Saturday, July 19, 2014

The immigrants close to home

Salvador and Enriqueta Padilla, 
my grandparents, journeyed from
Leon, Mexico, to Santa Barbara,
in stages. They battled hardships
along the way, stopping to earn money
as farmhands and railroad section hands.

My grandparents, Enriqueta and Salvador Padilla, made their way to the United States on foot and on trains during the Mexican Revolution. For part of the trip, rather than share a freight car with enemy soldiers, all thirteen family members rode on top. Danger is relative and the soldiers proved the greater threat. The story goes that my great-grandmother, Porfiria, sold the family homestead during the revolution so her family could get to safety in the United States.
As my family journeyed toward the border with the United States, Grandpa made a little money roasting pieces of meat in the earth over hot coals, and selling this food as they went. I’ve seen him butcher pigs in his backyard in downtown Santa Barbara, so I suspect he may have had held onto a few goats or other livestock to slaughter on their long trek to safety. The enterprise reminds me of a nomadic version of the taco trucks we see on city streets. Perhaps Grandma, admired for her superlative Mexican cooking, helped prepare these al fresco offerings. When they crossed the border in El Paso in 1915, they had $20 left between them.
Salvador and Enriqueta, so busy working to raise and put all twelve of their children through college, rarely sat still. I knew them hardly at all. Grandma always wore an apron and never learned English. She communicated with me in sign language, a big smile on her beautiful face. I learned how to iron and make flour tortillas by following her nonverbal instructions. Both of my grandparents went to church every morning at dawn and slept with a large and rather gruesome crucifix hanging on the wall above them. The graphic natures of Jesus’ wounds clearly did not dampen their physical love for each other.
These days my significant other, Jim, and I find some of the best Mexican food at NYC’s Union Square farmers market. Hidden between the farm trucks and tents, a handful of immigrants dish up similarly complex, aromatic Mexican dishes from a bunch of coolers, steamers and vats. I’m told they are routinely rounded up and evicted from the market. We locate them because long lines of hungry patrons point us toward these accomplished, hard-working cooks like a stem to a rare bloom. The enterprising women charge $2, a pittance, for the most delicious tamales you’re likely to eat. And I’ve had to argue to get them to take a tip.
As I read Deval Patrick’s remarks about the 50,000 homeless migrant children between 3 and 17 years of age that no one seems to know what to do with, I do so remembering that I am blessed by my grandparents’ fortitude and courage, and by the bounty of this country. My gifts — a home, an education, a daughter, friends and loved ones — were not won by me exclusively. We are all buoyed by our amazing privilege at having landed in United States, recently or generations past. Our schools, libraries, roads, systems of jurisprudence that ensure fair practices in business and in life, our neighborhoods with our town governments that oversee our safety and quality of life — these are resources I inherited by virtue of sheer good luck. Except for the Native Americans, we are all guests here and our occupancy is, indeed, quite temporary. As I see it, we are stewards with responsibilities that we now must be reminded of.
The 50,000 migrant children who risked their lives to escape dire conditions we probably cannot imagine, have become, like everything else these days, a bullet point in a political rationale for why we must do nothing. These children are but one more proof of Obama’s bad judgment, some politicians aver; therefore, they are, I fear, fatally tainted. What will become of them is anyone’s guess. Patrick and those of like kind are going to have to shed additional and copious tears to get these unfortunate children minimal resources.
According to this morning’s Boston Globe, a woman living in Bourne said the children should be sent back to their countries. “We will do anything for illegals, and we won’t do anything for Americans. I don’t have sympathy for people breaking the law.”
We don’t do anything for Americans? Just look around. Is not Bourne, on the mouth of glorious Cape Cod, a gift in and of itself? Is not your life, free of constant threat of rape and starvation and extortion, not a gift our individual tax payments could never pay for by themselves? Is not that salt air and the road that leads you home every night from your job in a nursery not a gift? Is your job, all by itself, not a gift?
These are just children, our Massachusetts governor reminds us. It bears remembering that these are children alone in a foreign land. He quotes scripture, though I hasten to insist that we don’t need religion to know right from wrong. Yes, he’s correct in framing this as a moral issue. We don’t need Cardinal Sean O’Malley to remind us of that.
But if the idea of God is going to move us closer to helping these children, then fine. Here’s what Patrick says: “Every major faith tradition on the planet charges its followers to treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated. I don’t know what good there is in faith if we can’t, and won’t, turn to it in moments of human need.”
We should give back, not once with an envelope dropped in saintly humility, into a basket on Sundays, but every day. We must give of ourselves. Here on Cape Ann there sits an empty school, with empty classrooms, toilets, a cafeteria, offices and grounds. This looks, from my uninformed point of view, like a perfect location to house some of these children for the four months they are to be housed in this country.
Let us lend a helping hand in the same generous way we daily receive our own gifts of love and life and freedom — won for us by others who came before and paved the way.

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