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home : mirror blog : ken marques April 30, 2016

Ken Marques
By Ken Marques, Manson, Wa
Practical thoughts on faith, politics and community
Friday, April 26, 2013

Exodus North

 Exodus North

Exodus North

By Ken Marques

It is December and dark in the early morning of a sleeping village in Mexico. The village has a name but little else. The streets are nothing more than hard packed clay with ruts made by the few ancient pickups, held together with wire and hope. Houses are fabricated with a variety of discarded materials. A few are made of adobe, cement block, corrugated metal and pressed wood sheeting. These are the homes of the more fortunate. The majority of the population resides in dilapidated trailers, camper bodies and an occasional tent of canvass and old blankets. Commerce consists of a small grocery store with a lone manually operated gas pump. There are two bars, a café that houses the post office, and a shed that serves as a church and school. The employed Inhabitants of the village tend crops of melons and other vegetables grown year round, destined for sale further north.

Poverty is the norm. A cloud of hopelessness hovers over most dwellers, especially the young. You can see it in their faces. Rare moments of joy fade quickly in the village. Escape from despair usually comes in the form of momentary diversions...the kind that dulls the mind or stimulates sensual pleasure. Alcohol and drugs are common diversions. This is the village where Maria was born and lived for fifteen years.

Since she was 7 years old, Maria worked in the melon fields. At the age of 14 she became pregnant. She was a pretty child who found comfort in the attention of men. She had never known her father and like so many fatherless children yearned for the affection of a male protector. She was an only child of a mother who died of cancer. She was taken in by another fatherless family who had four children, the oldest child a boy of 17. It was thought that the boy had fathered Maria's child. But Maria had more than one suitor. She had earned a reputation that would not change in this small community. The future for a young girl with a child and no husband is certain to predict. One either labored in the sun until one is too old or one would give in to one or more vices of humanity...drugs, prostitution and thievery. Maria would have nothing to do with these choices.

It was common knowledge that working in the fields of the Imperial and Coachella Valley was paradise compared to working and living in Mexico's rural poverty. Having heard stories from other villagers who had gone to the United States and returned to Mexico with lots of money, she decided that she and her baby boy would go north.

The process to attain a legal work permit in the United States historically took years and more pesos than a poor family could ever save. Maria was challenged with the complications involved and the amount of money needed to access a decent future. Corruption in both countries was the invisible barrier to those who didn't know how to manipulate and afford the system. The only hope was to bypass the draconian written and unwritten rules of two countries.

On that early December morning, Maria and her eighteen month old child joined a caravan of thirty two souls hungry for a new beginning. A guide was to lead the caravan across the Sonora Desert into the United States. Not unlike the early European and Asian ancestors who risked crossing an ocean with little else but faith and hope for a better life, this small band had little to lose and much to gain if they could just get across the border.

Pulling a rusty child's wagon loaded with supplies for a three day walk across a desert wasteland, Maria set off with her baby strapped to her back. They slept in the open desert on the ground warmed by the hot sun and by morning their blankets were covered with dew. Cooking was prohibited as a lighted fire would attract the attention of authorities as well as local criminal elements that preyed on those going north.

The crossing was arduous as expected. The weather was tolerable as it was winter in the desert. The walking was tiring especially with a child strapped to her back and having to pull a small wagon with narrow wheels that dug into the sand. The trail was marked with empty plastic water bottles from those that had gone before. Once caravans were within a day of the border, empty containers and other waste was buried to make the trail more difficult for authorities to spot.

The common tasks of feeding her child, changing diapers and Maria's own personal hygiene took its toll. Keeping up with the caravan was an absolute requirement. Falling behind was a risk no one would want to consider. Snakes, scorpions, spiders, buzzards and hungry coyotes prowled the desert. The bigger fear was running out of water. Oddly enough, the least fear was being caught by the American border patrol. It was commonly known that detention in the United States was comfortable and a safe ride back to the border was tolerable. However, if caught and returned to Mexico, there was no chance of ever qualifying for a legal work permit to enter the United States. It was still a risk worth taking.

Maria and her son were fortunate. The guide was legitimate and got all thirty two across the border unnoticed. She had made friends with a young couple who had no children and had joined the caravan. They pooled their meager resources and found shelter with other Mexican families in border towns. Eventually Maria found work in Thermal, California.

