Saturday, August 19, 2006

Laredo Lessons

When I first moved to Laredo, what I really wanted to see the Rio Grande. I am deeply drawn to rivers wherever I am, and this one especially.

But my plan to go to the Nature Center, where there is more direct access to the river than allowed in the public park near the International Bridge, was received with alarm, and strong resistance to my plan to there alone on an afternoon. I was from Minnesota, where river banks are easily accessible and safe places where one can sit in peace with a with a river a long as one wants!

But I couldn't go there, they said because of the shootings there had been, between border patrol and drug smugglers. It was just too dangerous. That vast and beautiful space, set aside to honor nature and the river, could no longer be visited. I could feel the Rio Grande calling to me, but I could not get to her.

The closest I could get was the large public park near the International Bridge. And then I could only get glimpses of the great river, because a strong fence kept us well back, and the tall reeds were so thick they that all but blocked all view of the Rio. There were border patrol officers all over the place, in cars and on foot, and as I walked along the path by the fence, I notice all sorts of plastic bag type refuse hanging from the bushes on the other side of the river.

They were, I was told, the discarded plastic bags people swimming across had brought dry clothes in, to change into once they reached this side. Here? In this most public place full of border guards? It seems so, and it wasn't long before I got to see it happen.

I was really startled the day when, walking along the path by the fence, a young mans face broke through the reeds practically at my elbow! A boy, really, wet hair plastered over his eyes, which were very wide and scanning around fast. I stopped dead in my tracks, then heard my friend urgently whisper to the kid, "Policia! Policia!". The head disappeared back into the reeds, and their rustling tops marked his rapid departure to safer territory.

I tried to think of how it would feel, to want to leave my country so badly I would swim a river, and risk near certain arrest and possible imprisonment to try to get into another country.

But I couldn't imagine it.

I'd sit transfixed by the view of that huge International Bridge literally crammed full of people on foot and in cars lined up all across it's expanse, as far as the eye could see, every single day...crossing over here for daytime jobs, crossing back over each night to go home. walking miles each way. You could see the weariness in the weariness of the body languages of those going home, compared to the briskness of the morning gait.

I tried to imagine having to go to those lengths, day in and day out, for the kind of wages I knew most made .. in order to survive.

But I couldn't imagine it.

One day I went across that bridge with my new friends, to Nuevo Laredo to shop. Our car held only us older women, so we only a cursory sniff and quick looking over, on the way over. But the sheer and endless volume of cars and people, flowing back and forth over that river, just astounded me.

We went to a big box chain store, and again, I was almost unable to take it all in. The different food smells permeating the air, the sounds of a language I could not understand swirling all around me and a store full of signs and price tags and packaging language I could not read at all.
I needed to use a rest room. How was I even going to ask anyone where one was?! If I found one, please let me to at least be able to figure out which was for women, which for men! How am I going to figure out how much things were? Or ask for things I needed and could not find?

This was not a good experience, to feel like a total alien in a new land where I could not even communicate. I got separated from my friends, and felt very vulnerable, and very lost and alone, till I found them again.
Powerless. I felt powerless. And SO alone.

Is this how it feels, I wondered, for immigrants to come to the US, especially those without our language, and with no idea of what they will find? Would they find us as willing to make eye contact, and try to offer assistance, even without a shared language, like those I found there, find in that Mexican store? My confusion seemed to be totally obvious, and familiar (even funny!) to many there that day, many of whom who smiled their understanding. and offered me an assist.

On the way home we had a very long wait in the car, as there had been a bomb threat that closed the bridge. What?! I snapped to full red alert status n a hurry, until told "Oh, it's nothing. This happens all the time. We just wait now."

And wait we did, for a very long time. . Hundred and hundreds of cars full of people, and what looked like thousands on foot. No shoving, no impatient honking of horns, just. people waiting, because waiting is simply a part of life there. Bomb threats are a part of life there. Walking miles and miles and waiting in endless lines in order to make a living at all, is a part of life there, for so many human beings.

