We’ve all seen the show, but for me, it hits VERY close to home. Here is my story of how I found myself a 90-Day Fiancé.

It was a warm Hawaiian summer day as I walked into a Pearl City High School gymnasium. It was my third year trying out for Hawaii Pacific University Cheer. My first attempt was a disaster, you see I misread the instructions when recording my try out video. It said no edits. So I just let the Sony camcorder capture all my skills… like everything. Even when I fell flat on my face. Oh the importance of asking clarifying questions. 

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But my angel mother said “I’ll pay for one semester.” Day two of living at the dorms and I run into the head of Student Life who organized the cheer program. She recognized me from my tape and invited me to try out at their next practice. 

BAM I have the cheer scholarship.

I worked my butt off to improve my skill and show my coach I belonged. Year two I made it fair and square. I figured going into year three I’d have it in the bag! I made mat for Nationals at Daytona and was voted most dedicated cheerleader at banquet, but the unthinkable happened.

I got cut. 

In place of the tenacity and perseverance I had in year one, as a Junior I could’ve written Ariana Grande’s “Thank you Next.” I was over the body shaming, the pain, being surrounded by half naked girls that never thought they were good enough. I craved something more. Something bigger than myself. So I imagined what the exact opposite of my current situation was… I had just read Eat Pray Love and needed a soul searching experience of my own. I traded in my pom poms and barely there uniform for a grandma dress and scriptures. Little did I know, my 90-Day Fiancé was waiting for me!

I became a missionary. 

I envisioned missionary life bicycling through Italy, or eating macaroons at a French cafe, or singing “The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music” at Machu Picchu. Adventure awaited me! 

I sent my application in during fall semester and was called to serve in Cherry Hill, New Jersey Spanish speaking. I was stoked to learn Spanish but many friends and family reminded me I was going to the armpit of the United States. Here comes my angel mother again, with pom poms of her own to encourage me. “You’re going to learn Spanish so well and after this mission trip we’ll go to Uruguay and Argentina.” She is a flight attendant and fell in love with Buenos Aires and Montevideo on a recent trip. She said she had to take me to these beautiful cities. I couldn’t wait to start the next chapter so I could go on this South American adventure.

I entered the training center at the end of February 2007 and arrived in Jersey in the Spring. My first area was Red Bank, NJ. The Zone Leaders, or supervising missionaries, helped us set goals and work towards fluency. They were really man children, 19-21 year old boys we called “Elders.”

They thought it would be funny to play a trick on a newbie and so one started speaking a different kind of Spanish. In the training I learned “de donde eres?” He asked “de donde sos vos?” I thought he was speaking Portuguese! He said “no Hermana, where do you think I’m from??” I really thought he was speaking another language “I don’t know Italy? Brazil?” He said “No I’m Uruguayan, do you know where Uruguay is?” To his surprise, I knew exactly where it was “Yes! It’s between Argentina and Brazil, I’m actually going there after my mission!” His eyes lit up he said “Most Americans think Uruguay is in Africa! 

This “Elder” started helping me out, correcting my Spanish and even helped me organize my word journal… I was a jerk to him… I was a hyper active ex gymnast and cheerleader. To help spread the good news of the gospel I would flip and show off for the people I was teaching. He’d always remind me “Hermana, I’m responsible for you. So if you break your neck I’m the one who’ll get in trouble for it.” I’d glare at him with the “oh really…” look and  do a round-off, back handspring, back tuck. 

I was in my “Eat, Pray, Love” experience. No man was going to tell me what to do! I even swore off writing most of my male friends. This Uruguayan Elder completed his two year commitment a few weeks later but would send me emails here and there. I never wrote back. Until my last few weeks. I reminded him I was planning my South American adventure and encouraged him to write me at my personal email address in June when I returned home. But for now I needed to focus and couldn’t correspond with him. 

In the summer of 2008, I completed my mission. 

