I have seen them before, watched their eyes move about, sometimes focusing on things that were nowhere near them, reflecting on images from their past, memories from childhoods, adulthoods, crossings and re-crossings, flashes of places and faces left behind. I have watched their struggles to find the most appropriate words to describe their feelings, their thoughts, and the sacrifices that have become such a part of their lives. I used to marvel, somehow, in not comprehending their realities, as they were so foreign to me, so un-natural in what they must be. I have been saddened, too, at the simple thoughts of what their lives must have been like over there, and simultaneously confused at the possibility of such disparity. While words are great paintbrushes for demonstrating the hues and possibilities of what certain things are “like,” they can sometimes be only weak re-presentations of what actually “is.” Our trip to Nogales, Sonora was the coming to life of words that I had heard and read over the last several years. The trip was an instance of thought becoming reality, of painted imaginings becoming real and hard, tangible life.
I believe the human element is often overlooked, and maybe even ignored sometimes in the public conversations about immigration issues. Those conversations appear to focus more on the economic concerns related to the masses crossing the borders and tapping into what are by some degrees scarce resources. I think our nation’s policy makers would benefit from a trip south to see some of the people who are most affected by the laws that they are working so hard to create and enforce. How easy it must be to sit in their state houses and design laws and policies concerning the social constructs of “undocumented aliens” without ever having seen the environment from which those people came or having been touched by the lives that those people live.
Author Miriam Davidson, in her book Lives on the Line, discussed the contradictions of the border region, how the booming industrial environment, with its maquiladoras, held the promise of economic rejuvenation for the country, while offering below adequate wages for the people who would work in them. She mentioned workers earning the equivalent of $45 for a 48 hour work week and their inability to pay for what we consider to be the most basic living essentials, such as running water and electricity. The corporations who built the maquiladoras were thriving while their workers were living in destitution and poverty. Davidson touched on the responsibility that the corporations and maquiladora managers have to their employees. I pondered this notion when we were in Nogales, standing at the top of the hillside looking down into the shanty-town of Colonia Colosio, and then again a few moments later when our guide pointed to the brand-new housing development being built for the factory workers across the street from the ultra-modern maquiladoras. This was a situation where corporate and state responsibility to the workers became twisted in the ironic marriage of capitalist interests and the pretense of doing something for the workers. The monthly payment for the new apartments or condos was extravagant in comparison to the wages that the household of maquiladora workers would have to combine in order to live in them. How sickening it is, on a human level, that the corporations, with their NAFTA agreements and constitutionally protected rights, can pursue their economic success, no matter the cost or exploitation of the workers whom they employ. Images of indentured servitude and slavery come to mind when I consider the relationship of the corporations and the maquiladora workers. In truth, though, those images are somewhat mitigated when I remember that the people can leave when they want to. They could go back to the hinterlands where their family’s ranchito and small agricultural holdings no longer provide a living. They could go to another border city where the working and living conditions would be the same as they are here. They could also try to cross the border and take their chances at making a living in the United States where the contradictions of legality and illegality, boom and bust, open arms and fortified fences await them, a place where “No tengo papeles” (I don’t have papers) means further exploitation and difficulties.
One of our guest speakers at the BorderLinks office was a young lady, Kat Rodriguez, who works with Coalición de Derechos Humanos, another organization that focuses on border and migrant related human rights issues. Kat discussed the Altar-Sasabe road that is taken by people trying to enter the United States through informal means. This road and travel network was also addressed in the Washington Post article, “You Only Have One Life” (2006). The article highlighted the role played by the Mexican equivalent of the U.S. Border Patrol (USBP), Grupos Beta, as they attempt to educate, and even dissuade, the migrants who make their northward journey into the unforgiving environment of Arizona’s southern desert. While the USBP is an enforcement arm of our federal government, Grupos Beta is more of a humanitarian entity of the Mexican federal police. They attempt to protect migrants from being victimized by their coyotes and other organized hoodlums by offering education and real-life examples of what can happen to them as they try to make it across the desert into the United States.
When we met with the Grupos Beta staff in Nogales, I was impressed by the genuineness of their concern for the migrants. While they were somewhat matter-of-fact in their deportment and interaction with some of them, there was an obvious concern for their health and well-being. They were committed to restoring the returned/deported migrants to relative health and facilitating their journeys back to their home villages. I think the Mexican government’s Grupos Beta is an excellent example for what the United States government should do in regard to its immigration “problem.” Our government needs to think “outside the box,” and devise more humane ways of dealing with the people who are leaving the personal-level economic devastation of Mexico and trying to make a better life in the United States.
