Wake Up Call

This is the essay that won first place in the Go Big Read contest.  All entries were to express a reaction to the book, Enrique’s Journey.           

“I just want to be with my mother.”  It is the plaintive cry of the child left behind in Latin America.  His mother has “gone north” to America to provide the child with a better life.  She will send him clothing, shoes, even toys.  He will have enough money to go to school.  But all the child wants is to be with his mother.

Enrique’s Journey, Sonia Nazario’s heartbreaking story of one Honduran boy’s determination to be reunited with his mother, chronicles the dangerous journey he takes to “be with my mother.”  This is a part of the immigration story I knew nothing about:  children, some as young as seven, travel from South and Central America on the tops of freight trains, dodging bandits, border agents and corrupt officials.  If they are lucky, they reach the United States with all their limbs intact.  Many, getting off or on “the beast” lose a leg or a foot to the train. Some die. Rape is widespread. The lucky ones, like Enrique, find a gang member who will protect them.  If not, they can be killed by bandits or madrinas: civilians who help the authorities while committing the worst atrocities.   

 When I finished the book, I asked myself: why don’t these countries take better care of their people so they can earn a decent living in their own country? Why indeed.  This is where all of us must commit to understanding how the world economy functions and the role of the United States in it. 

As Enrique rides the train through Mexico, “It rolls through putrid white smoke from a Kimberly-Clark factory that turns sugarcane pulp into Kleenex and toilet paper.”

In Honduras“One factory, S.J. Mariol, hires only women ages eighteen to twenty-five.” The women stitch medical scrubs to be sold in the United States.  The work is hard.  By age thirty, most women are not suited for it according to the head of human resources.  Without the high productivity of the younger women, the jobs may end up in China.  “Older” women have three options to make money: washing clothes; cleaning houses or making tortillas. 

 And so, the single mother leaves her young child behind.  Enrique is five when his mother leaves.  The separation scars him, as it does all the children left behind.  When he is lucky enough to be reunited with his mother, resentment towards her lingers.  She feels he should be grateful:  she sent money so he would be better off. He received toys and clothes.  He was able to go to school.  Enrique does not see it that way.  “You’re not my mother,” he shouts at her.  “Grandma is my real mother.”

The disintegration of the family in Latin America surprised me.  The Catholic Faith alone, it seems, cannot hold together what economics has torn apart.  Large numbers of single mothers struggle to feed and clothe their children, and are unable to send them to school. 

It is a sad and heartbreaking truth:  a part of the immigration story many Americans know nothing about.  How can there be a new truth?  A way for single women to support their children in their own countries? There are no easy answers.  Debt relief for Latin America is a part of the solution.  More foreign aid, especially start up money for small businesses and stable, democratic governments free of corruption would help.  Some say U.S.policies that have supported repressive regimes have contributed to economic instability in Latin America. Such policies fueled inequality and led to poverty and civil war.

In the United States, employers also play a role.  Businesses out to pay the lowest wages find illegal immigrants are the ideal population to exploit.   In the 1990’s African Americans at cleaning companies in Los Angeles had formed a union and succeeded in obtaining jobs with good wages and benefits.  The companies ultimately busted their union, and then brought in Latino immigrant workers at half the wages and no benefits.

Who is hurt by the wave of immigration into our country? Once again, the discussion must return to jobs.  Surely those African American workers at the cleaning companies wanted the same thing Enrique’s mother wanted:  a good job to support their families.  This is what all parents desire.  We need to ask ourselves why this is so difficult.  Is it the fault of NAFTA?  Has free trade caused a race to the bottom in all countries when it comes to wages? 

Who benefits from this immigration?  Surely American employers, like the cleaning companies mentioned above.  Immigrants living in the United States send millions of dollars to Latin America.  Their families, who remain behind, benefit.  But wouldn’t it be far better if they could support their families while staying in their native countries?  No one wants to leave home.  Home is where the extended family lives.  Home is where you celebrate your daughter’s Quinceanera, surrounded by several generations of family.    

The next time you hear the musical accent of a Hispanic child, make no assumptions. Most likely, he is not “illegal.”  But even if he is here in our country without papers, realize that his family chose to come here for a better life, much as your own ancestors may have.  Realize, too, that economic forces far outside his family’s control have propelled them to our shores.

Most of us may think economics is a subject best left to university professors and politicians but it would behoove us to learn more about how our country’s policies affect the rest of humanity, not to mention our own jobs at home.  Understanding this will help turn a complex issue into a very human story.  And from the human story, perhaps a way forward.         

“The worst thing as a Christian is to go through life asleep,” says Padre Leo, a priest in Nuevo Laredo,Mexico who ministers to migrants.  Perhaps as world citizens, Christian or not, we too must wake up.

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