect Pablo Picasso as a painter and maybe one day I’ll return to Madrid and sit in the Reina Sofia for more than a mere five minutes. Who knows maybe one day I’ll even get to go to the Basque Country where I have since learned that my great-great-grandparents are from. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to visit Guernica but I can’t say that I will never go and pray for those who suffered and those who continue to suffer in other towns like it. That’s the magic of art I guess. You start with a song that leads to a mural which then takes you to a dark moment in history you can’t be indifferent to anymore. Next September I’ll be seeing Brand New live for the second time. Most likely I’ll leave the venue tearful, hoarse, and feeling like I’m still seventeen. Note: Until today I was unaware that there was a song with the same title by The Stone Roses. I will definitely have to look it up. Also thank you again to Romina Becker for this post’s artwork. Please follow her through Instagram or Facebook so you can check out all her projects.

My Unlikely Initiation Into Fandom

A little over a year ago “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” came out. I wanted to be there for the midnight showing like I had with most films of the genre. But I wasn’t home, hadn’t been for a few months and ended up seeing it the Monday after.

I guess the story was supposed to end there. I mean I liked it but it was just a movie I watched at the theater.

But a month afterwards my already upside-down world was flipped once more.

(Okay now I need to back up because just imagining if the previous metaphor is correct is making my head hurt.)

In late 2011 my mom was diagnosed with Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia, a rare form of lymphoma. Her treatment consisted of 3 years of chemo,  the last treatment would have been last September, but then 2014 happened. After many visits to the ER, lumbar punctures, CT scans, MRIs, and blood draws they found that the cancer had filtered through her spinal fluid and into her brain. This filtering is referred to as Bing Neel Syndrome which is even rarer still (From its discovery in the 1930’s to the time that her spinal fluid tested positive for cancer cells there had been less than 40 diagnosed cases).

She was offered a treatment that had proven somewhat helpful to other patients. It was extremely painful but my mom went through it like a true warrior. The weekend that TWS came out was supposed to be her second to last. I was out with friends when my aunt called to say that the chemo had been postponed because my mom had gotten an infection.

Like I said before, I went to see the film on Monday, my mom got better, and finished her treatment.

That should have been the end of the story, but few weeks after she relapsed. She was weaker because of the treatment and her pain increased daily.

We spent Mother’s day in the hospital. Just her and me. Her family and grandkids far away. As a treat she and all of the other mothers in the hospital got a slice of flan and a pretty blue box with hospital stationary. I promised to take her somewhere special for her birthday to make up for it.

At the end of May I was supposed to go to Los Angeles for a week-long intensive prior to starting an online screenwriting program. Mom never asked me to stay but rather pushed me to continue when I doubted I could. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to convey what an awesome lady was the one I got as a mother. She was the toughest, kindest, funniest, most loving person I’ve ever known (I feel myself blessed to have had one person as such in my life).

While in Los Angeles I called to check-in and found she was no longer at the apartment but had been rushed to the hospital once more. When I called the hospital room my aunt answered saying my mom would not be able to answer and that I would find out more when I returned. What I did not expect was that a clean-room would greet me when I returned to Mexico City.

I slept in the hospital the following week thinking that it would only be a few days before she was discharged, but days became weeks. On her birthday I made white cupcakes with white frosting, my aunt got cake for the nurses, and someone from the Nutrition Department got her balloons.

One of those nights when the only lights in the room came from her IV pump and my iPad’s screen I was bored and looking for something to read. However I was not in the mood for another women’s fiction, Lifetime movie, kind of deal. (The romantic notion of terminal illness, future orphancy, etc. often found in romantic film and literature is lost after you see the real thing.)

And then I remembered my cousin mentioning how her boyfriend would get graphic novels into his Kindle. I decided if I had liked the movie I might like the (comic)book it was based on. So after some investigation I found that it had been based on a particular story written by Ed Brubaker. I read the entire book in a matter of hours (Should I point out that I’m team Bucky?).

