Sunday, March 26, 2017

An Immigrant Story

I just returned from a five day trip to Florida, two and a half days of business, two and a half days of resort living. I had an encounter while I was there that I want to write about while everything is fresh in my mind. If I delay even a few days, I will end up forgetting details.

The Hyatt Regency in Bonita Springs, Florida is not unlike any other high end resort hotel. The grounds are beautiful, the facility impeccably turned out, and the food superb. The only thing I found cause to complain about was the mattress. It wasn't as firm as I like and the hotel pillows were so soft they could hardly support the chocolates. So, after several nights, my balky back began tightening up. I thought it might be wise to avail myself of the tender mercies of the spa, which featured a 50 minute, hot oil, deep tissue massage for the low low price of $145 plus gratuity. When in Rome...

I was introduced to Jackie, a woman who looked to be in her late thirties, early forties and of Latin descent. Her accent was strongly Carribean but I couldn't place it. Her English was choppy and all over the place, but understandable. She had that brawling exuberance of someone from someplace else, someone who had left something bad behind and was desperate to put it behind her. As she instructed me to lay on the table face up, I asked her where she was from. "Cooba"

I am fond of massages. Pam gave me a membership to Hand and Stone for Christmas one year and I've gotten at least one of them a month ever since. This was different. Jackie was different. For one thing, although I've probably gotten massages from over twenty different people, no one has ever asked me about the gigantic eight inch scar running down the front of my chest...

Jackie: You have heart surgery?

Me: Yes. Fourteen years ago next month.

Jackie: Ok now?

Me: Yes.

Jackie: God bless...

She then began going about her work with unbridled enthusiasm. I had earlier made the mistake of mentioning my recent trouble with plantar fasciitis. She then began a rapid fire explanation of exactly what I should be doing about it, complete with pictures of every muscle and tendon found on the human calf and foot courtesy of her smart phone. This woman had medical skills far beyond the entry level familiarity of human anatomy typical of your average masseur. I was intrigued...

Me: How long have you been in America?

Jackie: Eight years. I am here with my husband, daughter, and two brothers. My mother, father and sisters still in Havana.

I never asked her how she got here or even why she left Cuba. Partly because it seemed like too personal a question, but also because when someone has their highly skilled fingers buried knuckle-deep into your latissimus dorsi, it's generally not wise to bring up sore subjects. But, it soon became obvious when I asked her how she liked living in America.

Jackie: It not perfect, but it wonderful. I go anywhere I want, say anything I want. If I want to buy somesing, I go out and buy it, if I have money. Then I have to choose what type, what color, what price...so many choices!! Once, I visit relative in Dalliss. I buy ticket and go. When I finish, I come back to Florida. I ask nobody!! Wonderful.

Me: What's the worst thing about living in America?

I have found over the years that when you ask an immigrant this sort of question, they don't answer very honestly, fearing that they will be misunderstood, and not wanting to criticize America in front of an American. Not Jackie!

Jackie: Medical cost ridicurous! Doctors stupid! They never want to fix anything, they only want to send you to specialist. In Cooba, every doctor free. Only good thing. Also, streets here dangerous. In Cooba, no one carry guns, knives. If you get caught with them, you go to jail and nobody ever see you again. You ever heard of Hunger Game? That is Cooba. Everyone must play governments game. Two television channel, both government. You only watch what they want you to watch. Even internet only what government let you see. You say anything bad about the government, you go to jail and no one ever see you again. In America, anyone say anything they want. In America you do anything you want. But too many guns bad, and stupid doctors.

As I laid there listening to her melodic voice, my mind began wandering. I had been in Florida for four days and had encounters with people from all over the world. I had met a Colombian Uber driver, in America for over twenty years, in between jobs, having recently lost his as a technical producer for The Discovery Channel. There was an Australian man who drove us to the airport. The ladies who served us drinks poolside were either bronzed by a Central American heritage or almond-eyed Asians with silky black hair. The men who emptied the rapidly filling trash cans were from somewhere else, somewhere mostly south of the equator. The mostly invisible ladies who made our beds and cleaned up our rooms every day spoke little English, but offered up broad, defensive smiles whenever eye contact was made.

Jackie: I saving money for citizen test! I have books to study American history...George Washington...haha!

I don't know Jackie's immigration status. I didn't ask her if she came here legally. I believe that any country should have the right to control the traffic at it's borders. There is a right way, a legal way to come here and I have two members of my family who did just that. There is also a wrong way, an illegal way to come here. I want more of the former and none of the latter. But as I lay there listening to Jackie it became clear that she left something bad, something so bad that she was willing to leave her parents behind.

Jackie: My daughter 4 years old when we come to America. She now almost 13. Her English is perfect! But I don't want her to forget Spanish because she has to write letters to my parents every month. She already forgetting how to write, she write four words in Spanish, then two word in English. Makes me sad, but her English is so good which makes me proud. It strange thing...

Yes, it sure is.

When the massage was over I found myself looking at Jackie more carefully. The light came up and I could finally see her clearly. Then I heard myself say...."Jackie, in America today you hear lots of talk about immigration, but I want you to know something. I'm glad that you made it to America. I'm glad you're here. I was born here, as were my parents, their parents and their parents before them. But when you pass that citizenship test, you're gonna be one of us, every bit as American as me. Something tells me that maybe you already are one of us."

As I spoke, this loud, proud woman's eyes began filling with tears. As the tears washed down her face she said, "Thank you, thank you, thank you, gracias, God bless...."

My views bout illegal immigration remain the same. What has changed is that we have got to find a way to talk about this issue in ways that don't make the Jackie's of this  world feel like the enemy, because they aren't. Everyone has a story. Everyone wants something better, a better life, more freedom to live it in peace. Jackie was willing to leave her Homeland and much of her family behind to pursue a life of liberty.

I'm glad she made it.

I had to write this down because even though I will never see her again, I don't want to forget.