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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
"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
I asked Maria why she doesn't try to
become legal. Too many Catch-22's. 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
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.
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
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.