This is an entry I wrote on December, 2011, during a family visit to Mexico. I was in my senior year of college. I hadn’t published it until now, so while I’m a little late, the message still rings true. This week I’ve been staying with my grandma and enjoying her company and the delicious tacos, menudo, and pastries of León, Guanajuato.
I hope to finally see the Monarch butterflies when I go to Morelia on Tuesday. Enjoy!
I flew to Mexico and arrived in Morelia, Michoacan my birth town, at about midnight. Finally. It had been two years and I’m always restless to go back to Mexico. I stayed there for about 4 days and saw family, hiked, and basked in the sun that I missed so much. It was hard to believe that the beating, hot sun down here is the same one that teases us in Boston, where it begins to set at 3:30.
One restaurant that stuck out to me was the San Miguelito, where my aunt and cousin went. It’s famous for basically being a museum to San Antonio, the saint that women turn over so that they can find boyfriends. There was even a life-sized one there, turned on its head, accompanied by several advertisements of women seeking good men to marry. All of my photos of the place seem annoyingly upside down. I looked at the menu and decided to try Huitlacoche, which is the cooked fungus that grows on corn. It’s a delicacy there, but after a bite of some in my quesadilla, it tasted and looked just like cooked spinach.
The day before I left, I took a stroll past the huge aqueduct through the historic downtown, which has been around since the 1500s. I really missed the concept of a town plaza where people go to sit and relax, as they listen to the constant flow of water ebbing from the fountains-or children crying loudly, asking their parents to buy them that unnecessarily large sized tweetie balloon. I was basking in the 70 degree weather, and everyone could tell I was not from there because I was making a conscious effort to sit in the sun while they wore their hats and long sleeved shirts. “No, I’m not cold,” I’d say to them. “Your winter is my summer!”
Then came the bus ride to Leon. I thought I loved to recline in my seat but these Mexicans had me beat. Halfway there, I turned and saw half of them knocked out, reclining one after another like dominos. There was a movie about a cave playing (the only actor I recognized was the man who blew the whistle at the end of Titanic in search of survivors) but I lost interest after the only female lead died. How Wellesley of me. My favorite part of the 2.5 hour long journey to León is the ride over Lake Cuitzeo. It’s this large expanse of grayish blueish water teeming with white herons all over it, and the road glides right through the middle of it. The environmental studies side of me wonders how badly contaminated it is at this point, as there weren’t many fishermen out there at all.
I should stop here in order to describe León in its deserved detail, but I’ll leave with one thought. This morning I heated up my egg, tortilla and salsa and broke my fast with abuelita (grandma). Somehow the topic of the monarch butterflies emerged, and she marveled at the way in which four generations of them migrate each year from Canada to Michoacan (the state I was just in).
She lamented at the fact that deforestation is leaving them with less places to land, and how blood has been lost over the land that these creatures deserve to call home. On a brighter note, she asked me “¿Como deben saber a donde ir, año tras año, desde Canada hasta aqui?¿Que maravilloso, no?” (“How do they know where to go, year after year, from Canada all the way here? Isn’t it marvelous?”).
Well, the monarch butterlfies are just like me, I thought. They always just want to come back to Mexico.
I don’t know why, but I’m as restless as any one of those Monarch butterflies to leave the North for a while and join family here and there, and ultimately to stay at my grandma’s house for a while. I thought by now this urge would die down, but it seems just as strong as ever.
Mexico City seems to have become the mecca of study abroad in México. While, yes, it is the birthplace of Frida Kahlo and is a microcosm of Mexico, let’s not leave the rest of the country out of the picture! There’s a lot more to fall in love with outside of the (former) D.F. Mexico in the world’s most populated Spanish speaking country; not to mention, each one of its citizens has a different story to tell about what makes the country special. Whether you study intensive Spanish in Cuernavaca or realize how little you knew about Mayan culture in the Yucatan Peninsula, studying abroad in Mexico will teach you that there is always more to learn.
I left Boston Logan Airport on a humid August afternoon to board a shuttle for Wellesley College. I was 17, alone, and lugged two suitcases full of clothes that wouldn’t be warm enough for the frigid Northeast winter. I sat next to a young woman named Erica, who was from Ontario, California. Her parents were pleasantly surprised to find out that I was from Michoacan, Mexico, which is where they visit family sometimes.
