Committing your life to another human being marks the beginning of a flourishing new existence. Whether it is legally-binding matrimony or a domestic partnership, commitment is intended to strengthen a relationship.
But could you promise your devotion to another person, knowing your choice could seriously suffocate your lifestyle, rendering your partner unable to earn an income, have health insurance, or even be able to drive a car? Could you make that decision, knowing this choice could possibly carry on for the rest of your lives, with no way out?
For Daniel Zavala and Yohandel Ruiz, their union thrust them into a standstill. The two are trapped in legal purgatory, an arduous battle between immigration laws and the Defense of Marriage Act.
Zavala, 28, is a Mexican citizen. Ruiz, 38, is a Cuban-born American citizen. Zavala’s 90-day tourist visa expired last year, shortly after his nuptials to Ruiz in May 2012, and he’s been living in Coral Gables illegally. If Zavala ever leaves the United States before obtaining legal status, he’ll be banned from returning ever again.
“We got married because we wanted to stay together. I knew my visa would expire and I would be left without a status,” Zavala explains with his thick Mexican accent. “But then our lawyer said ‘well, getting married, there's no legal procedure right now for a marriage like yours.’” Deportation is a possibility, but unlikely. Their future hinges on DOMA being overturned in the near future.
It’s a game of Russian Roulette.
Despite having a college education, the bubbly 28-year-old is unable to find a job that will pay the hefty fees to sponsor his visa and the pair depends on Ruiz’s single income working in cruise ship architecture. Zavala spends his days riding his bicycle around their quaint neighborhood, since he can’t obtain a drivers license. He takes care of their feisty yorkie, Parker. He tries his hardest to convince Ruiz to learn to love salad. But mostly, he hopes and prays the Supreme Court will overturn DOMA.
For Ruiz, their struggle against DOMA is a punishing reality contrary to the life of freedom he came to America in search of. When he was six-years-old, his family immigrated to Miami from Cuba, seeking refuge from the dilapidated country.
“My dad said to me, ‘We're going to this place where you can have everything you ever wanted, and be happy, and have toys, and go to school be a professional,’” Ruiz says.
But now, Ruiz is realizing he can’t have everything he’s ever wanted. Because from the moment they met, Zavala is all he ever wanted.
It was August 16, 2011. On a random Tuesday, a friend dragged Zavala, who was on vacation from Monterrey, Mexico, to Score nightclub on South Beach.
On the heels of New York legalizing gay marriage just weeks earlier, Zavala was wearing a tee shirt emblazoned with “I Love New York” in rainbow lettering.
That bright, bold shirt caught Ruiz’s eye. “It was like wow, what a beautiful person,” he remembers of Zavala. “From the minute I met him I knew, he was such a special person and there was this connection on every level. It was at first sight.”
They struck up a conversation, and Ruiz invited Zavala to dinner the next day, Wednesday. Zavala reminded him he had to leave on Thursday, but Ruiz didn’t care. He needed more.
The next day, the innocent dinner turned into 5 a.m. They fell asleep talking, and Zavala woke up late for his flight home to Mexico. From the start, it seemed as if fate never wanted him to leave in the first place.
When Zavala was back in Monterrey, he and Ruiz began regularly video chatting. They met each other’s parents over FaceTime. They had dinner together: Zavala with his family, Ruiz at home in Coral Gables.
“Thank you, Steve Jobs,” Zavala laughs.
Quickly, they made plans to reunite. A few weeks later, they took a four-day cruise to the Bahamas and Key West.
“It was like a little honeymoon,” Ruiz said. “The whole cruise we were talking about going to Paris and everything we wanted to do on our bucket list, and we were like, wouldn't it be great if we did that together?”
Before long, the couple was investigating options to move Zavala to the United States permanently.
When their attempts at a work visa didn’t pan out, they considered sending Zavala back to school with a student visa. But the cost of education is steep and Zavala already has a Bachelor’s degree. They were doing nothing more than putting a tarp on a tsunami. It was a quick fix.
