What we’re witnessing in Arizona, and all across this country, is an ongoing moral tragedy.
We hope all of you will take the time to read this remarkable essay, which should serve as a reminder that Immigration is not a “political issue” to be flogged for votes or ratings. It is about human beings whose honest labors built our nation, and whose dreams honor its most sacred tenets.
For three years in my early twenties, I lived in El Paso, Texas, in a neighborhood called Sunset Heights. If I got up early enough, I could watch a curious drama unfolding a few hundred yards south of my porch. Dozens of poor Mexicans, women mostly, would pay a buck to ride the shoulders of mulas (mules) across the toxic Rio Grande. Most carried plastic sacks on their heads, which were filled with dry clothes.
Once they reached the American side of the river, they scrambled up a concrete embankment, slipped out of their wet clothes and changed into their work outfits. Then they stood shivering in the cold purple dawn, trying to decide when to slip through one of rips in the chain-link fence.
Most of these women and men were able to dash the few hundred yards to South El Paso Street, and to proceed from there to their jobs cleaning houses or rendering lard or scrubbing toilets at a wage considered unacceptable by American workers. The unlucky ones got chased down by the puke-green vans of the INS, arrested, and deported back to Juarez.
And you think your morning commute sucks?
The majority of these undocumented workers had come north to Juarez from dying villages and failing farms. They hoped to earn money to feed their families, to improve their lot in life, to create greater opportunity for their children. They were poor people seeking to become less poor. Their motives, in other words, were quintessentially American.
It is in this larger context that we should consider the actions of Arizona’s interim governor Jan Brewer, who Saturday signed into law a bill that requires police officers to demand identification papers from anyone who “looks like” an undocumented worker.
When asked what an undocumented worker might look like, Brewer – who combines the smarmy fascism of Michelle Bachman with the haggard idiocy of Kathleen Harris – announced that she had no idea. What she did know was that this was not racial profiling. It was merely an effort to protect law-abiding Americans from the unspecified threat posed by an undesirable sub-population. I’m sure the German citizens of the late 1930s would understand exactly what she meant.
Now then. It should come as no shock to anyone that I did very little critical thinking about what I was seeing from my porch all those years ago in El Paso. I was safely cocooned within the solipsism of my Twenties.
Fortunately, my friend Debbie Nathan was. Debbie is one of the foremost investigative reporters of our time, and she’s spent much of life writing about immigration. Her 1991 essay collection, Women and Other Aliens, is one of the most devastating and beautifully written accounts of what it’s like for Mexicans (and Americans) to live on the border.
“The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You”
Reyna would probably look poor no matter what she wore. She’s got what she calls a beggar’s body, meaning any hand-me-down you give her will fit, whether you’re five feet or five foot nine. Her legs are too big and too soft, her chest too small. A couple of years ago, when she was 23, her stomach started hanging after her second spontaneous abortion in two years, following one or two of the illegal kind—the kind that those in Mexico call “provoked.” For birth control now, Reyna sometimes shoots herself up with a Depo-Provera-like hormone that makes her periods last two weeks. She stops them with injections of ergot that she buys over the counter at the corner farmacia along with a hypodermic syringe.
Reyna’s body is typical of the working-class Mexican woman, but her complexion is something else. When she walks down the street, men yell, “Guera!” – the same thing they call the blond gringas from Wisconsin who are down on the border for the weekend looking to get bombed or for a bargain on Don Quixote statues.
If you could isolate a patch of her skin, or maybe the iris of an eye, you’d almost swear she was anglo. She’s got this pink look about her, a blue-eyed look, even though her eyes are really brown. Even with a trace of Aztec in her cheekbones, Reyna’s coloring would be worth American dollars if she could just figure out how to dress it up in the proper makeup and wardrobe.
But Reyna’s taste in fashion is pure Ciudad Juarez, which is where she lives. Juarez, on the south side of the U.S.-Mexican border about 30 feet from El Paso, has over a million people, twice as many as 15 years ago. There’s a little part of downtown, the part where the houses have colonial Spanish wrought iron, that proves Juarez used to have a textbook history. But now it’s more the medical kind, history written in cardboard shacks, social pathology out of control.