I wonder what kind of day it would have been if it didn’t start with reading about a five year-old who died in her sleep…if I didn’t have to wonder if it was just a biological failing of her body, given that she was on a feeding-tube and had serious medical issues to begin with…or if maybe the caretaker, parent, mom, or whomever, had used a pillow during the child’s sleep to make sure she didn’t wake again. The fire department transported her, with a police car following…and then the officer stood-by to relay the status update to his sergeant…so we would know if they needed to roll homicide detectives…just in case. I wonder what kind of day it would have been if the next notification I received wasn’t that some adult child found their parent dead in their bedroom with their body wedged between the bed and the night-stand…or if another message that I received hadn’t told me about the dead body that the city’s building inspector found when he was making a visit to one of the apartment complexes in town…or that one of the fire department’s truck-crews was on its way to the grocery store to buy their shift’s food for the day and found a dead body laying somewhere…just laying there, out in the freaking middle of the day on a sidewalk or in the greenbelt between the lanes of traffic…or if the dispatcher hadn’t needed to tell me that an officer was assaulted by some guy he had pulled-over for blowing through a school zone….
I wonder what kind of day it would have been if another dispatcher hadn’t told me that there was a “real” unknown-trouble hot call being worked on the central tactical frequency…the caller, of which, had reported that he found a Navigator in the parking lot that had blood all over the driver-side door and steering wheel and seat. Oh yeah, and about an hour ago he had seen a 50-some year-old white guy walking behind the buildings carrying a bloody bed comforter. What kind of day would it have been if we didn’t end-up finding that 50-some year-old white guy with seven bullet holes in his chest…and then sent officers to the Navigator’s registered-owner’s house in another city to talk with the man’s wife…to check on her and then ask about her shot husband…. “He left for work a couple hours ago…maybe a little later than usual…yeah, he works around such-and-such an area.” The officers thanked her for her time and then made some phone calls back to our dispatcher and patrol supervisors. A little while later, the officers went back to the man’s house and asked his wife if they could come in and take a look around. “Sure…come on in.” They found blood and…. What kind of day would it have been, if when the medical center called the woman to come down to identify her husband’s body…it hadn’t taken her two hours to get down there…to learn that her husband had been shot seven times and taken two bullets directly in the heart…and then managed to drive from his home in that other city to his work-place in the middle of our city…what kind of day would it have been?
When a different neighboring city’s dispatchers called us and asked that we check a certain vehicle leaving their city and coming into our city with four or five people inside who didn’t want to be inside, but were being driven against their will out and around and wherever…and we broadcast the information and an officer thought he was behind the vehicle and many more officers arrived to watch and follow and help when and how they could…and somehow that vehicle turned in front of or behind and into an alley or neighborhood and parked in some dark invisible place and we lost them and didn’t know where they could be…but those four or five people had dark skin and said they had been kidnapped…what kind of day would it have been if that hadn’t happened?
Later that afternoon, what kind of day would it have been if we hadn’t come across a drop-house, a den or lair of human coyotes who steal and smuggle and rape and kill and extort and abuse people who trusted them to bring them to a better life across a river and imaginary boundary that exists on maps and in minds…and officers set an inner and outer perimeter to catch all of the fleeing coyotes when they ran…and we caught four bad-guys and rescued four good guys and gals and called ICE to come and get “their” people….
And what kind of day would it have been if a caller hadn’t found that little two year-old wandering the street in his diaper and striped tennis-shoes…hadn’t called us and said “Please come get this baby…yes, I’ll stay here until you get here, I couldn’t just drive by and not stop”…like so many people do sometimes.
What kind of day would it have been if the young man hadn’t called to tell us that his friend was going to kill himself…had a gun and was going to do it…and was going to leave the apartment door unlocked for us…what kind of day would it have been if he hadn’t refused to come out of the apartment when we got there…if he would have just come out on his own…but no, we had to call it a barricade and call-out the dogs and the SWAT guys and restrict the channel so the dispatcher didn’t have to work any other traffic…just listen to me…to us, as we work this mess…all for a guy who wanted to die, but was too chicken or too undecided to do it after telling everyone that he was going to…and we set-up our police camp and command-post outside his door and around the corner and pretended that there was a real boogey-man inside who was a threat to himself and others and we were coming to protect the “others” from him in case he decided not to hurt himself, but them. What kind of day would it have been if we had packed our shit and just walked and driven away from that guy who didn’t want to come out…?
