La Señora de Chiva and I went across the border last night into Nuevo Laredo -- our first trip in more than a year to the city whose economically crippling, violent, and interminable fighting among drug cartels for control of this NAFTA port has resulted in a surprising and menacing new Mexican federal military presence along the physical border itself -- in order to spend a few hours serving dinner to migrants at the local Casa Del Migrante
. One of a network of migrant shelters (in Mexico and Guatemala) administered by Scalabrinian Missionaries
, this Casa regularly hosts several dozen for dinner. We dished out 85 trays of guisado de pollo last night to men, women, and kids from El Salvador, Honduras, Belize, and Mexico (of those we had the opportunity to speak with for a few moments). Some were first-time migrants; others had been deported and would soon be attempting to rejoin families in Nebraska, California, and Florida.
Talking and writing about migrants has become tricky: what leads people to feel angry about immigrants in America -- for as long as we have had what is presently characterized as a “national debate” (nothing about popular and popularly-accessible discourse about immigration can really be called a “debate,” can it?) -- what seems to anger people, or to scare them, about migrants is difference. Am I wrong about this? People make all kinds of claims that sound logical: immigrants take jobs from Americans, they are a strain on health care and educational systems, they drive like crazy lunatics. The closest people will come to articulating their fear of the less-than-white Other from the South is to claim that their value systems are incompatible with American democracy, that folks capable of making two-thousand-mile continental journeys -- trips totally unimaginable, I think, for most Americans, in their sordidness and difficulty and even in their natural and human landscapes -- sustained by little more than faith in the Virgin
cannot possibly be expected to understand the rich heritage of civil democracy in our country, cannot really be expected to “contribute.” Setting aside the degree to which the majority of Americans themselves fail to “contribute” (and ignoring the absurd reality that we congratulate one another for casting votes and behave as though this constitutes contribution), this concern strikes me as most worth discussion. Even (especially?) if it amounts to little more than veiled fear: it could only help all of us to talk a little more plainly about what it means to be a citizen, to take that discussion beyond simplistic claims in which taxes buy things like “education” for people like “our children.” I admit that imagining that our putative debate could ever become a discussion is crazy optimism.
In addition to the billions of dollars of material goods that flow freely back and forth through Laredo, we continue unconscionably to export -- La Señora de Chiva never tires of pointing out -- the dream. It’s still our favorite story, and it has been wonderfully mixed up since the start: is it about hard work? Yes! Is it about leisure? Yes! Is it about wealth? Of course! Is it about living modestly and responsibly? Yes! Is it about working for yourself? Yes! Is it about fencing off the land your great-grandfather worked and insisting that it is rightfully yours? Damned straight! See this gun?
Who, John Smith wanted to know
would liue at home idly (or thinke in himselfe any worth to liue) onely to eate, drink, and sleepe, and so die? Or by consuming that carelesly, his friends got worthily? Or by vsing that miserably, that maintained vertue honestly? Or, for being descended nobly, pine with the vaine vaunt of great kindred, in penurie? Or (to maintaine a silly shewe of brauery) toyle out thy heart, soule, and time, basely, by shifts, tricks, cards, & dice? [ . . . ] But rich men for the most part are growne to that dotage, through their pride in their wealth, as though there were no accident could end it, or their life.
Seriously. Who wants to live like that, spending his inheritance carelessly, sponging off of hardworking friends? Those “men of small means” who want the satisfaction of providing for themselves should head to New England, Smith tells his readers, because
Who can desire more content, that hath small meanes; or but only his merit to aduance his fortune, then to tread, and plant that ground hee hath purchased by the hazard of his life? If he haue but the taste of virtue, and magnanimitie, what to such a minde can bee more pleasant, then planting and building a foundation for his Posteritie, gotte from the rude earth, by Gods blessing & his owne industrie, without preiudice to any?
On the other hand, Smith tries the abundance angle:
Heer nature and liberty affords vs that freely, which in England we want, or it costeth vs dearely. What pleasure can be more, then (being tired with any occasion a-shore) in planting Vines, Fruits, or Hearbs, in contriuing their owne Grounds, to the pleasure of their owne mindes, their Fields, Gardens, Orchards, Buildings, Ships, and other works, &c. to recreate themselues before their owne doores, in their owne boates vpon the Sea, where man woman and childe, with a small hooke and line, by angling, may take diuerse sorts of excellent fish, at their pleasures ? And is it not pretty sport, to pull vp two pence, six pence, and twelue pence, as fast as you can hale and veare a line?
Fish for leisure, and get rich at it. Smith, of course, was open about the fact that he was looking for passage back to America: he was hoping for some green immigrants to shepherd to the New World. It was a pitch: pick the part of the dream you want: the honor of hard work, fish jumping into your boat, whatever. John Smith, our first coyote. Well, except he failed at that, too.
OK, even for a bloggy rumination, I can see this getting out of hand. We’ll spend more time at the Casa in coming weeks, partly in preparation to travel to Casas in Guatemala – in Guatemala City and Tecun Uman – and Chiapas in March to assist in the production of a documentary being made by a colleague. I’ll plan to post what I’m able both before and after that trip.