A graphic designer talks about restaurant work, true love, and being a maverick.
Aimee grew up in Colorado with a lust for travel. Ill-suited by the college she attended, she spent several years roaming the country with a network marketing scheme that, in the end, left her living out of her car and tending bar at a Macaroni Grill in Sacramento. At age 27, she swallowed her pride and went back to Denver, to live with her parents and start rebuilding her life.
Her restaurant experience got her hired as assistant manager at an upscale taco shop. A few days into her first week there, she was taking a cigarette break in her truck when she saw one of the kitchen staff arriving for work on his bike.
“I remember I just kept looking at him, and looking at him, and looking at him. He has these beautiful arms. He was rolling the tacos, wearing a t-shirt, and all I could see was his arms.
Juan had been attending a training school for graphic design in Mexico City, but before he was finished with the program, his father withdrew from supporting him and told Juan to find his own way. He decided to join his cousins in the US, to work and earn enough money to come back and finish school.
He went first to Los Angeles, but couldn’t find work there, and was recommended to try Denver. He lived with his extended family, worked at Wahoo’s in the morning until the lunch rush was over, and then went to an Italian restaurant to work dinner.
He had only 3 months left to work, when one day on his way into work with his cousins, they fell into step behind the new assistant manager who, they all agreed, had really pretty legs.
Aimee’s romantic life had been a series of relationships with guys who were obvious symbols of her rebellious streak. She refers to one as her “trophy boyfriend”–he was the number-one motorcross racer in Colorado. Another guy was a long-haired rock band frontman.
By contrast, the first time she really noticed Juan was while he was cleaning the walk-in refrigerator. He had headphones on, and sponges strapped to his feet; he was scrubbing the floor by dancing across it.
“He was just so happy, so joyful. Just the cutest thing I’ve ever seen…while he was cleaning a walk-in!”
It would have been different, she said, if she’d seen one of her motocross boyfriends doing something like that. But Juan was already outside the category of guys that interested her. She didn’t know his history, so she didn’t have expectations of how he should act.
“I think you do forgive a lot of things because you don’t know the culture.”
Aimee used to celebrate the end of the lunch rush every day by smoking a cigarette behind the restaurant. One day, Juan followed her out and asked her for a cigarette. She asked what he was listening to in his earphones.
Juan barely spoke English; he had to ask his cousin how to say things. So their conversation that day consisted of throwing out names of bands, the other responding positively or negatively.
She made a CD for him with all her favorite music–mostly hard rock stuff. He returned the favor by making her a CD full of romantic numbers. Juan launches into one of them:
It makes them both laugh.
“He brought me a huge bouquet of flowers one time…”
“Oh, the orquídias, right?”
Ready for his next move, Juan asked his cousin to teach him a phrase in English. What he wanted to say to Aimee began with “I want to do something?” But the Spanish for “do” is the same as “make.” So the next day, after downing several tequila shots, Juan went outside to where Aimee was smoking and said,
“I want to make something.”
“What do you want to make?”
“I want to kiss you.”
“So kiss me.”
“And then, I ride my bike through the snow, drunk. That was fantastic, you know? I didn’t care how cold it was or how drunk I was. All I had in my mind was that I kissed this beautiful lady. Then is when I knew. It was seriously love at first sight, you know? I fell in love right away.”
Love, he says, happens to everybody, but knowing when it’s really the one is a different experience.
“I’m pretty romantic–pretty cheesy, if you want to say it that way. But I know when I fall in love. I felt it right away. And I throw my best moves, and that’s how she fell in love with me. And I dance for her in the park, right?”
“Right,” says Aimee, “right.”
Their first date was nearly completely silent. They drove together to Red Rocks, where they made a video to send back to Juan’s family in Mexico. They listened to music in Aimee’s truck, offering each other outsize reactions to communicate their feelings through each song.
Aimee came back from the date and told her friend it was the best date she’d ever been on.
“I think it was because we didn’t talk. You kind of appreciate the smaller things–sitting silently, enjoying the music.”
Aimee says she tends to talk too much, and as she felt closer to Juan, she couldn’t help but express herself in words. She’s pretty sure that Juan understood most of it, though he couldn’t say very much in response. It was easy, she says, to fall in love with someone who was willing to just listen attentively, and admire openly.
