It was 11:00 am on March 15th and the sun was beating down on us in the parking lot of the US embassy. Since dawn, we’d been waiting in nervous anticipation for our loved ones to appear, ideally with a smile and good news to share. Seeing as the embassy offered us neither shade nor seating, my expectations for finding an outlet were set incredibly low. Still, I searched every corner of the concrete square in hopes to continue to distract myself with work. Needless to say, there were indeed no outlets and my laptop battery had run dry. As the universe willed her way, I found myself faced with no other option but to sit patiently with my thoughts.
My palms began to sweat as I walked nervously in circles around the parking lot. There must have been at least seventy of us at the start of the day, but now there were just eighteen. Though many of us had exchanged little to no conversation throughout the morning, every time our eyes met the contact lingered just a moment longer as if to acknowledge the shared anxiety.
For many people, this would be one of the best days of their lives. For others, it could be a day of great heartbreak and anguish. I watched as individuals rushed to their families, giddy with excitement and joy upon receiving visa approval. Others were wrapped in a warm embrace as they released the weight of the world in a single deep breath. Relief. For some, there were tears of grief and frustration, and for others anger, resentment, and indignation.
Everyone was there for different reasons and for some, the stakes were undoubtedly higher. In some cases, visa approval means being able to travel to the US for leisure. For others, it could be their only chance to see their cancer-battling child that they made the painful decision to send to live with a relative six years prior in hopes of a better and brighter future.
I’ll never know the story of all the families whose eyes met mine that morning, so the only story I can tell is my family’s story.
As it neared noon, some embassy officials began to shuffle out of the building, likely heading to lunch at the nearby luxury center Cayalá. With things feeling a little more laidback, I decided to approach one of the guards and sheepishly inquire:
“¿Buenos días. Sabe usted si es normal que tarda tantas horas la entrevista para la visa K1?” Good morning, do you know if it’s normal for the K1 visa interview to take this long?
The guard couldn’t have been more than 25 or 26 years old and he reminded me of one of the younger “lancheros”, or boat drivers, in Panajachel. This put me at ease oddly enough, and we began a cordial exchange. He assured me that Luis Miguel would be out soon and even smiled and gestured “fingers crossed”. I laughed a little on the inside. Friendliness is so Guatemalan that I even found the guard outside of the US embassy to be endearing.
And right then I felt my throat tighten, just a little, and my eyes began to water.
“Damn, I’m going to miss it here”.
You see these “lump in the throat, tears in the eyes” moments had become my new normal ever since Luis Miguel was assigned a date for his embassy interview. This sensation was triggered by all things big and small.
The rooster crows in the morning.
The birds and the bugs’ late-afternoon symphony in our garden.
The site of the Fuego volcano as it erupts in the distance on a clear night.
The street dogs as they sunbathe on 2nd Avenue South in the late mornings.
The “buenos días”, “buenas tardes”, “´cómo estás?”, “que le vaya bien” that float through the streets of Antigua accompanied by the cheerful bell of the ice cream vendor in Central Park.
Luis Miguel building a fire on our covered porch on a stormy night.
Natalia’s first steps in our living room.
My heart just beats differently here. There’s no other way to describe it.
The only other country to even come close to rivaling this love was Cuba. And let’s be honest, for all the nostalgia that Havana holds dear, Guatemala has always been home. Over the years I was tempted by the bustling streets of Mexico City, the idyllic countryside of Otavalo, and the sandy beaches of Panamá. Had I met Medellín earlier in my life perhaps we would have had our moment, who knows? But such is life and despite my original plan to travel the world by 30, I became enthralled with Guatemala and knew early on that she would always call me back.
I’m often asked why I chose Guatemala and the simple truth is that it was an impulsive decision made by a dreamy nineteen-year-old who was eager to go anywhere that she hadn’t already been. While my love for Guatemala was immediate and juvenile, it has grown deep with the years, demanding roots and commitment the way only true love can.
And yet there I was, waiting desperately for the news that we could finally leave.
Early mornings in the jungle with Oliverio.
Late night shukos with Joaquín.
Lai Lai placing coins in the piggy bank at Barriga Llena.
Tamal and Chipi’s bark to let us know someone’s at the door.
Road trips and slumber parties with the team.
Heating up chuchitos on the lava rocks with Jorge.
Coffee dates with Don Nevil.
Nights spent at Doña Aura’s house in San Juan la Laguna.
That fuzzy feeling in your heart when you see Delfina at Casa Flor.
Don José blowing out the candles on his birthday cake.
It’s a strange thing to invest loads of energy into leaving the home that you love. But, while my love for Guatemala is everlasting, there’s a love in my life even bigger than what I feel for Guatemala, my love for Luis Miguel and our family.
For the past four years, Luis Miguel and I have had to factor his Cuban passport into plans and decision-making. However, in most cases, the passport decided for us. For context here’s a list of the countries that Cuban passport holders can currently travel to without a visa.
- Antigua and Barbuda
- Cook Islands
- North Macedonia
- Russian Federation
- Sri Lanka
- St. Kitts and Nevis
- St. Lucia
- St. Vincent and the Grenadine
- The Gambia
- Trinidad and Tobago
Yes, that’s correct. 31 countries, most of which are on the other side of the world. Meanwhile, US passport holders may travel to 187 countries and territories without a visa in 2023. I grew up subconsciously understanding that I had the freedom to go almost anywhere I wanted in the world. By the time I was twenty, I understood just how lucky I was and how unfair the world can be.
