My Home Is In The City Of Flowers
Updated: May 14
By Leonora Martínez-Núñez
I grew up in the city of flowers, Xalapa, the capital city of the Mexican state of Veracruz.
From the Nahuatl roots xālli (sand) and āpan (place of water), Xalapa means “spring in the sand”. A colorful colonial city, both melancholic and precious, in the heart of the cloud forest. We are called Xalapeños (Jalapeños, yes! exactly like the peppers, cultivated originally in this area). My city was a place of son jarocho songs, art films, and theatre festivals. Xalapa is a city always covered in flowers.
My neighborhood was in the undeveloped countryside, with a few houses and green empty lots of land around, a creek behind our house, cows and horses grazing, tall trees, and the bush beyond. I was three years old when my dad died. I do not have memories of him; they come from stories I have heard. My first time going to see the ocean was only to spread my dad’s ashes in the sea.
My Mom was widowed at thirty-three with three kids, no education, or a job; she only took care of her husband and children as a Mexican woman was told those days. We lived in a modest unfinished house where my Mom made sweat bread that my eldest brother would sell to the neighbors to make ends meet. She eventually found a job cleaning a Catholic school first, and then a government office, working from 6 am to 9 pm, with a break to have lunch with us.
I was three years old when my dad died. I do not have memories of him; they come from stories I have heard. My first time going to see the ocean was only to spread my dad’s ashes in the sea.
Within the years, my Mom studied weeknights and weekends to get her high school diploma and a secretarial degree. She was promoted first to the front desk, and then as a full-time secretary, a job that she keeps doing to this day. She has always been inspiring. My Mom always pushed me to be good at school and encouraged me to be the best, and although I tried my best not to disappoint her, it was not always easy. She let me know when I did and how I needed to make a more significant effort.
Even though my brothers took care of me while my Mom worked, I always felt lonely as a child. I was also a bit artistic, always drawing, painting, dancing, acting, or interpreting poetry, that I learned from Mom by reading Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, or Juan de Dios Peza. I was curious about science too. I remember HIV-AIDS being all over the news or watching movies portraying scientists looking for a cure to a fast-spreading disease in their yellow suits, staring at a virus with a simple light microscope. I wanted to be there and be a scientist.
I was never a girly teenager growing up; I wore ripped baggy jeans and tie-dye t-shirts that I made myself. I did not like being home, and I made up any excuse to get out and hang out with friends until late hours. The relationship with my Mom was always tense, and it was very challenging because she wanted me to be different, to wear a dress, keep my hair long, talk, and act in a certain way. She always tried to tell me how to do things. It took time, a long time, to understand each other.
Unlike me, my brothers did not like school. My eldest brother went to the military at seventeen, where he worked for 30 years. My older brother dropped out of college to work illegally in the US for two years, before being deported. So even when the relationship with my Mom was bumpy, I always felt responsible for giving her back some joy. I always kept good grades that allowed me a small stipend from the government, enough to buy school supplies, uniforms, I even bought my first pair of rollerblades!
I finished high school with biology training and a couple of art-related classes, but I could only go to the local public University that we could afford. Part of me wanted to study Plastic Arts, but my Mom pushed the last bit, and I went for Biology to follow my plan of becoming a scientist. Education quality at a Mexican public university depended much on a personal effort; some professors did not care at all. I hit a wall when I took Biochemistry, I could not understand the lectures, and frankly, I was failing big time. I started studying every day, I read Lehninger Principles of Biochemistry daily and did homework with friends at cibercafes (a computer with internet was a commodity we could not afford at home). I got an okay grade and I was relieved. I just had to power through it. The same happened with Immunology and Enzymology. I realized the science career I wanted to pursue was not going to be easy. By then, my Mom had sold the old house, and we moved to a smaller apartment in a new neighborhood where I felt happy as we settled in our new home.