What kind of day would it have been if the mom or dad or aunt or grown cousin of that little diaper and tennis-shoe clad two year-old had come looking for him so we didn’t have to place him with Child Protective Services…if they had even noticed he was gone?
What kind of day would it have been if that other neighbor hadn’t called us to tell us that a woman was chasing her eight year-old son through the apartment complex holding a knife in one hand and a belt in the other…running and yelling “Get back here, you little shit-head…I’m gonna beat yo ass!” What kind of day would it have been? “I don’t think she’s right in the head,” the caller told the 9-1-1 operator. She had left her one year-old and six year-old kids in the apartment as she ran and chased her older son. An officer cleared after a bit and asked that we roll the counselor/crisis-team van from the fire department to take care of the other kids.
And what kind of day would it have been if there weren’t constant and insistent messages flashing on my computer screen all fucking day long about police needing to come to this school and that, this hospital and that hospital or this aunt’s house or grandmother’s house or CPS worker’s office to take this report and that report about some loved one or trusted one or some stranger or some assistant coach hitting or bruising or fondling or fucking some child who was just going about their days and lives trying to be a kid over the weekend or last week and he’s still got bruises…and the 16 year-old girl woke-up this morning and she was naked and groggy and it was burning and hurting between her legs and she doesn’t know what happened or how she got where she was and she just called her mom and she called us…and the Spanish-speaking father called us to say that his 14 year-old son was walking home from the store and a truck full of Mexicans had pulled-over and grabbed him into the truck and then stole his cell phone and wallet and had beat him and touched him “down there” and…what kind of day would it have been if another dad hadn’t called to report that he found text-messages on his 17 year-old son’s cell phone talking about how he was having sex with the dad’s 26 year-old girlfriend…what kind of day would it have been?
And those were just some of the things that happened in only eight hours of a single Monday at 9-1-1 and police dispatch…just one shift…in the fifth or sixth largest city in the country….
Two years ago, I came to your country looking for a new life. It was my desire to make things better for my family, for my children. In these two years, I have learned many things about people, yours and mine, and about living, or trying to live, in your country. These things have not been easy for me, but I have learned them, and I will not forget them. You see, I have read your newspapers and I know that some of you despise me and my people. I know that you do not want us here, in your country. I know that you are angry, for I can feel your hateful stares; and while I respect your feelings, I must ignore them. I must look beyond your intimidating glances and keep my mind’s eye on what my dreams hold for me and my family.
My name is Isabel María Hernandez and I came here from a river-town outside of Juchipila, which is near the middle of the state of Zacatecas, Mexico, roughly six hundred miles south of your Texas border. I was born into a very poor family, one that had nothing. My father was a farmer of corn, but the land was not his, so he had to give most of the money from the corn to the dueño. After my father paid the landowner, he would give the remaining money to my mother. She would then go to the mercado and buy what food and supplies we would need for the next several months. If you saw her walking, every time she went there, you would see my mother’s lips moving; nothing could be heard from her mouth, but you would see her lips moving, silently praying with each step that there would be enough money to buy what we needed; but there never was, and somehow, that did not keep her from praying the same prayer each time she went there. So, we had nothing.
We were only four children with my mother and father. I had learned from my tia, my mother’s sister, that there used to be three more children, but they had died before I was born. A fever had gone through our village and had taken many children with it when it left. This made my mother very sad. It was said that she did not speak for almost one year after they were gone, and I think she was still sad, even when she had the rest of us. You know, my mother’s sadness, her despair and emptiness, it was like the fever. It spread from house to house in the village. It touched everyone’s hearts and lives. Echoes of her misery were heard everywhere, even across the river where the Ocotillo had made their forest. We thought that the land itself held my mother’s sorrow.
When I was seventeen, I met Juaquin Gutierrez, the man who would begin the change in my life. He came to town with the rest of his family, all of them crammed into an overloaded pickup truck. They were heading north, going to the United States, where, if they worked hard and proved themselves diligent to their task, they would find a new life. Juaquin said there was work for the asking, and supposedly, they paid well. Even if it was not well by their standards over there, it was probably much better than it was in my hometown.
I wanted to leave our valley. I wanted to leave because it was filled with the sadness. There was no life there, only sadness and the remaining shadows of death. Can you blame me for wanting to leave? Can you blame me for wanting to escape the history of nothingness, for trying to start anew, for desiring to forge a new shape to my life and the lives of the children I would someday bear? Do you blame me?
