Armando Martinez-Celis: January's Featured Writer


There Is A Happy Land Far, Far Away



The following sections are excerpted from the author's full-length book There Is A Happy Land Far, Far Away, exploring his relationship with his country (Mexico) through questions of articulation and identity, personal geography, memory, and re-enactment as creative process.


Part 2: The Line

I must warn you—before I delve into the memories that might prove life-long assertions to be wrong—these words come from my recollection, experience, and personal perception of my upbringing.

At this very moment, I sit in the limbo between the two lands that shaped me and went on to inform—to this day—the most important decision of my life. This limbo is not a metaphorical one; I wait in one of the puentes—which means bridge—in which hundreds upon thousands of people stand every single day to cross the border between Mexico and the United States.

I sit in the back seat of my parents’ car in what will inevitably be—at least—a two-hour wait before we reach the checkpoint, upon which we are to be searched, mildly interrogated, and asked to present thorough proof of our identity to be given access into the country. A trade we have all come to accept without hesitation due to the violence-filled-reality that surrounds us. Throughout the wait a relationship of silence and mutual lack of acknowledgment develops between drivers, only to be broken by the honking that follows someone’s failure to be responsive when the line—finally, slowly—moves forward.

We encounter—at the beginning of the Mexican half of this limbo—dozens of people walking between the lanes trying to make an almost-decent-living selling snacks, drinks, toys, car trinkets, window stickers, clothing, pirated CDs and DVDs, magazines, flags, paintings, and large yard sculptures. My parents never buy anything from these traveling merchants and only focus on avoiding the ones who forcefully throw water on our windshield to wash it, even if the car is in full motion.

As we move closer to the checkpoint I look behind us and watch as the line continues to grow longer. There seems to be an infinite supply of people willing to go through this ordeal—through this waiting—only to spend a few hours of the day on the other side, in a place that has been mythicized by the community at large, with good reason. I assume everyone leaves the country as often as they do because they can or—like me—because we must.

We have all created this routine for ourselves out of the desire to improve the quality of our lives. In our own country, we are accustomed to reading the newspaper every morning to know how many people were kidnapped, tortured, or assassinated the previous day.  To be fearful of walking through most streets after 6 pm, to be on the constant lookout for those who might want to hurt us without any provocation. Yet we know that once we cross that bridge—that puente—we can spend a few hours feeling safe and pampered.

Every time I speak of this I realize how many details and facts are easily omitted from the story—primarily because they seem so obvious to those of us living in the border regions. These elisions generate confusion or misinformation about our cities.

People I’ve spoken to have trouble understanding how easy—despite the waiting—it is to travel through this limbo, how close the cities we journey to and from are to one another.

Before leaving our house—usually around 8 am—my parents and I make sure we have everything we need for our trip. Most days this means nothing more than checking the radio to see which of the puentes has the least amount of traffic, and making sure we’ve picked up our passports and IDs from our dressers before we close the door and leave. I can remember many times when we had to turn the car around because one of us forgot a document essential to the process. We begin the 15–20-minute journey—depending on traffic—to the puente. We usually select the Cordova bridge, maybe because it’s the closest to our home.

The last building we drive by is Chamizal High School, which my brother attended. Despite the fact he graduated years ago, I always look at the courtyard facing the road and expect to see him and his friends. Force of habit. As we pass the building, we look for the beginning of the dreaded line. If we’re lucky, we won’t be able to see it immediately, which means the wait will be bearable. If we are unlucky, then the car stops for the first time. It amazes me how we are used to feeling unlucky. A sentiment shared by all the people I know and even those I don’t. I can safely make this assumption because I can see their faces through the car windows.

From this point, Juarez begins to fade from view, we leave it behind as we keep driving forward. To our left, a sculpture represents all the children that could be playing in the Chamizal park, if it were safe to do so. Little is visible from the American counterpart to Juarez. The only structure I can see from where I sit is the I-10 freeway, which lies in between the checkpoint and the rest of the city. I perceive it as a giant that is the last tangible obstacle before El Paso.

