Goin’ for the Gold!

IMG_1305©On a cloudy Thursday this past week our son was blessed to be standing on “America’s front porch” at the nation’s Capitol, facing the Washington Monument, looking over the Mall and the reflecting pool, shaking hands and talking economics and city layout with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Mr. Ryan’s sharp intellect was immediately apparent, as was his down-to-earth sincerity and interest in people.

Ours was not a political visit, but a meeting to celebrate Daniel receiving the bipartisan Congressional Award Gold Medal, the highest youth award bestowed by our government. Danny had logged nearly 700 hours of community service, over 500 hours of personal development, 250 hours of physical fitness, and participated in or led eight expeditions, to earn the award. He had previously received the Bronze and Silver medals; the Gold are awarded in a full day of ceremonies in DC.

The immigrant comes home. My young TCK: Third Culture Kid, our global nomad. We moved our little white boy to Mexico after he graduated from primary school, so that he would know what it feels like to be an immigrant, a minority. It was important to us as parents that he gain a second language and culture, a way of looking at the world that saw beyond state lines. It has not been an easy journey; being an immigrant and a minority rarely is. It’s hard to have your voice not heard; it’s discouraging to be seen as weird, to be misunderstood. It’s frustrating to be labeled, to be grouped, rather than to be seen as an individual. Yet such experiences can cultivate an empathy and recognition of perspective that staying home rarely can. All life paths have their advantages; this was ours. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

The Speaker had just finished a meeting with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy when he met with us, and left us to record an interview with 60 Minutes. How cool is that? We were privileged to visit his private office—with that view I’m not sure I could get any work done at all, and the office’s gorgeous private conference room with its hand painted gold filigree ceiling and paintings of national parks and Wisconsin territorial maps, on loan from the National Gallery.

Sadly in such private spaces we weren’t allowed to take photos, but I assure you that amidst the history, the ornately carved furniture, antique tiled floors, wood paneling and plush carpets, there was plenty of Packer and cheesehead memorabilia. My personal fave was the wooden mallard decoy painted in Packer green and yellow signed by Brett Favre. Wisconsin has made its presence known on the Hill!

First thing that morning before we met the Speaker, we were honored to spend an hour or so with Senator Tammy Baldwin, also from Wisconsin. Her office also proudly repped this fair state: baskets full of dried cranberries, beef jerky, Cheetos, potato chips, kringle next to the coffee pot… Some day I’m going back to the House and Senate offices on a snack food tour! Guess I’d better lose some weight first.

Senator Baldwin had had a late night, because she had actively participated in the 18-hour filibuster on the Senate floor to help ensure that those on the terrorist watch list are banned from buying guns. I am proud to be a cheese head represented by this obviously committed, talented and passionate public servant, who has done so much to help our country realize its dream of inclusivity, first in the House and now in the Senate. She kindly accepted a copy of Cultural Detective LGBT, and assured me she’d give it a read and some feedback.

After these two very fortunate meetings, in the Senate and the Capitol, we went over to the House, to the Cannon Caucus Room, for an afternoon awards ceremony. We were so grateful to our friend Ross, who joined us at the ceremony, and hosted us with his wife, Meredith, at their home this weekend, too. It makes all the difference to have a cheering section, right? This was yet another gorgeous room, with ornately decorated walls and ceilings. The master of ceremonies was a reporter from ABC, and we heard from the President of the Congressional Award Foundation, Paxton Baker, one of the owners of the Washington Nationals. The foundation is privately funded. Although it’s a governmental award, issued according to a law passed in 1979, we were told that no government money goes to support this youth award.

As both the House and the Senate were in session, members of Congress had to come and go to present the awards to their constituents. It was quite a delight to feel the energy of being part of the important voting going on this week on the Hill.

This year 325 young Americans received the Gold Medal—the most ever. I was so happy to witness the diversity of the recipients. The sociologist in me wants to calculate the ethnic/racial demographics of the recipients, but I’d have only their names to go on—not exactly accurate or helpful data. Judging by the skin colors on stage, and the MC’s difficulty pronouncing the names, our diversity is definitely a strength for our future!

