In May of 2015, I arrive in Tucson, Arizona. My friend, Melissa, is still at work and is not able to join me until after 4pm, so she gives me directions to her home where her partner, Mel, is waiting.
As soon as I arrive, Mel is so warm and inviting. She invites me to sit in the living room for a spell. To open the conversation she announces that we have something in common: her family was raised in El Paso.
Mel is a wonderful artist. She shows me a painting of a mariachi group that she painted and tells me that her grandfather was part of a traveling mariachi group as a young man. She often uses him as inspiration for much of her artwork.
And then — feeling comfortable, as if we’ve known each other forever — she begins to tell me about her life.
It goes like this . . .
Mel began her artistic career as a graffiti artist. As a teenager, she would get up late at night to spray-paint walls and buildings around the city. For years, no one knew she was one of the tag artists that City officials had been complaining about, and who spent days and weeks looking for ways to catch “these taggers” in the act.
One night while tagging a large wall, Mel was almost caught by local police and had to hide undetected while they searched the area. She lay still, not able to move a muscle for fear of being caught. At one point, Mel feels mice scurrying across her back, but manages to hold still so as not to be caught.
When she returned home in the wee hours of the morning, her mother was waiting for her. As Mel walked in the door, her mother asked her only this before she went back to bed: “Do you want to pay the city or do you want the city to pay you?”
It was this moment when Mel decided to change her life course. Who was she kidding — it seems that even her mother knew all along what Mel had been trying to hide. The next day, she went to the City officials, turned herself in, and then offered to clean up the graffiti and replace it with a beautiful mural.
Eventually, the City hired her as a youth mentor to help young people make positive change in their lives.
Today, she is often called upon to speak at local events and serves as a role model and inspiration to young people across Arizona and neighboring states.
Mel’s paintings often depict what she sees around her in Tucson, and they reflect what I experienced in the Sonoran desert during my trip to Tucson. Her art and the messages she shares through her creative expression are what will keep me connected to Mel for a long time, across many borders.
Melissa is a fellow National Association of Latino Arts & Cultures (NALAC) Leadership Institute alum, who I met in San Antonio in the summer of 2014. She and I spent the first day and later the last day of the NLI driving around the city on a fun adventure. I knew that she and I would get back together some day.
That time came when I chose Tucson as one of my destinations during my Fellowship.
I contacted Melissa and without hesitating, she insisted I stay in her home. Once I told her about my Fellowship, she offered to put me in touch with anyone I needed to see while in Tucson.
Melissa is an accountant by trade and volunteers her time and talent to organizations like the Derechos Humanos and the Safos Dance Theater.
On my first evening in Tucson, Melissa and Mel drove me to local organizations and we spoke about what I might want to do while I was there. I learned how well liked and respected she is among the people to whom she introduced me.
At the end of the first night, Melissa insisted I try some local food (the best hot dog I would ever eat, she says), so she takes me to El Guero Canelo to try a Sonoran Hot Dog.
Wao - it’s very tasty! I was definitely not disappointed.
Joel Smith is the operations manager for Humane Borders • Fronteras Compasivas, a non-profit humanitarian organization based in Tucson.
The Sonoran desert is a key crossing point for immigrants coming over from Mexico and other Central American countries. It is one of the hottest places in North America. Many who attempt the journey become dehydrated and die along the way.
Joel is responsible for filling strategically-positioned barrels with fresh, cool water in the desert. He goes out every two weeks all year long, even in the middle of the summer, when the temperature can get as high as 112 degrees.
Joel shows me a plastic bag filled with food that he carries with him in the event that he runs into traveling immigrants at the water sites. He is not allowed to leave food behind, but can hand it directly to them. Joel says he never knows when that’s going to happen, so he carries these bags with him at all times.
The bags contain non-perishable items that will last during a long walk in the desert. They are filled with things like peanut butter, granola bars and canned goods that are easy-open.
He tells me that even if he could, he wouldn’t want to leave food behind because he worries that anti-immigrant groups will contaminate it to retaliate against those crossing the border. A group who call themselves “The Minute Men” roam the desert armed with rifles and other weapons, have been known to urinate in water cans or add chemicals to the food left behind to harm or kill immigrants crossing the desert.
More about Joel ➤
⬅︎ South Tucson
I met Jonathan Hernández Niembro at the 50th Annual Yarmouth Clam Festival in Maine. He was selling jewelry wrapped in wire. He specialized in feather wrapping, but I spotted a collection of beautiful rings with many stones and when I ask him about them, I notice his accent.