They even considered breaking the law and finding a woman for Zavala to marry in an attempt at securing him a green card. They were desperate.
“We would just wake up at night in cold sweats, like what are we going to do? We just wanted to be together,” Ruiz says. “Any woman or any man can get married. Even a convicted criminal! You could marry someone who's on death row! Meet them, marry them in jail, and they would have more rights than I have.”
The duo spent the Thanksgiving holiday together, and Zavala returned home to Mexico with plans to be back again in time for New Year’s Eve.
But this trip would be special, because Zavala didn’t return to Miami in December empty-handed: He brought back an engagement ring.
“I wanted to on the first day of the year because it's like a cycle. We were starting over,” Zavala explains. “And it was funny because we had the New Years party, we went to the beach, we got crazy, and then I wake up, and the first thing that goes through my mind is that I have to go get the ring before he wakes up.”
Zavala presented the silver, engraved ring to Ruiz just as he opened his eyes on New Year’s Day.
“I was choked up. I didn't know what to say,” Ruiz remembers. “It was so nice that it happened. I was so happy.”
While their family and friends were delighted, they also had valid concerns of their quick engagement and rush to the altar.
“We got married for the same reason anybody else would get married,” Ruiz explains. “Why would you get married, why would my parents get married? They got married because they found that person they want to spend the rest of their lives with, and when you find that person, it's so hard, you don't want to let them go! You want to be together.”
While they dreamed of a destination wedding in Playa la Carmen, time and logistics weren’t on their side. They were worried that Zavala’s frequent comings and goings would flag immigration and prevent him from getting back into the country once again. They weren’t able to get Zavala’s family to the United States, and Ruiz felt too guilty to have only his family present.
So they planned a private wedding in a much more curious location: Washington, D.C., right in front of the Capitol Building.
“So there we were, in front of the Ulysses S. Grant memorial, there were Duck Tours passing by and people clapping. We felt we need to get married in front of the place where the laws are enacted that are discriminating against us,” Ruiz says. “We need to let the world know…”
“It’s a protest,” Zavala interjects. “Gay marriage is a reality already. And it has been forever. Maybe not with the label of marriage or the law of marriage, but it is a reality. Making it legal it would be just like an acknowledgement from society of that reality. The way I see it now, the U.S. is just closing their eyes to what's happening.”
But Zavala and Ruiz’s bold protest didn’t come without a price.
Shortly after their wedding, Zavala’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. He was unable to visit her in Mexico, but they were able to bring her to Miami after her surgery and chemotherapy. Luckily, she is in remission today, but the possibility that Zavala could’ve lost his mother without ever seeing her again, haunts them.
“When your spouse is crying because he can't be with his family, and you feel guilty because in a way you're keeping him here,” Ruiz says. “He decided to leave everything behind to be with me. I feel guilty he can't see his mother and be with her. I feel guilty that if God forbid he gets sick and doesn't have medical insurance… I feel guilty because what if I lose my job and we don't have a place to live because we're only on one income and can't save as much as we should. I feel guilty all the time. It's constant.”
Zavala and Ruiz are embroiled in the forefront of two of the country’s biggest issues today, and their fate could change at any moment.
Immigration and same-sex marriage continue to be scrutinized. U.S. border security is undergoing an overhaul that could add 20,000 new border patrol agents, boost surveillance and add thousands of miles of fencing along the U.S. – Mexico border. The Supreme Court is expected to make a decision on DOMA any day.
Regardless of the uncertainty that lies before them, Ruiz and Zavala continue to have faith in the institution of marriage. They don’t believe in divorce and impress the importance of communication and realizing each other’s dreams. They both say marriage is better than they expected it to be. But they’re ready for a resolution to the same-sex marriage debate.
“People who first get married shouldn't worry about this,” Ruiz says. “They should be planning their future and their kids and whatever, and we're planning how to stay together and how to fall asleep knowing our future is in the hands of nine justices who don't even know who we are.”