Fortunately at this point we got a bit of a break, and were able to head over to the National Arboretum to put our feet up in the shade and listen to some music. We had a major recognition dinner ahead of us in the Reagan Building and International Trade Center, yet another very impressive piece of architecture, this one modern. Over 1000 people attended the banquet so, honestly, we expected rubber chicken. We also feared there would be no alcohol, it being a youth recognition event. We were gratefully wrong on both counts.

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The meal was unbelievably good! I guess in DC the chefs know how to feed large crowds and still impress! We were received with passed appetizers and an open bar. We began dinner with a delicious baby spinach salad, followed by perfectly cooked short ribs and prawns over mashed potatoes with green beans, and finished with fresh raspberry topped chocolate torte. All this accompanied by free flowing red and white wine and beer. We sat with the families of two other awardees, one from California and one from Ohio; it made for great dinner conversation.

On the program for the evening were Cal Ripken, Jr., Wonder Woman herself, Linda Carter, and the hit of the evening, América Ferrera. Here enters our embarrassing moment. They introduce our beloved América, and the three of us stand, giving her a standing ovation. However, no one else does. There are over a thousand other people in that room, and no one stands? Do they not know how awesome this woman is? What a terrific activist she is, for very important causes? Are we this out of sync, living in Mexico? We stayed standing and clapping, feeling the eyes piercing our backs and sides. Today, the day Danny receives the Gold Medal, is the day eight years ago we became immigrants. This is an important day for us, in more ways than one.

América gave an incredible speech. I pray the Congressional Award people will make a recording available. It was so moving that a few minutes later, nearly everyone in that ballroom stood to give her a standing ovation. There was hooting, hollering and whistling. Who’s vindicated now, huh? I really, really wanted a photo with her, but the handlers hustled all the VIPs away immediately after the ceremony. Bless you for being you, América!

Man oh man oh man! We all went to bed that night feeling like we’d each just had the best day of our lives. What an incredible, unbelievable day. Yes, that’s repetitive, but it was a superlative kind of day. And then we woke up on Friday to go back up to the Speaker’s office for a private tour of the Capitol! The two-hour tour for just the three of us took us into the ceremonial office, where there’s an original Senate desk, where the President waits before he gives the State of the Union, and where heads of State wait before they address Congress. We were told that about 15,000 people tour the Capitol on an average June day, and maybe 5 enter that room. We were three of them. 😉 I’ll take that luck. Again, no photos.

We got to walk on the floor of the House, sit in the chairs, push the vote buttons, and even stand at the speaker’s podium. “My fellow Americans,” I proclaimed. OMG, it was so very awesome! Again, no photos. But we have memories!! We toured all the rooms, the rotunda is still being restored, and thanks to Greg’s curiosity we even got a tour of some of the over 30 miles of tunnels connecting the buildings, many of which date back to the Revolutionary period. Trivia? Did you know the Capitol still has furniture makers on staff?

Today is Saturday. We’re sleeping in. Recovering from the hyper-energy of this fairy tale. We had originally hoped to meet with President Obama during our trip. He, of course, was in Orlando on Thursday, honoring the victims and consoling those affected by the horrific mass shooting.

Danny, thank you for working so hard so that your Mom and Dad could enjoy such an incredible experience on your coattails. I know that’s not why you did it, but it was a nice side benefit. It sure was fun. We are very proud of your discipline, perseverance, and hard work. Keep it up, remember who you are, values and ethics first. Be proud of you, in all your uniqueness and weirdness, for there is no one else on this earth with your set of talents and perspective—take them confidently and joyfully into the world.

Speaker Ryan and office staff, Senator Baldwin and staff, thank you for hosting us; we are so grateful for the opportunity. Congressional Award Board and staff, thank you. I cannot imagine the hours of work that go into managing a program of this magnitude, and pulling off an event of this size and caliber. Job extremely well done! It was amazing!

Family and friends, this award is for YOU, too. You helped raise and form Daniel. As the Africans say, “It takes a village,” and Danny is blessed to have grown up with you, in an incredibly love- and talent-filled global village. I have tears in my eyes thinking of the myriad ways you have either gone out of your way to help him, or unknowingly influenced him through your day-to-day modeling of how to be in this world. There are way too many people to mention, but directly leading to this Congressional Award I would like to mention a few.