In many ways, this is the moment when I come closest to understanding faith. As I sit in the backseat of the car and look at this massive structure, I know I have to believe El Paso is on the other side. It could be possible—absurd as it may sound—that there is no such place waiting for us, no Eden. Conceivable that the promised land will not be delivered to us and all that we’ve been waiting for will be lost or forgotten. Everyone will be subject to entering a void filled only with expectations and projected hopes. A world of massively collected escapism that we tolerate because we have the opportunity to return to our real lives much more content than how we left them.

Traveling and being trapped in this limbo has been part of my life since before I had reason or memory. It took years before I even began to realize this activity was not universal. In fact, this is probably the unique experience of being raised in a border town, a limbo that only a few communities in the world have the privilege to see—let alone on a regular basis—at all. Every other experience in Juarez—political, economic, cultural, technological—has the flexibility of being relatable to everyone else in Mexico. This part of the Juarez border is the only region in which questioning the presence of the United States on the other side of the checkpoint would be equal to questioning whether the sun would rise over the mountain the following morning. It is our constant. Even more than myself, the people who must cross the border on a daily basis to go to work or school. I am gladly not one of them. In the case of these individuals—who are a community of their own—traveling to the American side will transform from a journey to an Eden, a source of higher education and income.

I often wonder how much of a variation their reality is from mine. We both view and experience traveling out of our own countries as a necessity. Yet I question which is a more legitimate passage. The path that leads to working every day on the other side with the hopes of having a better life upon return, or only going there to remind oneself that another way exists. The path of those who find happiness despite their constant back and forth, or those of us who are satisfied with a departure, but no return.

I recall the dreadful time that started on September 11th. That day shook much more than those living within the borders of the United States. This tragedy affected us greatly, since the connection between the cities is one that exceeds boundaries, both political and geographical. A close friend of mine who was attending a school in El Paso went on to experience the worst embodiment of the limbo as security became stricter in the days, months, and years following the attacks. The two-hour wait, which I am currently living through, was instead a six-hour wait. The only way to decrease that number was for people to cross the checkpoint by foot. It did save a few hours—probably cut the waiting time by half—but it came with the compromise of being searched more thoroughly and the sacrifice of not having a vehicle once you crossed the bridge.

The fear that the United States suffered as a country was projected upon and executed to perfection as the paranoia passed on to those of us across the border. We entered the country and brought the panic back with us once we returned home. Our skepticism of an Eden on the other side of the puente became real. The Eden had transformed itself into a place that none could recognize because its citizens were unable to provide an identity for it.  The American people were not ready to understand that their Eden could be penetrated or—in fact—broken. Thankfully, with time, things began to settle, and ultimately some order regained.

I’m almost halfway through the limbo now. I haven’t taken a look at the clock, and I forgot to do so at the beginning, so I’m not exactly sure how much time has passed. Now, we reach the point of no return. Once this far into the limbo it is impossible to turn the car around if—for some unforeseen reason—we regret our choice of destination. We are now waiting on a bridge, and every lane faces the checkpoint. The only possibility to avoid reaching the end of the drive is to open the door and abandon the car. Although, one would be tackled within seconds by the border patrol officers who can only assume you’ve left a bomb in the car. At which point, it is wiser to cross the checkpoint and, after doing so, turn around and drive back to Juarez. Once you step inside the checkpoint, you find yourself in a land between Lands. Precisely why I continue to consider this space a limbo.  The only area where you can accurately and adequately define what the relationship between the two countries could mean to you. Transformation is now inevitable and inherent to the experience.

The midway point has a physical marker on the bridge. To our right stands a small structure, made of concrete, with a plaque showing the precise location where the cities—the countries—are divided. The right side reads “Limite de Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos” (Boundary of the United Mexican States) and the left “Boundary of the United States of America” divided by a line running down the center.

It stands in the middle of the limbo, before reaching the checkpoint but after the point of no return. It simplifies all issues, forgives mistakes, and provides the most democratic of experiences. If you’re crossing the puente by foot—no matter your age, gender, or immigration status—you can freely enter and leave the country as much as you’d like, only you can’t go past the checkpoint a few yards ahead. That will require an entirely separate type of sacrifice and labor. In this sense, the Eden is—and will never—be free for everyone.

