I asked him “So where are you from?” he replied that he was born and raised right outside Tijuana, México. He told me that he first came to the U.S. when he was 14. After he got married, he decided to return to the U.S. to give his kids a better education, and a safer life. He explained to me about the danger that he experienced there daily, the fear he lived in, and how he has found so much refuge and hope in being here in the Yakama Valley. Then he looked at me and said “I’m sorry for coming to your country, but I had no choice. I had to do it for my safety.”
I’m sorry for coming to your country.
I didn’t know what to say. I teared up. Over this week we have learned so much about the constant hurdles that are thrown at people who “aren’t from around here”. We have learned about the injustices that keep people waiting for 20+ years if they want to enter the U.S. “legally”, so they are given almost no choice but to enter “illegally” if they want to give their children a safer life. We have learned about the agricultural industry, and how big businesses repeatedly take advantage of farmers, and exploit their workers. We learned the extent to which we as UP members perpetuate injustice merely by thinking of picking and harvesting as “low-skilled labor” (it is, in fact, quite difficult, dangerous, and requires a lot of skill and precision to harvest safely). We learned about how this racism and injustice is SO ENGRAINED in the development of our country that we are still endorsing systems and mindsets that unapologetically oppress.
To put it bluntly: we learned that even those of us who are well-meaning, kind, and champions for social justice are still the Whos who are oppressing. I had known this man for an hour. We were working on pronunciation and conversations in a Level 1 English Language Learning classroom. I asked his story, and he graciously and courageously told me where he was at. But he felt the need to apologize. He felt the need to justify the simple desire to live and work without fear for his and his children’s lives.
This whole week has been memorable and impactful. This particular story, however, will stay with me a little more deeply than the others. I am a college student. In my own mind I have no power, no authority, and I frequently don’t know what’s going on. For me, there is no reason anyone would ever feel the need to justify their being to me. And yet this brave, kind man called me to senses. There is something very wrong. We can’t be brushing this under the rug anymore. No one should feel the need to justify their existence.