September 11, 2016, will mark the 15th anniversary of the twin towers destruction. For over a decade, I’ve struggled to feel emotionally tied to the attack the United States suffered because I was living abroad in Mexico when it transpired. In January of 2001, after discovering I was pregnant, I moved to Puerto Vallarta to be with my fiancé. We had considered applying for a K1 Fiancé Visa through the Department of Immigration, a process that could take from a few months to years, without a guarantee that he would be granted temporary permission to live in the United States in time to witness the birth. While I could travel to Mexico just by flashing a passport and stay for a greater length of time, he could not come into the U.S. for any extended length, unless he had the right paperwork. In Mexico, the right paperwork cost time and money, and often involved political connections. Instead, I opted to go to him.
Moving to a foreign country I had only visited twice felt like the epitome of romantic travel. At the time, I had seen the best of what Americans felt Puerto Vallarta had to offer: timeshare resorts with luxurious amenities, built on prime real estate along the ocean-side of a former quaint fishing village. Ventures off the property to eat at local tourist trap establishments offering table side guacamole, and nightclubs lining the Malecon with cheap drinks, music pumping into the streets, chiseled doormen beckoning ladies with flowery phrases and compliments. Day trips to Yelapa and into the Bay of Banderas with free drinks and shots passed at the ready as the sun slowly put itself to bed in a blaze of fiery orange and flamingo. In my early twenties, I was smitten by the poeticism of what had been placed in front of me to consume, and I bit hard: I carried the assumption that the life I was accustomed to living would magically materialize once I arrived on foreign soil. Not yet aware of Mexico’s pecuniary underbelly, I was led by a naïve vision of expectation.
My first indication that I had arrived with a head filled with naive dreams came in Mexico City, where I had traveled to meet Marcos and his family. Driving around the monstrous metropolis, the economics of the city were clearly presented: the neighborhoods along the outskirts of its huge span suddenly became filled with handwritten, clapboard business signs, junkyards piled high with metallic limbs for cars, citizens panhandling in the middle of the high speed beltway, and mounds of overflowing garbage. On the rolling hills outside the city, trash was scattered along the surface, with shanties constructed from worn boards dotting the countryside, housing the impoverished cast out from the city. I had never seen such desperation and depravity.
Once we settled in Puerto Vallarta, my dreams officially vaporized when the reality of living in a tourist town settled into my bones. For a few weeks we rented a room in a no-frills hotel for around $20 a day. My fiancé worked in ‘marketing’. With exceptional English skills, he was able to peddle free tickets to the region’s most popular excursions in exchange for attendance at timeshare presentations. It was seasonal work, unpredictable money and often required him to be out on long afternoon and evening treks to the ocean boardwalk to solicit. But it was quick and lucrative when he could hawk, and we finally saved enough to rent an apartment in Caloso, a neighborhood tucked back into the mountains where many of the indigenous families lived. It was sparse: no phone, television or microwave. Our water had to be purchased in huge jugs, ‘bombas’, to guarantee it was safe to consume. Most of the homes were concrete slabs where families slowly built vertically as their lineages grew, the metal skeletons peeking up through the rooftops awaiting the time when there was enough money to expand with more cement.
At the bottom of the cobblestone road leading to our tiny space, a river ran through town, trash tossed along its narrow banks, a wooden bridge connecting our world to the larger beachfront neighborhoods. On a flat field by the river lived a mechanic who attempted to revive my fiancé’s dead Wagoneer. He had a small shed that housed his various equipment, while his family lived in a teetering shack constructed from uneven, wooden beams with gaps between where I could faintly make out movement from his wife and young daughters. Every time we stopped to see him, my heart ached for their situation and their life. His girls, with permanent patches of dark grime along their plump cheeks, often carried their snow white, perfect kitten around outside, watching us with bottomless, chocolate eyes that flickered with speculation. Marcos’s car sat there for months as their alcoholic father produced laundry lists of why he could not get a part or why he needed more money to fix something else he found, until we finally towed it elsewhere.
