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Four hours a week, discussing the issues of immigration, combined with a mountain of reading on the topic will eventually have an effect on a person's every day outlook. I discovered as much during my last semester at University. The absence of thought was more than made up for in the ensuing semester, as the ideas we discussed in class oozed into my daydreams, my personal time, and my personal associations. And if all that hadn?t happened, I never would have met Rosa.
I came down the stairs in the hotel reservation center where I work and slid down the worn, but very clean tiles towards the employee?s break room. As had become a habit in the past few weeks, I was thinking over the most recent reading from SOC 331. This one was by Jo Ann Koltyk?New Pioneers in the Heartland, Hmong Life in Wisconsin. It told the story of several Hmong refugees who were carving out a new life for themselves in Wisconsin. It was filled with statistics and numbers, but what always came back to me when I least expected it was the people, and the faces that I dreamed up for them. Sometimes I would try to see out from inside those faces and watch how folks reacted to me, wondering if they wanted me to leave and go back ?home.? But, of course, being a white boy from Utah, I was one of the least qualified for that little piece of introspection.
Rosa was mopping the otherwise empty break room. I didn?t know her name at that point. In fact I had never given her more than a friendly smile before side-stepping her custodian cart, and heading back to the time clock. I had heard her speaking in Spanish to the few other janitors, all of whom worked the late shift like me on the weekends. I worked poor hours because I was relatively new in my department. They worked them, I assumed because no one wanted to see floors being mopped during the day.
As I stepped into the room this time, I looked at the woman who was cleaning the tiles for me and discovered that I was impressed.
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I don?t know what possessed me to do the prat-fall. It wasn?t even a fall really, just sort of a fake stumble. I just wanted a reaction from her. No, that sounds like I meant to provoke her. I wanted to make a connection, but I didn?t speak Spanish and had no common ground that I knew of?except humor, perhaps. Leo R. Chavez?s chapter in Covering Immigration, popular images and the politics of the nation went to great lengths to destroy the stereotypes of Central and South American immigrants. He portrayed them not as job stealing mooches, but as fellow people, struggling to provide for families, with familiar needs and moods, like hunger, ambition, and. . .humor. Maybe that?s where the idea came from. At any rate, in a fraction of an instant, I had decided on a course that I thought would break down a barrier, and acted on it.
I let one of my feet dart out suddenly in front of me. ?Woa,? I said as my hands shot out to steady me. Rosa looked up quickly. I recovered and offered her a big grin as I continued across the floor. She looked at me wide eyed for a moment, then finally smiled?but nervously. We laughed together for a moment, but the mood was tempered by her earnest pointing at the yellow and red sign she had placed on the tile. ?Caution?wet floor!? She made such efforts to remind me, and anyone else in the (empty) room that she had done as she was supposed to and put out the warning sign, that I immediately felt a little ashamed for obviously worrying her. It occurred to me in those next few minutes that, if her situation was anything like other immigrants that I had learned about, than she probably had to sacrifice a lot get this job, and even the slightest possibility that she might loose her position would put her into the nervous state that she was in now. She was laughing with me, though?a little. So, at least she knew now that I was friendly?if not the funniest guy.
Later evenings provided the opportunity to have longer conversations. In halting English she would discuss with me the silliness of the T.V. commercials playing, or the lack of any real food in the snack machines. Once she spoke about the current head of operations at our facility. He apparently had worked his way up from an entry level position and horrible hours. He started at the company sitting with a shift that had him sitting in the break room with a sack lunch, nodding to Rosa as she came by to wipe the tables.
Finally, one evening I situated myself at a table with my most recent reading assignment from SOC 331. It was an article by Ray Quintanilla about the disappearance of 300 women from Juarez Mexico over the past decade. Perhaps the situation was a little staged. I did know Rosa should have been coming by with her cart at about that time to good-humoredly bat my feet out of the way with her mop (She could tease just as well as I could, I soon discovered).
The antiseptic smell of her cart told me that she had come. When she passed by, the title of my article caught her eye almost immediately. ?Another terrifying year ends for Juarez women.?
?Ohhh,? she moaned, more animated than I had yet seen her. ?Juarez!? she said several times, pointing. ?Very close my home!?
?You come from Juarez?? I asked, and showed her the article.
?No. Close. Very sad. Very, very sad.? She shook her head as she began mopping.
?Do you know some one who has disappeared??
?No, but very close. Very sad.?
And from there, though never at any time did she stop her work, I learned who Rosa was. She was born and raised in Chihuahua, Mexico. She lived in a house made of boards and tires with thirty other family members. She stayed there even after she was married and had a child of her own. Soon after, though, her new husband convinced her that they should go with a man to America. There were few jobs available in Chihuahua and food was getting scarce.
They had a small garden, but it was shared by to many people. This reminded me of Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins? discussion of food shortages and resultant migration in Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity. I pictured a massive ?scarcity-creating mechanism,? some remnant of a colonial mindset that had gradually destroyed the food creating abilities of the community, until at last Rosa and her husband left her thirty relatives and headed across the boarder.
I don?t know if Rosa?s husband really explained to her why they should go to America. At least, she couldn?t explain to me in a way that I could understand. I never did get any more details on how exactly they came here. Any such questions were always met with the response, ?we came.?
I asked what Rosa?s husband was doing now that they were here. She didn?t answer for a moment. I figured she was looking for the English words.
?He went away,? she said eventually.
?He went back to Mexico?? I asked.
?No,? she said. ?He went away to look for a job.?
?Oh,? I said. ?How long ago??
I?m glad to have met Rosa. Before, I think I had a tendency, when reading articles discussing the ?unheeded? and ?misunderstood? problem of immigration, to consider them reactionary, or exaggerated. But here was a woman who could have been taken right from the pages of Saskia Sassen?s Why Migration?. Sassen tells of how the rapid growth of the service sector in the United States and other first world countries created a vast number of low-wage jobs that were almost always filled by immigrants, because no one else wanted to do them. Rosa made the numbers real for me.