Last month I defended myself in an extortion case. In the exact same month I was on national television, listed in the cover story of Apertura (Bloomberg BusinessWeek) – “50 Entrepreneurs Breaking the Mold” and interviewed for an upcoming issue of Forbes. These facts are incongruously perplexing on their own merit; now add the fact that the setting is Buenos Aires, I’m from the suburbs of Chicago, and the plaintiff in the extortion case is my son’s father. This spectrum of effervescently awesome and excruciatingly dismal pretty much sum up my existence ever since the day I became a single mompreneur trapped in Argentina. Did I mention that I do all this in Spanish?
Let’s back up – I was an avid reader of EscapeArtist.com back in 2003. I dreamt of going off the grid and spending the rest of my days on a beach in the Caribbean. While teaching poetry as a part of my Masters program at University of Miami and working as a performance artist, I took an impromptu 3-week trip to Buenos Aires in 2005. Other than a few intervals over the first year to finish my MFA, that trip has now extended to this very day and will continue until December 3, 2025. That is the day my Argentine-born son turns 18. It’s the first day that my son can leave Argentina without signed permission from his father.
Welcome to the side they don’t write about in books about expat life. I don’t want to rain on your parade – but I personally know at least 5 others in similar situations. I’m just telling you if you’re going to get involved in a cross-border relationship and have a child with a local, be prepared with an umbrella or two. Any split is difficult – a split where your ex knows the ins and outs of a culture, and you do not, just plain sucks. This kind of stuff often makes the news. (http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/exclusive-argentine-american-custody-battle-rages-10th-year/story?id=10481955)
When my relationship with my child’s father deteriorated to the point of no return, the first thing he did was steal our son’s passports and travel permit. I use the world “steal” liberally because according to the US Embassy, his father has as much of a right to these documents as I do. Never mind he entered our former bedroom and took them without telling me. When you are in a foreign country you are subject to its laws. My son is a US citizen, however he is Argentine first and thus subject to those laws. If I were to travel to the US with him without permission, INTERPOL would come and get us. Yes, my US citizen son would be effectively DEPORTED back to Argentina.
I call that my “oh shit” moment. I began to notice I was living in an entirely different universe. For example, I’d never noticed that one leaves the US without passing through immigration or showing any travel permits – the airline customer service agent just makes sure you have a valid passport and a ticket home or reservation to your next destination. That’s not the case in Argentina where I’ve lived for the past 7 years. Everyone goes through immigration controls on the way out and in order for any minor (only recently was this age lowered from 21 to 18) to leave Argentina, they must present a permiso de viaje signed by the non-traveling parent and legalized by a specialized attorney called an escribano.
The word trapped came to mind. The phrase “held hostage” was another. For someone who first traveled abroad at age 14 and loved to go on last-minute adventures, my wanderlust quickly transformed to “wanderwithdrawal.” Panicking over the impending loss of my freedom, I called a lawyer – my first of many. Think it’s hard to find a good lawyer in your own language and in your own country where you’re bound to have multiple referrals from a trusted network of friends and family? Try finding a lawyer 5000 miles from home when the person you trusted most just violated that trust. Jodido is what we call that in Spanish…it loosely translates to “fucked.”
The excitement of an adventure abroad can sometimes cause us to ignore the potential pitfalls – and often we’re not even aware of these pitfalls until we’re plummeting through space like Alice in you-should’ve-read-the-small-print land.
After 2 months of emails, one in which he accused me of psychological extortion (foreshadowing for the real extortion case), attempted mediations, and petitioning a judge which cost more in lawyer’s fees than 3 months of my son’s private school tuition, just 3 days before the trip – my ex signed the travel papers agreeing to exactly 45 days for me to visit the US with my son. Only acts of god like extreme sickness or ashes from Volcan Puehueye were permissible reasons for extending it. He handed me the passports and told me I better thank him for being so understanding. “Fuck you very much” is one of those phrases that just doesn’t translate well.