It was easy at first for me to judge him and be appalled by their situation. I came from a country where one was expected to succeed by any means possible, and my upbringing in a middle class, steel mill town only reinforced this ideal. Further, even in our moments of feeling the pinch of poverty, I had family who were willing to help, wiring small sums of money when emergency struck. I had never experienced poverty so raw and unfiltered, sitting in the open for everyone to drink in with his or her eyes. It hurt to swallow.
After a few months, tired of relying on my husband and being stuck at home, I landed a job at a hotel in old town Vallarta. For $1.00 an hour, I manned the front desk, solved the petty problems of tourists, made sure guests were comfortable in their suites that twice as big than the shack of the family who lived by the river. I roughly earned $30 a week, grateful that I was making ‘good’ money. Many of those who were employed by the giant, chain resorts were paid $1 a day, with the expectation that those travelling from the U.S., Canada and abroad would fill in the wage gaps with tips for their services. From our tiny apartment in Caloso, where we paid $300 a month in rent, I was travelling a grueling half hour to get to my job, and we were forced to move closer. We lucked out finding an apartment directly across the street from The San Franciscan, so I could rise, prep and walk across the street to work but at twice our rent.
Then, September 11th hit, the town just reviving up for tourist season, a hush falling over its usually bustling streets. Americans and others from abroad flocked to Internet cafes to watch mounted televisions replay images of the destruction. When Marcos came home, his tone was an “I told you so” litany of how America had finally got its just desserts. After the initial shock of what he described, I hustled to the closest cafe where I watched the towers as they eventually fell after the second plane unexpectedly crashed. Shortly after, I ran to the phone banks to call my family, where all I received was a busy signal over the next twenty-four hours.
The day after, despite its quiet, Puerto Vallarta rustled with the same undertone of reckoning my husband vocalized. People went about their lives as if my country had not been damaged in a crucial, violent way. On the newspapers, editorials coldly pronounced that what devastated America had been a long time coming. American tourists and ex-patriots suddenly no longer felt at home in the silence: shopkeepers began hanging apologies for their wooden reactions to the events: they had needed time to ‘digest’ the event before reacting and denouncing the horror. For the first time, I saw my country through the eyes of the world, unbuffered and naked: we had taken so much, for so long, that it felt satiating that someone finally took something from us. Our colonialism, its roots visible in the raw moments of 9/11’s aftereffect, had finally rebounded in a horrific way. It felt like a terrible karma burning off the centuries of wrongs that had propelled us to the financial and political powerhouse that the twin towers represented.
On foreign soil, I processed the aftermath alone and in private, never connecting to the nationalism that the rest of our nation shares yearly from remembering the collective fear. In truth, in the shadow of the tragedy’s events, I discovered that I had never quite felt at home in a bubble of red, white and blue. The global ‘dream’ my country promoted in an effort to secure its own materialistic, consumptive needs, despite the effects its capitalistic policies unleashed across the rest of the world to realize this vision, had always felt more like a nightmare. While I could theoretically say these things out loud without penalty for what would be considered an unpatriotic view, I’ve keep them to myself, because my country is masterful with keeping the appearance of freedom. In truth, the act of speaking ill against the United States draws ire, and it has become increasingly harder to question the status quo since that fateful day.
My heart mourns for all those who lost precious lives from a battle that they may have never realized existed, because we have mastered the ability to polish our image even as it rots under the surface. My soul aches for the nearly 3,000 lives that were sacrificed because of greed and determination for dominance at any price. When I see remembrance pictures splayed across social media, the images I conjure are not the same: I see people digging through trash mountains outside Mexico City; the destitute, ebony haired girls with the ivory kitten by the river; and the broken backs of hospitality staff as they trudge home from lush hotels with morsels of cash lining their pockets. I feel the ambivalence of the people when our country’s spirit was torn, when the world flashed its eyes upon us and saw how the trail of blame ran full circle, grief blinding us to our own complicity. I carry deep shame having witnessed atrocities caused by my country abroad; I can never truly feel at home in the United States of America. I will, through a distinctly divergent lens, ‘always remember’ as the rest of my countrymen never forget.
Reflections of a woman spawned in a cement cocoon...