Friday, July 21, 2006

El Mejor de Guerrero

Cycling in on Friday, I hit a red light near a woman selling tamales from a cooler and a push cart. Given that she may be violating a number of laws, I will not specify where. Someday, when I drive, I am going to stop and load up on her tamales. They must be good because her sign says "El Mejor de Guerrero." She has about a dozen varieties including cheso con jalepeno, which is what I most want to try. Others include beef, pork, and pineapple.

Guerrero is a long way from Chicago. It lies between Oaxaca and Michoacan on the pacific coast.

I know nothing about this woman. She is around 60 and looks like she has had a rough life by North American standards. She may be younger. I don't know how she found herself in Chicago or whether she is legally here. Let's assume she is illegal. In addition, she probably pays no taxes, has no local business license, and no health inspection certificate. OK, technically, that is all bad. But, is it really?

The federal, state, county, and local tax revenue lost must be de minimis at best. She is not in a building, so the physical safety of her business is not an issue. Given her continued presence at one location and the customers I see her serving, she must be providing a needed or desirable service. If she were making people sick, one would think the market would react relatively quickly.

Still, she likely lacks insurance and may be judgment proof should she cause a mini epidemic of ptomaine. Plus, there are people all over the city who have played by the rules to get a business license, insurance, and submit to inspection. So, why giver her a break? That is a tough question.

How about starting with the obvious: Because she came to Chicago from Guerrero. Guerrero is where Acapulco and Ixtapa are located. She came from the pacific tropics to a city of short summers and long harsh winters. Doing that, she may have faced more hardship and physical danger than most of us will ever see. The only reason she would do that is the promise of America to be the place where hard work permits all of us to make something more of ourselves. That is the same promise that drew my grandparents and great grandparents to America early in the 20th century and continues to draw immigrants, legal and illegal, every day.

I don't know for certain, but she does not strike me as a violent criminal or threat to national security. When I ride my expensive bike past her a couple times a week on the way to my job as a respected professional, she makes ME think about what it means to do hard work and how much I have had given to me and have earned through work. So, I suspect that if she has children and grandchildren, she has instilled in them a strong work ethic. To me, this woman selling tamales on the corner represents the best role model in America, not a threat to our, security or economy.

The problem of course, is that this is a micro example of a macro issue. That is why it is so intractable. All the terrible statistics the shameful Lou Dobbs tosses around ignore the quality of the individuals who take us up on our collective promise of a better life through sacrifice and hard work. And, every story of an individual who tries hard to earn a place in this country can be countered with a sordid story of an undocumented felon who takes advantage of our social safety net. There seems to be no middle ground and it is easy to demonize the illegal immigrant because he or she is, by definition, a criminal.

I have no policy suggestion. People far smarter than me have been stymied by this question. All I have is the thought that we should spend more time looking at the immigrants around us and less time thinking about their status or the bad examples among them. If we did that micro analysis, we might be more willing to let America use its resources to keep its promise.


Celestino. said...

...And the world keeps right on turning.

Anonymous said...

Lou Dobbs is an ass. What people like him don't understand is evolution. The people like the woman you described are risk takers and that is what is good for America.

Jim Dickeson said...

One thing that strikes me about "illegal" Latinos is that I never see them panhandling. They have too much pride to beg for a hand out. They have too much honor NOT to earn their keep. I wish I could say as much for those of us born with silver spoons in our mouths.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Helps put things into perspective.

Anonymous said...

This is a well-written, thought-provoking post. Nice job. I find myself wondering as I wander down the streets of another big city: why do I have so much and continue to want more, while others have so little and work so much harder to simply eek out a living. Would I fundamentally alter our capitalist economy to flatten out the disparity? Most likely not, but I am reminded that it is incumbent upon me to never take what I have or the accident of my birth for granted.