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El Dia de Los Enamorados 

Or, how I spent Valentine's in the USA

Did you know St. Valentine was a Christian priest who died on Feb. 14, 269 AD and left a farewell notice to his jailer's daughter, whom he had become acquainted with and was probably the only person he appreciated? The note said, "From your Valentine ...," and a lot of other corny stuff that a dying man writes to his platonic lover? I didn't know it, either.

Somehow word of his plight got around and then everybody in Rome selected Feb. 14 as the official day to send letters to loved ones. Centuries later this ex-Roman soldier reached sainthood, not because of those letters, but because he died defending Christian beliefs against those nasty pagan Roman ones.

How did this interesting tale become an aisle full of red-wrapped bonbons, stuffed animals and horribly corny plastic roses at your neighborhood pharmacy? Beats me, but that's not the topic of this column. This column is about immigrants who left loved ones behind for a better opportunity, in hopes of regular monthly money transfers and the possibility of families being reunited.

These mostly male, mostly young people leave their countries together and, as you might assume, they misbehave together. A few of them fall prey to the normal human need for companionship and meet some adventurous young ladies. Some of the men then say, "To hell with everything I left behind" and go search those aisles for a gift that has a big price, in exchange for a warmer bed on Feb. 14.

But most of these men do keep the faith and wait for an opportunity, a chance to reunite with their sweethearts, which, given the actual immigration enforcement rules, is maybe a 50/50 deal.

What happens to those immigrants who dream of keeping the fire burning when they're many miles away? In Mexico, we have an expression that loosely translates as, "An idiot is one who believes in love from afar." There are a lot of "idiots" who have nothing if they can't believe. They'll spend $5 on a calling card just to tell their girl they love and miss her and that everything's fine. At the end of the line, that special someone might be thinking that $5, if wired, adds up to several gallons of milk for the kids.

But then, lovers live to hear their sweethearts' voices on Feb. 14, because marketers have told them it's oh-so romantic. Some men send candy by mail, hoping it reaches their sweethearts and not some Mexican mail man or US customs officer's belly.

Finally, Feb. 14 offers lovesick immigrants the opportunity to tell their lovers the biggest lie of all -- not "I love you," because that's the truth, but "I'll send for you soon, because everything is getting easier for us around here." If only.

Hernan Mena, a native of Mexico, is associate editor of the regional Hispanic weekly newspaper, Que Pasa.

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