GUEST POST BY EMILIO CARRERO

 

   

 

 

Searching for Work

Emilio Carrero

 

The only security between me and Mexico was a metal detector machine manned by one guy. I’d made it down to Nogales with my friends to cross the border. I was surprised at how simple it was: I walked to the entry point, water bottle in hand; passed through a hot metal turnstile; and came upon a lone officer sitting on a stool. He was watching a computer screen. He looked bored, ready to fall asleep. I took off my knapsack and put it on the conveyor belt. Inside it was some sunscreen, a notepad and pen, my passport, some Cliff bars, and Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo. I watched my bag roll through, then I looked around, unsure if there was anything else I needed to do. The people standing behind me got impatient and walked past me, speaking to each other in Spanish. The officer peered up at me and waved his hand to the other side, halfheartedly. If you want to, he seemed to be saying.

Crossing over, I couldn’t help but think of the opening line to Pedro Paramo: “I came to Comala because I was told that my father, a man called Pedro Paramo, was living there.” For all the haunting parts in Rulfo’s book, it’s the beginning that I can’t shake. How Juan Preciado arrives in Comala searching for someone or something and is given not discovery but more uncertainty. Maybe I like the uncertainty, or maybe I know it as something familiar—it’s hard to tell difference.

I passed through the metal detector and went down the walkway, where people stood in line, on the other side of the metal railing, waiting to get into the United States. The whole time I wondered what my father would’ve said to me if he saw me in Nogales. What he would have thought about the border, its burnished color and tightly spaced bars, that cuts through the city. I think, more than anything, he’d be confused by it. Confused as to why I was leaving, even for a day, this country that he wanted me to be born in.

Nogales, Sonora seen from Nogales, Arizona

***

Whenever I travel somewhere I haven’t been—a town, a state, a country—I always end up looking for my father. Or really, the ghost of him. What else are we after when searching for what we’ve never had? Still, I look for him everywhere, and when I come across something that reminds me of him, I know I’ve found him by the way the hair on my neck stands, how my stomach churns, and my arms and shoulders tense up. It’s how I felt when he visited me as a kid.

I remember I’d be standing in the driveway, watching him pull up in his blue rusted Camaro. He’d honk the horn, a cigarette in his mouth. As soon as he opened the car door, I’d hear him shouting, cursing. I found it funny, but once he got up close—and I felt his narrow, dark brown eyes staring down at me, and shook his big, calloused hands—I’d remember how much he scared me. We’d walk inside and he’d throw himself onto the couch, ask me how I was. I’d tell him.

What!? He’d shout. Speak up. I tried, but mostly I just nodded and sat quietly on the couch.

The story of him is built on memories like this. But it’s also true that the story of fatherhood has always been mysterious to me, seemingly hiding something more, as if—when I think about it now—it’s a white sheet cloaked over the story of homes: the places we know as home and the ones we wish were ours. Just like when Juan Preciado makes it to Comala, it’s clear he’s arrived in a ghost town; but who’s to say whose ghosts these are? Part of the land or part of him?

I was born a citizen of the United States. My father had come to the States in the late seventies by airplane. He’d come here from Puerto Rico to work—he’s always been adamant about that. Nothing disgusts him more than a grown man who doesn’t work. Pieces of shit is what he calls them. He had worked in the sugar cane fields from the time he was a boy, even dropped out of middle school so that he could do it. And he’s continued to do manual labor, even in America, for his entire life.

My father never talked to me about Puerto Rico. It’s the place he wanted to escape. There’s not much to say, he once told me when I asked. I didn’t like it so I came here. I never knew much about my family’s homeland, so instead I dreamt of my own. Homes, growing up, were hidden places that my father didn’t talk about, or places with clean streets, driveways, and open fields that I dreamed of because we couldn’t afford them. 

But now that I’m older, it feels wrong to say that homes are hidden, that they hide behind fatherhood or inside of a young boy’s dreams. Because they’re everywhere and bleed into everything. I can remember, at five years old, understanding and speaking Spanish. I remember my grandma even sitting down with me to teach me the alphabet. But once I started first grade, the language sieved out of me. Sitting at the kitchen table, speaking to my mother’s back as she fried food on the stove is the only memory I have of what it was like to have it. But some of it is still in me, hasn’t fully leaked out from my consciousness. Sometimes I listen to people speak Spanish and try to see which words rattle loose memories, like creatures hiding under floorboards. Language is as real a ghost as any.

***

In Nogales, we met up with up our guides from the Border Community Alliance, Alma and Alex. We all piled into a van and they talked about their projects in the community. Andrés Manuel López Obrador was going to be Mexico’s new president. I only knew a little about his politics—AMLO, a leftist version of Trump he’d been called. The election came up wherever we went.

We drove to the DeiJuven, a youth center for children and teens. Once inside, Alma stressed the life skills they were teaching the kids—cooking, crafts, academics and the self-regulating dynamics where older kids became leaders and role models for younger kids. The main building was a gymnasium for kids to play. It was bright out that day and the light came in through the side windows. The center had a summer camp feel: the younger kids sat at the long fold-out tables, drawing and coloring; others stood in line, jump roping on the hardwood court; the teenagers sat in the bleachers talking. Most of them, Alma explained, were there because their parents worked long hours in the maquiladoras.