I didn’t have many Latina friends in college, but meeting Erica was a sign. I was destined to latch onto the Latin@ community for the first time in my life because they understood what it was like to figure out the intricacies and politics of being a first-generation student at the country’s most challenging women’s college.
I asked Erica what she wanted to study, as first years do. “Economics, and maybe concentrate in international relations,” she replied confidently. My high school didn’t offer either of those fields, so I was lost. She seemed so much more prepared than I. I just thought I was going to study history because history was my favorite subject and AP History the only class I was able to get a 107% in.
During our junior year, I was 30 pounds heavier than I am now from drinking regrettable amounts of Bailey’s and having an unlimited supply of blondies (why white people need white versions of brownies, I’ll never know). I had awkwardly grown out my short hair to a chin-length, massive mane. I dyed a streak of hair behind my neck a bright red.
One night, some friends and I drunkenly walked me home after a party to Mcafee, the farthest dungeon—I mean dorm, of all. They lived on the opposite side of campus, so they gladly handed me off to Erica, who had just gotten off the bus back from Boston. Erica grabbed me and walked me up to my room, and I blurted out “Erica, you’re my Mexican sister!” before she helped me take off my shoes and tucked me in bed. We’ve had our ups and downs like sisters, but I’m so happy we’re friends—and that I no longer dye my hair bright-red-skunk-style.
This Spring Break, Erica took time off from her PhD in literacy program at Penn State to visit me. I was thrilled to fill her in on my life here after two years apart! I took her to the warm, clean waters of the Apoyo Lagoon, where she treated me to a massage. I enjoyed swimming in my favorite crater lake, but I wanted to see something new as well.
We went to the northern city of Esteli, which is a jumping-off point for the Miraflor Nature Reserve. I’d hear great things about Miraflor’s clean air, hiking paths, and haunted swamps. Esteli is a clean, shiny city with a horrific history. Since it was a hotbed of Sandinista activity in the 1970’s, Somoza (Nicaragua’s former dictator) carpet-bombed the city. Thousands of civilians were killed or injured in Somoza’s desperate attempt to maintain his chokehold on the country. In Nahuatl, Estelí means “river of blood,” which was an unfortunately accurate way of describing the city. Somoza fled for Miami with his family and the remains of his murdered father in July of 1979.
Today, Esteli is a more relaxed, commercial city off of the Pan American highway. It’s one of only a handful of Nicaraguan cities with a cinema. It’s also nestled in the middle of tobacco country. After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, wealthy tobacco growers fled Cuba and relocated to the fertile soils here and now tourists from all over come to visit the factories and take home high-quality cigars that would cost five times as much back home. I had no interest in touring a cigar factory, since I was set on seeing the Miraflor.
Erica and I went to the tourism office by our hostel, Hostal Luna ($9 a night for dorm beds), and found out from a tall, curly-haired guide that we wouldn’t make it in time to Miraflor. Erica had a flight to catch the next day and I had to teach English classes to Nicaraguan English teachers the next day. I was frustrated with the situation, but living here has taught me to get over my impatience and to be flexible. The guide offered an artistic alternative: “If you sign up for the cigar factory tour, then I’ll show you on a map where the murals are so you won’t have to do the mural tour.” We agreed to see the murals ourselves and take the cigar tour at 2 PM.
I’m a painter, and I haven’t found much of an artist community at all in this country, so I was eager to see the murals along the streets. We didn’t go hiking, but we still enjoyed the urban outdoors by snapping photos with and of the murals. Some paintings were confusing in the most thought-provoking ways. Other murals had Mesoamerican warriors painted in bright blues and with gold jewelry.
I felt more at ease walking with Erica than I would have felt alone. The people assumed Erica was from there, so they didn’t approach us as much and men didn’t harass much at all that day. When I’m walking alone there, I face a lot comments, whistles, and hisses there, just like most women do here. I was reluctant to do the mural tour because of this harassment, but exploring the city on foot ended up being fine for once.
At 2 PM, we paid $8 for our cigar tour and took a taxi with our guide, Julio, a friendly, short man with a black Nike baseball cap and long, black eyelashes. We got out at the Santiago Cigar Factory. The thought of entering a factory made me nervous to see people toiling away miserably for hours on end. I felt guilty for supporting this sort of labor. We entered a room where men crafted the wooden boxes for the cigars. Julio had worked her before, and they smiled as we walked in. The smell of sawdust hit us. We saw the screen-printing process for making the labels for the boxes, then we moved on.