“He would go out and get his hair cut really suave.“
She purrs the word in its Spanish pronunciation, remembering how Juan showed up to work in his best clothes–scrubbing dishes all day in $100 jeans–just to impress her.
“I was fully aware of what everybody else thought. I just didn’t really care. It just seemed kind of right. Maybe I was actually now following my soul. For me to go with Juan, I had no ulterior motive.”
She knew when she asked him to move in with her that she was throwing caution to the wind.
“It was our own little world, for a month or two.”
Not long after, Aimee walked out on the job at Wahoo’s. Juan followed her in solidarity, but soon went back to ask for his job back. He was, in fact, given the assistant manager position, the one Aimee had just left.
“But I totally waste that opportunity, because I start stealing from them.”
A friend showed him how to ring up tickets without putting the money into the register. Even as he explains the process, it’s not entirely clear to me how he thought it would work, over the long haul. Nevertheless, it went undetected; what actually got him in trouble was hooking up the employees with free beers after work.
Juan blames it on too much trust between himself and the staff. Typically, he would treat all the employees to a round of beers just before they left work. One day, they asked if they could just take a case of beer home, instead; they promised to pay for it later. The following morning, the manager saw the discrepancy and traced it to Juan’s shift.
Juan confessed the truth, explaining that it was all going to be taken care of, that the staff had planned to pay for the beer. He still got fired.
He told the kitchen guys on his way out; they all rolled up their aprons and walked out with him. While Juan appreciated the grand gesture it made, it actually made his situation worse:
“It’s pretty hard to secure a job in a restaurant, if you don’t know somebody.”
Unable to find more work, Juan decided to take the opportunity to go back to Mexico and visit his family. Though he’d never applied for papers, he wasn’t worried about getting back into the country illegally.
“I thought, ‘If I make it once, I can make it twice.’ But after this happen, everything became really complicated.”
“This” was 9-11. The security was suddenly really tight. Juan’s initial attempt was denied; he was turned away. Deported, technically. But it didn’t come with any sort of penalty. It was the sort of thing that happened to people all the time–you just wait a little while, then try again.
When Juan was denied entry, he and Aimee decided that they would apply for a fiance visa for Juan. Then he would come back to the US and they would get married. Aimee took 3 months off work and came down to Mexico City to visit Juan’s family and get to know him in his home country.
“While I was there, I didn’t tell him, but I decided to get pregnant.”
By this time, they had been together for two years; Aimee could see their relationship winding toward an inevitable end. Once he went back to Mexico, she assumed, he would want to stay there…and she felt mostly content with that.
“Maybe I had already decided to walk away…I don’t remember. I’d told Juan before that I was never going to get married, and I was never going to have kids. I was going to travel the world and be an adventurer. When we went to the embassy together, I started crying and I didn’t stop crying. His brother still, to this day, calls me ‘Aimee Crying.'”
“Aimee Crying!” Juan echoes, with a laugh.
“I don’t know what it was that kept me…I just kept holding on. For some reason, I really love this guy.”
“I was in a state in my life where I really needed him.”
I ask what the need was–what he represented to her. She’s quiet for a minute. Juan makes a suggestion, with neither shyness nor irony:
“I think it was!”
Aimee’s voice is tinged with faint surprise.
“Because we don’t have anything else in common.”
“Because you asked me to marry you before I went to Mexico.”
Aimee’s look at him holds some faint consternation.
“That was joking.”
She explains that they had discussed getting married before he left, so that getting back into the country wouldn’t be an issue. But because everyone had believed he was only with her for the citizenship, Juan wasn’t willing to do it at that time. They wanted, Aimee said, to be honest about it. That was why, when they applied for the fiancé visa, Juan was asked if he used drugs and answered that he’d once tried cocaine.
“That gave him a ten-year ban. We went into it saying we’d be honest about everything; in actuality, we should have lied about a lot of things. That’s been our downfall, in a way. Is being honest about everything. Our policies have changed, since then.”
Thinking that she and Juan were going to break up anyway, it made her happy to think of having a little companion in her life with Juan’s qualities of affection and generosity. The plan, she says frankly, was to let Juan go, take her kid and run toward the next phase of her life.
“I’d raise another little adventurer and we’d go all over the world together.”
“He said ‘I’m coming up tonight!'”
