By Bonnie Chan, California Young Women’s Collaborative Coordinator
Today I find myself wanting to write about love and strangers. I’m thinking primarily about the strangers I met and talked with while in central Mexico this past January. At a remote indigenous community in the mountains near Ixmiquilpan, Hidalgo, I attended a small encuentro in which we discussed issues of immigration and migration for three days. Most of the men in this community, and some boys as young as 13, cross the border annually and spend eight months of the year working on farms and in factories in Texas in order to send money home. Every year, these men and boys risk all of the perils that go along with illegal border-crossing like arrest, death, betrayal at the hands of middlemen they have no choice but to trust. In addition to this, they deal with the perils of being an illegal laborer with no possible leverage against an American employer.
For three days, these men sat and shared their stories with us–their varied experiences around the border, what Texas is like to them, what it is to not see their children grow up. The youth in the community talked, a little engaged and a little bored, about the impressions they had of what is available in that country directly north of the border–good jobs, good pay, cool shoes. We played basketball. We cooked and ate in the community kitchen.
And we shared. They also wanted to listen. Of myself and the group of friends I was there with, we were all American-born children of immigrants and displaced peoples: Immigrants from China and Mexico, children of Native America. What is it like to grow up in the U.S.?, these men wanted to know. Do you keep your culture? Is racism contagious, like a plague?
They listened to my account of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act; how my maternal grandfather came to the U.S. under a fake name and birth date; how he carried in his wallet a U.S. Coast Guard ID that notes that, along with having black hair and brown eyes, he had a yellow complexion. They wanted to know what it’s like to grow up yellow or brown in a country of white. They understood clearly that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants that does not treat its immigrants well.
Migration is a word that makes me think of birds, or of the humans who first crossed land bridges to find themselves on a new continent–journeys away from home driven by necessity and survival. Migration has always been driven by survival or need or the drive for a better life. And only humans have ever successfully placed barriers to migration, the wealthy limiting the ability of the less wealthy to pursue their own survival. Building walls and using guns to cage people within their own destitution. Making the word “migrant” a despicable thing–wanted by no one, belonging nowhere–rather than a celebration and testament to human adaptation.
I thought it astounding that these men, who risk their lives in such profound ways to survive, wanted to hear of my experience of what it is like to be a perpetual immigrant. Sharing our stories felt like the deepest love for the human experience.
I’m thinking about this today because it is May 1st, International Workers Day. Today there were thousands upon thousands of people marching in the streets all across the nation to speak out for the rights of immigrants. I happened to be graced by the presence of the folks who marched through the Fruitvale district of East Oakland, and my thoughts from today’s march were: 1) Where are all of the APIs in this new revolution?, and 2) How could any country or government long resist this wave of humanity and love, this call for the most basic of human dignity?