A Decade Later

Ten years had passed since the border crossing. Maria hadn't married. She and Juan were still a family. She had male friends who lived with her from time to time. She worked in the fields and managed to make ends meet. Juan attended elementary school and in his early years had difficulty keeping up with his class. He was a good boy, not one to cause trouble. After school he would board the school bus and arrive to an empty house. He had been a latchkey child for the past 5 years. Without adult supervision he had little direction and motivation to complete his school homework. Juan was a fun loving boy who was thought to be somewhat of a poor influence on the neighboring children in the trailer park. Other schoolmates envied his freedom. Parent's discouraged their children from associating with Juan. He was a survivor in spite of his environment. He seemed to have a veneer of Teflon. Nothing negative stuck to him. He would simply shrug off unpleasant comments and criticism. This frustrated the teachers, but yet he seemed to attract a kindly response from them. His schoolmates and teachers liked him.

Juan's mother, Maria was usually late getting home from work for any number of reasons and when she got home she was exhausted. There was little time to spend with Juan. In the ten years in the United States she had not learned to read or write in English. She could speak some, but was of no help to her son when it came to doing homework. Juan needed to practice his reading or he would continue to fail to keep up with his peers.

It was not unusual that after a quick meal, Maria would fall asleep on a thread worn sofa leaving Juan to fend for self. Without the distraction of television, Juan would roam the trailer park looking for someone with whom to play. On occasion he would find a playmate, but most of the time he would play fetch with any number of dogs in the park. Tramp was his favorite. Tramp had no home...he was a wild dog who survived by his wits and cunning. Tramp too was ignored by many in the park.

A Change

It wasn't until a group on people from outside the community came to offer assistants to teachers at the school that Juan began to improve his standing in class. Members of the "Read With Me" program organized by several churches in the valley visited the campus twice each week to help children read in English. With encouragement and recognition by these adults, Juan began to see that he was capable of excelling. Within a school year, Juan had gone from the bottom of the class to the top one third. Juan's teacher was so pleased with his progress that she sent a message home with Juan asking that his mother come and visit with her. Juan's mother had never met with any of Juan's teachers. Maria was reluctant to accept the invitation but Juan persisted. He pleaded until she agreed.

Having taken a half day off from work, Maria borrowed a friend's car and drove to the school to meet Mrs. Lopez. Maria was visibly shaken as she entered the administrative offices. Dressed in her work clothes, she felt uncomfortable in the presence of well dressed school employees. She was relieved to be addressed by the receptionist in her native tongue.

Mrs. Lopez stepped into the lobby and immediately noticed an unusual bracelet attached to Maria's right ankle. Mrs. Lopez recognized what it really was. In the privacy of a conference room Maria explained that she was found to be an undocumented worker thus the ankle bracelet was placed on her by the authorities to monitor her location until a ruling could be made as to her future. To worsen the situation, Juan too was found to be an illegal resident because he was not born in the United States. Maria told her story with tears. She confided in Mrs. Lopez that she had retained a local attorney to represent her to the immigration authorities. Apparently, Maria had borrowed small amounts of money from a number of friends so that she could meet the retainer fees of the attorney. The total fee for the attorney's services was quoted at $7,000. Mrs. Lopez was leery of the arrangement with the attorney and made it a point to follow up.

The poor uniformed masses that come to our country illegally are targets for those who make a living threatening them. The undocumented workers have to watch over both shoulders, one for the border authorities and the other for their own countrymen who prey on their weaknesses. There are those who pose as attorneys or representatives of attorneys who take what little money they can muster from the vulnerable and disappear.

There are others who have a vested interest in the whole issue of undocumented workers. The Labor Unions in the United States lobby against these workers to protect jobs for union members, when in reality few if any of the union workers in the U.S. would accept much of the common agricultural work offered. However, unions have lost jobs to skilled workers who cross our borders without benefit of a legal permit, thus leaving many of our citizens without work, especially in the building trades. Then there is the political interests who stand to gain votes from the millions of undocumented workers. Caught in the middle are the innocent who want nothing more than an opportunity.

Is there a remedy that will bring about a win/win scenario? I don't know. What I do know is that left to politicians and labor union bosses we will not arrive at a workable solution.

Submitted by Ken Marques

Manson, WA

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