Posted by: johnhourihan | October 18, 2012

What exactly are illegal immigrants?

Might I impose on you to read again this story of illegal immigrants? I still haven’t really heard a politician say this out loud, and until they can we will never handle our problem with people entering our country without papers. And to those of you who say “illegal is illegal” stop jaywalking, stop spitting on the sidewalk, stop fudging on your taxes, stop breaking the speed limit, then I’ll listen to you.
We were a herd of mongrel urchins living in a South Phoenix barrio in 1956 — Mexicans, Americans and Texans, and there was so much we didn’t understand.
My father and three of us kids had been here about three months when my mother and other siblings had made the trip and had joined us. Among others things, she bought us new underwear and made us go to school.
So on weekdays, we kids sweated the walk to Rio Vista school together, a half-mile trudge from the intersection of two irrigation ditches at Second Street, along powder-dirt roads lined with ornamental orange and pomegranate trees, and through the bull-protected barren pasture, across the lines of traffic on the boulevard — together.
And on weekends we — oh, you thought I was going to say we played together?
We were the ones the rich people living up by Camelback Mountain had pet names for, living in rows of squalid and stifling Quonset huts along the edge of the desert like a continuous straight-line border of metal-roofed armadillos. Between us and South Mountain was nothing but the bluish glow and the heat haze of pre-boom Phoenix, then more desert before Mexico.
And Billy Shorty’s dumb old Missouri-born father had found a way for us to “Make a boot-load of money” on weekends.
Scrapper Jack, Tex and Armando were forced by finances and the size of their families to listen to him, and we kids were rustled out of bed around 5:30 a.m. on Saturday.
Shorty’s ‘52 Plymouth sat idling outside our door next to Tex’s ‘50 Chevy pickup and we piled in.
Young Armando’s cousins came too, so there were about 10 of us kids.
One of the cousins was named Jesus (but you pronounced it Hey-zoos). He had brought apples so we had them for breakfast.
Some scrambled into the back of the pickup, but four of us were in the car. Adults got the car seats, so we scrunched up on the floor, leaned back against the back of the front seat, knees pulled up to our chins, eating apples.
The vibration of the floorboards kept us nearly asleep, heads bobbing, faces sweating and nowhere to put the finished apple cores, until we got to the fields.
The boss made us sit in the sun for a time made longer because I didn’t speak Spanish, then Jesus’ sister Rosi told me it was to let the dew on the cotton dry so it would be lighter.
After the wait, we slung the straps of the white canvas bags over our shoulders and headed off between the rows of child-sized cotton plants.
“No sticks, no pods,” the boss shouted after us.
Cotton at a buck a hundred pounds, didn’t amount to a “boot load” of money for any of us. But Rosi said it was plenty for them.
I asked why, and she said “Well,” then stopped, and I could tell she was about to tell me something she wasn’t supposed to.
Then she looked at her family a few rows off, recanted and settled for, “Well, because we’re different.”
At lunch my mother and father sat with Armando and Rosalita and Armando’s brother and his wife and laughed while we kids chased a white dog through the fields.
The afternoon was oppressive and long. My neck was burnt and my fingers, where the nail joins the meat, were sliced bloody from the dried pods not wanting to give up their clutch of cotton, and my lower back stung sweet with the strain of bending.
Together we lost our will to play, in the sun-clenched late afternoon of an Arizona cotton field.
On the way back, Marta, Young Armando’s little sister, slept leaning on my shoulder, and I was embarrassed at how I must have smelled, but I guess she smelled the same way.
The cousins didn’t come back with us.
Instead they loaded into the back of a crowded canvas-covered truck.
I stood with my mother and father, who seemed sad, and we waved to them as the truck rolled off down the dirt road south.
“Where are they going?” I asked.
“Home,” my mother said wiping the blood from her knuckles with hardened fingers.
There were things I didn’t understand in 1956.
I didn’t understand why weekends sometimes meant work, because others my age who went to Rio Vista didn’t work.
And I didn’t understand why my mother was so sad to say goodbye to that family, because she had only just met them today.
We had all baked and sweated and played together in the fields – Mexicans, Americans and Texans – and I didn’t know why Rosi would tell me we were different, because . . .
Well, because we just plain weren’t. While our country is debating the problems of illegal immigrants, I hope we remember borders are just lines in the sand drawn by men, and they are imaginary.
And that the people on both sides of the line are real, not very different and should be treated with compassion.



  1. A line drawn then re-drawn then drawn again and again and again. Never stop writing this article.

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