  • Glen Jonson and Gary Kaufman of Troop 381 in Leawood, KS, who helped guide Danny through his first years of Scouting. You guys taught Danny the value of hard work and honesty, of not just signing off on something when you haven’t earned it. Thank you.
  • Patricia Tirado, who tutored Danny in Spanish and his academic subjects when we first arrived in Mexico. He, and we, couldn’t have done it without you or Gemma Tornero, who tutored him before we arrived!
  • Brian Samore, a close family friend and high school principal, who acted as Danny’s official advisor, helping guide and motivate Danny throughout the path to gold.
  • Jefe Carlos, Jefa Jessica, Jefa Graciela, all the wonderful leaders and fellow Scouts of Grupo 4 Conforti in Mazatlán. You helped Danny rekindle his love of Scouting, and to cultivate that love of the outdoors and camping. Bless you for your friendship!
  • Terry Meyers of the Lone Scouting organization, and all of those who helped Danny on the road to Eagle. Eagle is a significant achievement with a troop, but as a Lone Scout, in a land where no one understands what you’re trying to do, it was unbelievably challenging. There were so many times we all wanted to give up. Luis Ramirez, thank you for celebrating that milestone as US consular officer, to help show our local friends that it was, indeed, something to commemorate.
  • People to People International, thank you for the double scholarships to the Global Youth Forum, without which there is no way Danny could have attended from overseas. You provided him invaluable experiences and friendships.
  • Teachers, students and staff of Instituto Cultural del Occidente. Thank you so much for the guidance, the friendship, and the going above and beyond to help with college applications and recommendations in a foreign system. We so appreciate your loving on our son.
  • The Congressional Award staff. You rejected his Gold Expedition application not just once, but twice. You most definitely helped Danny learn perseverance and hard work. The first time, he led a Scout expedition across Mexico, renting a bus, planning the itinerary, coordinating young to old. The staff ruled that it didn’t show enough independent leadership, and yet, he led the whole trip. It’s a cultural difference between US and Mexican scouting, we get it. In the end, Daniel sold his car and took a much-anticipated solo trip to Argentina, living on US$700 for three weeks. Don’t ask me how, but he came home with money in his pocket. That application proved the ticket. Thank you for your guidance on the record keeping, and your help with the Congressional office visits. You are doing much good with our young people.
  • Speaker Ryan’s staff, for making the meeting happen, for all the behind-the-scenes stories and trivia, and for that most excellent tour! You rock and it is so appreciated! Also thank you to Senator Baldwin’s office!
  • All of you who love him, and us—family, friends, colleagues. You bring joy and meaning to our lives.

God bless you and keep you, most sincerely, from the bottom of my heart. As I read yesterday in the bagel shop recommended by Maureen, from Speaker Ryan’s office, “May the saddest day of your future be no worse than the happiest day of your past” (Irish blessing).

Addendum on Sunday, June 26: The awardees are entered into the Congressional Record! So cool. Danny’s name is on the bottom of the first page—and, amazingly, it is spelled correctly!

 

 

Mazatlán Immigration Forum

Hello everyone,

Tomorrow morning in Mazatlan, the expat community is having a forum related to all of the recent changes in immigration. The forum was arranged by the Governor’s Advisory Council and will feature representatives from Immigration, Aduana and Hacienda in an attempt to clarify a lot of the things we have all read about on various forums on the Internet.

We have been given access to some of the prepared materials in advance and asked to make them available to interested parties. The first 9 pages are a slideshow in English followed by the same nine pages in Spanish. After that is a Q&A in both languages. The translation is not perfect, but I am presenting what I was given. Please share and enjoy.
******UPDATE NOVEMBER 29, 2012******

Well you didn’t miss too much today. Hacienda was a no-show, so nothing learned about capital gains. Aduana showed, but nothing was prepared ahead of time and they seemed a little lost as to why they were there.

There were a few new things learned after the meeting this morning. The good news for most is that all of the new financial requirements do not apply to anybody currently holding a valid visa. Just don’t let it expire. If it does expire and you go more than sixty days, you not only have to pay a fine, you lose your seniority and have to start all over (after leaving Mexico).

The switch to Permanente takes 20 days. If you need to come and go from Mexico during that time, you can purchase a permit for 320 pesos.