The plaque now stands behind us. It acts as the constant reminder that things are different and new rules—whether you like them or not—apply to you and everyone else in limbo. People begin to search in their pockets and purses to make sure their documents are still where they secured them, they re-check the seats for anything that might cause them trouble as they approach the inevitable search by the border patrol. In a way, that has always been funny to me, to see people respect rules they so easily disregard in Mexico, wearing seatbelts is a good example. Once we cross into American territory, everyone is afraid of the repercussions, fines, and denied access to the country. So they buckle up.

As we approach the checkpoint, people lower the volume of the music in their car. Here, everyone tries to blend in with the people around them. A giant, indistinguishable mass of concerned, law-abiding citizens.

The images outside my car window also shift. Where you could see the merchants trying to make a living, you now witness a small army of border patrol officers walking through the lanes, heavily armed and fully permitted to engage their weapons, if necessary. Their drug-sniffing dogs are leading them while smelling every car they pass. The officers pass you again and again as you wait. Even though you have done nothing wrong, you try, awkwardly, to avoid eye contact and hope the dogs pay no attention to your vehicle.

I’m close. Only an ID check away from entering the United States. Anticipation rises inside of me. I imagine the way the day will play out once we cross to the other side. I taste the meals we’ll enjoy later in the day, the people we’ll see, the stores we’ll visit, the purchases we’ll make.

There is one last sight to be noticed as we drive through the limbo. To our left—on the opposite side of a fence—is another line of cars, also waiting. In what appears to be an alternate dimension, people exiting the limbo. Thousands of vehicles enduring the wait only to return home. When I was younger, I wondered why people would leave after enduring so much just to get in. What was on that side—the one I just came from—that would be worth the trouble? What was I missing? What could I not see in this place that somehow gave so many people a reason to return? Why did I not feel the undeniable need for the home that provided so much for me?

When I was young, the line was easy to get through. Only a few cars, a few minutes worth of wait. But now—after I no longer live in that city—that limbo is hours long. It’s a direct consequence of the growing danger and extreme violence that erupts in Juarez. The drug-cartel war that leaves blood on our streets and marks our name on the news. Before, people would go back home to a city that was still safe, in the grand scheme of things. Now they return to a place for which I find it almost impossible to feel pride.

This thought is always interrupted upon our arrival to the checkpoint. My mother opens her purse and hands me my passport and ID, which she generously keeps safe for me. I look at my picture on the ID and have trouble recognizing myself. I took that photograph so many years ago, looking at it I know a different person is staring back at me. Sometimes I try to remember the day we took the picture, but like so many other moments, it’s nothing but a blurry memory.

Now there are only two cars in front us. Behind me, cars so far back I can’t even see where the line begins. In front of me, the checkpoint seems larger, more significant. One more car means we stop at a painted line to make sure the officers have enough space between the people they’re questioning and ourselves. My father rolls down all our windows as we move forward and come to a full stop.

My parents show their IDs, and a second later I show mine, saying the word that would go on to have an unconscious footprint on my life: American. This word is a mode of identification that exceeds all others. I state my nationality to gain access to the country. I declare myself an American. I say it out loud.

The officer takes our paperwork and runs it through a database on a computer in his booth, and once we are clear from the terrorist list, he returns to our car. He asks the purpose of our visit and lets us through. As my father drives through the path sectioned off by security and stops at the light before merging on the I-10, I still think about what I’ve just said. I was born in El Paso and raised in Juarez. I was born to and raised by Mexican parents and a Mexican family with traditions and values native to the land. I received an education in Mexican schools from pre-school all the way through high school and my first year of attending university.  Spanish is my first language and to this day if I have to count something the numbers still come out of my mouth as “Uno, dos, tres, cuatro...” In school, I learned all about the history of Mexico, its ancient civilizations, conquerors, emperors, revolutionaries, presidents, and its people. I learned about the bloodshed in sacrifice and war that gave shape to the Eden now behind me. Yet every time I come to that checkpoint, the thousands of times I’ve done so I always have to state what—officially, on paper— I am: an American.

