La Mariposa en la Pared

The everyday experiences of latino immigrants through the eyes of an outsider. Las vidas típicas de unos inmigrantes latinos a través de los ojos de una forastera.

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Location: Upstate NY, United States

"To me it’s always interesting when you get accepted somewhere you don’t really belong. It’s interesting when people open up and let you in their world." - Gilles Mingasson

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

El Miedo y La Hermandad

Sunday after a walk along the shore of Cayuga Lake, Luis and I decided to have dinner at a Mexican restaurant we had never noticed before.

As we walked in the door, they locked eyes like long lost brothers, and their questions flew back and forth in español rápido, first pertaining to each other’s nationality. “Soy Poblano,” Luis said. “Ah, de Puebla, Mexico?” replied our host, his uncertainty betraying his relative unfamiliarity with Mexico. “Soy de Ecuador,” he offered; this, his proof of their brotherhood. Luis has told me he believes that they’re all one people – Mexicans, Guatemalans, Colombianos, Chileños - all de la misma sangre. Not everyone believes this, or if they believe it, sometimes don’t want to admit it. But these two men, they believed it. They celebrated it.

It was one of those moments when I had again become the outsider, an appreciative spectator to their meeting in this town with so few hispanos, where seeing one is a surprise for me, but like a homecoming for them.

He seated us at a table and Luis asked, “How long have you been here working?” They always, always, use the word work - trabajo - when talking about their lives or when asking others about theirs.

Like the man from Toluca at the circle center in Indianapolis who, within moments of making my acquaintance, lowered his eyes and said this life is full of work, hard work. He spoke of his life and his days with work being the thread that held it all together. Exhausted, his thoughts were dominated by the need to work, by the work he had done that day with his paint smeared hands, and by the work that waited for him tomorrow. He hardly knew what to say, because his phrases, like his thoughts, were constantly interrupted by that word, trabajo. But that’s a story for another day.

I looked up at el cuencano and his eyes darted nervously from Luis to me and back again. His smile faded. “You mean here.. here at this restaurant, or in the United States?” Oh God, he looks like he’s being interrogated, I thought. I recognized his nervousness and tried to reassure him with a smile, trying to meet his eyes because, surely, ICE agents don’t make eye contact while chatting up their prey. I wanted so badly to put him at ease, our gracious host now suspicious of this mexicano and this gringa asking him questions.

I remember when such friendly conversation in a Mexican restaurant between curious patrons and their foreign hosts was innocent and not a cause for alarm. I remember precisely the day it all changed, when the smiling waiters became guarded, and the singing kitchen workers became quiet, working with their heads down and one eye on the back door. Such questions used to be nothing more than the locals’ attempts at understanding these new people with no apparent ties to our little town. It was the chance to learn about and welcome them to our stagnant town in need of new dreamers, with their new enthusiasm and hunger for the freedom and affluence of which we had grown complacent. Seeing our town through eager new eyes was refreshing, it reminded us of all that we had to be thankful for. They reminded us of our Italian grandparents, of our English ancestors and their idealistic dreams. It was our first impulse to wish them well as they began the hard work to prosper here.

As the two men continued to trade questions and answers, our host regained some of the disarmed joy that had shone unabashedly from his face the moment we first walked in the door. He turned his shoulders and directed his words in my direction a little bit more, finally met my eyes, a gift of trust and acceptance that I received with gratitude, knowing from whence his momentary distrust had come.

After our delicious meal, he shook hands with Luis and with me, two or three times in our journey from our table to the exit, all of us proclaiming - ¡mucho gusto, mucho gusto! Such pleasure, such pleasure, at having met.

"I didn't stop."

He walked away, the voices of the police officers calling out to his back. "Come here and show me your identification."

Was he afraid that he would be pursued, knocked to the pavement, handcuffed and put into the van with the others? Did the skin on his back prickle at the thought of a bullet that could be sent to stop him in his tracks?

If so, those fears were not as strong as the ones that made Enrique keep walking.

According to la chota, they were responding to complaints that a group of day laborers, who had gathered at that spot daily for the last 3 years without incident, were blocking the sidewalk and "congregating."

For that, these men who were seeking work - not buying and selling drugs, not begging, not fighting - some of whom are the primary breadwinners for their families that are so lucky to have mothers always in the home to care for the children, these men were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.

Is it also disorderly conduct when a group of white guys in suits block the sidewalk waiting for a bus or a train, or waiting to cross at the crosswalk on their way to their jobs? If more than one of them at a time pause on the sidewalk to take a sip from their Starbucks cups or talk on their cellphones or punch important information about stock trades into their blackberries, and block my way as I try to pass, is that also disorderly conduct? Sound absurd?

No more absurd than a group of day laborers waiting to go to work being charged with disorderly conduct. Then again, groups of brown men congregating on a sidewalk do not strike terror into my soul. They remind me of every single wave of immigrants to ever come to New York seeking a better life. Giving more than they take. Willing to work hard at whatever job that needs to be done.