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Published: April 18th 2008
Two homes collide
Me with Noel, the twins´dad, who knows my home better than I know his.
Nearly every day here the issue of immigration hits and washes over me from this "other side."
A taxi driver I met in San Salvador had lived in Venice Beach and spoke fantastically vulgar street English, which he probably learned from working in a Mexican restaurant on Wilshire. When I asked him if he had been other places around the States, he said yes. When I asked if California was his favorite, he fell silent. The customary "I like Americans--except for ´los negros´" followed.
The anciano in his cowboy hat next to me on the bus started a conversation with me about half an hour after I offered him cashew nuts. His son joined in with a matching hat from across the aisle, saying he´d lived in New Orleans during Katrina. My neighbor finished by proudly talking about his hammock and how he liked it more than sleeping in a bed.
One morning I stopped to talk to Carlos, his English drawling with a distinctly Southern twang. He had lived in North Carolina for 12 years. "Over there, I had a car, a TV, a job, a house, my family." He laughed, in his continually optimistic humor. "Here,
I just have this damn bicycle!" I didn´t ask him why or how he left.
German´s wife left about two weeks ago with a coyote (the smugglers who are basically like drug dealers but dealing in people; dangerous people dealing in a dangerous trade), whom she paid $7,000, leaving $1,000 of their savings and a family who has to learn how to cook behind. German had approached me about it before she left to ask what the States were like, and I tried to give my honest opinion about health care, job opportunities, the higher cost of living...but still, the hope and excitement burned in his eyes. "She´s going to sell tamales," he said. "Her sister already lives in Virginia." He hasn´t heard from her yet, but supposedly, according to the coyote´s "schedule" she should be crossing the Río Grande/Río Brava soon.
René has been there and back twice. He described crossing the river to me--at around midnight, they stripped off their clothes and paddled across with one hand, holding their clothes in the other above the water. None of them looked at each others´naked bodies in disdain or attraction--female or male, they were all striving towards a common goal, a common gamble. I guess that´s why they´re called "mojados"--"wetbacks." Through their one-handed swim across an enormous river, they were trying to avoid the name, and arrive with dry clothes on their backs on the other side.
The twins, Fanny and Liana, who live in the house where I eat meals, have their father Noel living in the States. When he came to visit during Semana Santa for two weeks and install some new electrics, I asked him casually where he was living. In Southern California, he said. A few more questions and we realized that he worked for an electricians company in Simi Valley, and knew the entire area where I had grown up. He knew Agoura Hills for the materials shop they went to on Kanan, and had worked throughout Thousand Oaks, Westlake, Calabasas... Although he has a new wife and children over there, the fact that he was in this house that I had called my new home and that at the same time he knew my old home was a staggering, confusing conception, and at the same time a comforting reminder. I promised him that I´d meet him back in California, and introduce him to my parents, to complete the exchange, but I know things won´t be the same.
When I went to Yorlen´s house to invite her to participate in the leadership workshops for youth, she was reluctant. "I have band practice on Saturday. My parents won´t give me permission." I had a long talk in the back with her "parents" about the importance of the workshops in the development of the youth and the communities, and they seemed convinced. There was something else. As I shared a few more words with her "mother" in the darkening dusk, she whipped around the corner on her bicycle, out of sight.
The first night of the workshops, I was having a heart-to-heart with 15-year old Luís about the importance of respect (he has since given me this incredible gift of a 100-page book of Salvadoran songs, sayings, and stories that he wrote and constructed himself). In his somehow omniscient way that he has, he told me the reason why 12-year old Yorlen wasn´t there was because she had plans to go to the States with a coyote, to join her parents and the rest of her family over there. She couldn´t participate because she couldn´t commit to being here the entire year.
She showed up the next day with her pink plastic Strawberry Shortcake backpack, watching us do a traditional Greek dance. I unlinked my arms and went to talk with her. "I was going to go to Estados Unidos, but I´m not anymore," she said, her face still tragic. I don´t think I saw a brighter smile in that group, beaming with a knowledge of discovered acceptance and capability, as she joined her clear strong soprano with the others as we sang.
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