A Trip to the Riveria

March 05, 2012
Dave McClure
Youth Service Bureau of Illinois Valley

My week improved with travel. I went to Springfield Wednesday. On Tuesday Mario called me and asked who to talk to in order to rent cars now that Hasime has gone.
"Where you going Mario?"

"Springfield tomorrow. It's lobby day for ICIRR." That's an acronym for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

"Me too. I've got ICOY meetings." ICOY is the Illinois Collaboration on Youth. "Heck, ride with me."

And so I had someone to talk to during the five hours to and from Springfield. I supervise Mario. Loosely. I encourage him to call me when he encounters problems. He rarely does. It's a great relationship. I've known Mario and his family for years. The woman who works with Mario in their two person Hispanic Services program, Alice Berogan, I've known even longer-since 1982. Mario and Alice know what they're doing and they do it well without me looking over their shoulder.

What they're doing is helping immigrant families, especially those who speak Spanish, navigate the new community, the new country, in which they find themselves. They're interpreters of not only English to Spanish, but of American culture to those from other cultures. They convey how to relate to the people at school. What landlords expect. How to navigate the law. What to do when the wheels fall off. Have you stopped to think what it would be like to drop or be dropped into not only a new place but a new way of life without a guide? You could think of Mario and Alice as guides.

"What's new Mario?"

That's about all it takes to get Mario started. We hadn't talked in a while and he had a lot to share. I drove and listened. Mario talked.

“I ran into these people at the Riviera.”  The Riviera is not the Riviera anymore.  It’s a no name hotel on the commercially failed interstate exchange at Route 89 and 80, the Spring Valley/Ladd exit.  Some interchanges with a hotel and a gas station made it in the early days and some didn’t.  Many of the buildings on such interchanges are torn down.  The motel at 89 and 80 lives on long after the gas station failed.  It hasn’t flourished mind you.  It’s a two story rent by the week or month nondescript concrete box that has lost its sign and identity to travelers.  The vehicles in the parking lot have mostly lost their shine.  Locally however, it’s one of the cheapest of all places to live on a moment’s notice and the gateway for many immigrants who come to, or find themselves in, the Illinois Valley.   It’s fairly centrally located between the mushroom factory in Depue, Mid America Growers, and Del Monte in Mendota.  It’s a hike to Tyson in Ottawa, but for the rent at the Riviera if you can find a ride it works.  A room at the Riviera and a job at the mushroom plant has been the beginning of many American success stories.

“These people at the Riviera are Guatemalan but their Spanish is bad.  I don’t know how they’re going to
make it.”

“Their Spanish is bad?”

“They’re Spanish is awful, they know no English at all.  There’s about eight of them.  I speak Spanish to the one who understands the most, and he talks to the rest in a language I’ve never heard. Strange sounding language.”

“Are they Indian?”  Sixty percent of Guatemalans are pure Indian, the Mayan culture continuing to hold them together in their own communities speaking their own language all these years, all these centuries.  I was referring to Indian as different from the Mestizo blend of European and Indian people that dominate Mexico and most of Latin America. Guatemala has the highest percentage of indigenous Indians of any Central American country.  Mario knew what I meant.

“Very Indian.  Short.  Dark.   And very polite.  They’re nice.  Too nice almost.  I worry about them.  I’m afraid they’re going to be taken advantage of.”

“It’s probably Quiche or Cakchiquel they’re speaking Mario.  Those are Pre Columbian languages, the language the Mayans were speaking before the Spaniards showed up and changed everything.”
I’ve been exposed to those languages during trips to Guatemala with I Care International, a volunteer group that conducts temporary clinics providing eye exams and glasses in Central America.  My last trip to Guatemala was to an ancient Indian village on Lake Atitlan,Tzununa, which translates to “place of hummingbirds.” Tzununa is reachable only by boat.  My rudimentary Spanish matched up well with theirs.  Quiche was their primary language.  I thought of the families that came through the clinic dressed in beautifully colored handmade clothing, the pattern particular to their village.  Their babies wrapped tightly onto their mother’s back, smiled from a place of safety, their tiny bright eyes looking over a shoulder at this big white guy who had found his way to their town.

“Do they have kids with them?”

“No,” Mario said.  “Not many families coming anymore.  Mostly men.  The crossing is too expensive and
too dangerous.  The men are here to work and send money home to support their families.”

“Are as many people coming?”

“No.  It will pick up as the work gets better, but it’s not like before.  There’s more fear.  Everyone is more underground, at least around here. Those that are coming are coming from trouble somewhere else. 

We had a group of women with kids from (a large city in a Southern State) land after a workplace raid at a meat packing plant.  One had relatives here.  Their husbands had been deported.  Their children are citizens.  They live in a part of Mexico that is ravaged by the drug wars.  They’re scared.  Everything has changed.  I don’t know what they’ll end up doing.”

“What about citizenship?  Are you seeing more interest in citizenship?”

“All of a sudden the Asians have found us.  Yesterday Alice was helping a Vietnamese woman at the nail salon.  I just finished a whole family, the people that run (a local Chinese restaurant).  Some of these folks have been legal permanent residents for a long time.  For some reason they’ve picked now to go
through the naturalization process.  And word is out that we know how to help them.”

“How are they finding you?”