Next morning I bought the following volume but during the day got the worst news from the doctors. There was nothing more they could do, she could either spent her remaining time in the hospital or at home (well, the apartment in Mexico City anyway). I never thought I’d be overcome with sadness over the fact that she’d never ask me to straighten up while I tried on a wedding dress or that I’d never have the chance to hand off a screaming infant for her to calm down with her singing. I cried myself to sleep in the empty apartment but then woke around 2 a.m. and re-read the first volume and then the one I had purchased earlier that day.

Mom being moved to home care was a challenge. I had to learn to deal with nurses coming in and out, my mom’s ever changing moods and the knowledge that we didn’t know how much time we had left. Everyone tried to make my birthday special but at one point I ended up hiding in my room crying alone. I heard her wheelchair enter the room, she hugged me, and cried too. After that day she started sleeping even more and talking even less.

On August 1st I went to the theater with my aunts and cousin like we had at least twice or three times a week. They all went to see a Diane Keaton comedy but I went to see Guardians of the Galaxy in 4D. I had never been to a 4D theater but figured this was the film to see it in (I’ll eventually write more about that experience).

Now before I talk about my experience watching the film I’ll paraphrase a comment I saw posted online a day or two after: a gentleman wrote somewhere that as the husband to an ER nurse he was so sick of seeing scenes like the one which launches GOTG. He said it was so unrealistic in terms of hospital policy bla, bla, etc, etc.

Unlike the gentleman, I was bawling in the theater. Because to be honest I didn’t care to see true hospital policies and behaviors considering I was there to watch a movie about space pirates that included an adorable tree thug and a universe weary raccoon. But little Peter Quill refusing to hold his mother’s hand as she’s dying was more true and real to me than if I had seen a full nurses’ station or only one or two visitors allowed in the room of a terminal patient. It certainly was more real than the pretend sadness I’m supposed to feel while watching a made-for-TV movie that is only using terminal illness as a cheap way to get a reaction out of me.

I don’t think I need to go into detail about why I loved the rest of the film, at least not this time.

That was Friday.

On Tuesday night I noticed something was off with my mom. I listened as the nurse kept checking her vitals all through the night. By morning I knew it was only a matter of time.

A few hours later, while I sat next to her bed and turned up the volume to “A Hard Day’s Night”, her beautiful soul left this earth.

Heroes sometimes wear striped pink polos with midi skirts. Illustrated by Romina Becker.
Heroes sometimes wear striped pink polos with midi skirts.
Illustrated by Romina Becker.

It’s been eight months since my mom ended her war on cancer.

There are moments when something good or terrible or funny or surprising happens and I think OMG when I tell Mami this… and then I look up and know she knows already.

I’m still reading graphic novels but I’m not sure I’m a true official fan yet. I’ve wandered through Tumblr but have yet to understand how it works (and frankly I’m a little scared of it).

Last New Year’s Eve I was wasting time around the mall before heading over to mass. I saw a sale sign outside Hot Topic so I went in. While digging through a pile of t-shirts I found a Bucky -as-the-Winter-Soldier shirt. When I took my findings to the lady at the counter I could tell that she’d witnessed my little dance of joy a few moments prior.

So why am I writing this now?

Three weeks ago I watched the entire first season of Daredevil during a crazy Netflix Weekend Binge. Now I don’t know if it had something to do with me giggling by myself while watching the conversations Matt has with the priest but I completely believed the whole thing. It reminded me of The Wire but set in a much more relatable world. Now how is it that I felt that a show based off a graphic novel was more real than one based on true crime journalism?

I don’t know.

How is it that I found much more comfort in my time of need from a fantastical world full of superheroes and supervillains than in any of the self-help books or the people in my life?

Maybe someday I’ll discover there’s an Anthropology PhD dissertation with loads of numbers, statistics, and quotes from psychologists. But right now I don’t have an answer.

What I can’t do is say it’s just a comic book or just a movie, TV show, song, book, fairytale, etc.

Because to someone out there it can be the only hand reaching out to them while their hanging off a cliff.

Special thanks to my awesome illustrator Romina Becker. To see more of her art check out her Facebook or Instagram