As we were leaving, Alma asked a little girl, no older than six or seven, who she had wanted to win the election. It was the girl’s first day. She crossed her feet, fidgeted with her hands, and looked at all of us. Alma asked her again, nodding. The girl quietly said, Obrador.

We left the center and continued driving around. I listened to Alma and Alex stress the importance of social investment over charity. I took it to mean that the former empowered people, bred self-reliance. Everyone I met in Nogales seemed hyper-sensitive to the idea of charity, be it the manager of the Arizona Sonora Border Project for Inclusion (ARSOBO) or even the owners of the Juan Bosco shelter. Charity implied pity. And what they cared more about, it seemed, was not coming off as helpless.

At ARSOBO, the workers we met were people who’d come there disabled, in need of help, and had turned that opportunity into a career. I watched a man in a wheelchair, wheel around from station to station, making wheelchairs for others. He wore a baseball cap and collared shirt, dirtied from the machinery. His name was Gabriel. Seeing him move around, working, I wanted to laugh, because I thought of my father. I imagined what he would have said to him. He would’ve been quiet at first, nodded and shook Gabriel’s hand firmly. Then, after the moment passed, after an hour or so, after they became friends, had a few beers, he would’ve grabbed him by the shoulder and laughed. A wheelchair making a wheelchair—my dad wouldn’t have been able to resist. He would’ve made fun of him, mercilessly; the only way he’d know how to show his admiration and respect for their mutual belief in work.

Wheelchair frame in ARSOBO workshop

We left ARSOBO and headed back toward the border. Storm clouds had settled over the city. Rain drizzled on the van windows. I thought about Gabriel and my father for rest of the trip—their belief in work. It seemed as safe a belief as any. Heading back across the border, I wrote down in my notepad that many of the migrants in Nogales had said they simply wanted an opportunity to work. They believed that it was as good a reason as any to want to come to the States. There hadn’t been much talk about justice or morality or good and evil. It wasn’t so much that they were cynical of those ideas but that they were cynical of their power. What had more weight was the opportunity to prove oneself.

Once I got back to Patagonia, I listened to a podcast about America’s immigration policy. Politicians, researchers, journalists—I heard how they all knocked into each other, wrestled for space in the immigration debate. The policies and the rhetoric, it seemed, were inseparable. It made me wonder, what happens when a belief becomes politicized, since the issue of work is a central part of the immigration debate in the United States.

Seyla Benhabib, Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University, has argued that the U.S. has “associative obligations” to migrants who’ve been affected by transnational policies and practices. A notion that Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren has echoed by calling our current immigration situation one of “moral crisis.” To add to this, research by many groups, such as the Center for Global Development, shows that reducing immigration barriers would create tremendous economic gains (“in the trillions of dollars”) and at the very least, albeit with limited research, have minimal adverse effects on the economy.

On the other hand, our President, citing research from Harvard Economist George Borjas,  has said that “[d]ecades of record immigration have produced lower wages and higher unemployment for our citizens, especially for African-American and Latino workers.” Trump’s assertion is only partly true, but studies do show, for example research from Cato Institute, that although immigration doesn’t have an effect on overall wages, it definitely does affect low-skilled wages. Which is to say, I with a liberal arts education would not be affected by increased immigration. But my father, with barely any education, would be.

But how you present facts is as important as the facts themselves. Research published in the National Academy of Sciences has shown as much. Science with storytelling and facts without proper framing are difficult to sell to people much less a country. Which explains, probably, why I don’t think about economics when I think about work. I think about my father.

***

Work holds a fundamental place in people’s lives. For my father or my family or the people I met in Nogales, the story of work seems to be a religious one, a spiritual touchstone used to help move through the world. It’s something to believe in, not as a means to become rich or to gain advantage over others, but because it’s necessary for what my father called “a better life.” The problem with beliefs—be it in a God, a righteous universe, or just a world ripe with meaning—is they’re hard to talk about. They can fall into abstraction, into mystical realms that can be hard to grasp, see, and, in turn, live by. My father has never been a religious man, has never lived by the words “from the mouth of God.” But he has lived by his work. And work is lived by in the body: in the hands and feet, in the eyes and ears, in the mouth and nose, and in the chest and beating heart. I can see how, for many, work is as certain a belief as any because they feel it every day.

Which makes me wonder, what does work mean to America? Part of me believes that those who are opposed to increased immigration see work as a commodity that needs to be protected. But then there are so many commodities, and for people to fight so fiercely for this one makes me believe that it can’t be just that, but that work is for them, like the migrants who’re trying to come here, an entrenched part of their life, a belief that they can’t bear to imagine even risking to lose. Whether their fears are real or not, the question I ask myself is whether a country’s belief in work opens or closes it off to rest of the world? And then, either way, what kind of country does that make us exactly?

When I think about the migrants who want to come to this country, I wonder, more than anything, what sort of country they believe they are coming to? What is the America that they believe in so much that they’re willing to risk their money, their bodies, their lives to come to? The America I know is a haunted America, a country that’s always been grappling with the people and places that gave birth to it. Does this America believe in work? I think—no matter what ghosts we’re haunted by—we do. But maybe we’ve forgotten what it’s like to stumble into a foreign town, in search of maybe our family, or maybe ourselves, or maybe others who you know believe in work.

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