“ESL (English as a second language) classes. If they don’t find us we find them.  I go to every ESL class in the area and tell them what we do.  It’s amazing. They’ve raised the application fee for citizenship, they’ve made the test harder, and more people are applying than ever.  But they have to be confident with their English.”

It may be amazing to Mario but it’s ironic to me. For a short time we had funding specifically for helping people with citizenship but lost it because demand never developed as we imagined.  We assumed in the end that our local immigrant population was more undocumented than legal and thus ineligible for citizenship. Now that the funding is gone local demand is picking up.  When it comes to services for immigrants all the numbers are fuzzy.  It’s the “being underground” factor. 

Despite no specific funding for citizenship assistance we provide the help anyway.  It’s what local people need.  We know this about helping people to citizenship.  It stabilizes their family.  Immigrants who become citizens get better jobs, buy houses, and participate more fully in their community. They become the Americans we want everyone to be and they make our community a better place.

And they vote.  In fact, they vote like crazy.  If you had lived in a corrupt country in which those in power denied your children an education, kept all the jobs for their political cronies, did nothing to spread health care and economic development to the poor community in which you were forced to live wouldn’t you jump at the chance to change it?  When George Bush won the presidency from Al Gore by a few thousand votes in Florida a woman I know, a Mexican national who had been a legal permanent resident for years, told me that election clinched her decision to seek US citizenship.  They always say that every vote counts.  In that election she realized it really did.  She’s a citizen and a voter now.  I doubt she missed many opportunities to cast that vote either.

YSB has supported Mario and Alice, and other bi lingual Spanish speaking workers before them, since 1997 through a variety of funding mechanisms, trying to stay abreast and ahead of the changes, because there are families among us who need their help in order to succeed.  It’s a quiet program that’s known mostly by those who need it.  We work closely with a federal health clinic and WIC (Women, Infant, and Children Program).  YSB’s Hispanic Service program has gone in and out of favor.  During George W’s second term we thought he was free to pursue legislation that would create a legal path to citizenship for the millions who go to school with kids, shop with us in our stores, wash our dishes and prepare our food in restaurants, pack our sweet corn into cans, pick the mushrooms we buy, care for our elderly, nanny our kids, hang our drywall, landscape our gardens, and contribute to the fabric and culture of our communities.  But George had spent his political capital by then. 9/11 plus the war on terror, coupled with the recession, did that movement in.  A group of politicians then captured immigration as a wedge issue and ran with it, turning the undocumented into illegals, painting any effort at inclusion as amnesty.  We are still far from giving those who help us so much a chair at the American table.  Maybe farther
than ever.

“Did someone tell me you visited Mexico?” I asked Mario.

“I was in Juarez, across from El Paso.  We have family there.  The cousins have wanted us to come down for so long and I thought it was time to see everybody.  I hadn’t been there since the late 90’s.”

“How was it?”

“It’s a war zone.  I hardly recognized it.    Whenever I visited before it was booming.  The soldiers from Ft. Bliss were everywhere, the strip was booming, the bars, the clubs, the restaurants, the businesses.  It’s all closed.  The buildings are all shut. It’s like a ghost town.  I wouldn’t have believed it.  It’s a nightmare getting across the border.  It takes hours now.  You pull into a lane and robotic arms go around your car doing I don’t know, X rays, bomb sniffing, drug detection.  It’s so strange.”

“What about your family?”

“They’ve built an iron fence all around their property.  They chain the gate even during the day.  You have to call on your cell to get in.  They’re not living in the front rooms by the street for fear of gunshots.” 

Mario was quiet for a while.  I could see it made him sad.

“There was a kidnapping.  There are kidnappings all over.  Mexicans kidnapping Mexicans.  No one contacts the police.  Some think the police are in on it. They demanded a lot of money in dollars.  The family could only come up with about half of it.  Thank God they accepted it and let the person go.  It was someone close to us.  You have no idea how that makes you feel.”

“Why don’t they leave?”

Mario just looked at me.  Sometimes you ask questions when you know the answer. Finally he said

“Where you gonna go Dave?”

I’ve been telling people lately that it’s amazing how I have ignored other communities because I didn’t provide service there.  When my kids were little and YSB only served LaSalle County I would honk the car horn when we were away and crossed back over the county line.  

“Why are you honking Dad?”

“Cause we’re back.  This is our county.”

For a long time I didn’t especially care what happened in other counties.  Some don’t care what happens in other towns, other townships, other neighborhoods as long as it isn’t theirs.  When I tell people it’s amazing how I have ignored other communities I was thinking of Rockford and Aurora and Elgin.  But when I talked with Mario I realized I’ve equally been ignoring Mexico and Guatemala and Honduras.  It’s easy to do when you only think of yourself.

Three weeks from today I leave with a group of I Care volunteers to do an eye clinic in the state of Morelos, Mexico in a small town called Tepalcingo.  I’ll be near the town where Humberto Casarrubias Sanchez lived, the migrant laborer who died last summer in a cornfield near Tampico, Illinois.  Mario met him in the Riviera too, believing him to be a simple man out of place.  Mario and his family helped search for him when he came up missing in the heat.  Jorge was in my community simply to make money for his family.  Now his family lives on without him and I’m going there. We’re not as far apart as we think. 

Most recently I’ve worked in clinics in Guatemala and Honduras.  I haven’t been to Mexico for a number of years.  I’m anxious to see what I find.  When I get back I’ll let you know.