At the Fishtrap Gathering this weekend, writer Luis Alberto Urrea talked about the border. He’d written a non-fiction book, The Devil’s Highway, about 26 from Vera Cruz who crossed the border in 2001—twelve made it, and fourteen died in the trying. The book was a Pulitzer finalist and has just been reprinted in a tenth anniversary edition. The story is lauded by many, even by border patrollers, but there is no political purchase or acknowledgement.
He’s followed it with a novel called Into the Beautiful North, which deals somewhat playfully with Mexican villages where mass exoduses of men have left villages of women, young children, and oldsters. Is it an easier way of looking at things?
In seriousness, in a panel on the multi-cultural future, Luis asked the audience to imagine how desperate parents in El Salvador or Honduras must be to gather last resources, give them to a smuggler, and hope that a child makes it to the beautiful north. We’re talking, he said, not about an immigration problem, but about desperation and a refugee problem of major and international proportions.
All of which reminded me that in my reading of early European settlers among the Indians of North America there is always an undercurrent of desperation. We think and talk of rugged and heroic individuals, but the reality was more often young, scared, and hungry men being chased by circumstances to find something better.
They came to the new world—fleeing the Little Ice Age they couldn’t name but the drought and hunger they felt—as indentured servants, brought to the dock by desperate parents who signed them over to ships’ captains to be auctioned for servitude in Virginia or Massachusetts. With time—two years or five or seven—they might get freedom and a purchase on land or property of their own. The women, chained by marriage and children and living in fear of death by childbirth and death of children, followed on.
And their children, not indentured, but often poor, would push further West. And the companies—fur companies, railroads, charters—would tell them that “rain followed the rails,” that beaver were as thick as cats, that there was gold to be had, that there was “free” land—land stolen from Indians that could be “pre-empted” by Oregon Country settlers beginning in 1841, or homesteaded across the West after 1862.
The men who sold the furs in Europe, made the Levis in California, and owned the railroads everywhere made the money. But the rest of us—our parents and grandparents—at least many of us, hung on and created a country.
And now the rest of us—many of us at least—want to shut the door that opened for our hungry grandparents. How often do we think about those parents who sent our grandparents—or great grandparents—off to an unknown, but just maybe better, future? How do we forget so easily?
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