After graduating from the Biology program, I won a national summer fellowship at a renowned Institution of Infectious Diseases in Mexico City, a Biosafety level-3 facility for research on HIV (There are only 13 labs in the United States that attained the highest rating, Biosafety level 4). Mom was happy when I told her but concerned about me moving to the big city because I had no place to live there yet, however in her mind, it was only for two months. I was thrilled to move to Mexico City and start my internship, but it did not end well. Once in the new lab, I had to read papers; however, I did not know any English. I never learned advanced English because you had to pay for private lessons, again unaffordable. I had to translate the text using a dictionary, and even after that, the science behind FACS plots was incomprehensible for me. I never read the papers; instead, I met a postdoc that taught me how to do PCRs and to run agarose gels, which I enjoyed better. Later I learned the director did not like my approach, and he denied me the chance to stay longer.
Once in the new lab, I had to read papers; however, I did not know any English. I never learned advanced English because you had to pay for private lessons, again unaffordable.
It felt like a failure. However, I wanted to stay in the city. I found another lab working on Mycobacteria in a different institute with no stipend, so I took a part-time job. Within a year, I felt exhausted. I found out immunology was not my thing, and I had no energy to study for grad school. Disappointed, I went back home to Xalapa. I got a dull full-time job, which allowed me to pay for English lessons at least. I was unhappy. I was drinking too much and staying out until the morning; I even left early on Christmas once or twice to go out with friends. I felt like nothing but a wilting flower. My Mom was worried all the time, we barely saw each other; she was always calling me to know where I was. We fought a lot, she was sad and mad at me because I was living under her roof but I was constantly sleeping or hungover.
I am not proud of that time, but somehow it pushed me to get my act together. I realized my Mom had a hard time in life already to be dealing with me, and I needed to make things right. I applied for grad school and won a national fellowship for a graduate science program at a National Research Institute in the northern city of Ensenada, Baja California. I moved out again and further away this time.
Grad school was hard, I was rusty, and it took an enormous effort, but I exceeded my expectations. I received a fantastic lecture on Taxonomy and Cellular Biology of Fungi, where I learned fungal cell biology, diversity, and the mystical nature of Fungi to retrieve life to earth. I fell in love, and I finished my master's and Ph.D. projects studying cell wall proteins of a model filamentous fungus. I discovered a much personally fulfilling way of doing science. I'm in no way a scientific genius, but I figured that is not going to stop me from learning something new in the Lab or in life. My Mom came to visit when I defended my thesis, and it was so beautiful to see how proud she was. I was not a blooming flower, but a colorful mushroom, beautiful in its own right.
I worked as a technician in the same lab as I started looking for a postdoc position. I applied to several labs and, typically, faced some rejection. At last, one application in the U.S. went through. A lab dedicated to studying membrane trafficking in yeast with great biochemistry and structural biology expertise. I was home for the holidays, and I had fought with my Mom beforehand (which was normal over the holidays) when I had my first Skype interview. Months after, I flew to snowy New England for an on-campus interview where I presented a seminar in English with a shaking voice and my strong accent. After a couple of follow-ups, it was still not clear -did I get the job? I felt thrilled when the PI finally offered me the position, and honestly, I cried a little. I called my Mom right away to let her know I got a job in the U.S., but I would have to move up north again. She was glad; to my family, a job in the U.S. represents a better life, but I could tell that she was heartbroken. I was moving yet further away from her.
I was not a blooming flower, but a colorful mushroom, beautiful in its own right.
I moved to Massachusetts a couple of months after, and I only went back and saw my Mom a year later. I have been here for three years, and she has not visited me yet. She is sixty-seven, she is in great shape but she is afraid of the freezing temperatures.
Forever it has always been the two of us, she has been the only constant in my life and I believe time and distance have helped. Now we do a better job putting ourselves in each other's shoes. I check on her daily, nowadays she is in quarantine alone. I am constantly worried, but she is inherently positive. She reminds me to be forever grateful for the life I got to live so far, and hopefully, we will meet soon in the city of flowers to walk under the bougainvilleas.