Shadows out West

  • Illustration of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe

    Diane Sylvain

She greets you and your kids at the doctor's office. Watching her as she goes about her work she seems very intent, almost frowning. But when a patient arrives she is attentive, tender towards the suffering, reassuring the frightened, and, especially with children, offering an encouraging smile. Her filing is precise and swift, as if she had to crowd two days of labor into one. In fact, she does.

After a full day at the doctor's office, she often works a shift as a stocker for a warehouse store at night. She lives with her ailing aunt who cannot work because of a heart condition, and she is the sole breadwinner for a household of five: a brother, two cousins, her aunt and herself.

On weekends much of her time is spent at church, cooking for youth retreats, singing in the choir or helping a nun prepare children for sacraments. A beautiful young woman, she never dates. There's simply no time. She cannot afford to donate much in the Sunday collection, but she donates thousands of dollars to the government in unclaimed tax refunds and credits as well as Social Security payments that she will never claim. That's because Maria is an illegal alien.

Maria, who won't let me use her last name, is typical of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans passing like shadows across the West (HCN, 12/23/96: El Nuevo West).

They pick the fruit you eat, pave the streets you drive on, mow your lawn, serve you at restaurants, serve as teacher aides for your children at school, and worry every waking minute about getting caught and sent back to Mexico.

Their documents are forged, they know who deals in drugs, who got beat up by the drug gang, but they don't dare report it to the police for fear of being arrested, killed or reported to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The West is full of these shadows. You meet them in the mountain resort towns at night shopping for groceries. You overhear them speaking Spanish while buying clothes in a discount store. But like shadows they stay out of the light. Mexican teens riding in vans to church retreats are warned to not run towards the van for the best seats. If a law officer sees Mexicans running towards a van, he or she thinks: "illegal aliens."

Just the same, they do get caught. After an INS raid on an orchard or a manufacturing company, half the choir at the local Spanish-speaking church might be missing on Sunday morning. Husbands get deported from job sites, leaving a wife with children to figure out how to survive.

Endlessly they attempt to return. A family who once lived in my community and got sent back was trying to reenter the United States when they were stopped by the INS. Only the dad escaped, but he ran across a busy highway in his flight and was struck and killed.

Death is a daily companion, as is struggle. Along with devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is the patron saint of the oppressed, their faith focuses intensely upon Christ's suffering and death. They live his suffering every day. And they recall the victims of the corruption in their native land, the reform politicians who are assassinated, the justice set aside for bribes, the huge divide between rich and poor.

"If you are illegal," Maria explains, "you're poor." No one chooses to become an illegal alien unless they are poor. Her brother earns $60 a week in Mexico. Arrested and sent back twice, he is planning his next illegal entry.

I asked Maria why she doesn't try to become legal. Too many Catch-22s. To become legal, you have to go back to Mexico and show you have enough wealth not to be a burden. But to get the wealth, you have to first go illegally to the United States. To become legal, you can't have been illegal. Maria prays for an amnesty. Amnesty is like going to confession: Forgiveness is promised. You get to stay.

Maria talks with fondness of her childhood with her father. She recalls riding with her siblings in a horse-drawn wagon out to his fields on cold nights to burn old tires to keep the soybeans from freezing. Her father purchased the land while underage, using money he had earned and saved by working instead of going to school. To make his purchase legal, her father's older brother's name had to be on the title.

When he came of age, he felt it would be impolite to ask his brother to transfer the title. Even on his deathbed, with 10 children and a wife living off his land, Maria's dad wouldn't ask her uncle for the title.

Maria's uncle didn't attend her father's funeral, but a month later he evicted his nieces and nephews from their land. This is why Maria lives in the United States.

There are a lot of Mexican illegals buying sweat equity in the American West that their ancestors claimed before the Mexican American War. Will they ever receive a legal title to all they are contributing to this land? If you get to know Maria, she seems like part of your family - a favorite sister or aunt. You can't help wishing her uncle had not taken her land. I'm hoping that Uncle Sam won't evict her from ours.

Maria knows this. She finds many Anglos are sympathetic. But, she warns, whenever illegals start to overwhelm a community, then the walls of resentment go up. She saw this when she lived in Los Angeles.

This resentment keeps the INS in business. It serves as the West's other Bureau of Reclamation. They dam and regulate the river of the Mexican poor that water the West with their lives.

Daniel J. McGill lives in Grand Junction, Colorado. He works in the church.