The Tapestry

Posted on June 16, 2017


Immigration: It’s not “a problem”, it’s many individual problems. Definitions  intended to be meaningful have lost  creditability. Illegals. Indocumentados. Green card holders. Enforcement. Repatriation. The governments of the United States and of Mexico generate statistics ad infinitum but the statistics are as vague as those accumulated to describe a geographical entity like, say, the state of Montana: square miles, number of residents, average summer temperature. Statistics like that don’t reveal what any of the 3 million 500 thousand  residents of Montana  think, do, say or look like. They don’t reveal how those three and a half million bundle up to survive winter blizzards, what songs they sing, who they marry, how they celebrate the Fourth of July. Montana is not numbers on a Wikipedia page: It is a vibrant and complicated intermesh of activities and emotions, movement, change.

The same is true of immigration. Mexican immigrants. Illegal immigrants. They are so webbed into U.S. society that it is impossible to separate them from the tapestry that is the population of the United States. In this huge tightly woven tapestry each colored thread includes a person’s hereditary background. Whether you find the tapestry beautiful or ugly doesn’t affect the tapestry, it affects only you, the viewer. But try to yank out all the threads of a distinct color and you rip not only those threads but all the threads interwoven with them.

Supposing that brown threads represent 11 million Mexican immigrants, how different are they from the estimated 14 million threads of U.S. citizens of Mexican descent? To Ben Adam—that is the name he gave me—immigrants and citizens of Mexican descent are “illegals,” all of them, and he resents their having late model pickups and children in college. How many of them have late model pickups? Well, some of them! I’ve seen ‘em! Adam insists. Maybe they’re second-generation Americans and have good jobs? As far as I’m concerned they’re illegals. Probably got their money from the drug cartels.

Strangely enough Adam has Mexican friends. A small time Texas cattle raiser he hires a number of Mexican-Americans, praises their industriousness and “go-gettum” but insists “They’re exceptions.” He doesn’t call these go-gettum friends “illegals”; since they’re exceptions he doesn’t include them in his concept of “illegals.”

Similarly northern California landscaper Fred Evans doesn’t consider his daughters’ highschool teacher who he much admires as “Mexican” although the teacher‘s surname is Espinoza. “I think he’s Spanish—he’s not dark-skinned and he speaks very well.” More a beige thread than a brown one? He speaks English well so he must be of European descent? A boatbuilder/musician who lives in Washington told me, “I can’t picture there being doctors, lawyers, scientists in Mexico. I only can picture uneducated farmworkers. Peasants. Illiterates. You know what I mean?”

Persons like the cattle raiser, the landscaper and the boatbuilder/musician often are described as “typical Americans.” Probably they are in a certain context—a context that excludes anyone whose physical appearance isn’t like theirs. Possibly the “typical American” description could include the teacher Espinoza despite his surname because he isn’t dark-skinned. Possibly Espinoza considers himself to be a typical American or perhaps recognizes that he is “exceptional.” Which brings up the question “Is there such a thing as a ‘typical Mexican?’” Having been a long-time resident of both the United States and Mexico I possibly could identify majority traits based on observation and impersonal statistics but every individual I know would be atypical in one way or another. Exceptional in some sense.

Oakland, California photographer Jonny Gordon perceives what he calls patterns of immediate recognition. One sees a person he or she doesn’t know, a stranger, and bing! categorization: skin color, clothes, weight, facial expression. Quickly thereafter an unconscious sequence of evaluation based on previous categorizations derived from reading, social environment, parental attitudes. Although our immediate perceptions may not be verbal we think with words so these evaluations take word form—usually short cuts: Mexican, hippie, cop, rich bitch, etc. Like finding the right word in a crossword puzzle the categorization is verified. Exceptions don’t fit so they are excluded and remain exceptions.

Years ago a young man by appearance African-American approached several G.I.s, of which I was one, at a bus stop in Oxford, England.

“I say there, gentlemen, would the bus to Whitney be passing here?” he asked in an educated Oxfordian accent.

The G.I. beside me took a step backwards and gaped. “ Cheezchrist!” he exclaimed, his pronouncedly Georgia drawl melding the words together, “I thought you was a niggah!”

The pattern of immediate recognition had shattered, creating a sudden vacuum. The African Oxfordian laughed, the Georgian recovered and I’m sure compartmentalized the Oxfordian as an “exception” to his definition of niggahs.


It’s easier to make exceptions than consolidate new information into established categorizations.