I try to reflect back on everything I’ve ever said. "American" must be on the list of words I’ve pronounced the most in my life. The impact it has on my identity is undeniable. It has been the key to the continuation of my life after Mexico. It allowed me to leave my land for a new one. It gave me the opportunity to study and work where I would not—for financial reasons—have ever gained access. I was born an exile in a country that gave me family, friends, sustenance, love, a home, and a perspective in life I could have only received from that region. A city I would be waiting anxiously—even ungratefully—to leave.

American. I say it out of habit, by default. In fact, there is only one occasion I can recall in all these years that I didn’t say it without thinking. The officer looked at me and asked: “What are you?”—he already knew what I was from taking a look at my ID—he wanted me to say it. I quickly corrected my posture and said “American.” He waved us through, and we went on with our trip as if that had never happened.

Now we drive on the I-10. I join my parents' conversation. I look out my window and see the land we’ve entered. It’s a place I know so well yet it always seems brand new. On the other side, the land I've left behind.

Eden—the one my parents chose as a home for me—provided me with enough to survive, but not enough to remain. I keep traveling and continue my life waiting—in my limbo—for the moment when I’ll long for that happy land far, far away. One that will not ask for anything in exchange to enter it. The land that I will not only come to accept and embrace but will love and proudly call home.


Part 3: Land, Eden, Cross, Here, Exit (A Letter)

The actual place
The imagined state
—that I bear—
the crossing of the limbo,
the sacrifice of crossing the limbo,
every step back, to
Where I find—it
the realization that I

My entire life,
A comfortable life
in a Happy Land.
Protected by a family
of four, and six, and eleven.
Some don’t count anymore.
No real danger.
At least not more than what we’ve
learned to live with.
So, all this time for me to realize
what I’ll attempt to do for so many years.
Even in new cities,
or the idea of new places,
nothing changes.
I keep attempting
Looking for ways to separate myself,
from them.
What can I see that they can’t?
What can I read that they won’t?
Even though
it doesn’t matter,
I hope they notice.
Notice my attempts,
my leaving them.
to leave
and far away.
No one stops me.
They support my leaving.
No one blames me,
but they do hate me
for thinking—saying—I have no
reason to go back.
And stay.
But those faces are still
anchors that keep me there.
How long does it take me
to notice
that I’m not that far at all?
my city.
You took me in.
And I wonder if you knew
back then.
Did you know you weren’t

My city,
I say your name
and everyone recognizes you
with/through (true) fear,
just like us.
They know your face
but I know your voice.
And everyone asks the same question:
How did you survive?
the Eden
“It’s no Eden that you would seek,
yet it’s home sweet home to me.”
I wish that was my answer.
That’s what I want to say.
with a history of violence.
Headlines so large
they can be read
from miles away.
Marks that can’t be erased,
and can be seen
and felt
and read
by anyone who comes near them.

Its citizens,
Of whom I don’t know many,
but if we met we’d know exactly
what to say.
When did you come here?
What did you leave?
Will you stay?
And the rest will be
filled with stories
that don’t need
to be said
to be known.
Some times
are hard
and changes
don’t come.
You wait,
the window passes
and you stay.
to having
Some times
that’s enough.
a history.
Not the one
you would seek,
but it is ours.
As worth telling
as it is hard to listen to.
It is this history
that has chosen you.

And the Eden tried,
It still does.
It begs to be left
It wants its history
to be renewed.
A new face
and a new voice.
asked evil to leave,
Its people are tired.
An army recruited
to fight.
To separate
the good from the rest.
The most.
but it wouldn’t
Then it grew
into democratic
Now everyone
is affected.
Their homes must be
protected with iron
and fire,
the streets emptied
by their own choice.
By the time the sun
or, rises,
the fear will
the Land
It’s a new language
that can’t understand
the previous commands.
It won’t

They’re enchanted by it.
Despite the pain
There is something
worth everything,
and it is visible to them.
I want to be enchanted by it.
It is not visible
to me.

