Se habla español


I was waiting for the bus the other day, and I met a man who had just got out of work and was ready to go home.  After greeting him with the usual, “Good afternoon.  How’s your day going?” I then asked him where he was from, because I heard his accent.  “I’m from Guatemala”, he said, and from then on we just started chatting in Spanish.

Rob – that’s the alias I will use – was born in the same country I was born, but it was a very different country at that time.  He grew up in a rural community thirty minutes away driving distance from one of the biggest urban settings in Guatemala, Xela.  He only finished elementary school, so 6th grade in our education system.  When he was 17, he migrated to the United States, and has been here ever since. He works every day, pays taxes, rides public transportation, and contributes to the economy of Washington DC and Maryland.  He is undocumented.  When I asked him if he knew about any of the networks for immigrants that are available in the DC area, his face responded me with a blank expression.  I told him about some of the organizations for day laborers, for Central Americans, for undocumented immigrants and other organizations that might be of some utility. He has been here for a little over ten years, and he didn’t know about any of this.  I learned about the DC organizations that work for immigrants’ rights last week at a meeting for work, and I have been here for a little under two months.

This made me really unhappy, frustrated and angry.  And it just made me think and ask questions.  How does Rob access health?  Does he have access to preventive health at all?  How can he access adult education?  How does he access other kinds of services?  What does he do when he gets sick?  Where does he live?  What would he do if his boss is being unfair in terms of working schedules and salary?  Don’t get me wrong: Rob is obviously a resilient, adaptive man, who has worked hard for over a decade. He has been sending money to his family back in Guatemala, he is bilingual (maybe even multilingual if he speaks either Mam or Quiche’, the Mayan languages in the region where he is from) and knows how to move around parts of the city.  He is a survivor.  But at the same time, he was telling me how he hasn’t seen his family in all these years, how he can’t leave the country, how he had to travel through the borders using a coyote, and how it is so hard to get a visa and a social security number.

How do we allow for some individuals to be treated as people and others to be treated as less than people?  How come our humanity is still defined by where we are born, our geographic origins?  Why do I have more human rights protected and guaranteed than Rob does?  If we really want to tackle issues around health, human rights, international politics, and economics, we really need to revise, reform and revolutionize immigration policies.  In the connected world we live in, with technology that makes distances and time so malleable, I sometimes think we live more disconnected from each other than ever.  We need to learn about the different efforts currently taking place working towards fairer immigration policies, learn about the different social movements that have been fighting for this around the world, and think what can we do to be part of the conversation, the movements, and the reforms.  Because after all, aren’t we all immigrants?

I leave you with a quote from President Franklin Roosevelt: “Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”


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