Aduana said that nothing on their end has changed. If you are in Mexico temporarily you can have a car just like in the past. If you are permanent, you need to return your car to the country of origin or consider nationalizing it if it qualifies. At the very end, the Aduana representative made reference to a category of Permanente – Rentista. He said that if you have the rentista designation you can keep a foreign-plated car here. There was no time at the end to circle back and verify with Immigration that they will have such a designation under the new rules for those who qualify. It seems to make sense as the Rentista category clarifies that you are not earning income in Mexico and are supported by sources outside of Mexico. Without this designation, it would imply that a Permanente can work, and we know this is not the case.

Overall, the main message is that this is much better for anyone with a current visa. Once you have four years, you have to go to permanente (or leave Mexico and come in under a new visa). Once you pay for permanente (4,815 pesos), you never pay again. Never is a long time and governments need money, but that is what they said. Also, when you think of it, the immigration offices will be a lot less busy in the future. With one-time applications for permanent replacing a lot of FM3 and FM2 renewals and multi-year temporary applications replacing much of the remaining – they will have a lot of time on their hands – this is perhaps part of the master plan.

The meeting was fairly well run. Somehow during the Immigration presentation the Spanish/English/Slides got out of sync and some people were confused. If you understood even a little Spanish you could understand what had happened.

The place was packed – standing room only and then some. Most people were polite, but there were a few cantankerous individuals in the crowd as always.

There were only a few questions from the floor and they were helpful to keep the car conversation going.

It will be interesting to watch this unfold. I’m glad that I won’t have to let our FM3’s expire and then reapply – that never made sense. We don’t renew until May/June, so we are lucky that others will go through this and iron out the system before we arrive!

 

Changes in Latitudes, Shifts in Geographies

 

Travel to Tucson, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and tell me this: does it feel like you are in the USA? Or, does it feel like México? Spanish language signage and Spanish spoken everywhere, taco stands, Latino cinema and art, mecánicos, banda music…

Now tell me this: travel to Baja, to Rocky Point, Los Cabos, San Carlos. Does it feel like you are in México? Or does it feel like the USA? English language signage and English spoken everywhere, hamburgers, private gated communities with big homes and big yards (yes, yards!).

There is a MAJOR population shift and geographic exchange of cultures going on in North America, people! Stand up and take notice! NAFTA may not have worked in many of the ways originally dreamed about, but PEOPLE are blurring the borders of today’s nation states, helping create our blended world.

 

Travelogue Spring Break 2011, Day 4: Machinez

Machinez is a small town, or pueblo about 15 minutes by car outside of Zacatecas. The residents we know there call it their “rancho”. The rancho has no governance, no police department, no real services. This somewhat organized series of houses, farms, lots and makeshift streets is home to about 250 families. There is a school and a couple of tiendas selling the basics of beer, refrescos and food staples. Most residents raise some portion of their own food, be it meat, produce or both. There is a soccer field and a park of sorts with a few old children’s slides and swings. There is a river crossing through town. The river was fairly dry on the day of our visit, but in rainy season is a force to be reckoned with. The river is a major source of water as we saw tinacos and water trucks being filled from the river. Most homes have electricity and some plumbing (but not much).

So, from this brief description, you may be asking why I have decided to dedicate an entire blog post to the subject. Well, the point of this post has nothing to do with Machinez per se, but about how we came to visit there this day.
The story that unfolds in Machinez occurs throughout Mexico time and time again. It is a story of hard work and resolve to improve one’s life and one’s family’s life. It is a story of the proverbial analysis of risk/reward. And yes, for us, it is a story or reconnecting with friends we have not seen in years.

The friends we came to visit are like many other Mexicans. They are recent returnees from the United States having braved the perilous border crossing to get to a city where a friend or a cousin says they can get work. The hope of that work is promise to the families of the ranchos. You see, it is with the money earned in the States that the ranchos are able to survive. We spent considerable time at two houses on this day – the house of Alvaro and the house of Eduardo. Both of these young men started as dishwashers in Kansas City. Both showed great potential, the willingness to learn English and the desire to get ahead. Eventually they both became cooks during the busy lunch rush. They routinely put out between 100 and 200 lunches of extremely high standard meals under the guidance of a C.I.A. trained chef. They became leaders in the kitchen as they continued to absorb the culture of the workplace and of the States.