Josie, the young woman from the first Laredo story, did this every single day, to feed her children. I saw thousands of Josie's that day on the bridge, waiting, waiting, on tired feet. And so man older woman who lokked even tireder, snd working men, yound and old, carrying small lunch bags, crossing over every day to see if anyone would hire them for a days work from where they waited in plaza downtown. I tried to imagine living such a hard, patient life.

But I could not imagine it.

When the bridge was cleared, we moved forward very slowly. I got a birds eye view of what a massive, impossible task these crossing authorities face, day in day out, in trying to enforce the law, prevent crime, and weed out as much danger as possible from these huge masses of moving humanity. It's clear as glass to me that what they are being asked to do is humanely impossible to do. We could have stashed enough drugs and bombs in our mostly un-inspected car full of little old ladies to pay for and fuel no end of catastrophic destruction within these borders.

I wondered how it would feel to if me this border town, now under such siege, and such incredible pressure from all sides at once. was the beloved home of my own origins and beloved family.

But I could not imagine it.

I could not imagine these things because I am, and always have been, a white American. All I really can know, or understand on intimate personal levels, is what I have experienced directly, as an white American born and raised only within these borders.

My mind has the capacity to log and store FACTS about how life is for others in other countries and cultures, my emotions can and are engaged by awareness of conditions in which I know others must exist, but my GUTS cannot "know" how it actually IS for those others. And never will be able to, unless I were to try to become one with them and live the same lives they do, for a very, very long time.

When it came time to leave Laredo, and move back to St Paul, Minnesota, our mover couldn't find any loading help, and we had to go to the plaza to seek some day laborers. He asked me not to mention this, as it was not legal for hum to do. Soon, two Mexican men crawled into the back seat of my car: both looked tired and worn, and a long ways from being young men, and neither had English.

The young (white) mover man from the (major) moving company, was not happy, but had to make do with, as he put it "Old guys who don't know a thing about packing a moving truck," which of course meant a lot more work for him. But if willingness to work damned hard meant anything, these two had no match.

When the moving was finally loaded, the mover man called me out to the front porch to sign all of his many forms. Then he asked me what I thought he should pay these guys.

I asked him what he would have paid the regular, more experienced guys he thought he had lined up, and he said sixteen dollars an hour. "But I'm sure not paying THESE two than much! Five bucks an hour ought to be enough."

A reminder to him that what he had done, by hiring unauthorized workers, could get his little systemized back behind in considerable trouble, helped him decide they were worth ten dollars an hour.

The two men were still in the house, wanting for me to drive them back to the plaza, when we remembered all the stuff still in the refrigerator. We were flying out in the morning so we asked these men if they wanted the food left in here.

I will never forget those faces either, as they stared into that full refrigerator, then looked up with disbelieving looks, at us. One backed up a step, pointed to the fridge, then to himself, then back to the fridge. as if he wasn't sure he understood that he could actually HAVE all of this.

Finally convinced it was all right, they excitedly began to their bags. I had to look away, because the sheer joy they were expressing in tone and body language just plan hurt too much to watch.

The last sight I had of these two men, when I dropped them back off at the plaza, was of two very straight backs walking away from me toward the bridge, carrying heavy bags of food and condiments, chattering excitedly to each other. I wondered if they were talking about how good it would feel to share thus unexpected bounty with those waiting at home. (but for all I know, they could have been discussing how much money they could get for it all, so they could get drink or high). I doubt it though, given what I had seen on those eyes that were practically swimming in unshed tears, as they thanked us. And given that can still feel the warmth of those rough hands that grabbed one of mine, and the quick gentle kiss delivered to back of my unwilling hand, for the simple gift of food that was no longer needed.

You can't buy experiences like this, not for millions. You can't find teachers like this in any University setting. And there is no way I know any better designed to equip a person with the kind of essential humility that serves to make one into more than they were.

Let this stand as my tribute to my Mexican and Mexican American Teachers, every single one of you. Thank you from the deepest places in my heart.

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