If you are a mother and you dream for your children, do you dream that they will become corn farmers who know only hard times and unhappiness – or do you dream of better things? If you see a chance to take hold of a possibility for a better life – do you not reach out and pluck the opportunity before it flees, not knowing when or if it will return? I think you would. Then you ask me, “What about your country, your history and traditions, why do you leave them behind; why do you forsake them?” And now I ask the same thing of you: ‘What about them?’ Do you want to go there? Do you want to take your children with you and try to live? Are you willing to give up your comfort, no matter how temporal or long lasting it is, to go live where I have lived – where I was born? I do not think you would go.
Some of your newspapers and opinion polls say that we do not work in your country. They say that we only come here to bite into your system and see what we can get out of it without putting anything back. You say that we are taking your benefits and public assistance dollars when your own people do not get them. Have you never taken time from your very busy and important lives to see that, yes, we do work? Have you never seen that my people do the jobs that your people do not want to do? Do you remember the men who built the wall around your yard, the men who built the walls around all of the yards in your neighborhood? What about the men who bent the metal bars that now hold your swimming pool together? They were of my people. Did they have to beat-up someone to get those jobs? No. You say that there are laws that make your companies hire some of my people – so their quotas can be met. Very well, maybe there are some laws like that. But, I can tell you, there were no long lines of your people trying to get a job when the companies hired us to plant your vegetables or to harvest them and deliver them to your markets for you. We did not have to shove people out of line to empty the garbage cans in your hospitals or office buildings. Maybe you are too good to pull the weeds from your beautiful hotel gardens. Maybe you are too proud to wash the dishes from which your own people eat. Can you not wash out your own toilets or vacuum your own office floors? Or what about that nice little restaurant where you eat lunch with your friends every other week, talking about your new car or pool while my brother, not yours, scrapes your half-eaten meal into a garbage can? What about all of this?
Can you remove your eyes from staring down your noses long enough to see that your own people abuse your system the same way that you accuse my people of doing it? Can you see that? They did not risk their lives on troubled, dangerous highways to get here; they did not spend many sleepless nights wandering the desert trying to find the right path to take them to their dreams. These people were born here. These people just decided to take a ride on your system of benefits – they have taken the benefits – when a better life is all around them for the making.
My people and I are not asking for very much, we only desire a little help. If we are allowed some assistance, you will see that we will end up helping you and your rich country. You will have our children, my children, when they are older. They will help your country grow – become richer. Our children will serve in your armies and help defend your right to live where you want to live.
What do you dream for your children, that they will go to college and become big lawyers or doctors; become presidents of corporations or mayors of your cities? These are wonderful dreams. You are comfortable in your houses, dreaming these dreams. I am trying to become comfortable too, living in my home, dreaming much simpler dreams for my children. I dream that they have enough food to eat every day, and that they will be able to wear clothes and shoes that fit. It is my hope that they will be able to have enough food for their children when they grow up. I want them to be happy. When they have these things, then maybe I will be able to share your dreams, maybe then I will be able to see our children together, becoming doctors and astronauts and such.
Years ago, your country was built by people who were not born here. Ships used to dock in your harbors, full of people whose nationalities and languages would reach the hundreds in diversity. You, yourself, are probably born from a family who came from one of those ships. Yes, you say, but that was a time when the industry and commerce needed the immigrants to work in the factories and peddle the goods in the streets. Those people, your ancestors, you say, were responsible; they learned the language and contributed to society. So, now, years later, you see the benefits of those people coming here. If you will but give them time, you will see the same of my people.
Things are different now. Your country may not need my people, but we have been coming here in recent years because things have gotten worse in our homeland. Your ‘high-tech’industry and inventions have allowed us to know what better lives we could have in your country, the place that is still the land of opportunity; the one nation that still offers a better life, where my children can grow, can better themselves and our people as a whole. Your own Declaration of Independence says that all people are created equal and all are blessed by their creator with certain rights that must not be denied them. These rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These things are available in your country – they are not so available in mine. When I was studying about your country, I read of your statue, The Statue of Liberty, and the poem that is written at its feet. The last verse of the poem says:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
I cried when I read those words because they so described me and my family…and I cried because I wondered where the people had gone who felt this way about my people. Are the words of this poem still true? Are we still welcome here, in your country, to breathe free, to find a home where dreams can be fulfilled, where our children can grow strong and live? Are we not welcome here? If you turn us away, where will we go, where will we make a better life? Where will my children be able to have a blessed life of opportunity…like your children?