First a follow-up on my last blog post about teaching children well. The number of reader responses was off the charts. I heard from a Wall Street banker, an artist, stay-at-home mothers, lots of fathers, a Harvard professor, many grandparents, a surgeon, a minister, and everybody in between. Even David Crosby’s lovely wife Jan chimed in. Responses came from as far away as Dubai and Ghana. Usually blog comments are just that – a comment. But I received dozens of emails that read like letters flush with emotional memories of your best times. I guess we know what matters most.
Now, I had intended to make this blog post about my short piece in the Dec. 6 issue of Newsweek, titled ‘A Historic Wreck in New Orleans.’ It’s about how the government is doing to a New Orleans neighborhood what Hurricane Katrina couldn’t – wipe it out. But alas, you’ll have to go here if you want to read it because I've decided to write about something else in this space – my new friend Julio. He’s a 29-year-old migrant farmer from Mexico City. He works here in the states on an organic farm that supplies some of the more upscale restaurants in the DC area.
This past Saturday Julio had a rare day off. So he offered to come to our place to work. We paid him the same rate he makes at the farm. At lunchtime I invited him inside to eat. Just under six feet tall, he had on a gray winter jacket, dirt-stained pants and muddy work boots. His hands are weathered, his cheeks raw. He has a thick Spanish accent. But his eyes tell you everything you need to know – that he’s genuine, humble, and true. As he warmed himself by the fire, I served him a toasted tuna fish sandwich with dill pickles canned by my wife, potato chips and some chocolate almond cookies. I made it a point to treat him like a VIP because that’s how I felt about him. As he ate, I did what I do – ask questions.
How long have you been in the States? (9 years)
Where is your family? (Mexico City)
Do you have children? (A 6-year-old son)
Would you like your family to come here? (Yes, but immigration lawyers charge too much and do too little.)
The first time you came to America, how did you get here? That's when he put down his sandwich. He said he was 19 when a member of the Mexican Mafia guided him and a dozen or so others on a four-day hike through the Mexican desert before crossing the border by foot into Arizona, where Julio nearly died. I asked him what happened and he tried to illustrate by shaking violently at my kitchen table. Despite being in the hot Arizona desert, Julio’s body got fatally cold. He used the word “chills.” Hard to know just what happened. Seeking medical attention wasn’t exactly an option. But he survived. Here’s the interesting part. The price of admission to the U.S. was $3,000. That’s how much the Mafia charged in 2001 to deliver an alien over the border. (Today the cost is twice that much. The Mafia is a big fan of Arizona’s new get-tough border policy – it’s driving up the price of admission.)
So, I asked, how did you come up with that kind of money? (“I started saving when I was 15 years old.”)
I pressed him to explain. He said he worked very hard as a young teen, doing any kind of labor he could find. Every two weeks he stuck about $30 in a bank account. It took him four years to reach $3K. Then he withdrew it all and gave it to a man who makes his living navigating aliens over the border. Julio was one of a dozen people in the party. The guide made close to $40,000 during that four-day voyage. “The drug business is only part of what the Mafia does in Mexico,” Julio told me. “There is a lot of money in immigration.”
For five years Julio crossed back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico, bringing American currency back home. The last time he entered illegally he was with a bunch of aliens, packed into a truck like cargo in the dead of summer. Two passengers died. They essentially cooked to death. Julio remembers like it was yesterday.
Today Julio has a green card, a driver’s license and a visa. When he goes home to see his family in Mexico in a couple weeks, he’ll travel on an airplane and carry papers. Then he’ll return here at the end of February to begin another 10-month stint as a farmhand, sending almost everything he makes back home. Most of it goes to take care of his 6-year-old son, who suffers from a medical condition and recently underwent a very expensive surgery that will take a couple years to pay off. That’s Julio’s life. Meantime, the food he helps grow feeds the elite who dine at Washington’s finest tables, including the lawmakers who can’t figure out what to do about immigration.
But I’m not talking politics. I’m talking about perspective. When I was 15 I was working odd jobs and saving up money for a used car. At 19 I took a couple years off from college to serve a volunteer mission for my church. Those are the choices afforded to an American teenager. Today I work about 70 hours a week developing and writing stories. I see my wife and my children virtually every morning and every night. Those are the privileges of an American adult. Julio lives alone in an apartment in rural Virginia. He drives a car that barely runs. He sees his family eight weeks a year. On his day off he works to earn a little extra. Yet the guy has a smile on his face.
My wife and I invited Julio back. I think I can learn a lot from Julio. Lesson one – be grateful. Lesson two – when you think life is rough, think again