The Invisible Americans
I don’t speak Pashto, Farsi, Kurdish, Arabic or Urdu. Yet since 9/11 I have lived mentally in their homelands of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq thousands of miles away. Partly it’s because our troops with whom I identify are fighting in the “Stans” and Iraq, and partly because you never know when this whole area will explode into a war that engulfs us all, as Syria almost did.
At the same time I have only a very poor smattering of Spanish in the city of Los Angeles which is almost 50% Spanish speaking and just a few miles from the Mexican border.
In my neighborhood I’m surrounded by Spanish speaking Latinos who work as gardeners, maids, dry wall and bulldozing construction, nannies of Anglo children and checkers in my local Ralphs market. Only on Cinco de Mayo or when my attention is drawn to a rash of gang killings are they truly visible to me. There are whole stretches of Spanish-speaking LA, in Boyle Heights, San Fernando valley and parts of South Central and Watts, that are almost entirely Latino as you see when you drive past their iglesias and mercados. My local Jewish delis are staffed by Latino chefs and counter help.
If these legal and illegal migrants are invisible, Mexico the country even more so. The twin-city border metropolis of Tijuana-San Diego is an easy drive from LA where forty million people cross and recross this border every year. Big time dope dealers buy mansions in Chula Vista on the U.S. side, and many American retirees relax down in Ensenada and elsewhere in Baja California. Spanish language TV and radio (KXOS-FM 93.9 and KLAX-FM 97.9) command huge audiences in southern California, Arizona and the other border states. And for Anglo readers like me the Los Angeles Times almost daily reports on Mexican politics, systemic corruption, personalities, violence etc.
Thus I know more about which drug cartels – “narcos” like Zetas and Knights Templar – control which Mexican districts than I have any understanding of the people I live around.
Even though Los Angeles is in many ways the “most northern Mexican city”, Mexico itself mentally seems light years away…except of course for the headline assassinations, beheadings, kidnappings, vigilantes, mass rapes etc.
The Beast, published by Verso and beautifully translated, is a first-person closeup journey by a Salvadorean journalist, Oscar Martinez, drawing me closer to a real Mexico and therefore to my own neighborhood full of hard working migrants from whom I’m separated by language and experience.
As most of us know, migrant riders of The Beast is not peculiar to LA. We hire them at sub-wages all the way from Georgia and upstate New York to the Rockies and beyond.
Oscar Martinez is a new Jack London or Orwell risking his life several times over to ride on top of “The Beast”, the cargo train that daily brings hundreds of Central American poor migrants from Nicaragua through Honduras, Guatamala, El Salvador through the badlands of Mexico to the promised land of El Norte where few make it past extortionist police checkpoints, dope-and-human smugglers, and armed predators who murder and rape at will. Migrant women accept that part of the necessary “fee” to travel will be a multiple rape and if lucky escaping with their lives. Along this migrant trail there are many “bra trees” where the rapists hang their victims’ undergarments as trophies.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of these migrants illegally cross from Mexico into the United States. (Last year the Border Patrol deported almost 100,000.) In 2010, hundreds of migrants went missing or were killed in Mexico; more than 20,000 were kidnapped. Gangs imprison them and demand ransom money from families back home and even if the money is handed over kill their hostages.
The migrants who ride on top and often fall off The Beast, to be decapitated or have limbs severed by the train’s iron wheels, are the same people or their close relatives who work in my neighborhood.
New arrivals are desperate to work as hotel maids and laborers, work they cannot find in their dysfunctional, hyper-violent home countries. (Honduras probably has the world’s highest murder rate.) Now, after reading Oscar Martinez’s amazing book, riding along with him on top of The Beast, month after month on the thousand-mile highway to heaven or an ugly anonymous death, it’s impossible any longer to step back from brownskinned neighbors who are so hungry for una vida mejor, a better life, for which they are willing to die in the desert or in a mass grave to get to what we take for granted.
Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives.