For six years in the late ’80s and ’90s, I lived in East Chicago, Ind., at the southern tip of Lake Michigan. During that time I had the privilege of having eight undocumented immigrants as housemates. They were Mexicans and Central Americans who, for various reasons, crossed illegally into the American Southwest and wandered up to northwest Indiana. A few friends and I lived in a big house across from Inland Steel—at the time the largest integrated steel mill in the country—and we were happy to be able to provide temporary housing for the immigrants who needed a place to stay until they found steady work and more suitable digs. All but one were able to move out on their own within a year or so, and all but one still live productively in the Chicago area.
The last of our immigrant houseguests was Sylvia, a young woman from Guadalajara, Mexico, with newborn twins who had just been released from the hospital and had no place to go. She and her daughters stayed for more than a year, during which time Sylvia taught me to cook Mexican dishes. She helped me improve my Spanish and exposed me to Norteno music. After 16 years, I still see her and her family when I visit Chicago, and we keep in touch via Facebook. The twins have excelled in their studies and recently completed their first year of college.
Before Sylvia, there was a Guatemalan couple with two boys. The Guatemalans were political and economic refugees of a civil war in their home country that took more than 200,000 lives. Despite the horrors that they had witnessed, they were full of joy. They took great pleasure in the championships of the Jordan-era Bulls and were bemused by my ritual late night snack—deli ham and cheddar cheese tacos that ten-year old Isaac dubbed “tacos de Kerry.” Having saved up their money from two low-paying janitorial jobs, the couple purchased their first home in Chicago Heights, Ill., and moved out after a year.
A same-sex couple from Mexico who posed as Catholic nuns preceded the Guatemalans. I never asked, but I suspected that they had come to the U.S. to be together. They were not public about their relationship in East Chicago, but I’d always imagined that being a lesbian couple in their home community in Mexico was an impossibility. Though it was surely a strange sort of liberty that required them to assume the identity of nuns in order to be together, America represented liberty for them nonetheless.
Fidel was our first undocumented housemate. He had traveled from Mexico with a group of other young men searching for work and adventure. The others found jobs or moved on pretty quickly, but Fidel stayed in East Chicago. He was miserable. He never adjusted to the cold. He was lonely and depressed. Language was a barrier for the two of us. I knew only a few Spanish phrases and he was learning English very slowly.
Even among other Mexican immigrants Fidel’s clothes, appearance, and speech marked him as being from a small town. He may have also been under great pressure to send money home to Mexico, but that could not have amounted to much based on what he was earning in East Chicago. In the eyes of his family and his community, he may have felt as if he was failing as a man.
One evening Fidel hanged himself in a Whiting, Ind., jail after being arrested for disorderly conduct. Details were murky. and we always had our suspicions about the facts surrounding his death. But whether there were police present in his cell or not, he died alone in Whiting. Fidel had his demons, for sure, but we lost him by failing to recognize the depths of his despair and not including him more fully in our community.
Each of my immigrant housemates carried wounds into the United States. Sometimes these wounds were of the most intimate variety — loneliness, feelings of inadequacy or wanderlust. Other wounds were inflicted by great social forces — political repression or an indifferent market that breaks up families and neighborhoods as people and capital scatter to new regions seeking work and opportunity. Whether personal or political, these pains are universal — they know no borders. American immigration policy, with its present emphasis on fines and fences, detention camps and deportations, therefore, has very little meaning for this modern world of hurt.
Those of us in a position to lessen people’s pain, however, can make a difference. And while most of us value charity, in these times the demands of community and solidarity are far more pressing than the need for handouts. As economic and cultural borders have dissolved, so too have the lines between “us” and “them.” We have entered a perilous new era of downsizing and outsourcing, mobility and stagnation, terror and brutality, limitless wealth and bottomless misery.
Ours is an age of brokenness and fracture in which we are all called to be, in the words of the singer Manu Chao — clandestinos and illegales.
Kerry Taylor teaches American history at The Citadel and is coordinator of The Citadel Oral History Program.