It’s fitting then that Reyna who came to Juarez from a little town in downstate Chihuahua like all the other people who can’t make a living in the countryside anymore, should have a swollen, teeming look. She favors wobbly high-heeled sandals with tight plastic straps, shiny royal purple dresses with patent leather belts, magenta fingernail polish, peacock blue mascara, lumpy fine-engine lipstick. It’s a look geared to the budget and the yearnings of someone who lives in a crumbling, $15-a-month room with no toilet, but revs up the blow-drier every morning before stumbling bleary-eyed to the seven to three shift at the multinational plant. Someone who hunches over printed circuit boards or industrial sewing machines all day, earning 40 cents an hour doing what some American worker in the Rust Belt used to do for ten times that much.
The 40 cents wasn’t putting much meat on the two kids’ bones, so Reyna decided to go to Albuquerque, 250 miles north. Her husband, Roberto, had just found a $4-an-hour TV repair job by sneaking past the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 25 near Truth or Consequences, smuggled in the back of a semi. Reyna didn’t have the money to pay another smuggler, so she begged and borrowed enough for an off-peak airline ticket to Albuquerque. She decided she’d take her chances at the El Paso International Airport.
But first, she contacted her fashion consultant, Lupita. A college-educated Trotskyist from Mexico City, Lupita was up on the border organizing for one of the Fourth Internationals. She wore Italian leather sandals that looked nicer instead of crummier the older they got, wire-rimmed glasses, and Wranglers. Unlike Reyna, Lupita was thin—but in a healthy way, the way that in Mexico they call proteinizada. Literally, that means you can afford to eat milk, cheese, fish, and meat regularly, maybe even for snacks. Figuratively, it means you’ve got the whole gestalt, the Look, that would make you blend into any major airport in the world.
Lupita had El Paso’s version and then some. She could breeze right past U.S. Customs at the international bridge without the agent even batting an eyelash as he asked “Citizenship?” She ought to be featured in Women’s Wear Daily.
Reyna and lots of other people around here would agree that Lupita makes an exciting fashion statement, though it has nothing to do with the turquoise and handwoven Native Americana that come to mind when most people think of Southwestern stylishness. This isn’t Santa Fe we’re talking about—it’s El Paso, the poorest large city in the U.S. There are a half a million people here and a quarter of them are eating courtesy of food stamps and emergency pantries. Several thousand living a few blocks from the luxury Westin hotel downtown bathe at gas stations and share outdoor toilets. They aren’t street people but upstanding churchgoers with steady jobs and apartments—even if they are tenements without indoor plumbing.
It’s hard to imagine fashion trendiness in a city so impoverished that clothing is sold by the pound, where fortunes have been made in ready-to-wear by wooing clientele from the Salvation Army. Nevertheless, El Paso has its own Look, and Lupita found that trying to hip Reyna to its subtleties was even harder than explaining the theory of permanent revolution. “Get yourself some jeans and jogging shoes. And don’t use eye shadow,” advised the Trotskyist. “I mean, a little’s okay. But not too much. Also your fingernail polish. I don’t know…it’s a giveaway.”
Reyna nodded her head and went shopping. Then she packed a bag and walked a couple of blocks from her apartment to the Rio Grande. A dehydrated stream trickling through two concrete embankments and many beer bottle shards, the river had even less water in it than usual. Had she crossed on foot, Reyna would barely have splashed her calves. But she wasn’t taking any chances today on getting wet. She paid a dollar to a burro — a guy who carries people on his shoulders to the U.S. He dropped her off at the “Tortilla Curtain,” a massive chain link barrier erected during the Carter administration to keep Reyna and the rest of her compatriots from invading America. She picked out a roomy hole in the raggedy fence, hopped through, and invaded. America in this case was a South El Paso block filled with Korean-owned stores that hawk talking key chains, 99-cent digital clock dinner rings, and second-hand wardrobes baled like hay.