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.