However well they’d gotten to know each other through listening, paying attention, miming communication, Aimee had not counted on anything like Juan’s passionate desire to be a dad. She’d honestly assumed that he was done with her, that he’d be okay with being a father at a distance.
“I begged him for 20 minutes on the phone, crying…I said ‘Please don’t come up.’ I just had the worst feeling in the world. And he hung up, and I knew he was going to try.”
Some people cross the border by hopping a fence, or swimming in from a boat. Juan had paid a coyote for false paperwork. He had a fake passport, a fake Mexican visa, and a fake American visa. But he was missing certain pieces of paperwork; he was waiting to receive them when he got Aimee’s call.
A guard asked Juan for an ID; he said he didn’t have one. They searched him and found a fake US birth certificate hidden in his shoe.
“They said ‘Oh, look at this! What is this?'”
Juan was taken to jail in Ciudad Juarez, and held for 120 days. Aimee felt like it was her fault–that her miscalculation on his feelings had landed him in jail. After Juan was released, she rejoined him in Mexico City. They were married in his family’s house. She returned to the US to have their son in Colorado. When he was 3 months old, and his immune system was strong, she took Abby to Mexico so that Juan could meet him.
Whatever feelings remained about possibly not staying together evaporated when Juan met his son…especially when it was time for her and the baby to leave.
“Juan says that was the worst day of his life, when I took Abby back to Colorado. I didn’t know him that well–I had no idea he wanted to be a dad that badly. I never thought that having his baby would hurt him. I think that changed me…I just couldn’t do it.”
For the next 6 months, Aimee found herself writing to congressmen, looking for lobbyists to help her with her case, speaking with lawyers. They all told her there was no case, that he’d never be able to travel across the border again.
Then Aimee found out that her company, SourceCorp, had an office in Tijuana. She volunteered for a transfer there. The company paid for her move; her parents drove her down with a trailer full of stuff to the where Juan was waiting, shivering in the unexpected cold of their new, uninsulated apartment. Neither of them knew anything about living near the beach–they’d expected it to be balmy and warm all the time; he hadn’t even brought a jacket.
Since then, they’ve encountered many more like them; the city, they say, is like a strange purgatory of people who were caught trying to cross the border illegally. Juan runs into people all the time–mechanics, carpenters, tradesmen–and can tell immediately that they are from somewhere else.
“They say from Michoacan, from Monterey, from Durango, from Sinaloa. They tried to cross, couldn’t do it, so they brought their families here. A lot of people come here with the American dream, and they don’t make it, and they stay here and find a way to survive here.”
Even many of them have wives and families who would be legal in the US. But he is unusual among them for having a white, fully American wife. Aimee herself, obviously, is unusual. The last eight years, she says have been a lesson in acceptance–of where they are, of who they are, of what they can make of it.
“I get mad at myself for getting me into this situation. I get angry at myself for making the commitment in the first place. I want him to go to Disneyland with us, when we go. I want him to see his sons play with their cousins in CO. Ice skating, and hockey.”
But whether it’s her unique situation, or simply young mother blues, she can’t help but feel angry and trapped, with not being able to pick up and go whenever she wants. Sometimes it translates to a renewed attempt to challenge the ban against Juan. But as time passes, it becomes instead a challenge to find in her current situation the adventure that she was always looking for.
“I never thought about ‘Am I going to regret this?’ It just felt kind of natural. I wasn’t following the normal course of action, so it was still okay with me. I’m still being the rebel that I always am.”
Every time she relates the story to someone new, the immediate response is urging her to try again, to get the ban lifted. Aimee says this recurring advice remains one of the most frustrating elements of her life.
Some people even suggest that Juan should try another illegal crossing; this, Aimee says, is worse than frustrating–it’s infuriating. Even more so, perhaps, because they occasionally feel desperate enough to consider it.
The main hindrance, Juan says, is Aimee–she doesn’t want him to try it.
“I don’t want to live looking over our shoulder, thinking that he’s going to go to jail every day. That’s not living, either. At least down here we have the freedom to be a family, and try to be happy.”
“I probably won’t do it,” says Juan. “But I don’t mind doing it. If I have to do it, I’ll do it, and then we fight while I’m in there.”
“That’s not what you told me,” Aimee says. “You told me you don’t want to go back to jail. You said that’s like your worst fear.”
