During a trip to Tijuana in December, I visited the westernmost section of the U.S.-Mexico border with a Canadian group of academics and policymakers. While admiring the gorgeous street art that covers the wall on the Mexican side and thinking of the infinite number of reasons why people cross the border, the Canadians asked me why I had moved to the United States. My answer was simple: love and a U.S. presidential speech. Even though I moved to the United States nearly seven years ago, the story I am about to tell starts a decade ago.
On May 3rd, 2013 — I remember the exact date because it was one day before I turned 25 years old — President Barack Obama delivered a speech to Mexican students at the Museo de Antropología e Historia in Mexico City. I did not know yet that his speech would change my life forever. Watching it live from a computer in a small office cubicle, I was fascinated by the eloquence, energy, and wit of the American president. I got chills when Obama referred to Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Sor Juana. Then, when he quoted Octavio Paz and Benito Juárez, my jaw dropped in admiration for his effort to connect with the students.
In the middle of the speech, when Obama was talking about the Mexican community in Little Village, Chicago, my cellphone rang. I wondered who could be the inopportune caller. When I saw that it was Poncho — my high school compadre and fellow political nerd — I thought he wanted to discuss the speech. His call, however, had a completely different purpose. Poncho told me he would propose to his girlfriend the following day and wanted to celebrate the engagement with a big party afterward. ―”¡Por supuesto, mi hermano!”― I answered. ― “I’ll be there.”
Poncho’s engagement party was a blast. I was so happy for him that I couldn’t stop toasting with Cubas, a refreshing mix of white rum, coke, sparkling water, and a twist of lime. I get chatty when I drink, and that night I couldn’t stop talking about Obama’s speech. ―¡Qué discurso tan fregón!― I said for the eleventh time. ―What a fantastic speech!―.
Pilar, a girl at the party who listened to my eleventh praise of the speech, told me that her best friend had sat in the front row at Antropología to listen to Obama.― “Her name is Paulina” ― she said. ― “Paulina is so picuda that she even shook hands with Obama. Paulina said, ‘Nice to meet you Mr. President’ and he replied, ‘Nice to meet YOU!’ And she is so amazing that CNN interviewed her. They will air the interview Sunday night.” I was so impressed by the story of this mysterious Paulina that I set a reminder on my cellphone to watch the interview and find out who she was.
Sunday night arrived, and the alarm reminded me to watch CNN. There she was! So smart, beautiful, confident, and funny. I was mesmerized by Paulina! I had to meet her. I immediately picked up the phone and called Pilar. ― “Por favor preséntame a Paulina!”. I begged ― “Please introduce us.”
― “I would be happy to introduce the two of you, but the timing could not be worse,”―Pilar answered.― “She is leaving next week to work as a volunteer in the Middle East, and then she will spend the Fall semester studying at Boston College. I told you she was súper picuda.”― I could not believe my bad luck. The opportunity to meet the woman of my dreams had been so close, but the Middle East and BC had interfered.
Summer and Fall went through, and fortune smiled at me. Paulina was back in Mexico City, and she needed a date for a wedding. I’ll never know how many bachelors were pondered, but Pilar suggested me as a suitable candidate. Paulina thought it was a crazy idea to take a stranger to a wedding as her date. Pilar, however, convinced her to meet me at Apotheke, a nice bar by Fuente de Cibeles. Paulina could decide if I was a suitable date for the wedding after that night.
When Pilar told me that my chance to meet Paulina was “ahora o nunca” I became very excited but extremely nervous. What do you say to a woman who already knows that you like her? It was not fair. The playing field was not level. On my way to Apotheke, I practiced a thousand different opening lines, but they all seemed inadequate. Should I play it cool or show how excited I was to meet her? When I arrived at the bar, Paulina was already there with her friends.
Pilar made the introductions: “Arturo, te presento a Paulina. Paulina, Arturo.” I had practiced a thousand opening lines, and what I said that night sounded just like how a stalker introduces himself to his crush.― “She needs no introduction.” ―I told Pilar.― “I know Paulina from the TV. She is famous! She is friends with President Obama!” ― I knew that was it. I knew I had ruined all my chances with my geeky introduction. I felt so relieved when she laughed and answered, “Oh my god! I cannot believe that you watched it.”
After spending three straight hours talking to Paulina, my friends asked me if I was having a good night. My answer left them puzzled.― “We have been talking about Aristotle, Fidel Castro, and Latin American literature!” ― I responded. They looked at me, unsure if I was having the most boring or amazing night of my life. It was the latter!
Paulina and I started dating immediately after that night. A few months into our relationship, she told me she planned to apply for one of the few coveted Fulbright scholarships to study in the United States the following year. She asked me to join her adventure and to start looking for graduate schools in cities where we could be together. After months of intensive study for the GRE and grueling application processes, Paulina was awarded the Fulbright scholarship, and we were both admitted to Cornell University.
Our original plan was to stay no more than two years in the United States. Destiny, however, had other plans for us. We have lived the most incredible seven years of our lives in this beautiful country that has welcomed us with arms wide open to pursue our professional and academic dreams. After grad school, we found fulfilling jobs that allowed us to give back to our communities. Paulina works as a criminal defense lawyer in an Atlanta-based NGO, and I advocate for the value of immigrants at the National Immigration Forum.
Telling my story at the border, I realized how privileged my wife and I were. Migrants move to the United States for an infinite number of reasons: academic opportunities, economic prospects, family reunification, climate change, and persecution, to name just a few. Some of us had the privilege to migrate because we were in love and wanted to satiate our academic curiosity, while others had no choice but to leave their home countries and seek refuge in the United States. Regardless of why we migrate, all of us are here to contribute to this country. We work in offices, fields, universities, factories, restaurants, and churches. We are here because we have admired the United States’ way of life since we were kids. For such reasons, it is an honor to work at an organization that works tirelessly to find legislative and administrative solutions to help the U.S. operate at full steam with the help of immigrants. The immigration prospects for this congress are challenging, but we will not rest until seeing an immigration reform that protects Dreamers, farmworkers, and TPS holders. With your help and solidarity, we promise we’ll never drop the towel!