So my extortion case? According to documents filed with the Argentine penal court, during my last trip to the states (in which I was having near panic attacks while crisscrossing the east coast hosting Spanglish events), I apparently had the time to mastermind a plan in which I threatened to not return to Argentina with my son unless my ex signed over the house…a house that I paid 100% for.
Yes you read that correctly – I just had to defend myself in a case in which my ex claims I tried to extort him for a house which I paid for. He is listed as 50% owner. The escribana who wrote the contract was his godfather’s sister; I say was because she later jumped 18 stories to her death which means I can’t sue her for not properly informing me or offering an English translation of the contract.
His claims were ridiculous and easily defended with my proof of my ties to Argentina. (Ironically the same proof an Argentine must show the Embassy when trying to get a visa to visit the US). It was easy to defend so I won that case, however one thing that can’t be won (unless laws are changed) is the ability to travel to the US with my son without his father’s or a judge’s signature. And at any time he can block my son from leaving Argentina by sending a certified letter (carta documento) to the immigration authorities revoking any existing permiso de viaje – even one signed days earlier.
Choosing to live in Argentina is one thing. Being forced to live in Argentina is quite another. I basically sobbed in private for two and half years straight while being the public face of a language exchange event that was gaining notoriety in local and international circles. Deeply depressed, I forced a smile at home for the sake of my son. I begged for my mom to move here. She did. I didn’t want my son to grow up thinking that his mom was miserable and living a trapped life, so I worked aggressively at being happy, working out, meditating – lots of one step forward and two steps back moments. I finally felt something similar to joy, but I still had a nagging feeling that I wasn’t really happy – that I was just tricking myself. During one of many failed mediations, my ex’s lawyer smiled at me cunningly as she responded to my comment that I was being treated like a hostage: ‘You’re not forced to live in Argentina…you can leave anytime you want to’.
She was right. It felt like a slap in the face – asking me to leave my toddler behind felt like the same thing – but it held enough truth that I had to run with it. So I listed the reasons I love Buenos Aires – which helped me pinpoint why I decided to move here in the first place. The fact I’ve been sitting at the same table and writing for a couple of hours and the waiter hasn’t tried to usher me out, is one. The fact that I can only plan for today, tomorrow, and maaaaybe next week, is another. The Argentine economy requires a Zen state of mind if you’re to avoid being driven crazy by it.
My forced Zen state has become my truth and I no longer feel trapped. I choose to stay in Argentina because I want to be with my son. And with the support of my mom and a huge network of friends, I’ve accomplished something I thought was impossible – genuine happiness. Now I look at obstacles in life much like challenges in a video game. The US is level 1 – easy breezy. Argentina is like level 8, where giant inflation monsters and crime goblins are lurking around every corner. Buenos Aires is so chaotic that auto-pilot is not an option; as of the moment I write this, everything seems under control and I’ll deal with the next bridge if and when I come to it. The human spirit can and will summon the force to adapt to any situation.
As a single mom stuck in a foreign country I went from being a last-minute decision making, country-hopping poet to expat entrepreneur faster than you can say, “must feed my child.” Recently separated and neck deep in misery, I knew I wanted to build my new life around my passions – so I combined language learning and connecting people to create Spanglish Exchange (http://www.SpanglishExchange.com), a social event that pairs native speakers in a series of one-on-one conversations. Constantly meeting the challenge of being a single mom while growing a business in an emerging market has shown me that I don’t need as much sleep when I fill my waking hours with the things I enjoy.
It’s safe to say my business wouldn’t exist if I’d felt I had a way out. We’ve been covered by everything from the NY Post to the Travel Channel UK and I even got to give a tour through my barrio, San Telmo, for CNNGo.
While I’m still anxiously waiting for the adage “do what you love and the money will follow” to come to fruition, being recognized by Forbes for a venture I began in my adopted country makes me giddy. As of late, my life has been marked with a kinetic energy and authenticity that just wouldn’t be possible in the US. Call it Buenos Aires Syndrome, but this city has a grip on me and I am loving every second of it. I live in the moment – which means December 3, 2025 is just another date on a calendar that hasn’t been printed yet.
You can find Maya on Twitter at @MayakMay or visit her Spanglish site at www.SpanglishExchange.com