Breaking the Wall

There are things I love about being back in the US and most of it has to do with ease. It’s just easier for me to get things done. I understand how stuff works and I don’t even have to think about it. Auto pilot – for sure.

And I know this area very well. We lived her for a few years, and while they’re building like crazy and there is a ton of construction this time of year on the freeways, we know all the short-cuts and back roads. Yesterday, I walked in to my favorite spa and got a massage. Then popped into my old hair dressers without an appointment and they gave me a haircut toot-suite. Our old grocery store is laid out just like I remembered and I went right to what I needed without thinking about it for a moment.

And today I had lunch at the In and Out Burger. In and Out is the purist’s burger joint. They just do burgers and fries and they do them better than anyone – anywhere. If food could be conflated with sex, then In and Out Burger would meet every need. Yes, I do hear the name. My mouth watered as I sat in the drive thru waiting for my order to be made. There aren’t drive-thrus in Spain. People don’t eat on the run like heathens – drinking Starbucks while rushing down the street or driving. Eating food in their cars. When you take the driving exam in Spain you learn it’s actually illegal to drive and eat. I’m convinced this is why the Spanish will have the longest life expectancy in the world very soon. They’re not perpetually stressed out and they understand the importance of digestion. In Arizona? It’s practically mandatory.

So I came back to where we’re staying and it hit me like a ton of bricks. Everyone here lives and works behind walls and gates. I remember when we moved here from Seattle all those years ago, I was immediately struck by this. After a while, the oddity of it fades into the background. But again, for all the guns people carry you’d think they’d feel safe enough not to have a human guard at the gate to their home and their office.

Outside all these walls are miles and miles of desert. Inside is a veritable oasis that is watered and pampered year-round by armies of those who keep it beautiful for it’s privileged inhabitants. We used to have an army of our own when we lived here, too, so I’m not pointing fingers. But that’s all history in our world now. We don’t even have a cleaning service in Valencia.

So I pulled in as the big iron gates shut behind me and I saw them working. Raking and trimming the desert landscape. There is a pecking order to the army. The pool guy will be white and American. That’s a given. He’ll be a small business owner and he’ll have at least half the homes in that area as his customers. The house keepers and the yard people will be Latino and most of them will not speak English. They’ll originate from Mexico or Central America and many will be here illegally. Their supervisors – mostly Latino American’s but sometimes immigrants too, but with visas or permanent status – will be the spokesmen for the crew and the only people that the owner of the property will interact with.

Arizona is a ‘Red State’. For those not familiar with American politics this means they’re Republicans, by and large. And being a Republican means that generally you support stopping people from those countries to the south (or anywhere with people who tan beautifully) from coming across the border. The idea of a wall makes you salivate. You’ll view them as a drain on the economy, and as criminals, even though the crime rate for this group is exponentially lower than for American’s born in the good ol’ U-S of A. But here’s the thing – immigrant workers pick the fruit and trim the trees and clean the houses. Often they’re the nannies for the American kids too. So I’m not sure how the wealthy of these border states would survive if all of a sudden there was a shortage cheap labor to perform these tasks for them every single day. Bending over and pulling a weed isn’t an American thing to do.

So I pulled up and stopped the car – gathering up my burger ambrosia – ready to enjoy it out by the pool in the winter sunlight. Then I saw the guys doing the yard work and greeted them in Spanish. It was like I had struck them all frozen. The crew literally stopped right in the middle of what they were doing and didn’t move. They seemed almost afraid I was addressing them. I walked up and asked how their day was. One man straightened up and responded in English, pretty sure he was the crew chief – . I laughed and apologized for my sad Spanish and explained I was a guest at the house and was trying to keep my Spanish going while I was here visiting.

Then another person said something to him in Spanish along the lines of ‘Why is she speaking to us in Spanish? What does she want?’. I smiled and said I was sorry to interrupt their work. One guy sort of backed away and went towards the truck, and then it struck me – they think I might be with ICE. That’s the immigration service that rounds up people and deports them. And if I wasn’t with ICE, I had still broken the wall that separates them from people like me. That’s not normal and I had broken an unspoken rule Here, these people are invisible and that’s just how it’s supposed to remain. I hadn’t meant to frighten them – just to be friendly. But friendly isn’t comfortable. Friendly is met with suspicion. And it reminded me of another time I made this mistake.

After the 2016 election, and the rhetoric by our President-elect, we were very upset in our house. That Christmas we wondered what the future would hold and very quickly would learn that it would be more of a nightmare than we had originally imagined. So I did what I do – I baked Christmas cookies (just like I did our first Navidad in Valencia). And then Emilie, Jeff and I took them to a local mosque and dropped them off.

When we pulled into the parking lot the people at the mosque were freaked out. No one spoke to us and mothers gathered their small children and held them close. The men eyed my tall husband suspiciously, as Emilie and I tried to find someone who we could speak to. Finally, someone stepped forward and I explained why we were there. That we were appalled by what was coming out on the news and we wanted the Muslim community to know that there were people in this very Red State who were standing by their side. We wanted them to know they were not alone.

I also let them know via a note on the boxes that I had taken care that the cookies were halal – made with ingredients that wouldn’t compromise their faith and the strict rules around food prep. They were gracious but still suspicious. Of course.

That’s how I felt today and it made me tremendously sad that this is the state of our world. We are at a place that even when the invisible barrier that separates groups is breached in the spirit of friendship, it can not be taken at face value. I understand their perspective but it makes me wonder how we can solve these problems when the very real fear felt by people over a simple ‘Buenos tardes. Que tal?’ is so evident. And remaining invisible is the most important thing of all.

My Mom and her neighbor, Regina, spent years of their retirement teaching immigrant children to read in a local public school. They loved it and I know they made a difference in these kid’s lives. They say that the greatest gift a person can give to their fellow man is to plant a tree under which they will never enjoy the shade. And these two ladies have done just that and I admire that tremendously. The program they helped run has been shuttered due to budget cuts and political reshuffling – but the need is still more important than ever.

Jeff and I know what it feels like to be immigrants. And while it’s difficult at times in Valencia, I have never feel like the people there view me as a burden or sub-human. I fear that that is not the experience of most immigrants in the US, whose chance of winning the lottery is higher than landing a job here that includes a desk and air conditioning. People have asked me many times on this trip if we’ll ever move back to the US and Jeff beats me to ‘No!!’ But I think if we ever did, I would use my degree in Criminal Justice, and my terrible foreign language skills, to help immigrants. And I’m almost ashamed I didn’t do this when I was living here before. Because, while I know how it feels to be the odd man out, and to struggle with a language and system that is not my own, I can only fathom their very real fear for themselves and their families from afar.

So, I can joke and point out the idiosyncrasies/hypocrisies that makes up American life, but how we treat those who are different than us is no joke in this country. And for that I’m profoundly sad and ashamed.

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