In honor of May Day, this is dedicated to all the people working too hard, too long, and too far away from their families.
My aunt was an undocumented worker, a Honduran who had traveled months cutting through the wildness of the jungle with a machete, through the waves in barely floatable canoe, only to end-up working for minimum wage in a North Carolinian bacon plant. She spent more than 5 years there working 12 to 14 hours days before she began exhibiting back problems and carpetunnel. Despite her fear of deportation, she appealed to her boss for help. He told her healthcare was out of the question and transferred her to a different job in the plant.
She met my uncle, a truck driver from a small town, an alcoholic from an abusive family. He humiliated her in front of his family, isolated her from the immigrant community, married her in order to get her a green card. The family wasn’t terribly fond of her kind, but he needed someone, they would reason.
One day Maria came to visit. She had always been pleasant, but it was the first time I had ever seen her with her eyes lit up. She told us her and my uncle had been trying to have a child. She was pregnant.
The silence in the room betrayed our reservations about her joy. Everyone congratulated her. Tension filled the room as she told the family the names she was thinking of—Jose, Rafael, Carlos,. “Why not something more biblical?” They nudged her towards more anglicized names. Afterall, why mark the poor kid?
Maria woke in the middle of the night with severe back pains and had to be rushed to the hospital. The doctors gave her an ultimatum: she would either have to be bedridden for the remaining 8 months of her pregnancy or have an abortion. Maybe she was catholic. Maybe her husband wanted an ere. I didn’t understand her decision.
What I didn’t know was that even though Yentsee had been an American citizen for five years by virtue of marriage, she couldn’t bring her daughter to come live with her. She had left Isabella a toddler in her parent’s care when she set off to make her way into America. “You don’t understand how dangerous it was. How dangerous it still is.” Is the only clip I remember from the conversation I didn’t know how to have.
She couldn’t explain how she had met the working-class southern boy she had married. She couldn’t risk going back and being found out. She was stuck in one country with her daughter in another. They were worlds away without enough of a paper trail to fill the gap.