By Kathryn Coe
We all have heard that a caravan made up of peasants and, among other people, thugs, drug dealers, terrorists and MS13 members, is headed north to our border with Mexico. These people are, we are cautioned, armed to the teeth, just like the soldiers in Pancho Villa’s or Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s armies once were. Again, we hear, an invasion is approaching. Fear reigned then, and again, fear reigns in our country.
We are told that we now can relax: a large army of our solders has been sent to protect our borders, to protect us, our children, our way of life and even our honor.
I am not writing, however, to defend the decision to send the army to the border; nor am I writing to oppose it… nor do I want to belabor the point of why people are fleeing from Central America. I am not going to point my finger at any role we might—or might not—have played. My sole point is to explain a bit more who is in the “caravan” and who is coming north.
It might be important to begin by pointing out that thugs, MS13 members and terrorists would never be found among this group of poor, hungry, thirsty and desperate people.
These people not only are walking, but many are carrying babies, and many are leading small children by the hand. They are walking slowly. Some came in basic buses—not elegant or air conditioned buses with plush seats.
Many, if not most, came from small and often remote villages. They didn’t receive daily newspapers. They didn’t hear the latest news about our decisions regarding asylum. Many lived in huts with dirt floors and no electricity. They had no computers or televisions. They are poor, often living on the food they could grow or raise on small plots of land. They headed north, because they had heard of the golden city on the hill —the modern day Seven Cities of Cibola—and they headed here in desperation and with hope.
Why didn’t these people just apply for a visa? This question is regularly asked. For the poor, obtaining a visa has always been a virtually impossible task. It is difficult for them to travel by bus and find their way through the big, bustling and bewildering cities where our embassies are located. It is even more difficult being dressed in the humble clothes of a peasant and speaking a dialect of one of the native languages, to get into the lines and through the door of an embassy. And even if they are able to get through the door, they have no money to pay for a visa.
These people descended from proud ancestors who built magnificent cities that put to shame most European cities of the time. Their ancestors built tall pyramids, designed highway systems, created craft guilds and magnificent art, and they developed amazingly accurate calendar systems.
They are, like their ancestors once were, a creative and intelligent people. They, like many of our ancestors, just need a chance to develop that creativity and intelligence. If given that chance, they, like our ancestors, could contribute to the development of this country and, if we are willing to listen to their voices and stories, contribute to its healing.
We all know that we did not always have an honorable history, and we all know that this country was built on the labor, creativity and intelligence — the blood, sweat and tears of immigrants.
The Irish, fleeing the potato famine, in which an estimated million people died, were greeted by taunts and were said to be dirty, poor and disease ridden. Newspapers claimed that the Irish would rape our women, commit crimes and take jobs away from Americans. This did not prove to be true, and the thousands of descendants of these early Irish are now proud to claim Irish ancestry.
We locked the Japanese in internment camps. During World War II, we turned away the ship St. Louis, with its 900 Jewish passengers. Of those we rejected, some (26 people) found refuge in Cuba, some found refuge in England and South America, and 254 died in the Holocaust.
When it was proposed in congress that the US take in 20,000 Jewish children, a cousin of President Roosevelt—also the wife of the US immigration commissioner—testified that these 20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults. These people were also desperate, fleeing a life that had become dangerous and intolerable.
Again, we are being asked if we will take in the tired and the poor, the tempest tossed, yearning to be free. Again we have said no.
No one needs to ask me to cry for all these people. I do cry for them. And I cry for us, as we seem to have again lost our heart and our way.
If we wish to heal the chasm that now divides our country, perhaps each one of us needs to listen again to the music written by Rodgers and Hammerstein that tells us: “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear; you’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose skin is a different shade.” We each need to ask ourselves who we hate or fear and who taught us to do so.
Kathryn Coe has a PhD in cultural anthropology and has conducted studies around the world. She currently lives in Gold Canyon