Very early,
The happy
yet aware
the realization
Where there’s one
there’re two.
—or, desire, maybe—
How far,
is this gap?
of the other Eden.
Which was never
In fact,
Presented as
a choice.
A great one.

There is the Eden,
Which you wouldn’t
Which you might fear
and confuse.
The one you might find
yourself trapped in,
waiting for that window.
that housed me,
It became the container,
through which I would
to fight with,
and the Eden,
Which is a dream.
Or, a promise.
One that so many fall
in love with
that there’s not enough
dream left
to go around.
that received me.
The grand entrance.
Staying just enough
to collect all
the privileges
I could ever require.

Neither with enough
and shared
to claim me.
The bureaucratic process,
and argument
that never
Not on its own.
I have to.

So I resent it.
I have to.

I resent my Edens.
They’ve left
With what?,
instead of a home.
Did they attempt
any type salvation?
Or, Could they only
save a few?
Did they make
an offer?
Maybe I was
too blinded
to even hear it.

The first
It couldn’t
and wouldn’t
and didn’t
hold me.
for not keeping me
Or, it was not
its choice to make.
and the other
Too troubled
by its own disease
to notice
my questions.
for not being mine
And that
to be in.
But there’s no other choice,
or, way out.
Not then.
So, just like you,
Who has felt
the abandonment
of a place
that is not home.
the only option
Which is clear
in anybody’s
is to leave it.
How far should we go
before we decide to look back?
Do we wonder
if it feels

And I want to.
This is the
of home.

I recall the days
With a family of three,
sometimes four.
Following the routine
of waiting,
and questions.
Answering without
the effects it would leave
in my mind
for years to come.
moving back
To the origin,
the first Eden,
or, the one that
was left.
It’s romanticized.
We go to it to find
and forth
To the Land.
The one that is
overpowered with
a harsh reality
and confusion.
The one hiding
from me.
between them.
Sometimes trapped
in a limbo
that is ever flowing,
ever filled
and no one
seems to mind it.
We are between
the Lands,
and this is where,
it is the easiest
to define them.
In this limbo,
at least no one
is left,
or, lost.

Maybe it wasn’t
Looking back,
it doesn’t seem
as simple.
That routine
takes a life
of it’s own.
Once I’m no longer
blinded by promises
and I’m far away
enough to see,
it no longer feels like
which is such a common
another thing we,
would know to
speak about.
it was practicing.
Not only to prepare
for The attempt,
but to lay the
for questions.
The ones
that drive you.
for the moment
when I wouldn’t answer
what I was
but would ask it

A pattern
Which, at first,
I don’t build
by myself,
I follow.
I never question it,
it’s systematic,
I followed it so many times,
and allowed it to become
so present
and complex
that I don’t even know
where it stops,
or, stopped.
So now I look for these patterns,
which were a representation
of my relationship with these Lands,
from the very
to leave,
Countless times.
So many
I am numb
to this feeling.
Is this why
it was so easy
to not look back?
the Land.
I don’t miss you.
But, I look at you.

The Land that fed me
In the most basic of ways,
it fed me
but the Eden that promised me.
Milk AND honey.
And it’s not greed,
but ambition,
that was offered as salvation.

So I do.
It is left.
I follow
As many have
before me.
Not a new path,
it’s barely there
to be seen,
I have to forge it
as I take every
new step.
But I can see enough.
the new map
Which is just a vague,
almost disappearing
line, if anything.
The one that might be.

And now,
When changes come,
the limbo
is crossed
and new territories
and smokeless skies
are visible.
the new Eden
Which is calm
and collected.
but present.
even in memories.
keeps its promise.
It claims me.
And, was simply
LIke me.

I am enchanted.
This is the Land
for that,
of that.
The patterns
even if just for a minute.

But now,
After being
in silence,
resting from battle.
Where new realizations
are born,
where the ambition,
strikes again.
the horizon
Which has proven
to not be far away.
Which is palpable.
shows another.
Because if there’s one,
there’re two.
More Edens
or, Lands.
More crossings,
or, exits.
Or, Patterns.

