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McClellan: A life in the shadows becomes a campaign issue

McClellan: A life in the shadows becomes a campaign issue


Marta was born in a small village in the central Mexican state of Michoacan. She was the oldest of six children. Her parents were farmers.

She was 13 when she met a boy — he was 14 — from a neighboring village. He and his family had come to Marta’s village for a wedding. He returned later to visit Marta. Before long, they were in love.

There were few jobs in rural Mexico. When Marta’s boyfriend was 19, he decided to go to the United States. It was not an unusual decision. For decades, young men from Mexico had been crossing the border without papers. Both governments knew. Mexico needed the money these young men sent back to their families. U.S. employers needed — or at least welcomed — cheap labor.

Plus, there was an unspoken understanding that this exodus represented a safety valve. If economic conditions got too bad in Mexico, there could be unrest. Who knew where that could lead?

Marta’s boyfriend went to California. He was a hard worker and he found jobs. He called Marta on the phone. He sent her postcards. Several years passed. The young man was surviving, but he never reached the point where he could see a future in California. Then an uncle told him that the cost of living was much more reasonable in St. Louis. Perhaps a future was possible there.

The young man came here. He found a manufacturing job. It was a non-union job, and the pay was not great, but it was steady. He found an apartment in south St. Louis.

He returned to Michoacan and married Marta. By then, she was working as a nursing assistant at a clinic in her village. She left her family and her job and headed to St. Louis. They crossed the border in the back of a semi-trailer truck.

Marta found her new home intimidating. In her village, people knew each other. When you went into a store, workers helped you and asked you what you wanted. That did not happen here. Not that Marta could have responded to any queries. She spoke no English.

She has been here now for almost eight years. She and her husband have two children. Marta and her husband attend a church where services are conducted in Spanish. Their friends tend to be Latinos.

I met Marta through friends. I visited her recently and asked if I could write about her. People like her and her husband are a campaign issue. Not surprisingly, she was hesitant. She lives in the shadows. I told her I would not use her real name and I would not include any details that would identify her. I also explained that I would not change any facts. She agreed.

She still speaks little or no English so a mutual friend served as interpreter.

I knew she had been hospitalized recently. Yes, she had a miscarriage. She has no health insurance and is not eligible for any government help. She receives bills from the hospital and the doctors. With little or no English, she cannot figure them out. (I told her even English-speakers cannot decipher medical bills.) She is trying to pay her medical bills bit by bit. When a person does not want to draw attention to herself, she cannot dispute or ignore a bill.

Marta does not have a drivers license, but she drives a little bit. She is extremely careful. Her husband said he constantly checks the lights, the blinkers and so on. He does not want to give the police a reason to stop the car.

By the way, he said he pays all his taxes, federal, state, Social Security, everything. I am not sure how this works. He has a tax number, but no Social Security number.

Marta’s husband understands English, but I have heard him speak only Spanish.

I suspect the children will act as family interpreters. That seems to be the way with immigrant families, papers or not.

The children, who were born here, are citizens. That presents a conundrum for those who wish to round up and deport people who are living here without papers. What would we do with the children who are citizens?

Perhaps the parents would take the children with them if we deported the parents, but perhaps not. Marta and her husband seem resigned to the fact that they will achieve, at best, a diminished version of the American dream. Their real hopes and dreams lie with their children. Would the futures of the kids be better here or in rural Mexico? That answer would guide their decision.

In truth, things have not gotten better in Michoacan since Marta left. The drug cartel violence has worsened. The employment situation remains dismal.

Does that mean Marta is glad she came? She hesitated before answering, almost as if she had not considered the question before. What is, is. “I am used to being here,” she said.

She very much misses her family. Her parents and siblings are still in Michoacan. They cannot come here and she cannot go there. It would be too risky, either way.

If she and her husband could write the script for the future, they would be allowed to someday get green cards. They would be able to visit family. They would not be always looking into the rear view mirror.

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