Meredith and I strode down the alleyway late for a lunch, as Sandra scooted out the side door of her family’s restaurant. We exchanged the standard southern girl in-motion greeting. This is a slightly loud, high-pitched I’m-happy-to-see-you- even-in-my-rush, “Hey Girl! How you doin’? Fine. Uh-huh. You too! Bye.”
Her husband Carlos peeked out the door. I waved. We all moved on in our opposite directions.
I’ve known Sandra since our children were infants. I saw her at the market when the kids were were so new they wore more pink skin than brown. As mothers of babies, brown babies in particular, we were drawn to one another. I wanted to talk, commiserate and coo at her daughter – but I didn’t. Sandra struggled with English. My Spanish sucked. My conversation skills were limited to asking for the restroom or ordering tequila. She probably wouldn’t understand me. What if I erred and said, “Your daughter is food.” She might have been frightened or offended. So, I opted to smile big and say nothing at all.
Fortunately, Sandra initiated the conversation by pointing to my son and stating one word:
I looked at her daughter, Lil’ Sweets, ready to make some quick reciprocative comment – and that’s when Sweets melted me. Right then and there. It was those eyes, Sweet Jesus, those huge dark pools of deep haunting russet, they stared unblinking into mine so intensely fearless yet hopelessly soft. There is a Walt Streightiff quote, which goes: “There are no seven wonders of the world in the eyes of a child. There are seven million.” These eyes were interested and undaunted by them all.
“Muy bonita,” I said and meant all two words.
From that point on, any time we would meet, Sandra and I would attempt to converse. We didn’t always understand each other. We repeated words often. We wrinkled our brows and strained to hear. Things got lost in translation and we laughed, shrugged and let them go. Seven years later, our children are in school together. They play soccer together. They’ve grown tall and thin together. Sandra speaks perfect English, and my Spanish still sucks.
Yet I have changed.
Part of the change comes from knowing Sandra, knowing that she worries about her children and rifles through the laundry basket to find clean underwear. She misplaces the soccer socks and arrives late to the game. She forgets to put gas in the car, sings to the radio, and careens into the school pick-up line late where she incurs that snotty smirk from the bullhorn lady who announces our arrival. Aside from the fact that she is bi-lingual, there are few differences between us. And I almost did not meet her for fear we could not communicate.
Mostly, however, the change in me comes from loving Lil’ Sweet. In watching her grow, I have been improved, enlightened, delighted, confused, moved, and at times wounded so deeply that parts of me will never stop hurting.
I have one extremely vivid memory of when the children were small. We were eating at Sandra’s place. At the end of the meal, we placed Mr. Smartypants on the floor. Lil’ Sweet was across the room drooling on her bib. They were at that age when they held tightly to chairs and bobbed as if adrift. Pieces of stationary furniture were their life preservers and those first steps into the world waited only for them to muster enough courage to let go. When the children spotted each other, legs wobbling and arms askew, they moved together toward the center of the room. They were like two clumsy Frankensteins just off a drunken bent, and they were cheered on by white folks, brown folks, red folks, those in tee-shirts and in ties, those from different walks of life, political parties, churches and schools of thought.
Lil’ Sweet plopped down on her diapered bottom and flashed a grin at her adoring fans. I saw triumph and pride in those eyes, magnified and beautiful.
But as the children have grown older and into their skin, their paths seem to have diverged. Lil’ Sweet’s is rockier, arduous and grows steeper each day, I think. And it hurts to watch her climb because as she progresses the effort is reflected in those once fearless eyes. There are heavier things there now. Sad things. There’s hesitation and confusion. There are smiles that flash and fade as those eyes are averted or cast to the ground. There is pain and sometimes, fear. The heedless rush to share hugs has been replaced with this brief but heartbreaking falter. Even when she looks at those who have known her since she was new – there is uncertainty and fatigue as she has to remind herself – we will bring her no harm.
Why? Well, because as Meredith said before we’d made it out of the alley: “I heard they have a lot of family here with them. They probably brought them all here to work in there? I mean those are probably nice Mexicans, but I am so sick of those other ones coming in here, living above the law. Did you hear about that bunch of undocumented illegal Mexicans who ran into that woman in Kingsport? No license. No insurance. Nothing they could do. God, the government needs to get off their ass.”
I glanced behind me. The screen door was open. I imagined to myself, Lil’ Sweet sitting inside the door with her knees drawn to her chest, close enough to hear. And there it was: that burdensome hurt that spreads from the center and flows outward until it makes one’s chest so heavy it’s hard to draw air. It is the kind of pain that can only come from helplessness or the realization that no matter how much I accept, love, befriend, defend or explain: I will never be able to protect her from all the screen doors.
I am simply not able to go back, identify or alter that moment in time when we stopped cheering her on.
Had Meredith suspected those words might find Lil’ Sweet’s ears, she never would have uttered them. Lil’ Sweet is only a child. She’d never hurt her. Not Intentionally. Very few would discuss “the mexican problem,” or make hateful remarks in Lil’ Sweet’s presence. Not Intentionally. They wouldn’t sneer. Not Intentionally. They would turn up their noses. Not Intentionally. They wouldn’t shoot rubber pellets at her. Not intentionally. They wouldn’t discourage her or make her feel inferior. Not intentionally. They would not erode her pride and innocence. Not intentionally. But if she’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, well she is the collateral damage of the Immigration Issue.
Fred Thompson said in a recent National Review radio address:
We are all very well aware of the fact that we have an illegal-immigration problem in this country… It’s like we went overnight from “no problem” to a problem so big that it now defies a good solution. It’s become one of those “there are no good choices only less bad choices” that Americans are becoming all too familiar with.
Yes, Fred, I’d say we are all well aware of the problem. Clearly, one has to only look at this brown-eyed child to know this. And Fred, I hope you realize that the biggest problem at hand is the hate and intolerance fostered by this climate of apprehension, mistrust and urgency you and your cohorts have created.
I understand that you boys have to consider the big picture, but are you? Are you really? Thoreau once said: “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” Fred, you boys can’t handle the things I’ve seen through this child’s eyes; these things that would cause a grown man to sink into despair or rage.
Look, we want all immigrants to be held accountable under the same laws, correct? In order to hold them accountable, we must have some method of identifying them as US residents.
Give it to them.
Secure the borders. Build walls. Big Walls. Build fences and barricades. Decrease the LAPD’s budget for riot gear and SWAT uniforms to help fund the construction. Then, open the door and leave the light on. Let them come. Give them what they need to be legal residents right there at the damn gate. Hold them accountable as US citizens if necessary, otherwise leave them free to pursue the same dreams and hope for a better future. But remember you cannot expect people to be held accountable under the same laws, if they are not entitled to the same rights. So, no more screen door discussions or wide-spread paranoia, okay?
You know, doggone it, Fred, I think this is a plan.
And I’ll let you have it. We won’t even tell a soul it was developed by the ladies who lunch.