Tonight I talked with a man who came to America the first time when he was 14 years old. He, his parents, sister, some other family and some strangers swam across a river into Southern California. Eventually he was caught and sent back, but got a visa to return to be with his wife whom he met and married here in America.
In contrast I thought about what I was doing at 14. I was in high school, sophomore year, cutting classes, the most important thing in my life being the school play, without a care in the world. My life, up to and after that point was spent without a care in the world. I never gave a thought to the world around me, or the future, or much of anything. I was self-absorbed, and more than likely still am.
I can’t begin to imagine uprooting my life at 14 years of age, leaving most everyone I know, swimming across a wide river in the dead of night, scrambling through a desert and eventually ending up in San Diego, working for under the table money and living in fear of being caught by immigration agents for several years. Nor can I imagine what it must’ve felt like to be caught by those agents and sent back to a country I left years earlier, and have to make it back to my family in America on my own.
Honestly, I don’t know if I could even do that today some 20 years since I was a teenager. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t prepared for anything as adventuresome as leaving home and relocating to another country. I wasn’t prepared to cope with any major changes in my life outside of what was considered the norm—going to college, getting a job, taking on a bunch of responsibility I never really wanted but was obligated to want because society said that’s what you were supposed to want.
The man I talked with has been here a second time since he was 18. He has worked multiple jobs and earned certification as an electrician, if he ever chooses to pursue it. For now he’s content working as a waiter, with less pressure and more freedom. He’s 22 at the present and has lived more in his 22 years than I’ve lived in 44 years. He risked his life to have a life, and that, to me, is the true spirit of America.
I look at the many millions of teenagers, twentysomethings, thirtysomethings, and so on, who have lived lives like mine, not really concerning themselves with much of anything beyond the fluff that passes for things of importance in our safe and secure worlds. High school plays, meeting friends at the mall, reading supermarket tabloids turns into dinners with friends, movies, magazines and books, all used to pass the time and take away the moments that make up a dull day. Life passes most of us by, simply because we let it.
One 22 year-old made me think of what I’ve wasted. I may not have had to change my life by swimming a river in the middle of the night, or watching a stranger drown as I made that crossing. I didn’t have to live as a squatter, or hide from immigration officers, or get taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers who paid me barely enough to feed me on a daily basis because I was in the country illegally. And I haven’t had to live with the disdain from a multitude of people who ignorantly assume that simple because a person flees into a country illegally they are criminals, drug deals, thieves or murders.
A majority of the people in America take our lives for granted. We don’t realize how precious it is what we have, or give enough credit to those crossing the borders in the night, risking their lives, for their fortitude and desire to have what we are taking for granted on a daily basis. That is the pioneer spirit on which America was built and while there are legal ramifications to their actions they deserve our respect.
They don’t deserve to be treated as criminals. They are coming here for help, and while our government is concentrating on a war for oil, or Iraqi freedom, or some other latest deception to distract the American public from real issues directly concerning them, the government is overlooking an opportunity to change the country in a positive way.
I didn’t always believe this way, and was one of those people who often complained about the foreigners taking jobs from Americans. It wasn’t until I talked with this man tonight, hearing his story and the stories of others who also made similar crossings swimming rivers and hiding in the trunks of cars so they could live the American dream that I realized the American dream is still alive in spite of the efforts of our own government to kill that dream for anyone who isn’t wealthy.
I’m proud to be an American and don’t think of it as something to be denied others. In some ways American is like a great big club, and if others want to join us we should be flattered and welcome them with open arms. I’ve said it before, not really joking, the future of America is in joining with Mexico and Canada, becoming the North and Central American Union, or Mexmerida, or CanAmIco, or whatever they want to call it. Make the crossing of borders safer and legal, and help unite the world.
There’s always going to be dangers inherent with change, but without change we will stagnate.
Robert is the author of the novels Cool Mint Blue, Melba Ridge, and the recently released The Adventures of Homosexual Man and Lesbian Lad; and the creator of the on-line comix Impure Thoughts found at his web site Inside R.A. Melos, as well as having been an on-line staff writer for QBliss where he had a monthly humor column, Maybe A Yip, Maybe A Yap. In his non-writing time, when he's not studying the metaphysical or creating a tarot deck, he sells real estate in Middlesex County New Jersey, hangs out with his dog Zeus, and spends time at the Pride Center of New Jersey in Highland Park, NJ, where he is on the Board of Trustees.
ABOUT ROBERT A. MELOS
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
12.11.07 @ 12:21a
A nice change for you, Robert. It's good to see a little of your heart here.
