Strangers in a Strange Land: My Story of Solidarity with Latino Immigrants

by: Mariann Devlin

When I’m not struggling to find a job as a writer, I work as a server at a neighborhood restaurant. Most of the people in the “back,” that is, the busboys and cooks, are Latino immigrants, most of whom I have a hard time having a conversation with. I know how to greet them in the morning, and say “thank you” when they’ve given me an extra side of pancakes. But other than that, I speak worse Spanish than they speak English. The language barrier is so dense that I feel like I don’t know the very people I spend so much time with.

I don’t know what they’re talking, singing, or laughing about in the kitchen. I don’t know about their families or the things they like to do in their spare time. I have no idea what specifically inspired them to move to the U.S., or what their very particular hopes or fears are. Yet I still respect and regard them as human beings, despite the fact that their lives outside of work are entirely unknown to me.

I wish the same could be said of other people who refuse to acknowledge the humanity of so-called “aliens” or “illegals.” The words we choose to describe undocumented immigrants reflect how we feel about them, whether we believe them to be the same as us or radically different. Other. Not us.

Just in time to court Latino voters in Florida, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney have been quarreling over who is more pro-immigrant, a very curious thing for liberals to witness given the GOP’s long history of trying to stifle immigration from Mexico. The GOP’s policies of tightening immigration restrictions and beefing up border patrol, as well as its general support of Arizona’s infamous anti-immigration law, whose origins lie in white supremacist groups.

Herman Cain’s solution to the “immigration problem” was to install an electric fence along the border, in order to kill any immigrants who try to climb it. He refused to apologize for the idea, claiming that undocumented Mexican immigrants come to America to kill people. Less than a year ago, Kansas state Rep. Virgil Peck compared undocumented immigrants to feral pigs who ought to be shot.

Thank goodness most people don’t have the sick desire to see immigrants get killed for trying to enter the U.S. Yet there’s still a large suspicion that immigrants pose a threat to our American way of life–whatever that is.*

The “alien” rhetoric is a powerful way of creating and sustaining suspicion toward people who pose no real economic or political threat, which, in turn, creates and sustains a stronger nationalistic identity that politicians can use to fear-monger and manipulate. How very sinister. The relationship between negative metaphors, racism and power should be obvious to the public, but it isn’t always.

Maybe it’s obvious to me because I’ve had the privilege–yes, the privilege–of working beside the people that politicians are constantly debating about. The “drains on our economy,” the “job stealers,” and the people who just need to learn English already, etc.  My job isn’t glamorous; in fact, I hate it sometimes. I’m demeaned at work by my boss and by customers, but I continue to work there because it’s a bad economy and I can’t find a job in my field, one that I’m creatively suited for. And, like everyone else, I really need the money.

But the work that the guys do in the back is even less glamorous. They sweat away before a row of hot stoves, and spend hours separating food waste from dirty dishes. All of this to serve hot, cheap meals to the very people who resist their presence in this country. They’re also there to make ends meet, and I imagine they make much less money than I do.

Maybe it’s true that some Americans, including anti-immigrant politicians, actually do find that kind of lifestyle to be “alien,” but the same is true of mine. Yet I don’t need to be a conservative, white, male politician like Tom Tancredo, and he doesn’t need to be a poor, liberal, half-Asian woman to know that we both equally deserve the same freedoms, including the freedom to thrive.

That’s why people come to the U.S. It’s why I moved to Chicago from Alaska. We all share the universal human hope to make a better life for ourselves, but unlike most Americans’ experiences, that dream sometimes comes at the cost of moving much farther than the towns we were raised in.

We have all, at some point, started anew. We are all strangers in a strange land.

Mariann Devlin is a journalism school graduate from Loyola University. She’s a reporter for Patch.com, and a volunteer contributor to Streetwise magazine, a publication dedicated to ending homelessness. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Mariann moved to Chicago four years ago and still complains incessantly about the cold winters.

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Note: I once lived with a Northwestern student who was born in Austria, moved with his family to Canada, and was, at the time, living in Chicago to go to graduate school. He actually had the gall to announce to me, the daughter of a Filipino immigrant, that Muslim and Latino immigrants are a threat to American culture. He also wanted to ban the hijab because he was afraid Muslim women might be smuggling a gun under their robes and wouldn’t be able to be identified. “What are they trying to hide?” he asked, in seriousness. We told him he couldn’t re-sign the lease.

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