Next was the tobacco fermentation room. I couldn’t stand the smell at first—it was putrid and incredibly strong. Erica chatted with Julio about the months it takes to ferment the leaves while I coughed, covered my mouth, and stepped outside. Before I knew it, I had gotten used to the smell and felt light-headed. Shirtless Nicaraguan men in aprons swept the floor and gently moved the leaves from the shelves.
We moved on to where the women were—in the leaf selection room. Since the cigars are made completely from the tobacco leaves, the women worked under bright lights to calmly clean the leaves up and remove the main vein from them. The women smiled politely at us. One of them played ranchera music from her cell phone. They worked at a leisurely yet effective pace, and didn’t seem as miserable as I’d anticipated. It was just another day at work for them. I wondered what the health effects of the smell of tobacco leaves were on them, though.
Next were the cigar rolling stations. Rollers, both men and women, sat at their desks, rolling away. Some of the men smoked as they rolled, while a female secretary sat at her desk on the phone while she “tested” a cigar out. I don’t think this would be allowed in the states, but we weren’t in the states. One woman showed us how she took a leaf, cut it with an exacto knife, then rolled it into a perfect cigar. She helped Erica and I roll our own. I took about a minute longer than the woman did, but it was all in fun. I thought I’d let her take a break and laugh at my sub-par cigar rolling skills.
We went into the cigar storage room, and by this time, I was more than used to the smell. Julio and Erica laughed at the buzzed look on my face. I had smoked a cigar once before and thought it tasted like a mouthful of dirt, and I certainly didn’t intend to buy one, but once I took a whiff of a vanilla-scented cigar, I changed my mind.The three of us shared an immense cigar on our way to the cashier’s desk.
After having seen the process and stood in a room full of fermenting tobacco leaves, I came to appreciate the earthy, spicy taste of the tobacco. It’s a much more natural taste than the chemical-laden bitterness of a cigarette. Is it healthy? Hell no.
The smell reminded me of the “puros” my witty, tall grandfather Samuel would smoke in his home when my family would visit him in Sherman, Texas, where he would commute from Morelia, Michoacan. The smoke of his cigars is as fleeting as the confusing and distant past I inhabited, especially now that my parents have been divorced for over ten years. I only passively stay in touch with my father’s side of the family through facebook. My cousin, Carol, and aunts Carmen and Monica are the ones I stay in touch with the most.
The last time I visited m father, I ended up staying for one night in his house because he told me that “I needed to focus on my career instead of traveling so much,” among a barrage of other critiques. My aunt Yoyoy picked me up the next morning and took me to her house to stay, kindly reminding me on the way back that the Johnson men have always been critical. “That’s just how they are,” she reminded me. “Don’t take it personally. I’ve learned not to.” As soon as we got to her house, we had a drink together. She opened a bottle of Modelo Especial for me and told me this would help to “olvidar las penas (forget one’s worries).” I squeezed a lime wedge into it and felt resigned yet grateful for her. This was in 2011 and I haven’t been back to Morelia since.
The sense of smell is the strongest when it comes to provoking memories, and today Esteli stirred up nostalgia for the past that I didn’t even know I’d harbored. I’ve had so much time in the Peace Corps to reflect on my past and present, but I didn’t expect so much from a cigar factory tour I’d been reluctant to take. The factory churned out cigars as much as it rekindled my dormant memories.
No he olvidado las penas, pero no las dejará controlar mi futuro.
I haven’ forgotten my worries, but I won’t let them control my future.
Q: How have your identities as a queer woman and Mexican-American intersected with your travels and identity? Do you think it is important to connect with other travelers who are female, queer, Latin@, in particular?
A: No matter where I go, whenever I tell people I was born in Mexico, I’m usually met with this response: “But where are your parents from?”. I’ve taken this as a polite way of asking “But which one of your parents is white?”.
While yes, they are both light skinned, they were both born and raised in Mexico. My light skin has brought me privilege. In the street, men call out to myself and my white friends: “adios chelas bellas!” (Goodbye pretty white women!). People assume I’m wealthy because of my light skin. Speaking Spanish fluently has also helped me navigate my work life here.
In terms of challenges, my queer identity is what sets me apart from most Peace Corps volunteers in my sector, since most of them identify as white and straight.
During my short-term travels, I didn’t consider being queer as a large part of my identity. However, after living in Nicaragua, it has affected my work and personal life in ways I hadn’t expected.