I forgot
to consider
that without
A limbo,
they’re not as easy
to distinguish.
What happens when
the question isn’t
about locating
the Eden?
your Eden.
Do you choose?

Now it’s promises.
And if the first Eden
Would the second
do the same?
I’m tempted.

The paths are defined,
I’ve taken
I know I can find
Others have.
And their stories
and not too far away
from mine.

I finally look back.
Because I’ve taken
the paths,
and so many of them.
Even if I’m closer
than I’d think,
maybe, because I am,
it’s time to ask.
Not to demand.
I want to listen
to the Land,
because I know its’ voice,
and it’s face.
Because I can recognize it.
I can be

I still want to be enchanted,
By Lands, not Edens.
I don’t want the Land
to change.
I want to see
what they’ve seen.
That for which
they fight for.

I desire to be claimed.
Not just welcomed.

And that look,
Which starts,
with complete certainty.
Like when you fight a dragon
with iron and fire
and you know
you will win.
becomes the more.
Because then you
And you see that
you’ve been
With that look,
The dragon hold you
and knows
something new
you’ve not
understood yet.
I learn of something
Patiently told
to me.
The dragon doesn’t
need its fire.
How do you tell
people you could be
so easily.
He simply whispers it
into my ear.
I never knew to fear.
This is no longer
about me
The Land
will fight back
against me.

The punishment
The Land
is not pleased.
It demands
the only thing
one might be hesitant
to give.
for leaving,
And, How could I
have missed that?
No consequences?
Who has heard
of such thing?
is A history,
My history,
and the memories
that have not,
will not,
not of violence,
Like the one
raging through its veins.
Which can be seen
from space.
but of retribution.
What can the Land
take from me?
How do you estimate
the right price?

Looking back,
with realization.
I’m left.
The Land,

My city,
Of which
I remember
I ever saw.
leaves me.
In its own
It leaves only
its ruins
for me
to find.
The Eden
Only leaving
just enough to be
It makes sure
you know
it was there.
If there’s one,
there are two.
And we would
know each other,
if we ever met.
We’d know what
to say.
leaves it.
Some never
look back,
but they still know.

It erases the paths,
The Land shrinks,
we now know
portions are not
to be walked.
Those you may
never see
And you’ll never
again see whoever
you left there.
closes the doors,
Your realm is now
Only you can walk
where others can’t.
Even if they’re trusted.
ages the faces.
If they’re still
you try to recognize
and they,

If you wanted to leave so badly,
Always in a hurry
to find
When maybe you weren’t
To see this as the Eden
instead of a Land.
—if I wanted to—
How long would it
take me
to look closer?
then there would be
Maybe there is
mercy left,
nothing left to leave.
But a Land
to stand on.

No history to leave.
Now A history
is more
than ever

If it was there
And all I have are
the paths,
the doors,
and the faces
in my mind
to hold on to.
no one can tell me
to be found.
where it went.
Or, if it was there.

I want to be enchanted by this land.
Is its punishment
not enough
for me
to learn?

The Eden transforms.
If it does,
Is it new?
If it is,
Is it ours
to look for?

And now I stand on a path
Iron and fire
at hand.
not between,
Where I’ve always
but within
The crossing.
A new Eden
of its own.
Which I recognize,
they call out
for me.

I can see, now,
In a new
with new
their movements,
Because, now,
they are
my own
and they
make new
their mapping.
Now more clear
to follow.
I now know,
Only because
of these shifts
in my Lands.
where it is.
My Eden.

The Land is one place,
Where I am
able to stand.
The Eden another.
Where I can
and desire to be.
And, between them,
Crossing through
And I am

I, now, know
What they
might also
what it is.
And it’s not
to be seeked,
but to be walked,

The journey,
is home.


I’m home.

Armando Martinez-Celis is an educator and designer living and working in Los Angeles. His path began at the Mexican border where he discovered his love for visual storytelling. This direction led him to CalArts, where he began exploring design as a tool to answer questions of articulation and identity. He is one-half—along with his wife and design partner—of Father Madre, as well as serving as Art Director at DISTINC_.