Illegal and a hero
Aspen, CO Colorado
We are doing what we can, but we need a break. The dizzying fumes from the government-issued enamel paint, with which we are coating the aged interior of the two-room schoolhouse in Ojo Piedras, Chihuahua, Mexico, collects its toll from the stockpile of our clear thoughts about every 20 minutes.
The dusty, dry air swirling around the colorless school yard ” where we trade toxic for organic air filled with particulates of the barely sustainable bucolic land that keeps this part of the world from being of much interest to anyone else ” is eagerly absorbed into our systems as our bodies seek things secular in this novel-like fragment of our lives that we have traveled into from the heart of the Land of Plenty.
We are here on the Westcott-Fields Aspen Middle School sixth-grade service learning trip, lending a hand and experiencing culture.
If they did things the way we do in the States, the names of every person living in this tiny village could be listed under “population” on a standard sized, emerald green signpost proclaiming the name of the town at the edge of the “city” limits. But, everyone who has ever been here knew exactly where they were and nobody even knows approximately where the limits of municipal government begin or end, so the sign of place, ubiquitous at home, announcing which bureaucracy presently governs We the People constantly on the move there, has not even been imagined here.
In the middle of this moment of recuperation, the spinning world gradually slows enough to where I see simultaneous events around me and know they are connected, but not how. A boy, maybe 6 or 7 years old, wanders listlessly across the chipped basketball court on which the other children happily carry on, engaged in a version of soccer altered to accommodate a small number of kids and a broad age range that comprise the entire enrollment of the school. Behind me a woman sobs quietly, cradling an infant, while speaking with the locals who have gathered at the school to help with our work.
Vicki, a United States native, who through incredible circumstances fell in love with a Mexican man and moved to this remote area with him, is my only way of knowing cognitively what I feel in my gut. Protected from the heat, in the shade of the schoolhouse, I ask her about the new mother and her baby. I ask her about the boy.
They are three-quarters of a family. She has come to the school house to ask her neighbors to pray. The boy has come to school because the event that has led to the request for prayer is not unusual enough to excuse him from attending classes.
The woman’s husband, the boy and the baby’s father, began a dangerous trip to the north this morning. They are desperate. There was no paying work to be had in the region; not in the city, two-hundred miles to the south, not in the automobile parts factory, an hour away, that pays one dollar for each hour of life it consumes.
The family has no food in the pantry or any diapers for the growing baby. Out of respect, they can no longer accept the charity of neighbors who willingly give everything they have. There was no choice but for the man of the house to find work in the United States.
There was no time to plan for this emergency; no time to go through the proper channels to get legal access to hard labor in a foreign land. For those few Mexicans with the luxury of excess time and Internet access, the wait to obtain proper legal permission to enter the United States is more than seven years. It is a period of waiting in starvation not compatible with the suddenly cruel laws of nature.
For those without choice, the road to the United States is extremely dangerous and difficult. Tight borders have necessitated the enlistment of professional “coyotes” to help the desperate to cross. The coyotes are vile people profiting from converting human lives into a commodity, with a built-in waste factor for goods that expire in transport and are discarded as litter in the baked desert sands when their carcasses only take up room in the back of a cramped, unbearably hot van, locked tight to contain human misery. The cost of this transport-as-cargo is usually everything the coyotes think you have, but never less than a couple thousand dollars. With the risk of punishment so severe now for crossing the borders illegally, the coyotes can extort a man for even more, at the threat of turning him over for a long prison sentence. Usually, a man must sell his car to raise the cash, ensuring that he must prolong his stay in the States to earn enough for a replacement, without which he cannot return home.
A man willing to risk this trip is not lazy. He’s not enduring this to seek a handout from anyone. In his homeland, he is not accustomed to a government with so much excess that it creates entitlements for its people. It is we who live in that environment, asking always what our government can do for us, that impute on him our own expectations to be taken care of.
As I listened to the realities of this father risking everything for his family, I filled in the blanks: This man is tough. He’s honorable. He’s not setting out for fortune or fame, much less a sense of personal fulfillment in order to complete himself. He is not confused about getting his priorities straight, nor is his vision blurred with the semineurotic notion inseminated from a consuming-for-comfort culture of trying to balance work, family and play times.
Very simply, this man is doing what is right. If our collective rationale wasn’t polluted with fear of everything material becoming scarce or unfamiliar, we might even call this man a coward if he would alternatively stand by and watch his family starve because the border crossing would be too difficult.
As the orange sky runs from cold darkness ascending in the east, I think about a lonesome character struggling through the night.
This man is where he needs to be. He is a hero.