I felt like a new woman. I learned how to set goals, study, publicly speak, I also grew thicker skin. You kind of have to as people from Jersey yelled, cursed, threw things, and slammed doors in my face. As a kid, I always thought I just wasn’t smart enough. I was more social and physically able. However, my goal setting and affirmations in my mission showed me that I can do ANYTHING I believe I can do! One of my proudest moments happened when I returned to Hawaii Pacific third year Spanish. The professor kicked me out because I was “too fluent.” I ended up testing out of the university and they offered me a tutoring job.

Between school and working 3 jobs to afford Hawaiian life, my mom and I planned our South American adventure and that Uruguayan Elder, who I now call Esteban (Spoiler Alert: my 90-Day Fiancé) , started to correspond more frequently. He’s telling me all the best places to eat and visit. In October he called me to wish me a happy birthday! I was so honored that he took the time to buy a calling card, walk to a pay phone, and phone me. This is 2008 people! Before iMessage and FaceTime. Things progress from email pen palls to talking several hours a day.

We take off to South America.

It’s finally time to set off for the long awaited South American adventure. My mom, my best friend Chelsea, and I head to Buenos Aires, Argentina first. 

After a week of learning about Eva Perón, tango, and eating as many ham and cheese empanadas as humanly possible, we take the ferry to Montevideo. I remember feeling so nervous exiting the boat. There was a glass corridor that connected the ramp to the port lobby. That’s when I saw him. He was no longer in a suit with a plastic name tag. He was wearing a pink stripped Abercrombie Polo and jeans. Our eyes met as I crossed from the walkway into customs. Esteban, the person I’d just been writing and talking to for months is physically present! We’re breathing the same air. We began a week together that was life changing. He ended up quitting his job so he could spend more time with me. I met his family! We traveled his country together. I learned new words and cultural norms. It was thrilling. 

 

After I arrived home, Esteban and I decided to date exclusively long distance. Calling cards, Skype, and email become our norm. 

From Honolulu to Montevideo there is a 10 hour time difference. Every break from school I fly to Montevideo. He proposed to me on his birthday August 2009. Initially I wanted to elope in Uruguay, but my family convinced me to go through the Fiancé Visa process. My Aunt and Uncle sponsor us and convince us not to waste money on a lawyer. We fill out paperwork, pay fees, and wait, and wait, and wait. 

On December 24th 2009, we proved to the US government that we have a bonafide relationship. Once he enters the US, we had three months to get married. This moment was gut wrenching for my husband. He didn’t have the American dream. He had aspirations in his country of origin. His family is tight knit. He also loved me and ultimately chose to enter my country to support me at my graduation in Hawaii. 

We’re married on February 27, 2010 in Washington DC. 

Looking back, I cannot believe that was over a decade ago. I recently watched Cheer on Netflix which follows a collegiate cheer squad to NCA nationals in Daytona. I had major PTSD. Then a little voice was like “Zana… what if you would have made it your Junior year. You should’ve pushed harder and not given up so easily.” I quickly had a wave of gratitude surround me. I’m so glad I got cut. 

 

Yes, I lost a scholarship. I had to take out student loans. I stopped loving the sport I was obsessed with as a kid. I gained weight. I was embarrassed to see old cheer friends. This discomfort led me on a path where I learned to love myself and fall in love with somebody else. I will not say we’re happily ever after, because that Disney mindset is toxic. However, we both support and encourage each other to pursue our goals and dreams. We have a beautiful family. We challenge each other to think different. We are navigating a faith crisis. We travel and experience the good, the bad, and the ugly this world has to offer, hand in hand.

Through pain comes growth…and maybe a 90-Day Fiancé.

Zana is wife to Esteban and mama to her four children, Joaquin, Teodoro, and twins Roma & Rosalind. She is a Senior Retail Technology Manager and Co-host of The Strong Sunflowers & Los Girasoles Fuertes podcasts. She was a competitive cheerleader at Hawaii Pacific University, where she pursued her Bachelor’s in Public Relations and Advertising. She is currently working on an online Master’s in Global Strategic Communications from The University of Florida (Go Gators!) She advocates for whole-hearted living and constantly looks for ways to improve her mind, body, heart, and soul. She loves songwriting, singing, and musical theatre and has already warned her kids when they are all over 18+; she is moving to New York City to audition for Broadway.

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