"Where are you from?" I ask.
"I'm from Teotihuacán," he answers, pronouncing it slowly and carefully: TEH OH TEE WAH KAHN (accent on KAHN)
Teotihuacán is a historical pre-Columbian Meso-American city located in a sub valley of the Valley of Mexico, 30 miles northeast of Mexico City. I ask myself: What brought this Mexican from the beautiful warm weather of México to Yarmouth, Maine of all places?
"A girl," he answers when I ask out loud. An artist who fell in love with his artwork and then with him, led Jonathan to a new life in Maine.
Jonathan tells me that he met his American wife in México while she was traveling around that country. They fell in love. They married. Then, they decided to move to New Hampshire, where she was from. Soon they moved to Portland, where the two felt there was a larger art scene, and tried to make a living selling their art.
“It did not work,” he tells me. “She did not understand the Mexican culture, and we decided it was time to end our marriage. My divorce became final just two weeks ago.”
I don’t say anything and he notices. “No, te preocupes - don’t worry,” he says. “No estaba destinado a ser, no estábamos destinados a estar juntos. Está en el pasado y ahora espero un futuro positivo - Don't worry, It was not meant to be, we were not destined to be together. It's in the past and now I look forward to a positive future.”
"What do you miss most about México?" I ask in Spanish, knowing what the answer might be.
"La comida" (the food), he replies.
I’m not surprised when I hear that.
"And also speaking Spanish," he adds with excitement as we continue our conversation for the next 15 minutes.
Jonathan tells me that he enjoys the quiet pace of Maine and New England, and that the people are “muy simpaticos - so friendly!” But he misses being surrounded by his Mexican culture: eating the food he enjoys and having his traditional customs not be the center of a conversation among his American friends. “That’s what ended my marriage,” he says again with sad eyes. And again, he perks up and tells me he is happy with his new life in America.
I sympathize and also certainly empathize with what Jonathan says, remembering my own experience when I first moved to Rhode Island as a 17 year old college student. I often found myself alone in conversations while people around me tried to understand my customs and why I missed home.
I finally buy two rings and leave him to his customers. His booth seems to be a popular one and I did not want him to lose business. Before that, I tell him about my work with RI Latino Arts and encourage if he is ever in Rhode Island to sell his art, to look me up.
I met Isabel at a farmers market in St. Andrews - Nova Scotia, Canada. The market was setting up in front of the harbor early in the morning when I walked out of my hotel and crossed the street. I watch as vendors set up, hoping to find a biscuit or scone and a cup of coffee. While doing that, my eyes lock on a woman setting up a table where a sign for Pico de Gallo is written just below the base of the table. When I look closely, I realize she looks like a Latina. I walked over.
I don’t waste time and immediately begin speaking Spanish. Her jaw drops and she takes a step back, looking a bit stunned.
“Me llamo Marta,” I say as I reach out to her. She smiles and we hug, as if we were old friends.
She tells me that her name is Isabel and she is from Matamoros, Tamaulipas, a Mexican town that borders Brownsville, Texas. We carry on in Spanish while she finishes setting up her table. She chatters away for almost ½ hour, and I get the distinct feeling that she has not spoken Spanish in a long time. I hardly get a word in, but I do ask many questions, nod in understanding and smile when I hear her talk about her life away from a warm climate.
She is married to a Canadian, a fisherman. They met in Mexico, when he was working on a boat in the Gulf of México. Her sister, who later also married a Canadian introduced to her by Isabel, lived with them in St. Andrews for a while, but then returned to the U.S. to live in Florida where the weather was more friendly.
“When we first moved here, my sister and I were the only ‘brown skinned’ people in this area. We got a lot of stares. At first it made me sad, but then everyone - including us - got used to each other and we managed to blend in.”
I ask where she gets the ingredients she uses to create her recipes: pico de gallo, corn salsa, chimichurri sauce and tostadas (tortilla chips).
“I grow them in my garden, and in the case of the tostadas, I fry them myself.” she says. “When I first moved here, my sister and I missed our food so much, we would go to all the markets in the area searching for something as simple as a jalapeño pepper. There was absolutely nothing! My husband and I would sometimes go camping in New Hampshire, and when I was there I would buy lots of Latino food and bring it back and we would “horde” it so it wouldn’t go so fast (she laughs).”
