New York Times
December 24, 2004
EVERY American city is now a border town. If you drive through the Arkansas hills, you will see a single-wide trailer church with a sign that reads "Templo Evangélico." If you take Interstate 10 through Metairie, La., and exit north, you will find a Mexican barrio hidden behind a neighborhood of Cajuns. In Naperville, Ill., Spanish-speaking men in work clothes peruse the abundant "Hispanic foods" aisle, buying corn husks and masa de maíz to make their traditional Christmas meal of tamales, but Chicago style - with bratwurst instead of beef.
In cities all over this country, invisible undocumented aliens settle in with their lonely compatriots to watch the American holidays pass over them. In Mexico, there is no Halloween, no Thanksgiving. In the United States, the great December celebration is no longer Navidad, but La Creesmass. The recently arrived are surprised to find that Americans resent them. After all, President Bush, they believe, welcomes them. Fast-food outlets and roofing companies and farms and textile mills and motels eagerly hire them. They are even more startled to find that the ones who have come before them and who have put in a few years here, resent them even more. And the "legal" Mexicans revile them.
They don't have many presents to exchange. Perhaps the most traded gift among the illegal aliens this Christmas will be tales of home. The border may be porous, but it is one of the million paradoxes of post-9/11 history that the beefed-up interdiction policies along the Mexican frontier make it simpler to get to the United States than to get home. We have managed to slam the door shut on them, and we're locking them in. Immigrants trade jokes about "Detroit, Michoacan." And they're not far off the mark.
Drastiko is an illegal immigrant, an aspiring rapper and, when he can find work, a day laborer (like the others in this article, he allowed me to write about him only on the condition that I use a nickname: for him - his nom de rap). When Drastiko calls at 11 p.m., after a long day's hustle for money in Los Angeles, he says he no longer dreads the holidays. When he first arrived - when he was hiding out with other illegal aliens, sharing rooms with five other men in cheap motels - Drastiko was intimidated by the vast spending spree that is an American Christmas. In Mexico, Christmas was based on family and spirit. This, of course, is a direct result of endemic poverty. The holiday began with las posadas, a season of festivals and meals, candles and church. Christmas did not include the famous tree - el arbolito - though the rising middle and upper classes of Mexican society now enjoy such things. In Mexico City, the vast new Home Depot does a brisk trade in aluminum arbolitos. But many of the poorer people have not seen a pine tree, much less spent three months' salary to buy a metal or dead one to prop in a corner.
North of Seattle lives one of my relatives, known among the family as El Spiderman. He is the first member of his immediate family to see snow. It is certainly the first time in his life he has ever been so cold, or ever been in a place so green. Spiderman is not like Drastiko - he has lived a middle-class gringo life. His family crossed the border illegally and made it to San Diego when he was an infant. Spiderman grew up watching MTV and speaking English. Unfortunately, he was arrested for gang-related activities, something that baffled and hurt his father, a law-abiding immigrant. When illegal immigrants double their illegality through felonies, they are deported after serving time. So Spiderman, when he exited prison, was placed on a bus and deposited in an unfriendly Mexican border town. There, his accent and demeanor tagged him as an American, and he was in danger. His father undertook a Herculean driving marathon to retrieve him and deposit him in a safe house in Tijuana. Six months ago Spiderman's family paid a coyote $2,500 to smuggle him back into the country and he landed in Washington State, far from his former gang, far from his family and far from warm climates.
Drastiko, too, has traveled across the United States. Workers he'd met from Denver invited him to Christmas last year. He took a Greyhound bus to Colorado and found himself lost in the loneliest Christmas of his life. "Their ways were not my own," he says. "I was confused and unable to do anything but watch other people have holidays."
Navidad back home is when grandmothers make tamales. The families gather to break the Christmas bread. Traditional families don't open even small gifts on the 25th. They wait for the Day of Three Kings, in January, reflecting the Magi's giving to Christ.
"They give you small things," Drastiko says in Spanish. "They might give you a chocolate, or a wooden carving. The point is the act, not the object. Here, people look at the brand. They check the label. If you don't have a good enough trademark on a gift, they are disappointed." Being consummate capitalists, the undocumented, once they can afford to buy gifts - a year or two into their protracted stay - quickly learn the difference between Adidas shoes and Hong Kong knockoffs.
Drastiko met another illegal alien, the Disciple, in an English class where both were learning to read, write and rap in English. The Disciple can't afford Christmas American style yet. He "paid" a coyote $10,000 to deliver him from El Salvador to the East L.A. wonderland. These exorbitant trips astound Americans - but rest assured that if the Disciple had $10,000 in his pocket, he would have stayed at home. These gangs of human traffickers - which have flourished since border crossing has become more daunting - are really loan-sharking operations. They "lend" the travelers the money to cross, and they charge 15 percent interest, often compounded monthly - or weekly. The Disciple is working full time to pay the rent, which has just gone up $100, and to pay off his debt. There will be no tree or presents this year.
Because the Border Patrol has pinched off the passage through San Diego and El Paso, crossers go to deadlier, more remote regions where they have to rely on professional guides. Because President Bush plays with talk of amnesty and guest workers, the belief on the Latin American street is that the frantic can beat a fable: if they hurry, they can get in under the wire before Mr. Bush's deadline. Thousands more rush north every month, forming a human bottleneck along the border. The danger level rises along with the cost. And the millions of Drastikos huddle under their thin string of lights, wondering what to do.
Among the many pockets of aliens looking toward Christmas American style, there is one group that is undeniably a success: immigrants with papers. These adventure capitalists run the businesses known as encomiendas. It's not only prohibitively expensive for immigrants to go home, but it is nearly impossible to send gifts. The shipping fees are high, and the postal workers in the scattered barrios at home need gifts for their own children. Up steps the encomienda driver: a man with papers and a truck. Certain neighborhoods in cities like Chicago are known to be populated by the Michoacan crowd. Other cities have pockets of Salvadoran workers. The encomienda driver collects his fee and your gift and heads home to distribute your gifts for you.
The Disciple has saved up enough money to send his kid brother a pair of running shoes. Drastiko just sighs. The encomienda driver is pulling out of East Los Angeles on Saturday, but Drastiko has nothing to send. He had used his extra money to buy a throwaway cell phone. He knows that Navidad is about sentiments more than words, and on that night, he will find a quiet corner of his rooming house and call home.
He says when they ask how he is, he will tell them: "We are suffering, but God is on our side."
Luis Alberto Urrea is author of "The Devil's Highway."