On a hot August night 22 years ago, Santiago Ortiz was living half-time in Puerto Rico with his parents and half-time in Venezuela, on medical leave from his job as a psychologist at New York City's Rikers Island prison. He went to Bar La Cotorra, one of the oldest gay bars in Caracas, to meet up with a man he had met earlier that day — who never showed. Ortiz, dressed in a yellow shirt and khaki pants, with a daring hoop earring in his left ear, spotted García.
García was a regular at La Cotorra, which was near his job at advertising firm Leo Burnett, and was chatting with a friend the night that Ortiz caught his eye from across the bar. "He was very nice looking. Mustache, big eyes, black," García says.
Ortiz bought García a Cuba Libre and showed off a business card from his New York City job as a bilingual school psychologist. García responded by opening a local newspaper to show him an art review he'd just published. Ortiz was impressed.
They spent the next day hiking in the mountains of El Ávila and talked about their lives and the homophobia they'd both experienced as gay Latinos. Soon they started dating and, despite the less-than-tolerant climate then for gays and lesbians, both introduced one another to their families, García traveling to Puerto Rico to meet Ortiz's parents. After Christmas that year, Ortiz returned to his home in Elmhurst, Queens, to resume his job at Rikers. But he couldn't stop thinking about García. Four months later, after dozens of letters and almost daily phone calls, he asked García to move to New York — and he did.
Today, they live in that same one-bedroom apartment in Queens. On the day I meet them, I'm greeted enthusiastically at the door by a snarfling pug named Benito and the smiling couple, who immediately take my coat and bag and ask if I'm hungry.
Like most New Yorkers, they make up for the lack of space with creative furniture arrangements and decorations. Their walls are alternately painted bright orange, salmon, and mango and sparsely decorated with a few framed paintings. Most of their living-room space is taken up by tall bookshelves filled with hundreds of books, one topped with a Thai Buddhist sculpture. Ortiz describes the décor as their "minimalist phase."
Ten minutes after arriving, I'm sitting in the living room with a slice of roscón de guayaba
, a Colombian pastry filled with cream cheese and guava, and a steaming cup of café con leche
. Benito is at my feet, anxious to see if I might give him a bite, and the two begin recounting the past two decades. After García came to New York, the couple were initially optimistic that things would work out, even though gay marriage was a pipe dream.
"This was pre-9/11, and all through my upbringing I had the idea that it wasn't that hard to become a U.S. citizen," García explains. "My father would always say, if you come to this country, if you're a decent working person, you don't get into trouble, this country is open for you."
When García arrived in 1992, he didn't speak English, but his experience in Spanish-language writing, reporting, and advertising enabled him to get work as a freelance writer, which he supplemented with catering, painting, and coat-check jobs. He decided to overstay his temporary visa in 1995. Now an accomplished playwright and Spanish teacher, García speaks heavily accented fluent English and has a master's degree and pending Ph.D. from the City University of New York (CUNY).
In the last 12 years, though, the climate has become increasingly hostile to immigrants. Having watched the number of deportations increase to record highs, García and Ortiz were anxious to find a permanent solution. For heterosexual binational couples, marriage is often the easiest way for noncitizens to remain in the U.S. legally. There are approximately 24,700 same-sex couples in the country consisting of a U.S. citizen and an undocumented immigrant, many of whom are legally married in one of 13 states where same-sex marriage is legal. But because DOMA prevented Ortiz and García from using the marriage route for a permanent immigration solution, they were forced to try other strategies.
One approach is their participation in the lawsuit Blesch v. Holder
, one of more than a dozen immigration-related cases that aimed to prove DOMA unconstitutional. The advocacy group Immigration Equality filed the lawsuit on April 2, 2012, on behalf of five lesbian and gay couples with immigrant partners from countries including Japan, South Africa, Spain, Venezuela, and the United Kingdom. Their co-plaintiffs have each suffered greatly. Frances Herbert and Takako Ueda met in Michigan as college students, for example, and, because of immigration issues and societal pressure, were separated for 16 years before being reunited and legally married in the United States. Kelli Ryan and Lucy Truman met in medical school in Scotland and were married in 2010, but Truman has had to remain in the U.K.
Ortiz brings out three expandable brown file folders. From them he withdraws several bound stacks of white paper and puts them on the couch next to him.
"This is our lawsuit," he says, almost tenderly.