Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Down by the border

If you came here hoping to read a long article about illegal immigration, I've got just the thing. Me? I tend to read the writer rather than the topic. Normally, I would rather poke additional holes in my head than read a 10 click piece about the Mexican exodus, but Charles Bowden is to my taste the best non-fiction writer working today and this article he wrote for Mother Jones is an excellent piece of journalism.

It is a somewhat uncommon piece of work for Bowden because it is more or less straight journalism. Unlike so much of his work, there is nothing wild or exhilarating in the prose, narrative or story. It is journalism, plain and simple. Well, plain perhaps, okay relatively plain, plain for Charles Bowden, but not so simple. In addition to his great skill as a writer, Bowden is one of those rare individuals who clearly sees the future. He sees it in much greater detail than other seers. He's been seeing it for years.

Nearly 15 percent of the Mexican workforce now resides in the United States. When the dust settles, this exodus will influence us more than the Iraq war. The war is who we are; the migrants are who we will be.

Bowden, like all good journalists, puts a human face onthe grand, impersonal forces of history:
A pair of Border Patrol trucks sit empty, the agents off on ATVs hunting Mexicans. Two kids sit nearby. The girl is 22; her brother, 16. They've been trying to flag down Border Patrol units that roar by, but no one will stop. They came up from Oaxaca City. They're Zapotec Indians, but because they haven't been raised in an Indian pueblo, they see themselves as city kids, as Mexicans. For 16 days, they've been on the road.

First they took the bus up to the border. Then they paid a coyote $800 to guide them across. The first time, they got caught and deported. This time, they got separated from their group and they say they have now wandered the desert for four days. I don't believe them about the four days––they look too clean––but clearly they are broken in spirit...

He weighs maybe 110 pounds, and she not more than 85. They are small–boned and their skin is dark and shines with life. Both move with the light tread of cats. An hour ago, I found a shawl out in the desert of a pattern and style made only in Yucatán. Everyone is moving.

I give the girl $40 and tell her to hide the money because Sásabe is not an easy place. They climb in and I take them to the border crossing and wish them good luck. The agents manning the U.S. station watch them climb out and walk into Mexico.

They ask me if the pair worked for me, and I say no, that they are two kids from Oaxaca sneaking into the United States, that they said they'd wandered in the desert for four days and were very thirsty and hungry.

They tell me what I have just done is illegal and could cost me a lot of money and put me in jail.

I say I know that fact.

They look at me with sad eyes and wave me on.

It's not easy for anyone in the future.

One of Bowden's strength's is his ability to gain the trust of so many different types of people on both sides of the border. Like Hunter S. Thompson, he is able to "wallow with the eagles and soar with the pigs." Not that all of the criminals in Bowden's stories are eagles. Many of them are pigs. Pigs, to you and me at least. Bowden tends to see them a bit more sympathetically. I'm sure that has something to do with why they talk with him.
We talk for hours. He laughs easily, but not for a single second does he ever express sympathy for the pollos. After they get off that bus and start north into the United States, they fall between two worlds, and people such as him wait in this space.

He is not a bad man. The Border Patrol agents are not bad people. The Minutemen, the polleros, the human rights folks putting water bottles out in the desert, well, I've met them all and they are not bad people.

As for you and me, the jury is still out.

I don't think Bowden really believes that the jury is still out. No, the verdict is in and we were found guilty and sentenced to the future. Can anything be done to stop the wave? Bowden discusses the possibilities throughout the article, but this little quote sums it up:
A few days earlier, I was staying at a ranch an hour south of Austin. A local white guy came out to spray the buildings for termites. He'd spent his life in nearby Gonzales, a town of 7,000 where the Texas revolt from Mexico began. He asked me what I was doing there.

I said, "I'm a friend of the owners. I'm down here writing about migrants."

He looked puzzled for a moment and then asked, "When you say migrants, do you mean wetbacks?"


"Well, what do you think we should do?"

"You might as well ask me what I think we should do about hurricanes."

And that future? Couldn't be more obvious:
We want an answer, a solution. But there is only this fact: We either find a way to make their world better or they will come to our better world. At the moment, we insist on the wrong answer to the wrong question. And so, the Border Patrol will grow.There will be a wall. Tougher laws will be passed by Congress. And the people will keep coming.