“Finally, we convinced a local market owner to import canned food. It was not the same as fresh food, but it was all we had.” Then Isabel started a garden and shared some of her salsas with neighbors, who then encouraged her to set up a stand at the weekly farmer’s market. That was seven years ago, Isabel tells me, and it’s here where she is among a small family of vendors who offer support and barter with her to exchange their goods for free samples.
Isabel tells me about another sister, still in Matamoros, who recently divorced and how worried she is about her. “I want her to come live with me, to see how good life is here. I think the Mexican border, where my family lives, is so dangerous! I read about all the shootings and the Drug Lords and I worry about my family. I often tell my sister that she should move here, but she has visited and does not like the weather. I guess I don’t blame her, but I believe she will be safer here. Also, I love having family close. I do miss them and my culture.”
Customers come and go, and Isabel chatters in Spanish with me while selling her wares. She certainly misses speaking her native language, I can tell! But eventually, I feel it’s getting late and I begin to feel anxious about getting back on the road and back across the border to Calais. While she is waiting on a customer who is buying four jars of corn salsa, I back away and wave good-bye. She smiles and wishes me well.
I met Mike while visiting the Inner Harbour in Victoria, British Columbia. He caught my attention as I was strolling through a street arts festival there, when I suddenly overhear some voices speaking Spanish. That was certainly nothing I was expecting to hear during my visit to Northwest Canada!
I’m fascinated to find four people carrying on a conversation in Spanish — one male and three females. I walk over hoping to see if I can strike up a conversation. They notice me staring — I guess I am gaping — and the youngest of the three turns her head to show me her ear. “What do you think? ¿Te gústa?” she asks in Spanish.
Wow! I’m impressed and very surprised that she immediately assumes I speak Spanish!
I respond, feeling relieved to be invited into the conversation so I wouldn’t be left to stand there, hovering while they chat.
"Muy bueno! ¿Que son esos?”
And with that, we continue our conversation in the Spanish language without either of us batting an eye.
During the group conversation and before I spoke with him directly, I eye him to see if I can find any traces of what might be considered “Latino facial features.” I don’t see any so I ask him flat out if he was a Latino. He says that he is not, so I follow in Spanish with: “Well then, where in the world did you learn to speak Spanish so fluently?”
I learn that Mike is a member of the Nlaka'pamux First Nations Tribe in Victoria, BC. He is a single father of two and has been making a living selling his wares in Victoria’s Inner Harbour for over 10 years. Mike is a rock collector and makes jewelry and art out of them. He has learned the art of woodworking from his native people and makes wooden instruments, like ukuleles.
“I lived and traveled through South America after I graduated from art school because I was interested in learning about art outside of my own culture. I did that for about two years, traveling throughout Honduras, Guatemala and México before I returned home to BC.” During his travels, Mike learned the art of leather making and metal work, and today uses those skills to create jewelry, like the ear huggers, in order to make a living. He lived in Taxco, México for a while (famous for its silver jewelry production) and sold the jewelry he created while there to make a living during the rest of his travels. He shared his own Alaskan native traditional skills with those he met there, in exchange for the new skills they were willing to teach him.
“I learned Spanish quickly,” he tells me. “I wanted to break down any borders between me and the people whom I met in order to earn their trust and to show my respect for the people and their culture. Learning Spanish, so I can connect with the people in my travels, was so important to me.”
He speaks in both English and Spanish fluently, and he and I weave in-and-out of the both languages during our conversation.
Noticing some wire and stones on his table, I ask him for a demonstration and he complies by pulling out his tools and some wire to show me how he creates an ear hugger. Before he begins, he asks me to pick out some beads or stones he has laid out, and then proceeds to curl and weave together the wire into a simple piece of ear jewelry (see below).
As he makes my ear hugger, the three women return and I take advantage of that moment to ask where they are from. “We’re Dominican,” answers the young girl, in English. “We crossed the border into Canada because my Aunt and Mom are considering moving here.”
Mike finishes the ear hugger using the stones I have selected, and I like it so much that I purchase it. Then he and the young Dominican girl proceed to show me how to wear it so it doesn’t pinch my ear.
As I walk away, I thank him and then bid farewell to the Dominican women as the mother turns to pay for her daughter’s ear hugger. I notice after she hands him her credit card, the mother has grabbed one and is trying it on for size. I think the young girl not only persuaded her to buy the one she wanted, but also to buy one for herself.