12.11.07 @ 11:53a
I really like this- I like seeing how you're giving us someone else's life through your eyes, and making an effort to understand circumstances that you wouldn't know how to live with.
12.12.07 @ 12:27a
I just found it hard to imagine what my life would've been had the situation been reverse and my parents came to me when I was 14 and told me we were swimming a river in the middle of the night to leave the country and we might get shot, or drown, or caught, and those were better choices rather than stay where we were. The thought is overwhelming when put into the context of my own life and what was going on in it at 14. I couldn't comprehend it, and still find it hard because of how safe and cushy my life has always been. To think this man has lived msot of his life not knowing the security I did, and to some extent still do, is amazing. I don't know how I could get through it all if I didn't have a feeling of security.
And Juli, how dare you accuse me of having a heart. I'm a mean one, Mister Grinch. Or a Tin Man.
Seriously, I don't know how anyone can hear these stories and not be moved or reach the conclusion that opening the borders and uniting Mexco and Canada with America to form a union that would be financially beneficial to all three countries. The European Union seems to be working, and it could work here as well. Eventually it will happen, but probably not in my lifetime.
12.17.07 @ 7:55a
This is a great essay, Robert.
12.17.07 @ 1:59p
Very nicely done, Robert. You successfully characterized a situation I see daily living in Southern California. The immigrants doing menial jobs below the radar have become an integral part of this community. Ironically, we depend on them and the government doesn't know what to do about our dependence on undocumented labor. Almost all contribute to the tax base, using false social security numbers, and will never benefit from their tax and social security payments.
It's clear that almost all who come here without documents are looking for better lives for themselves and for their children. My friend teaches special education in an impoverished area of Orange County, and she tells many stories of the hardships faced by undocumented families. The stories are heart-breaking. Most difficult are the stories of young teens, almost always born here and American citizens, faciing separation from their parents because of "La Migra." Most of my friend's students are ESL students with other learning issues, but they want to learn and their families want them to learn and to succeed.
12.18.07 @ 2:32a
Lucy, unfortunately this is a situation that is in every state and it isn't getting any better for those who came here looking for a better life. In fact there was a recent report on the local news of immigrants returning to their countries of origin because they can't make a living here either. Our economy in the last 7 years has gone down the tubes. Now of course I'm not completely blaming the White House. There were congressmen and senators also to blame for the economic mess we're in. But when the people who came here to find a better way are leaving because suddenly their homeland has better prospects that's sad. The American dream is still breathing, it just needs some life support for the moment. I really think that lift it needs is a union between America, Mexico and Canada. Not just trade alliances and NAFTAish government mumbo jumbo but a real union that makes it possible to be a citizen of all three countries and allows everyone the opportunity to live and work where they choose.
Of course we also need an economy worth living in and working for. Right now America is a country for the wealthy, and anyone who isn't rich is poor. There is no middle class, no in-between. The gray area is gone, and that is the shame of our government. The middle class was the American Dream. It was the best way to have what you wanted within reason. Reason is also lacking in America at this time. Really lacking.
This is all just my theory on why things are going to hell and one solution to the problem. Unification is always the best way of solving a problem. Bring people together instead of dividing them. There is always a middle ground and a middle of the road that will make things easier, if not perfect. That's what we lack at the moment--enough common sense to see a simple solution. All anyone seems to care about is living the high life. I'm just as guilty as the next man, but I see there is a better way, unfortunately not enough people see that way, or understand the sense of community that really is needed to bring the world together.
I know, it all sounds almost mythical. A unified world where people are happy. Maybe I'm too idealistic in my thinking. Good thing I can counter it with my cynicism.
12.18.07 @ 11:52a
I agree that a North American unification would resolve many issues and inequalities. Unifying with Canada seems more likely to me than with Mexico, and who knows if Canada wants an alliance with us. As a nation, we still view Mexico as a third world country and there will be resistance at both the grass roots and official levels to the idea of unification of Mexico. Why would we want to join forces with a country who resources and people we now exploit, and also blame for many of our social ills? If only it were simple!
12.18.07 @ 10:43p
See I think unification with Mexico is more likely than with Canada. America and Mexico need each other more. It would be a marriage of convenience. We may not really love each other, but we would be good for each other. And what starts out as an arrangment could turn into mutual caring.
Granted this is all theory and probably won't happen for years, but I think it's a given. Canada, on the other hand is more independent. They don't really need us. Besides, it's cold there and it snows.