Saturday, May 17, 2008

Brief as Photos - 4: Lottery

© Photo by Vividpixels |

A few weeks ago, a pregnant woman in her last trimester waddled in to be fingerprinted. The trip to the United States must have been quite important to get this woman to the Embassy in such a condition. I remember when I was pregnant; I could barely get up from my chair once I was seated, much less have the patience to fall in line for a 2-minute interview. The pregnant woman was offered a wheelchair in the waiting area but she firmly refused the guard's offer. The woman was overripe as a papaya ready to burst. And true enough, she got in front of my window and her water broke. The pregnant woman looked at me with a smile and said clearly, "Creo que se me rompió la fuente," then she simply slid down the floor. My Spanish may not be good but I knew enough to recognize that a pregnant woman had just said "fountain" and "break" in the same sentence.

Granted that no two days were exactly the same in my line of work, nothing like this had ever happened before. The guards did not quite know what to do; nothing had prepared them for such an event – should they clear up the waiting area of applicants or should they cordon off the area where the woman was painting the floor red? The visa line chief had the presence of mind to tell the guards to send all the applicants out to the covered area outside the interview lounge but this happened after a few minutes of confusion. In this place, that was all you really need for a story to catch fire.

The woman kept asking for "la señora;" asking for me, that is, which was curious. So I went outside the hardline just as the embassy nurse showed up from her second floor office. I did not realize until much later why the new mother needed my presence. I held the woman's rough hands while she pushed. That baby must have known there was a ready audience; the woman pushed for all of fifteen minutes when the baby crowned and quickly came out with a lusty cry. We had our first baby girl delivered right in front of Window #8.

The woman, Mayena Torres was wet with sweat and appeared exhausted but she had a beatific look on her face as she turned to me with the baby wrapped securely in her arms and started talking. "Is she saying what I think she's saying?" I asked Claudia, one of the local employees in attendance.

"She just said that -- now, her baby is an American," Claudia nodded, explaining that the new mother mistook me for an officer.

"Rest for now, we'll talk about that later," I gently told the new mother as Claudia translated. "Claudia, you better get the American Services chief down here quickly and let the CG know what's going on before he sees this report in breaking news."

While waiting for the ambulance to pick up the new mother and her baby, Budd Reis, who was in-charge of American Citizenship Services, came over to clarify to Mayena Torres that the embassy compound is not part of the territory of the United States, and that her baby is not an American citizen. Mayena Torres steadfastly believed that this man was wrong, and refused to listen to any more explanation. The Consul General came to congratulate Mayena Torres, who remained in denial even after the former reiterated that what Mr. Reis had told her was true.

That was only part of Mayena Torres' story. Apparently she had been refused a visa several times before. In one of her previous forays to the consular section, she sat next to a woman who told her that all she needed to do was deliver her baby at the Embassy, and she would be able to go to the United States as the mother of an American citizen baby. I hate to imagine what other good advice people hear while waiting for their turn to be interviewed here.

The Embassy may have seen the last of Mayena Torres when the ambulance took her away to recuperate at the Hospital de Maternidad, but this was Central America and that was not the end of the story. A couple of weeks after that fated day when Mayena Torres delivered her baby at the Embassy and she made front page news in the country's leading newspaper, I started noticing pregnant women coming in for their fingerprints and visa interviews. Who would have thought that a consular section could quickly resemble a maternity hospital? The public diplomacy staff all came out in force, the Consul General was on print and on radio, and even the Ambassador was interviewed on television, all explaining the requirements for American citizenship at birth to no avail. The streams of pregnant women continued unabated.

In this place, rumors could take on a life of its own no matter what you do. In Guatemala for instance, where rumors of kidnapping of local children and human organ trafficking were ripe, an American tourist was severely beaten, another one wrongly arrested, and still another one barely escaped a public riot. In this country, they were still waiting for the pregnant women to return to their good senses.

In the meantime, I was getting rather disturbed of looking at pregnant women hopeful that they would be the next citizenship "lottery" winner. "You're mistaken," I wanted to tell them; but did not. Perhaps in their hearts of hearts, they knew that, but their poor, dreamful hearts refused to recognize the folly of these dreams. Life on the other side of the border beckoned and they could not ignore the call. Read: Brief as Photos Disclaimer


On Your Left said...

That is incredibly funny but also rather disheartening in the last paragraph.
Your writing stirred up emotion in me and I have to admit that's quite a challenge.

Jill said...

Beautifully written! Nothing surprises me anymore in this line of work...

DS said...

Thanks Roxana.

Thanks Jill.