Charro Days

It’s “Charro Days” this week in Brownsville, Texas. The men have grown beards, and the women have been preparing the Mexican revolutionary-period dresses they will wear. There will be a number of parades at the end of the week, and so the children’s costumes have been readied (the boys as Mexican cowboys (the “charro”); the girls as Mexican Indians).

On Sunday, the fiesta began with the “grito”—the Mexican shout, an undulating cry that lasts for a very long while, and raises the hair on my neck. To me, the most interesting part of the grito is the preparation—a long moment of concentration, a deep drawing in of breath, and then an explosive exaltation. Fitting, for to me the grito is, amongst many things, a joyful celebration of one’s God-given dignity. It is a grand way to start the week.
On Monday, the school district presented a folkloric dance festival. Tuesday was a day of clearing the desk and getting things done so as to have the rest of the week free.

On Wednesday, the weekly Bargain Book arrived, filled with good deals from around the area. Amongst the ads for used cars and furniture for sale were a number of solicitations for maids. “Looking for a woman to do housework, Monday through Friday. Must stay overnight. $ 120 pay for the week.” The ads are in Spanish; perhaps no one who has English would do this sort of work.

On Thursday, the celebration will begin in earnest. The weather will be fine. The children will be cute, and the food, as always, will be great. On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, all of Brownsville will turn out for the fiesta.

Except, of course, for the maids. They will be working in our homes, putting things in order, preparing an after-the-fiesta snack for the revelers. As the maids are Mexican, things will be in Mexican order. The house will be neat as a pin and meticulously cleaned; the snacks will have the ping! of chile or the romance of chocolate.
The maids that I know do not think to celebrate Charro Days by dressing up in period costumes, or combing their hair into braids. As with all workdays, they will put on sensible shoes and clothing. As they go about their work, they wear pleasant, quiet expressions. Disturbingly quiet expressions.

Now and again, however, something crosses their faces, and it is not pleasant, nor quiet. I have witnessed this moment many times, and it is a serious, if not chilling thing to behold.

It could be that they are in that “pre-grito” moment, focusing on that unborn, yet to be felt moment of freedom, drawing a breath deep down inside, getting ready for that grand release of joy.

But there is no grito cry. It is not the time or the place, not yet. These women are working as maids, after all, making only about three dollars an hour. No joy and not much dignity in that, except that they are doing this for their children and their parents, in which case there is incalculable joy and dignity.

That idea brings a smile to my face. It also inspires me to a more careful respect for them. Hope, that catalyst for change, is a dangerous, unstable commodity.

Immigration Reform

“Would you do this? Could you do this?”

Ramona* has the gaze of a woman who has spent decades listening with attention to her grandchildren—empathetic and serious at the same time. A grandmother that you could love with a breaking heart.

She is speaking in front of a crowd of a hundred people, gathered this morning in a chilling drizzle, praying that God will bend the arc of justice just a little more sharply, and bring Ramona and her friends and neighbors and family a comprehensive, just, humane reform of this nation’s immigration laws.

Ramona does not seem to have a lot of experience in public speaking. She is standing too far back from the microphone. She is not looking at the audience, but downward, at a spot about fifteen feet in front of her.

She looks up, suddenly, as she begins to tell her story. “My husband and I came to this country many years ago. We had no future in Mexico—no home, no land to farm, nothing. So we came north. We heard that there was work. We were hungry. We had children. We packed up what we could and we came north. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.”

Her voice catches, and she stops speaking. In the silence, I can hear rainwater dripping off of the tree leaves. Gathering herself together, she continues, “When we crossed the river, the water came up to my neck. I had never been in a river or a pond before. I knew nothing about swimming. I was sure that I was going to die. But I kept on going. You see, I had to. For my children.”

She stopped, suddenly, smiled nervously and stepped back from the microphone. She was finished with her story.

The people standing in the rain and listening to her testimony looked up as she walked away and watched her as she went back to her place in line. No one clapped and no one smiled. They all knew this story, all too well.

The Baptist minister offered a final benediction, and the people moved off, rather quickly. Many had work to get to, others had to attend the other 10,000 things that fill a poor person’s life.

Texas Republican senator John Cornyn’s representative was there, standing in the rain like everyone else. She too, is a mother, and is also of Mexican descent. She has in the past explained the Republican stance on immigration reform bills as needing to be “fair to those people who came to this country the ‘right way,’ ” an attitude which dismisses in a few words the hope that the Senator would ever represent this part of his constituency.

I had heard her state the Senator’s opposition to immigration reform several times before, but today she was standing with the rest of us in the chilly weather.

Perhaps, listening to Ramona, she was thinking about what it would take to cross a deep river, not knowing how to swim, how much it would cost to leave what is precious and dear behind and set out for that foreign country to the north, about what she herself was capable of doing, out of love for her own children.

Perhaps she was thinking that people like Ramona, with their drive and their vision and their courage, were the true heart and soul of this country, and were blessings to us all.

Perhaps she would figure out how to explain this to the Senator.

I hope so.

*(Not her actual name. We impatiently await the day when good people have no fear of publishing their names. Could there be a more basic human right?)