Heartbreak & Self-Deportation

From the beginning of our uncommon romance, I always knew that Rodolfo’s self-deportation to Mexico was inevitable.

Dao Ling
Dao Ling
Story hero image

The day Rodolfo deported himself from the United States of America, Donald Trump was voted into office. Together we left the dark of our tree-lined street in New York City before dawn to catch the flight to Mexico City. But the act of self-deportation was more than a one-day November 8 affair; I know because I was Rodolfo’s accomplice. Our preparations began a full year in advance. From the beginning of our uncommon romance, I always knew that Rodolfo’s return to Mexico and to his children was inevitable and―if I’m honest with myself―the right thing to do.

Rodolfo and I met at a workers’ center on the Lower East Side in early 2008. He was a recently widowed father and deliveryman who was leading his coworkers in a lawsuit against a well-known New York City restaurant. And I fell in love with the gentlest fighter I had ever known. Over eight years with Rodolfo, I had to learn that there were many things we couldn’t do together. Travel of any kind, including stepping outside of New York State, was a dangerous gamble of ID checks at airports and train stations, anti-immigrant policies in other states, and the ever-growing risk of never again setting foot inside the US should he find himself beyond its borders. By 2014, I was learning that if I wanted to meet his family, I would have to do so without him. Though I had hopes of true immigration reform in the US that could help Rodolfo acquire legal status, it eventually evaporated into political impossibility. At the end of the year, I went to Tlapa de Comonfort, Guerrero, to see Rodolfo’s family for the first time.

Travel of any kind, including stepping outside of New York State, was a dangerous gamble of ID checks at airports and train stations, anti-immigrant policies in other states, and the ever-growing risk of never again setting foot inside the US should he find himself beyond its borders.

I traveled to Tlapa three times, each time without him. Though I was anxious about the long journey into Mexico’s most notoriously violent statemost notoriously violent state, what frightened me most were his children, and what seized me was my own self-doubt. To face them meant to bear witness to the ocean of sadness that had rocked their young lives, including what I was complicit with―the ongoing absence of their father.

During the visits to Rodolfo’s former home, I found myself attempting to compensate for lifetimes of absence by slipping folds of money into his mother’s hand, buying a young girl her first pair of heels, and delivering lectures to children on the difference between want and need. In that vacuum of days, I taught them all the Chinese card games from my childhood and regaled them with funny stories about Rodolfo to demonstrate that he was a living, breathing human being. But beyond my role as temporary ambassador, I was never sure of who I was to these children and how to explain that I was here with them now but could not imagine myself staying. Once I returned to New York, I knew I was morally bound to urge him home.

photo by Dao Ling

Rodolfo and I plotted out a synchronized US exit plan: we coordinated the quitting of our jobs and our departure from New York to fall on the same day, except that Rodolfo would move to Mexico where his family lived and I would move to Taiwan where my family lived. We had different final destinations but would share the act of leaving the city where we had met, protested for workers’ rights in the streets, and built a life together in one more act of solidarity.

Every day of Rodolfo’s final week in New York held a weighty goodbye. His coworkers threw a despedida party, and close to a hundred people squeezed into the narrow, dimly lit workers’ center on Grand Street to dance with him one last time. As the night drew to a close, one of the board members thrust a tightly packed manila envelope into his hand—inside were countless small, bright red envelopes, the kind I eagerly awaited as a child every Chinese New Year. And every red envelope contained folded bills of $5, $10, $20. We both knew the faces behind the names scribbled on each—Puerto Rican and Dominican grandmothers in public housing, Chinese garment workers, Jamaican home care attendants, Ecuadorian women who painted nails and massaged feet in the glass-paned salons on Madison Avenue—and we knew what it meant for them to send these blessings.