“We had this conversation three days ago,” he says. “We can get married when I’m in jail, you know.” What he means is married by US law. “And then I’ll be in the US.”
A silence falls, as they look at each other.
Aimee finally says,
“I would never even consider that. I don’t want you to go back to jail again. That was really hard on you, Juan.”
“It was. That was the worst time in my life.”
He is silent.
“I don’t know.”
He tells me that he met guys in jail who took that approach, who got married to Americans while in jail and were released as US citizens. That, at any rate, is what the immigration lawyer told him.
“That could be true…maybe not. Maybe that’s what they tell you to get your money.”
Aimee flatly doesn’t believe it. When Juan was arrested, they paid an immigration lawyer $6000 to get Juan his papers; they never saw any result.
“But I don’t think they’re going to put me in jail,” says Juan. “I don’t think so. I mean, they try to scare you, they tell you all this crap, but they can’t put you in jail that long. You didn’t kill anybody, you didn’t do anything…”
He trails off.
“I definitely don’t want to go back there.”
The friends who don’t pressure her to fight the charges, Aimee says, tend to over-commiserate with her. She wants their sympathy, but at a certain critical mass, it turns into pity–which, Aimee says, cuts off any real personal connection. Her troubles are her particular troubles, but they’re not so much worse than anyone else’s.
“I think every family has some way that they’re being tested. I could complain every day, if I wanted to. But I remember one day vividly, waking up and thinking ‘I can whine about this every day, or I can accept it and move on.’ But no matter what, because I have friends on both sides of the border, it continually keeps coming up. I can’t escape it.”
She doesn’t think her suffering makes her as different as others seem to. It doesn’t have to isolate her, but it does, because people view it that way. The cut-off of connection is what makes her feel truly trapped.
“There’s some incredible people down here, but to talk with people the way I like to talk with people, and really dig into their psyche…it’s impossible. I can’t do it because I don’t know the language enough. I feel like I’m an alien in a different world.”
At one point, she and Juan were good friends with another couple whose situation was identical to theirs. But then the husband obtained a visa, and they moved to the US. It was one of the most heartbreaking things Aimee had experienced, since moving to Tijuana. Her hope, kept secret even from herself, was that they would be denied, and that their friendship could grow stronger through sharing their struggle.
“Nobody ever understands how I feel. Whenever I tell somebody my story, which is a thousand times a month, it’s always ‘There has to be a way! You have to be wrong!’ They just don’t get it. They don’t understand the finality of it.”
“I guess not feeling sorry for us would be the best response. Maybe the ideal response would be ‘There’s a whole ‘nother world out there–it’s a huge country.’ ‘What an interesting life!’–that would be an ideal response.”
They parent their three boys in mixed English and Spanish; to each other, they speak mainly English. And it’s really not as great an irony as you might think, Aimee says, that nearly all their fights stem from miscommunication.
“Sometimes I wish we didn’t speak the same language.”
She explains that when you can’t communicate at all through words, you go out of your way to make sure the other person understands you. You also forgive their blunders a lot more easily, assuming that maybe you didn’t understand what they were really trying to say. Maybe, she wonders, intimacy is actually increased by lack of verbal communication.
“The way we fell in love was not based on our intellect. Which caused problems later, because I really enjoy intellectual conversations. If we’d had those conversations when we were first dating, I probably wouldn’t have stayed with him. Literally, the thing I fell in love with was his heart, his aura, his generosity, his eyes, the fact that he would do anything for his family…that feeling about a person, the kindness and generosity you can feel from a person.”
Juan never finished his training for graphic design. But Aimee got him interested in photography after they married. It’s proved to be his passion, and he’s tireless in building his business. Almost immediately, he carved out a niche doing family-oriented photo shoots. Families on the beach, first communions, and children’s parties. His new specialty is Photoshopping a picture of a kid into a cartoon of a superhero they choose.
Aimee does a combination of services for creatives–web design, copywriting, coaching. She has a little office at the top of their house, spacious and airy, painted yellow. It leads out onto the roof, which affords a 360-degree view…the Plaza to the south, the mountains to the east, the winding road to the beach, and to the north, the border.
“Sometimes I think this kind of wilfully happened, you know? Like I wanted to have a different life than everybody else, and sure enough…how much different could I get? So who knows–maybe I had some hand in the whole trick. It’s amazing–maybe you get what you ask for.”