Apprehending the secret lives in our midst
About a dozen of us sit in plastic chairs in a circle inside one of the trailers behind Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Durham, as a handful of parishioners from the Mexican state of Oaxaca earnestly relate their individual accounts of Biblically proportioned pilgrimages across thousands of miles that entail transgressing political boundaries, risking life and limb in the scorching desert, mortgaging land to option a dream and taking a gamble against the coyote’s treachery.
The room feels intimate enough after a meal of rice and beans, peanuts and brittle cookies, but all those miles still seem to lie between us — miles, culture and economic station. A young man, Felipe, has two doting boys alternately clinging to his neck, and his mother, Martina, small and gentle, sits beside him. An indigenous woman, she does not speak Spanish, so Felipe translates into Spanish, and a member of our delegation, Irene Godinez, translates the Spanish into English for the benefit of our mainly white and African- American delegation. Felipe bears a bulging wound on his arm, sewed up in stitches. I never find out its cause, and don’t muster the nerve to ask. He speaks in a tone that is matter-offact and good humored, and he speaks softly, like the other Oaxacans. He and his mother maintain a degree of emotional guardedness, as she explains how blood relatives killed her husband over a dispute about a hunting outing, and how she left everything behind despite the worry that her illiteracy would doom her in a strange new land. I feel inadequate, both because of my limited Spanish facility and relative privilege. Which is completely appropriate, considering that the day before I had felt puffed up by extraordinary access to a state senator from Greensboro and the experience of sharing an elevator with members of that august chamber as they joked among themselves. Aside from the churches, these people have literally no friends in high places. In contrast, I’m acutely aware of my comfort and sense of belonging in my home in Greensboro. In my profession I’m constantly aware of the limitations of my knowledge of people, economies and culture. How little it crosses my mind most days that there are Latino immigrants living in my midst, almost wholly untouched by the little dramas that occupy the respectable world containing me. For all I know, a revolution could be underway in the Carolina Piedmont, and I wouldn’t have the first clue. I can’t help but think about how for many white Southern newspapers — though not all, of course — the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s hardly registered. If it did at all, it was a minor annoyance representing disruption from an otherwise placid continuum of parochialism and tradition, hardly a seismic change wrought by human players. They missed the big story altogether, until those coarse Yankees from network television, the wire services and the big-citydailies jammed it down their throats. I pray that I receive the visionto see beyond the narrowcast of my own personal experience. Theother common thread here is that the prevailing attitude of themajority of North Carolinians has created a legal code and political climatethat severely circumscribes an oppressed group’s opportunities foreducation, equal protection under the law, access to employment andeven prenatal care. Of course, I acknowledge one key difference: Thosewho crossed the border illegally to come here are not citizens, whileAfrican Americans who lived under Jim Crow segregation 50 years ago hadbeen struggling for centuries to cash the check of equal rights, aspromised by the founders. In any case, the stakes are high,and I’m not using the Oaxacans’ full names in this article, even thoughthey willingly gave them. A full name, place of residence andoccupation would be more than enough information to give a federalimmigration agent or a sheriff’s deputy a tip that could lead tosomeone’s deportation. It’s not my job to enable a roundup. Roberto,another of the men, says the villages in Oaxaca are populated mainly byold men, women and children, with most of the male population betweenthe ages of 20 and50 in the United States sending back remittances so their families canhave proper houses and sock away a little money in case a catastrophichealthcare emergency should intervene. Nearly everyone intends toreturn, but the cost of paying the human smugglers known as coyotes and the difficulty of breaching the border actually induces them to lengthen their stay in the United States. Alarge number of Mexicans who migrate to North Carolina come from Oaxacaand the neighboring state of Chiapas, our coordinator tells us. Robertosays he considers himself lucky that his pregnant wife made the journeywith him, and that they had their child here together. They’ve beenhere a year or so, and have managed to pay off the $3,000 owed to the coyote, butan injury has temporarily sidelined Roberto. If his family was not herewith him, he might be tempted by loneliness to return to Oaxacaprematurely, but together they can take the time they need toaccomplish their goal. I’m accompanying a Witness For Peace delegationto Mexico City and then onto Oaxaca, starting Feb. 17. I intend tolisten humbly, to try to grasp the whole human picture of globalizationand what it means for the city in which I live, here in North Carolina. Few readers are clamoring for coverage of immigration. Theissue appears to have fallen off the radar in Raleigh and Washington(which may for the best, all things considered). But I think I should have a fuller understanding, and so should we all.