“One has to categorize when one lives without authorization in a foreign country,” Gerardo Merino summarizes having been an undocumented immigrant in Missouri. One becomes an insect, he says, like those with long twitching antenna. Especially at first, wherever one goes the antennae are continually active: “Is it safe? Is it safe?” One constantly is watching, constantly wondering, constantly worrying. A Oaxacan immigrant I talked to described bursting into tears when a stray dog befriended him. “I’d lost my job and was trying to get to a place where there might be work, hiding out, afraid to hitchhike, almost without money, imagining all kinds of horrible things, and it came up to me. I hugged it and hugged it and cried and cried and it went with me, stayed with me for a long time.” A young Oaxacan still in her teens described her first experiences in the United States as “terrifying.” She hid from anyone wearing a uniform, including mailmen, nurses and pizza deliverers. The family that employed her as a housekeeper thought she was mentally retarded because she responded only in monosyllables despite the fact that she had a year-and-a-half of highschool education.

Gerardo Merino and the older cousin with whom he came to the U.S. hooked up with others their age in a farming town in central Missouri. “Bad mistake,” Merino remembers. Their new “friends,” although savvy about American ways, were into vandalism, theft. When finally Merino and his cousin realized what they’d been pulled into they packed everything they could carry and left in the middle of the night, slept in a cornfield, walked for six hours until they reached a little town where buses stopped.

“It was that way,” he remembered. “You become aware that you’re different—really different. So you run across guys who should be compas, who like you are Mexican. Back home you wouldn’t have anything to do with them, you’d avoid them as bad news, but here you fall into thinking ‘You’re like us’. But they aren’t. Just as all gringos aren’t alike—that’s something one has to learn.”

Always learning, finding jobs through other indocumentados who had jobs or had had jobs somewhere, trying to acquire language skills, avoiding public places until one learned where one was safe. Gradually one assimilated, became more confident. Part of this assimilation, Merino explained, was knowing where not to go, who not to speak to, what not to be seen doing. One acquired language skills but more importantly one learned to imitate. The better one imitates the less one attracts attention, he claimed. A good imitator can become an Espinoza and become an exception and even slide into a different categorization.

The patterns one encounters are complex. Alejandra Aquino in De las luchas indias al sueño Americano describes young Chiapan immigrants whose principal language was Tojolabal not Spanish or English taking up drinking—something prohibited in their Zapatista communities—as a togetherness recreation. It both was fun, they claimed, and a guilt-provoking, a breaking away from tradition. A construction camp cook abandoned by her children—or having abandoned them—and abused by the co-worker she’d been living with committed suicide leaving only the note odio, odio, odio (hate, hate, hate). A convicted gang member deported to Tijuana admitted “It wasn’t what we were doing that attracted me, the robberies, the extortion, the drugs, it was the belonging. Instead of a nobody I was a Bronco Rojo.”

As the Merinos, the immigrants hugging stray dogs, the Espinozas, the Bronco Rojos thread their way into the American tapestry they change how the tapestry appears from outside. Not drastically but subtly, their individual threads not noticeable as threads but the multiplicity of them gradually altering the overall appearance. The tapestry, as it were, accommodates them. As new threads weave into it old threads crisscross with them. Immigration is not a one-sided issue. Whether they realize it or not, whether they intend to be or not, immigrants are protagonists. They impact the society that they enter even if that society attempts to subdue them or reject them.

“Nothing is given to us,” the Oaxacan immigrant befriended by a stray dog told me. “We have to invent who we are.” The inventing begins with entering the United States illegally. An illegal is a non-person trying to needle its thread into a tightly woven pattern. Its choices are limited, it has to take the most accessible route. Farm work. Kitchen work. Clean up work. Crime. María Teresa, pregnant, unable to continue working in a clothing sweatshop, made tamales to sell out of a basket to other workers, to neighbors, then out of a cart, then out of storefront. Teenaged Heriberto with a broken foot borrowed a coronet and played on streetcorners for nickels and dimes, then for dances with a trio, then with a mariachi band for big immigrant events. Too slight for heavy physical work Felipe borrowed a girl cousin’s makeup, juggled, danced, performed magic tricks at birthday parties, communal fiestas, in restaurants, in bars.

As immigrant communities grew immigrant communities needed TV repairpersons, mechanics, dressmakers, beauticians, panaderías, butchers, electricians. They needed housing and moved into low income areas—areas that became little Oaxacas, little Durangos, little Michoacans. “Mex towns” appeared in communities throughout the United States. Where there were jobs there were workers and immigrants invented—or re-invented—themselves to take advantage of the opportunities.

By doing so they subtly change the tapestry. It’s not static, nor can it be defined by individual terms like immigration, illegals, border walls. Each thread is different and each thread affects many others that also affect it. To see the tapestry, or even part of the tapestry, one has to step outside oneself, view objectively, comprehend.

Immigration—a problem? Yes. Living is a problem, living involves a lot of shoving, bending, caressing, joy and hurt. It is me and you and everyone else, just as immigration is Gerardo and Espinoza and Heriberto and María Teresa and millions of others. They are not blank sheets of paper, words defined by generalities, clichés. They are real.

And they will continue to change the tapestry that is the United States.

Big Muddy, a Journal of the Mississippi River Valley, 2017