They drove trucks all night from Sacramento to Las Vegas. They picked fruit in the valley beyond San Jose. They spent eight years outside San Diego or fourteen years in Atlanta in a meatpacking plant or a decade in Chicago because they had cousins there.
I’ve taken taxis in Morelia, Michoacán several times a week since January. Nearly all the taxi drivers I’ve met have lived in the U.S.
“My English is not so good,” they say. “I learned on the street because I had no time to study.” When I ask if they liked El Norte, they say, “Si, me gustó.” This is hard for me to imagine because they did nothing but work. I wonder if they’re being polite to a norteamericana. Then they tell me how little they make driving a cab here seven days a week. Moving from survival to actually saving money can make you like even a very chilly place like Chicago. Many long to go north again.
Some have been back for only a year or two but most returned more than a decade ago following the post-9/11 wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. Dominic Bracco, writing for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, describes how fear-driven U.S. laws targeted Mexicans. “We as Mexicans became the enemy,” said Sandra Rodriguez, a reporter for the Ciudad Juarez newspaper El Diario. 1.6 million people were deported in the decade before 9/11, while the number rose to 2.3 million in the ten years that followed.*
Given the current fence-building fervor in the U.S., most of the taxistas I’ve met know they cannot return. Cannot ever see siblings and sometimes wives and children left behind. Cannot watch nieces and nephews learn to ride bikes or graduate from high school. Cannot listen to the next generation’s perfect English. On the other side, those in El Norte may never witness the aging of parents and grandparents or mourn their deaths within the tight circle of family.
But one taxista I encountered did get to meet one of his siblings’ U.S.-born children. Call him Jorge. He picked me up one Friday on calle 20 de Noviembre on my usual route to teach at La Universidad de Latina América (UNLA). His cab was old but clean. A black rosary hung from the rearview mirror. A figure of el Niño Divino – the Christ child – rocked back and forth on the dashboard as the taxi lurched in and out of the gnarly traffic that must make driving a cab in Morelia a nightmare. Jorge looked to be about 30, his black hair still thick, his face bright as he turned to question me. He asked how I liked Morelia, this gorgeous 16thcentury colonial city with Costco, Mega, and Cinépolis multiplexes at its growing edges. “Mucho,” I responded with gusto. He grinned. Where had I come from? “Oregon,” I said, getting ready to explain the state’s position north of California – dead reckoning for most Mexican immigrants to the U.S. But I never got the chance. “Hillsboro! Eugene! Beaverton!” Jorge exclaimed. He had lived outside Portland for nearly a decade. Was he glad to be back in Morelia? He paused. “Mi mamá,” he said. “Mi mamá está aqui.” But what of other family members? His five brothers are all up north – two in Oregon, three in California. Can they visit? He shook his head. His mother may never meet her grandchildren.
A silence ensued. What expression of sympathy could I offer? In Mexico, family is bedrock. The separations in Jorge’s family are both unthinkable and so common that they defy comment by an outsider. Then Jorge said, “Pero una sobrina vino aqui, hace seis años.” The niece who came six years ago was part of a program set up in 2001 by UNLA and AHA International, an academic program of the University of Oregon’s Office of International Affairs. Faculty from Portland State University, Western Washington University, and other Northwest institutions came to UNLA to teach. Northwest students came to study immigration issues, Spanish, and other topics in classes that mixed Mexican and American participants. Jorge’s sobrina, the daughter of his Eugene-based brother, arrived from the University of Oregon for a semester. It was wonderful, Jorge said, to get to know her here in Mexico. But this program was suspended in 2010 pending changes to the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory for Michoacán. I understand government and university officials’ concern over safety, but I mourn this lost opportunity. While problems related to drug violence may persist in parts of the state, I’ve felt very safe in Morelia. Living here and working with Mexican students has deeply enriched my life.
Every taxista’s history has elements similar to Jorge’s. The stories multiply until the echo resonates long after I step from the cabs. Here lie the shards of the shattered mythology of the U.S. Melting Pot, arms once open to the “tired, poor huddled masses” now protectively crossed across our chests. If the U.S. State Department lifts its travel warnings, if Pacific Northwest colleges and universities re-instate their programs, if the current immigration reform legislation passes, some families may suture the cleavages in their lives. But even then, fissures will remain – those formed by missed birthdays and weddings, first communions and quinceañeras, deaths lamented from afar, cracks as jagged as the barbed wire across the border.
Jorge brightened as we approached the university, remembering his niece’s stay here. I told him how fervently I hope things will change. “Yo también,” he said, “Soy un optimista.” Then he repeated, “Tengo mi mamá.” Semana Santa, Easter week, was approaching. Jorge would attend mass and savor a big Sunday comida with his mother. He is grateful for his job driving the taxi, even though longer hours yield lower pay than he made in the U.S. He fingered the dashboard figure. “Por Dios,” he said. I wasn’t sure what he meant. What is for God – the work, the hope, the maintenance of a divided family life? Before I departed, I asked how much I owed for the cab ride. He shrugged. That big grin again. “What,” he asked, “Do you think is fair?”
*From a report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, cited in Brocco’s article: 9/11 “Border Security Leads to Crime Increase in Mexico,” September 15, 2011 – http://pulitzercenter.org/reporting/mexico-border-closings-deportation-juarez-drug