Finally, on the night before our flight, it was the last banquet. His two brothers, a sister-in-law, two nephews, a niece, two nieces-in-law, a grandniece, cousin, a friend like a brother, my sister like his sister, and me, all gathered at our house over kimchi pork; stir-fried beef, peppers, and potatoes; stewed lentils and broccoli rabe; tortillas; and turmeric rice. I explained to his family that I was accompanying him halfway home―to Mexico City, where we would spend a week together. Then, he would take the bus to Tlapa to reunite with his children for the first time in nearly nine years, and I would return to New York before moving on to Taipei. There was no good way to explain that I couldn’t bear going to Tlapa this time—that with Rodolfo’s long-awaited return, there would be mounting hopes and expectations on me to stay, to become a stepmother. So, they mercifully nodded at my partial explanations and silences, and then, proceeded to make hand-drawn cards for Rodolfo, bake chocolate chip muffins, and help snake our bathtub drain.

For years, I had imagined Rodolfo’s big day at John F. Kennedy. Airport security was part of the reason I wanted to travel with Rodolfo; if he was to be detained at the final hour, I needed to know. But leaving was surprisingly easy. We passed US immigration check for international departures, and as far as I could see, the blank visa- and stamp-free pages of Rodolfo’s New York-issued Mexican passport didn’t raise an eyebrow. Then we were boarding, and Rodolfo and I kept jolting ourselves awake for those final moments our feet touched US territory.

This doesn’t feel like the country I know.

When we finally landed, Rodolfo endured what I can only call an initiation hazing at Customs that finally ended after we handed over $90 USD. Then, with a breath of relief, we were out of the airport and on our way to a last week together in the country of his birth, in a city he had never known. I, on the other hand, had visited Mexico City several times―as a stopover en route to Tlapa―and served as his china gringa guide. As we strolled Centro Histórico, I kept having this sensation that the streets around me were a movie set that could flatten at any moment. It felt surreal to finally be in Mexico together, only to ready myself to say goodbye. “Fofo,” I asked, “how does it feel to be back in Mexico?”

He replied shaking his head, “This doesn’t feel like the country I know. This place―with its crowded streets, tourists, and people of all races and hairstyles―feels like New York.”

That night, we came back to our hostel around 10 p.m. Inside, the building was dark except for a lone source of light coming from the dining room’s small TV screen. It was here―in the ancient capital of a neighboring land―that we watched the tide turn from Hillary toward Donald. What irony to be on the other side of the wall that cast such a long shadow over the election trail and the greater half of my partner’s life, while the two candidates and their core teams all cheered and cried in New York City―our city. The whole situation was convoluting into unexpected, unwanted directions. I wanted to shout at the TV: “No! No! Not while we are here,” not when we had abandoned our watch . . . And now, New York City―the land where a Taiwanese American pencil pusher can make love to an undocumented Mixtec delivery boy in their home on a street lined with linden trees―was crumbling.

The last time I saw Rodolfo was at 11:03 p.m. on November 15, 2016. I had accompanied him to Mexico City’s busy eastern bus terminal, helping to pull along one of the three suitcases containing all of his American belongings. We had arrived far in advance of his departure time, and now all we could do was wait to separate from one another. Rodolfo paced the corridors and I went to the bathroom several times. We sat in the hard plastic seats of the waiting area gripping each other’s hands but saying very little. I watched as he became the final person to board the bus bound for Tlapa that night. The bus pulling out of the station was my cue to bow out . . . but in such situations, one is bound to stay until there’s nothing left to stay for. With my feet fixed to the ground, I felt myself grow up and old in each secondhand tick of the clock. Because growing up means I had done the right thing. Because growing up means living with certain heartbreak, and heartbreak is when you can’t be with the people you love for every reason imaginable and unimaginable.

The future remains uncertain: I’m not sure when I will next see Rodolfo and what’s in store for our relationship. Friends comfort us by saying that we, but especially Rodolfo, left the country in the nick of time, slipping away just hours before Donald Trump solidified his ascension to the throne. And the stories continue to amass: just last month, a Mexican friend of ours in the Bronx was attacked by unknown men who invoked the president’s name. Throughout our entire year of preparations, Rodolfo and I never called what was happening a “deportation”; we never said this word aloud. And I never knew that the impact of deportation was an unshakeable haunting . . . until I came home to Queens one last time, touching all the surfaces of emptiness he left in his wake.