With all the changes in Mexican immigration laws and regulations during the past few years, my thoughts recently have drifted back to my first encounter with INM, Instituto Nacional de Migración, circa 1998.
After my first winter in Oaxaca, I wanted to be more than a tourist. Entering Mexico as a tourist meant I had to leave the country at the end of 180 days in order to get another permit. So, in October, 1998 I applied for a FM-3. With this classification I could live in Mexico for a year and then re-apply for another year.
At the entrance to migra, a large imposing guard with a frozen frown stood at-the-ready to intimidate foreigners. After waiting hours for my turn, I received a two-sided form on legal sized paper. The requirement was that it must be filled out with a typewriter. Neither I nor any of my friends owned a typewriter.
In my search for such a machine, I learned that public secretaries earned their living typing letters for non-literate people, including love letters for the lovesick. Such services could be found in the vicinity of the Central de Abastos market.
The market, about a mile from my house, seemed like another country to me, far removed from anywhere I’d ever been. The market consisted of hundreds of merchants tending small stands in a maze of walkways. (I learned later that Abastos market spans about ten city blocks and is the largest farmers’ market between Mexico City and Guatemala City).
Winding my way through Abastos, I realized that you could find everything you’d ever need in this life and zillions of things you would never need and probably never heard of. The market’s layout had neither directional signs nor any order or design that made sense to me. To attract customers to their stands, merchants screamed, in high-pitched nasal tones. Smells of over-ripe vegetables blended with slabs of meat hanging on hooks from rods under tin roofs. Pigs’ heads with wide open eyes perched on high wooden shelves in the meat section; and fish with clear glassy eyes (which indicated their freshness) spookily stared from their beds of ice.
There were no directional signs, but products were grouped together in “neighborhoods,” so when you found that hammer or screwdriver you needed, you were also enveloped in counters of saws, drills, nails, screws, axes and machetes--boundless kinds of tools of all shapes and sizes.
When I wandered into the block of flowers and potted plants, I lingered, enjoying the smell of roses and gardenias bejeweled by sprays of water. Attentive sellers handed me colorful, creative floral bouquets and pointed to elaborate banks of flowers appropriate for funerals or weddings. These eager vendors tried to convince me in beautiful sing-songy Spanish that I really needed their floral arrangements, which, I admit, were almost irresistible.
In the food area, folks crowded together on metal benches in front of wooden tables. I recognized some of the food, such as heaping plates of tortillas de cazuela (specialty of the house) on a bed of black beans and bowls of steaming pozole, a spicy porridge of garbanzo beans and various vegetables and meats brewed together in a tomato or chicken broth. I liked the homey, non-pretentious atmosphere of these eateries without candles and linen tablecloths.
I also enjoyed the barrage of colors—green, red and yellow peppers stacked artistically in pyramids, fruit of every color of the rainbow, bushel-sized baskets of chilis everywhere. In the dulce department, the smell of chocolate and packages of goodies made of nuts and coconut enticed me to hang around. I wished I wasn’t so uncomfortably hot, tired and on a mission.
To find my way, I showed my form to vendors and shoppers, made typing movements with my fingers, then headed in whatever direction they pointed. When I came to another intersection, I asked again. After almost an hour of traipsing up and down aisles and sloshing through puddles of water created by merchants who hosed down the concrete floors of their “neighborhoods” to keep them clean, I finally arrived at a group of women sitting on folding chairs at card tables. Each had a manual Underwood typewriter with pound-strongly keys, the kind I had used in high school typing classes. Located outside the roofed market on the edge of a parking lot, the makeshift office was shaded by bright blue plastic tarps.
My body sweat, mixed with the market smells, might have caused less polite people to turn away. However, the women, eager to serve, motioned to me. They wore white blouses, dark skirts and high heeled shoes.
Not knowing which typist to select, I stopped in front of the first one. Soon a small crowd gathered, giving their opinions and input. My eyes weren’t really azul, they all agreed, but after peering deep into my eyeballs, they decided that blue was the best of the options. My body shape caused a lot of discussion, verging on arguments. I wasn’t gorda o flaca (fat or skinny). They settled on a phrase I didn’t understand at the time and have since forgotten. There was also a question that seemed to be about my overall personality. I didn’t understand exactly what the group decided, but I think they checked a box indicating agreeable, rather than the other choices such as demanding or nervous. (I had looked up these words in my Spanish dictionary). Since this was supposed to be my assessment of myself, the negative choices puzzled me, and I was happy that the typist checked the “agreeable” box.
The secretary only typed when everyone arrived at aunanimous agreement. Passersby joined in, until the crowd totalled a dozen or so. They were having great fun!
My height was determined by backing me up to a man about my height. He knew how tall he was––in centimeters, of course. Skin color: blanco. Hair: café, although this too caused an animated discussion. Some held out for rubia, blonde. At the time my hair was brown with blonde frosting––not a choice offered on the migra form.
The gathering of curious bystanders turned into a jovial party with much nudging and joking, especially about me being single and living alone. I wished I had had a better understanding of the language, but I was still bumbling through beginning Spanish classes. No doubt they were making fun of me. However, I felt it was all in good spirit. They laughed a lot, and it seemed to me they were laughing at the questions on the bureaucratic form as much as anything. I paid the equivalent of two U.S. dollars; and, best of all, it satisfied the clerks in the office of Migración.
The next year, they allowed us to fill out the form by pen (in block letters only), and ten years later a few clicks by a migra clerk on a computer ordered a printer across the room to spit out my data. Even though some newcomers still complain about the bureaucratic “hassle” to obtain permits, the computerized system is ever-so-efficient compared to earlier times—but not as much fun!