“Immigracion! Manos, alto!” We yell, laughing, and the men- Mexicans, maybe Central Americans- inside the unlit dingy room laugh and wave their hands in the air. We- my friend, a local pastor, and myself, two gringos- are on our circuit around town picking up Latino guys to go play volleyball and eat at a church gym. The county is home to a sizeable minority of Latino residents, most of whom- though not all by any means- are men, some single, many with spouses and family back home in their various countries of origin. And there are people from all over the Latin American world, belying the common- and often rather pejoratively uttered- moniker of Mexican; Guatemalans, Panamanians, Peruvians, and others live and work in this once almost exclusively black-and-white Mississippi county.
I enjoy hanging out with the varied assemblage of guys who come, once every week, to play and eat and hang out. A few other gringos come and play, but most of the people there are Latino, and only a few have a significant grasp of English. My Spanish is pretty poor, despite a couple years of Spanish in college, but it’s always met with happy acclaim from the people I try to converse with, and every week I pick up a couple new words for my vocabulary, and usually transmit a few English ones. Lately I’ve managed to move a bit beyond basic personal information and chatter and manage a little humor in Spanish. On occasion I’ll pray in Spanish before we eat, usually the same sort of formula of “Thank you God for our friends and brothers here, and thank you for Your love, and thank You for this food. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” Amen, anyway, is pretty easy to get right in Spanish.
Since most of the guys do not have their own cars, we drive around for a couple hours before hand to pick them up. Most of them live in the poor neighborhoods of town, neighborhoods that interweave and abut the shrinking higher-income blocks with their impressive live-oak shaded late Victorians and neatly manicured lawns. Many share a house with several other guys, who may be connected by blood or a common place of origin, or just happenstance; in some houses the rooms have been further subdivided to accommodate more lodgers, and impromptu businesses- diminutive tiendas, corner (as in corner of the room) barbershops- show up as well. Some can afford air conditioning, others none or very little.
Few neighborhoods here are exclusively Latino (it’s not unusual to see trailer-parks that are exclusively Latino, however); instead, it’s far more common for half of the houses in a block to be Latino, and the other half African-American. Therein lies one of the smoldering tensions, one that gets relatively little attention in the press (as to why that is, I’ll leave off speculating for now), but is hard to ignore. Why the tensions? Obviously there are considerable cultural differences- differences which are exacerbated by the close proximity of the Latino and African-American poor, thrust into the same neighborhoods and labour markets; this new competition has created a great deal of simmering resentment in the older, established lower-class. Latinos often find themselves easily exploited by the already violent and exploitive sub-cultures that have been festering in poor ghettoized neighborhoods for decades; this tends to increase the sense of group-solidarity already present on both sides and further decreases possibility of cooperation or mutual understanding. But Latinos are hardly only victims- there are various predominately Latino criminal groups operating and exploiting both communities.
As the opening dialogue indicates, some Latinos here would doubtlessly prefer to avoid the INS. I’ve no idea how many of the guys I know are documented, and how many aren’t. I don’t ask- though even if I did I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t be any more knowledgeable for it. It doesn’t concern me, really- but more on that, and the ethical and political questions of immigration, in a later post. I doubt- and please indulge the cliché-ness of this statement- whether Jesus would have concerned himself with people’s documentation status; I for one do not make it a concern, if only because there’s nothing I could do about it anyway. I do know that the vast majority of immigrants’ I’ve been able to talk to are manual laborers; most left a dismal work market in their home countries seeking some sort of employment. Some have managed to do fairly well and get a factory job; far more are employed in the lower rungs of the sprawling chicken industry that dominates the local economy. These are jobs that Dickens would have found worthy of a novel: brooding chicken houses, the size of airplane hangers, filled with thousands upon thousands of steroid-packed chickens- chickens that must be constantly, manually, managed. Latino workers are usually the ones given the dirtiest tasks, cleaning the houses of chicken waste and picking up and burning the multitudes of dead chickens, trampled and suffocated by their drugged comrades.
It’s a strange world, this, I often think as I converse in my halting Spanish: here I live in my middle-class luxury, a relative few miles away from these neighborhoods, while the workers who help hold up the economy I enjoy eat and sleep in crowded compartments, cook in communal kitchens, and go to work long before the sun comes up, in an often hostile society. Globalization, immigration, culture-clash: these are all up-close, personalized, unavoidable issues, brought down from abstract argument, down into a real world that is much grittier, personal, and difficult than political arguments can make out.
Next week: meditations on the ethical and political questions raised by immigration. Disclaimer: I’ve no grand answers, a few mostly personal or community-based suggestions, and precious little dogma on this issue. Hopefully the above ruminations have revealed where my sympathies, anyway, lie, for better or ill.