The plight of the illegal immigrant is widely publicized and debated. This blog is not about that debate. Is grounded in the facts – like them or not, these are the facts.

As Alvaro and Eduardo continued to work hard and grow as cooks, they hit a ceiling of sorts. They were illegal. They were forever limited in their employment opportunities. And, they were lonely. Eduardo and Alvaro were both single and aside from a few cousins in town, void of social opportunities. Living in the shadows of Kansas City, they hesitated to venture out. A broken turn signal can domino into a bus ride to Tijuana and the loss of everything. Also, going out cost money and was seen as frivolous spending. Like many others, to relieve the loneliness and boredom they took a second job. A second job fills the time, provides additional social interaction and keeps the money coming in. This after all is the goal. We can fall in love with these guys all we want, but our love is not going to keep them around. They are on a mission. Years ago, the goal was to make a life and then bring everyone else up to share in the new life. This has changed dramatically due to the legal/political climate. Now, the goal is to make enough money to build the house back home, buy the car, put the sister through college, pay for dad’s eye surgery, whatever. Rare is the visitor who finds a way to stay permanently (marriage, sponsorship, etc.).

And so it goes in Machinez. The houses that Alvaro and Eduardo have built are some of the finest in town. Big and strong, nicely appointed, two levels high with incredible vistas, they are symbols of a success found by taking off for five to ten years and working really really hard towards a goal. Each has surrounding land with crops and a few livestock. Each is connected to or very close to family homes, also very nice. Their efforts provided economic stimulus for the rancho. The jobs provided were local jobs. The supplies were purchased from locals and money went back into the community. Alvaro has since married. He has a beautiful baby girl and another on the way. Eduardo is still single—but working on it. As they tour us through their homes, they proudly show pictures of their family and point out which cousin or in-law is still in the States. These family members, they tell me, are making the same sacrifice they did in the name of getting ahead. They are missed by many, especially the older family members who realize that they may not live long enough to see their son or daughter’s return. Yet, they understand the reality of the situation.

Alvaro and Eduardo’s lives are quite simple. They work, they celebrate life. They enjoy beautiful weather and scenery. They listen to music everyday (often played by the family band). They share everything with their friends and family in town. This includes their homes and their SUV’s (brought down from the States). They don’t have cell phones, Internet or cable TV. They drink some beer, dance to banda music and retire for the evening. They have little or no crime in their clean community. They don’t have a mortgage or credit cards. They can and do live on very little. If they weren’t under 40, they would sound like they are living the life pursued by retiring gringos.

But they are not retiring gringos. These young men are starting families; they have financial responsibilities and need to work. No problem, right? They are well trained in the kitchen. They cook better than many chefs and restaurateurs that I know. They are certified in serv-safe, understand cross utilization, understand wine basics, can lead a team, can work with vendors, and speak two languages. But you see a great cook in the States, even one that has worked for ten years at an exclusive upper-end dining establishment is nobody in Mexico. To get the attention of a kitchen manager they need to have a degree from a vocational school specializing in culinary arts. They need to have diplomas from Mexico and they have none. There is an outside chance that they can find a friend of a friend in the food industry to introduce them to someone, but it a chance not worth waiting for. Instead, my two friends are gas station attendants. They receive a minor minimum salary and cash tips. They work various shifts, but all are long –both days and nights. Their jobs are dead end to say the least. They work along a busy highway and risk getting robbed or worse. They spell of gasoline and other chemicals when they return home. Like many workplaces in Mexico there are poor sanitary and safety conditions.

What does the future hold for my two friends? I really don’t know. They will not return to the States unless there is a major shift in politics that offers some sort of path to legalization. They would love to cook again and have a job with some potential. Being technically uneducated and from a “rancho”, their options are very limited. There houses will survive almost anything thrown at them and they will always be able to work enough to keep food on the table and the lights on. With any luck they will have children who are able to go one step further, finish school and get a job with some promise. Until then, the beautiful sunset on the western horizon of Machinez will usher in another session with the local band. The moms and daughters will dance with each other and the few men not in the band. As night falls, they will turn in with the adventures in the States a distant memory until the next time a certain gringo comes to town for a visit. And don’t worry, he will.