Ruben Seyde-Ruiz sits in his kitchen in Fitchburg. On the table is a small plate with some crumbs on it. Ruben, a stocky man with a tired but kind look and a broad face, browses through a few stapled pages. Beside him, his bespectacled 8-year-old son, Eduardo, smiles and plays with his bright yellow spinning top toy. Ruben keeps browsing the house listings he has printed.
Ruben is a 56-year-old Mexican immigrant who has been living in Fitchburg for over 20 years. He’s an accountant for a hotel, a solid job, but according to his 22-year-old son, also Ruben, Ruben Sr. wants to sell his house and buy a cheaper one—in Mexico.
“I don’t see how that’s going to make it easier for him,” the younger Ruben says. “He’s only going to be indebted with another house as opposed to losing the debt and not being tied down here.”
Ruben’s wife, María Victoria—the mother of Ruben, Eduardo, and their older sister, Stephanie—is already back in Mexico. Curtains flowing in the windows and a flat-screen TV occupy the only picture-free space; otherwise, family photos, including pics of María and Ruben’s wedding, cover the walls. María hasn’t been in Fitchburg for the past seven years; Ruben Jr. says his parents call each other “10, 20 times a day.”
“Me and my wife were both applying for our residency together,” Ruben says. “But her dad got sick. She went back to Mexico and took care of some of his business after he died. I got my residency in 2015. She got a 10-year ban from the United States when she left seven years ago.” Ruben hadn’t seen his wife for five years when he got his green card. He now flies to Mexico once or twice a year to see her.
Ruben had a short stint as a single man in Fitchburg in 1990. After having trouble finding work in Mexico, he came back married in 1995 with a 2-year-old daughter and the younger Ruben due in a couple months. The three of them had tourist visas when they settled here, but his wife couldn’t work because of her pregnancy.
“We had no problem coming in,” Ruben recalls.
“My parents wanted me to have the privilege of being born here,” the younger Ruben adds. “They planned the trip to be around the time when I was born and then settled down and stayed here.”
Stephanie, their oldest daughter, married an American citizen and procured a green card for her father, but her mother had already been stricken with the 10-year ban from the United States.
Ruben Sr. says his wife had to return to Mexico because her dad was ill, though Ruben Jr. tells a more complex story.
“My mother was in the kitchen eating lunch, and she gets a call from my grandpa in Mexico, which is typical because at the time they were talking every day just to check up on each other,” he says. “But what was different this time when she picked up the call was the person on the other end. It was a guy who my grandpa was saying was his long-lost son. My grandpa was pretty old at the time. The people were saying that so that my grandpa would sign his will over to them. My mom realized something was wrong while that guy was talking to her. Overnight she decided that she had to fly to Mexico.”
A long saga of schemes and legal battles followed, times toughened by differing wills, property disputes, physical confrontations, and all-around drama. According to her son, María was advised by her attorneys to study law so that she could understand her own case. In time she became a lawyer, and now has her own firm. In the end, Mexican courts ruled in favor of María. Her father’s last will was rendered void due to his mental incapacity, while the guy claiming to be a long-lost son was found to be a fake and convicted of related crimes.
Ruben Jr., who now works at a law firm in Boston that handles immigration cases, told me all of this last year during a commute from Boston University to his dad’s home in Fitchburg. He was a senior at the time, studying international relations and trying to secure a job for after graduation. The drive typically takes 45 minutes in light traffic, but on that day it took us an hour and 15 minutes since we got a flat, and neither of us had ever changed a tire before. We struggled for a while until an older woman with a Puerto Rican flag on her front window stopped to offer us guidance and better tools.
Back in the car, Ruben spoke about his mother’s departure back when he was in high school: “I got conditioned to hate my dad’s ringtone. … In high school, when my mom left, it gave me all the freedom that I wanted. But whenever I was trying to be with my dad, my mom would always call. And my dad would always take the call and drop everything to talk to her, which makes sense. But, as a kid trying to have a meal with your father, it sucks having to hear that ringtone. For the next one minute to one hour, you lose your dad.
“But I’m also grateful in a sense. When she left and my dad went to work, I had to go to school, cook lunch and dinner for us, do laundry for us, clean the house, do my homework, help pay the bills (which meant I had to work). It made [me] more mature. But I definitely would have appreciated having a full family through high school and college. Next month when I graduate, my mom won’t be there.”
Ruben says his mom’s leaving affected his siblings as well. Stephanie, his sister, had just married and given birth. “She had to go through that without her mother’s guidance.” As for his little brother, Eduardo, Ruben says that he was put at a disadvantage coming here in the first grade and never recovered, having to learn English from scratch plus new cultural customs.
“I don’t see what they are living for here,” Ruben Jr. says. “Whereas with my mom, they have money, she has a degree, she has her own law firm. They would be able to pay for my brother to go to private school. I just feel that they would be better positioned in Mexico to continue their lives than they would here.”
Ruben Sr. says that he has tried to convince his younger son to move to Mexico, but reports that the idea is poorly received. I try to ask him myself, but all Eduardo tells me is that if I am going to write about anything, I should write about his spinning top toy.
Driving around, Ruben Jr., who referees semi pro and college soccer on the side, described the city Fitchburg used to be—the empty brick building that until this year used to be home to the Sentinel & Enterprise newspaper, three abandoned properties that used to be schools.
“When this town was thriving, there were so many people here that we needed three different schools on the same street,” Ruben Jr. said. “Now they’re all abandoned.” He sees disappointment all around.
Ruben Sr., meanwhile, is growing more frustrated with the immigration process and prospects of getting his wife back to Fitchburg. “Every time I call the lawyers someone different is handling the case,” he reports. “My wife once missed a meeting scheduled at 9 am in a town that’s a three-hour flight away from where she lives and that set everything back. They take that as a huge offense.”
“My mom says she was afraid to go to the town where the meeting was scheduled,” the younger Ruben adds. “She also says she fell ill the day she was supposed to take her plane. She attributes the illness on someone casting black magic on her.”
Regardless of what caused María to miss the appointment, Ruben Sr. says the current political climate is not helping their case, “because they’re giving out fewer visas and green cards in general and everything is slowed down.”
Still, the older Ruben speaks fondly of his experience as an immigrant in general. He says he never had trouble finding a job, and even laughs talking about a successful mayoral campaign he once worked on. “I just showed up without fear,” he says. “You act like you don’t expect anyone to ask you anything.”
“It used to be so easy getting a license,” Ruben Sr. says. “You just got a friend to say you have been living here for a number of years. And then with a license, you can get a bank account easily. It’s much harder now.”
I ask father and son if they think father and mother will ever live together again.
“I hope so. I really do…” the younger answers. “I think they will, but it might be 10 more years.”
“We’re still working on it,” Ruben Sr. says.
“Hope is the last thing you lose.”