I also came to realize that passport privilege doesn’t only give you more travel opportunities, but that it also changes how you approach the world. It’s much easier to believe “the world’s your oyster, baby” when you’re holding one of the world’s most powerful passports in your hand. It’s a pretty great feeling - until you realize that most of the people you love don’t have the luxury of international travel nor were they allowed to grow up wearing the rose-colored glasses that, you, to this day can still choose to put on. For us, it became an important priority to correct what felt like an injustice.
It was clear from the beginning that Luis Miguel would need a US passport if our family ever wanted to experience the same freedom and opportunities that many of you reading this have. Having a US passport not only means the freedom to travel for leisure, but it’s also the ability to be with family.
During the worst of COVID-19, if either Luis or I had left Guatemala we would not have been able to get back in because at the time we were not permanent residents, and only citizens and residents were allowed entry once borders closed. It was for those 7 months that I got to take a very short walk in the shoes Luis Miguel’s been wearing all his life. I remember being in Guatemala with a newborn baby in my arms, hoping that my parents wouldn’t get sick or need me back home because I’d be unable to visit. Wishing they could be here with us to see Madi grow and not knowing when we would see each other again. That feeling of powerlessness and uncertainty can be devastating and for many Cubans, it’s a constant and enduring part of their lives. Currently, Cuba is experiencing the largest mass emigration in the island’s history, and more and more families are divided by geography, politics, and the economic reality of the world we live in that can make staying close and in touch an expensive endeavor.
Suddenly, I spotted Luis Miguel as he neared the exit. I could tell from the smile on his face that today we were one step closer. In just 5 days, his passport would arrive via Cargo Express with a United States K1-Visa inside. We’d then have 6 months to get to the US and 90 days upon arrival to be legally married and then file for a green card. Three years later, Luis Miguel should be eligible for citizenship, aka, the golden ticket to the holy grail: a US passport.
Within seconds, a wave of excitement rushed over me. All of the sudden, things I once loved and had forgotten about were again in the realm of possibility, and this time I could share them with my partner and our children.
My dad’s grilled salmon.
My mom’s french toast.
My 2003 Honda Element.
Walks with Shelley around the park.
Dinner at Susan and Slack’s with the OGs.
Teaching Madeline to ride a bike at David Luben.
Natalia learning how to talk with my parents.
Sushi with my best friend, Alex.
96.9 The Eagle.
Art galleries, museums, theaters.
The Academy of Science. The Monterey Bay Aquarium.
New York style pizza by the slice.
A cool glass of wine to cut the dry heat of a summer day in Sacramento.
The Delta Breeze.
If life was sending us to live in the United States for the next 1-3 years, we might as well make the most of it.
On June 29th, 2023 we’ll land at LAX where Luis Miguel will “attempt entry” with me, Madeline, and Natalia by his side. Our plans extend little beyond that as we’re truly giving this one up to the Universe. For the first month or so we’ll stay with my folks. After that, we don’t know what our plans will be. Stay in Sacramento? Head to the Sonora area near my sister? Hideaway on a ranch in Montana? Chill out in the Arizona desert with Allie? Set up shop on the island of Puerto Rico?
There’s a special excitement when you enter uncharted waters into an open sea of endless possibilities. And the new voyage seems easier knowing that there’s a port that’s always waiting for us to come home.
Dobladas de queso.
David’s smile when you walk into Artista de Café.
Bushes and trees in full bloom.
Tripping on a cobblestone road.
The smell of copal.
An afternoon temazcal.
An evening mezcal.
Fireworks as the light up the sky over the Panchoy Valley on New Year's Eve.
A chilly day in Xela.
Chocolate con agua.
Tamalitos de chipilín.
Reggaeton music on full blast at the furniture store.
Fresh grape juice on the road to Río Dulce.
That feeling you get when the plane lands at La Aurora International Airport.
The next few months are sure to put some more lumps in my throat and tears in my eyes. Honestly, I feel grateful for the experience to cherish everything, from the mundane to the monumental, that our last few months in Guatemala will bring.
This isn’t goodbye to Guatemala, rather it’s “we’ll see you in a few years”.
Until then, we are looking forward to embracing our time together as a family in the United States and reconnecting with family and friends. Heart of Travel will continue with its regular operations, but most of the tour leading will be done by Chiva, Pam, Allie and Eimy with Selvyn holding down the fort in Guatemala, Enmanuel and Yeni in Cuba, Gabo in México, Wilmer in Perú, Gustavo in Ecuador, and Joaquín in Colombia. My heart is full of gratitude for our wonderful community here in Latin America and I hope we find the same warmth and comfort as we head north.
At our house, we won’t rest fully until Luis Miguel, his parents, and his little brother can travel freely and perhaps one day move to either Guatemala or the United States. Our immigration story is far from being over, but now we’re going to celebrate this victory and everything, including the challenges, that come along with it.
If you'd like to join Chelsea and Luis Miguel on a very special trip to Cuba this June, 2023 for the last trip they'll be leading together for the foreseeable future you can learn more and sign up here today. Space is limited!