I used to think the most divisive issue in our nation was abortion. I used to wonder, should the Supreme Court ever overturn Roe v. Wade, whether we would become a nation of pro and anti abortion states, like the days of slavery, with underground railroads transporting women to states where abortion remained legal.
That’s what I used to think until President Bush and the Senate brought forth a reform package designed to, once and for all, resolve the illegal immigration problem. Instead, no one is happy. Conservatives claim the reform package amounts to amnesty, and activists across the country are hopping mad.
The maelstrom that has ensued has convinced me that illegal immigration is more divisive than abortion, maybe even more divisive than the war in Iraq, and may result in the destruction of the Republican Party. Like the Whigs of 1854, incensed over their party’s betrayal of the 1850 slavery compromise, Republicans are turning in their party credentials and registering as Independents in droves. After finding the door to the Portland office of Gordon Smith locked when he went down to discuss the proposal, my friend Jim, a longtime Republican activist, resigned as a precinct committee person and re-registered.
My company’s new office building is located in an Hispanic enclave. Right off Highway 99 in old downtown Tigard, we are surrounded by low-rent apartments and a smattering of Mexican restaurants and lottery retailers. The children riding their bicycles in the parking lot connecting our building and the nearby shopping center are nearly all Hispanic, as are the high schoolers walking through to the school bus stop. The little ones are friendly, but the older ones for the most part avoid any eye contact as they pass by in baggy cargo pants and hooded sweatshirts. Some of them are scary, and you can’t help but wonder if there are weapons in those voluminous pockets. Adults walking in groups speak Spanish as do their kids when they are with them. When the kids are by themselves, they tend toward English.
It wasn’t surprising that the first qualified applicant to lease our extra space was an Hispanic couple, Bernardo and Lety. They wanted to use the space for a hair salon.
Lety is a licensed hairdresser and Bernardo works for Owens-Corning. They provided our leasing agent with tax returns and bank account information. We agreed to a fixed monthly rental rate with the provision that they pay for any improvements to the space.
When we first met them, Bernardo’s English was very rough, Lety’s non-existent. I’d had a total of three years of Spanish language instruction 30 years ago and a certain amount of immersion when playing soccer with three guys from South America in 1972. Between Bernardo’s broken English and my broken Spanish we were able to come to a deal.
The first bump in the road came when we tried to add a sink for the salon. We had thought we could plumb their sink into the drain line for the sink in our break room, just on the opposite side of the wall. The city inspector, however, deemed that two sinks would require a larger drain line, necessitating pulling up the floor and jack hammering out the building’s slab. It would have been $2,000 if it was a nickel, and money that Bernardo and Lety didn’t have. In a NAFTA-esque act of cultural compromise, we decided to remove the sink in the break room so the salon’s sink would be the only one on the line. The city inspector gave us a thumbs up. Bernardo and I shook hands on the deal, and they proceeded to set up shop.
It became evident immediately that we couldn’t have hoped for better tenants. They fixed the space up beautifully. They pay their rent promptly. Lety arrives around 10 in the morning. Bernardo brings her lunch and comes back at dinnertime. They keep the salon open seven days a week.
Lety and I began exchanging buenas dias and como estas in the break room. Through a combination of sign language and bad Spanish I scheduled my first haircut with her. During the haircut I was able to tell her that I had a grey cat (tengo un gato gris) and two sons (dos hijos). We turned the haircut into a remedial language lesson for the both of us. Spanish for me and English for her. I ordered matching Spanish/English dictionaries and phrasebooks for both of us, and I got into the habit of dropping in for a quick chat when she was between customers. When our words become completely incomprehensible to one another I revert to a catch phrase from the Spanish book:
“El pez esta nadando.” (The fish is swimming.)
Then we both laugh.
Lety is building a Spanish-speaking clientele. Her signs are in Spanish. Her posters are in Spanish. Her magazines are in Spanish. Her television is either tuned in to Spanish language programs or displays Spanish subtitles. And if the statistics are right, at least half of her customers, probably more, are in this country illegally.
One day when I was going to guest-host on Jayne Carroll’s radio show, I told Lety to tune in to listen to me. When she asked me what I talked about I replied, “cosas politicas” (political things). She then asked me what I thought about the war and what I thought about immigration. The topic of immigration sparked a lively conversation with not only Lety but also two women sitting with her in the shop. Through bits and pieces of fractured English and my limited Spanish I learned that they are as sour on the immigration bill as are most disaffected Republicans. Interestingly, their concerns echo those of most conservatives:
– No reform will work unless the borders are sealed, and
– Persons here illegally will not voluntarily come forward to pay $1,000 for a work permit, let alone $5,000 for a green card.
“Cinco meses renta,” Lety said, to put the $5,000 into perspective. Five months rent.
My son, who is a cook and works in predominantly Hispanic kitchen environments, is in agreement:
“They live five and six to a house,” he said. “They share food and rent, and the rest of the money goes home to Mama.”
The President says illegals are here to do the jobs Americans won’t do. He says allowing them to remain here by paying money is not amnesty. Seems to me illegals are here doing jobs Americans used to do, but won’t for the wages that the illegals will. And paying money to remain here after breaking the law to be here is amnesty. I’m pretty sure Lety thinks so too.
Bernardo and Lety won’t need $5,000 to stay here, but if they did, I’d lend it to them in a heartbeat. They’re working hard to build a life here, and I want them to stay. But the guys living five and six to a house and sending the money home to Mama should go home to Mama.
But what the heck do I know? I’m just an Eastside Guy.