isla mujeres

Finding Home on Isla Mujeres

As my aunt revamped a ramshackle hotel, she also began repairing family bonds.

The falling out with my aunt happened the summer I became a teenager. Up until then, there was hardly a Thanksgiving, Easter, summer, or Christmas vacation that didn’t include my family schlepping 250 miles from Vancouver to join my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and brood of cousins in a small, dusty orchard town. In the summer, we would inner tube down a frothy river and then steal ripe cherries and apricots from the side of the highway walking home.

All through childhood I begged my parents to go until, at some point, they had to plead and beg with me. It was hard to pinpoint why, though all of us were pulling on a knot of family discord that was getting tighter by the year. My grandmother had died when I was 5. She was a balm to all who knew her, and fresh wounds in my family remained open after that, so there was tension between my father and all three of his siblings.

My aunt had always been a warm, generous presence during my childhood, but everything that used to charm her suddenly seemed to annoy her. My hopelessness with her ever-increasing catalogue of chores was when I first began to feel the strain, a friction that had less to do with my futility than a symptom of something deeper I didn’t understand and she refused to acknowledge. If you don’t want to do the chores right, then you have no business staying in my home, she finally told me. The break was definitive after that.

In 2008, I heard through the pipeline of family gossip that my aunt had retired from her job as an elementary school teacher and bought a fixer-upper hotel in Isla Mujeres. Various members of my family had been descending on this sleepy former fishing village just off the coast of Cancun since the early ’80s. The island is a little over 4 miles long and a couple avenues wide, with turquoise water and white-sand beaches. They all spoke about Isla the way Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption spoke about breaking out of jail and shipwrecking into Zihuatanejo. But my aunt was the one with the gumption to really go for it. Before long, her daughter started a family in Isla Mujeres, and my aunt had a granddaughter to chase after at their hotel.

A few years later, I got a surprise letter from my aunt inviting me to visit. My father told me she’d graciously invited everyone in the family to stay with her. Everyone but me took her up on the offer. I hadn’t nursed a grudge during our estrangement, but when death has stained a family—both she and I had lost a brother before we were born—there’s a queer kind of shame that comes with the acceptance of losing many years with a loved one by choice rather than fate.

Isla Mujeres is a short ferry ride from Cancun. Photograph courtesy of MiguelABriones/iStock

On the morning of March 1, 2013, 20 years since my aunt and I last spoke, my cousin knocked on the door of our uncle Kenn’s hotel room, fearing he had slept through his alarm. My uncle had to catch a flight home from Cancun, a ferry ride away from Isla Mujeres that lasted three hurried songs from a four-piece Mexican band before they passed around the sombrero. She knocked again.

The previous night, my uncle had enjoyed some wine and complained about a migraine. He was known to be a little reckless, yet he always ended up just fine. This mischievous power was a calling card of his. Maybe there wasn’t anything to worry about, my cousin thought.

After a third series of knocks, she gently entered the room whispering my uncle’s name. He was facing away from her, positioned in the bed like a swimmer in mid-stroke, a pillow against his cheek. She approached him, softly put her hand on his bare shoulder, and, after feeling the chill, raced out of the room.

I received a phone call from my father after my other uncle, Val—suddenly my last living uncle—had confirmed that their youngest sibling had died in his sleep. My dad told me that Kenn’s first words upon seeing him in Isla were, “You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting for a time like we have now.” My aunt called in a favor, and they transported Kenn’s body to Cancun on a catamaran. A week or so later, I received a letter from Val describing how he held his brother’s hand as they crossed over.

While I wish this weren’t the case, I guess you’re ready when you’re ready and not any sooner. So, I sheepishly wrote to my aunt asking if I could visit and stay with her the following spring. By then my dad had retired, and she’d offered him a small, private room next to the entrance. My father, the uncrowned worst traveler ever born—a man who navigated the gauntlet of airport security with less tact and aplomb than Godzilla on a bender—now spent nearly half of each year with his sister and niece in the hotel. When my mom visited the island—which she’d done since the mid-80s, mostly independent of any other family members—she’d share the same room as my dad even though they’d been separated since 1986. Somehow, this hotel brought all of my family back into circulation again. Despite old grievances and mountains of legitimate complaints, everyone seemed to put all that aside and cherish their time together. I don’t know if any of us were any wiser for having grown older, but there was an ominous recognition after my uncle’s death that time would sort out our differences if we failed to.

I bought my ticket to see some members of my family for the first time in far too long. I rode the tourist ferry from Cancun, and most of the three songs played by the terrible yet endearing band were drowned out by the boat cutting through the waves at speed. Even 20 years back, my father told me, this ferry crossing was undertaken on a wooden boat with two benches along the sides, loaded mostly with people who lived on Isla and commuted to Cancun. Chickens were frequently fellow travelers. This new high-powered vessel shuttled 200 passengers with ease and had a concession stand on the main deck.

During my aunt’s first visit in 1984, the island’s streets were sand, and there were only three people she met who weren’t locals. There were just four phones on the entire island, and it could take hours waiting in line to have a chance at even making a call. Isla Mujeres is now home to 12,000 people, and the majority of visitors are day-trippers from Cancun. When my aunt and her daughter happened on the desolate, abandoned hotel they later bought, it was occupied only by a squatter. After fixing up the hotel and offering a communal kitchen on the roof along with a dipping pool, most of the guests became annual visitors who referred friends to do the same. My aunt has never advertised, yet I’ve been told the place is nearly always full. When she wants to be, I’ve never met a person more hospitable, or just plain fun.

My ferry finally docked at the Isla terminal, and my father and Val were waiting for me. It had been several years since I’d seen them, and it took me a good while to establish eye contact without feeling overwhelmed. But they were overwhelmed for a different reason. “I just can’t believe how much he looks like Kenn,” my uncle said to my father. It had been a long-standing joke in my family that Kenn had fathered me, but the punchline took on a different resonance now. My dad removed his Tilley hat and scratched his head before nodding with a sigh.

A sunset had smeared the sky, and we walked together back to my aunt’s hotel under rusty electric streetlights that hummed and stained the narrow streets the color of old pennies. As we neared the hotel, all the welcoming coordinates of friendly bars and quaint restaurants along Avenida Guerrero suggested that, while my aunt was born thousands of miles away, I’d arrived in her hometown. Down the last street, music was playing from the roof of a yellow hotel, and people were leaning over a railing sharing drinks. We passed the room where my father stayed in the winters, and after taking a deep breath and pushing open the front door, three generations of family turned from where they were sitting in the courtyard to smile. My aunt gasped before getting up, her granddaughter cradled against her shoulder.

“I did a double take when you walked in,” she cried. “I feel like I just saw a ghost. I can’t believe how much you look like Kenn.”

“Who’s this guy?” my cousin asked her small daughter, taking her into her arms. My cousin, the co-manager of the hotel, was 6 the last time I’d seen her. Now she had a daughter nearly that age whom I’d never met. “Should we go see who it is? I don’t know if we should. What do you think?”

I stood nervously while being inspected by a relative I’d never met. Finally, she nodded yes.


Brin-Jonathan Butler is the author of The Domino Diaries: My Decade Boxing with Olympic Champions and Chasing Hemingway’s Ghost in the Last Days of Castro’s Cuba. Email him at brinjonathanbutler@gmail.com.

Header image courtesy of iStock

Originally Published February 2017