As volunteers, we are required to live with host families. I chose to stay in the closet with my first two families, because I didn’t feel as if I could talk to them about how I was in a long distance relationship with a woman back home. When I first came to Nicaragua, I had a staff member suggest that I could have a photo of a fake boyfriend and refer to it whenever my family asked. That didn’t feel right, but since it was my first time being in the country, I accepted this as a viable strategy. My Spanish facilitator would make comments that assumed that I was straight such as “are you texting your boyfriend?”. I felt awkward but didn’t tell the truth because I was new to the country.
Now, since Peace Corps Nicaragua team is working to host their first same sex couple, I have helped lead LGBTQ safe space trainings for staff. During these trainings, I love explaining the differences between gender and gender expression. Many Nicaraguan staff members are in their 50s, yet they haven’t had the chance to ask what the difference between transgender and gay is. I realized that staff members didn’t acknowledge any non-heterosexual identities when I first arrived, because they didn’t know how to.
Through the LGBTQ staff trainings, I’ve helped equip staff with the understanding and strategies they can use to create safe spaces for all of their volunteers they are supporting.
It’s important for me to connect with other travelers, especially if they are queer and latin@s. I want more people of color to travel. One friend asked me “Where did you learn to dance bachata? gringos do t know how to dance to it”. I explained that I was part of a latin@ organization in college, and that we would go out dancing to Latin music. Nicaraguans have a perception of all Americans being of white, European descent, and that’s false.
After Nicaraguan families hosted my Dominican and Jamaican-American friends, they’ve realized that the U.S. Is diverse and that people of color make up so much of American culture, whether it’s through music, the media, workforce, or literature.
My queer identity adds to another level of understanding between myself and locals. I’ve come out to strangers on buses and challenged their preconceived notions of who I am as a un unmarried, queer woman traveling abroad.
For more on being a racial minority abroad, check out this article on the Matador Network. Also, check out Bani Amor, a queer travel writer who focuses on decolonizing travel culture.
Q. When did you first feel empowered when traveling?
A. I was dead scared of traveling alone for the first time. This was when I was 15. I had lived in the U.S. As an undocumented immigrant from age 3-14, and I would be traveling back to Mexico, alone to visit (and basically meet) my family in León, Guanajuato and Morelia, Michoacan. I had always flown with my family, but this was the first time I’d fly alone.
I told a family friend about how scared I was to navigate an airport alone. She assuredly me that I’d be fine, and she told me to “just follow the signs”. She was right. The experience was so worth it.
I remember flying into Mexico on Christmas Eve. Then going to a family gathering, where we would wait until midnight to eat beans, rice, tacos, codfish, and meat marinated in coca cola. Right at midnight, everyone got up to kiss each other on the cheek. I was in such shock to have strangers hug and kiss me- they treated me so much more differently from the Anglo, libertarian, reserved people I grew up with in rural Washington state.
Since then, I’ve always “just followed the signs”. It’s true, if do this, you will be a more confident traveler.
If you can’t, then you ask for help. For every person who hasn’t helped me, there have been 1,000 who have.
The Food: Before moving to Nicaragua, I assumed the food would be similar to Mexican food: spicy, vibrant, diverse, and drenched in salsa. Nope. Before I complain about the vast difference in cuisine, I’ll be straight up- There’s so much less variety in foods because Nicaragua is the poorest Latin American country. That being said, people are grateful just to have full bellies.
Now, I appreciate Mexican food more than ever. That’s why when I came home from visiting Boston in April, I filled my suitcase with snazzy Mexican hot sauces like Cholula and Tapatio (wrapped rightly in my “new” clothes from Goodwill), corn tortillas (they just don’t taste the same here), and raw pinto beans. Beans, of all things, you ask? Yes, beans. Red and black beans just aren’t the same as brown pinto beans, which are different from the white, Nicaraguan pinto beans.
I also miss my mom’s fresh, green salsa verde. They sell salsa verde in the can here, but it’s not the same. Growing up, I hated when my mom would ask me to peel those green tomatillos because of how sticky they would make my hands. While I scrubbed them in the sink, she would boil the tomatillos and mix them in a blender with cilantro, lime, and salt. Before we even poured the salsa out of the blender, we would dip Santitas tortilla chips in for various “taste tests”, our hands cupped underneath our chins, savoring the smell and taste of cilantro. Now, I would give anything to peel those sticky, green tomatillos with her.
When has a particular dish made you think of when you were a kid?