She's five-foot-zero and chubby, with classic Zapotec features and heavy, jet-black hair that, if not braided or knotted up, shawls her shoulders. Thirty-six years old, married, three kids, originally from the Mexican state of Chiapas, 20 years in the United States. A taxpayer, churchgoer, homeowner, and PTO member. She's also completely illegal.
Her name is Esperanza Mejía, called Sancha. When I first met her, long ago, I couldn't speak much more Spanish than "Enchilada de pollo, por favor," and she didn't speak any English beyond "Please" and "No." Pregnant with her second child, she skipped a lot of my ESL classes, so I didn't warm to her very much. But she persisted, surprising me, and over the years of our friendship has moved through the whole sequence of English as a second language classes at our community college, achieved a GED, and now stands at the threshold of the accounting certificate program.
She'll wait a long time for that door to open.
At 16, she crossed the Border at Tecate with her husband and her two younger brothers, missing the federal amnesty by a couple of months, bad timing that would dog them for the next two decades. They first joined the field-labor force in the lettuce and celery around El Centro in the Imperial Valley of California, weeding with the short-hoe: fierce work, but it paid well, about 10 times what they could make at home. There were no white people in the fields, only Mexicanos and Guatemaltecos, so her lack of English wasn't bothersome. It was okay, fine really, although she was pregnant, morning-sick at first and later having to pee all the time. Sometimes, as they worked their way north with the ripening crops, there'd be a Porta-John at the top of the field, but often not. Often she'd had to squat between the crop rows like an animal.
She gave birth to Rogelio in the open, she told me, in a locust grove near Hermiston, Oregon. In labor in the midday heat, she'd staggered into the shade at the edge of the melon field and lain down there. A woman from Sinaloa helped her. The men kept on working till evening. After the birth, for two weeks, she'd stayed home in their tent at the campground, nursing her baby and cooking for the men. When they moved on to the onions and strawberries in the Walla Walla Valley, she went back to the fields. Being a southerner, she knew how to carry her infant in her rebozo as she worked, so that was lucky.
At the end of that first season, expecting again, she wanted very much to go back to Chiapas for the winter. But by then the border was closed to those without visas or work permits, so the only way to come back the next year would have been to hire a guide, a pollero, to lead them by secret ways past the U.S. Border Patrol. This would have been costly, even then, and fraught with danger. So the men decided to stay where they were, see what work they might pick up over the winter in Walla Walla, keep out of the way of the INS agents, and be ready to move to Southern California and start the migration again come spring.
So that's what they did, for the next six years. During that time, Sancha had two more babies, Edgardo and Martita, and her widowed mother and eldest brother died in Chiapas, her last links to South. She never did go home. She was always afraid of being separated from her citizen children by the laws of both countries.
When Rogelio started school, they stopped traveling to California, instead circulating through Oregon and Washington, renting a house or an apartment in Walla Walla, keeping it as their home base and living there through the winter. They could make about $6,000 apiece during the field-work season. Since they no longer had to send money home, and if nobody got sick, they could manage.
During this time, two calamities occurred. First, she miscarried her fourth baby. She'd felt bad for a couple of weeks while working in the potatoes near Moses Lake; everyone had, although the labor contractor said the vermicide spray wasn't dangerous. But in the end her husband had to speed Sancha to the emergency room, bleeding and convulsing. When she came to herself and realized what had happened, she'd dragged on her clothes and left in the middle of the night, unable to pay the bill, sure that the immigration police were on the way to arrest her, arrest them all.
Then, the manager of a fruit-packing house on the Oregon-Washington state line cheated them out of a season's pay by purposely calling in the migra-men just before payday. Everybody, 200 people or so, scattered into hiding, lost their wages. They couldn't go to the police about this, of course, much less take the guy to court. God knew, she said, how they got through that winter, plundering the churches' food banks, the little boys going ragged to school.
Still, she insisted on school for the children, and during the winters for herself. After a while, by taking all the free or cheap classes she could, reading newspapers, watching TV, and taking books out of the library to read to the children, she became fluent enough in English to get a round-the-year job cleaning motel rooms. Then a supplementary one, in the laundry of one of the old folks' homes.
It's been clear from early on that Sancha has ambition, aspirations, and a quality of focus that plenty of our native-born students lack. We teachers have championed her, cheered her on, and rejoiced in her successes. But the farther she's come, the higher she's risen, the more our hearts misgive us. Because there is a ceiling.
She cannot get a visa because, having crossed the border without one, she's technically a felon. Without a visa, she can't apply for permanent legal residency. Without that green card, she cannot become a citizen of the United States. She'll have to pay not just out-of-state but out-of-country fees for her accounting classes, and manage to hide in plain sight from the immigration police while she takes them. And there is no point. Because without the green card, she cannot take the state licensing examinations, not to be an accountant, or a cosmetologist, or a day-care operator, or any other thing she might like to do that would secure her a modest living and a stable place in this economy. For Sancha, the upward way has led to the cliff's edge.
She can't understand this. Hasn't she always done the hard, the hardest work, the tasks Americans desperately need done, and for small, small wages? "I pay my tax," she says, "always. I do no crime." Sometimes her eyes glitter with tears, sometimes with wrath. Wrath, especially, when I, who usually take her part, point out that the jobs she's doing for cheap right now should be paying some currently unemployed American minimum wage with OSHA protection.
Sometimes she feels that I'm not her friend. "You don't want me be citizen, Teacher?" I don't care about citizenship; I want her to have the green card, be a legal permanent resident, her and all those like her. I am her friend, of course. I admire her more than I can say. But when I multiply her story by nine million or so, all willing to work for five bucks an hour, I see the hard-won lower end of our wage scale unraveling. I see hundreds of thousands of people using public services that the taxes on their tiny paychecks can never support. I see a permanent underclass who won't claim the protection of our laws for fear of being deported. A class of slaves, in other words.
I'm so proud of Sancha, but I'm scared for her. And in the aggregate, I'm scared of her.
She continues optimistic. Maybe sometime her years of field labor will count in her favor, she thinks. Maybe sometime the government will declare another amnesty. Maybe her citizen children, when they are grown, will somehow be able to legalize her. Maybe, maybe. And so meanwhile, anyway, she's going to start saving up, poquito a poquito, the $1,800 it will cost her to take her first accounting class.
Esperanza: her name means Hope.
But also, Wait.