Luck and Theft
When I was unborn
I heard the soft sound of drums
Now only bulls walking on hard ground.
Luck and Theft
I’ve been writing a lot about going home lately, why I want to and why it is likely I never will. It’s more that I am thinking about why I left and so I find myself looking into the reasons others leave the places they started from. What drives people to leave their homes and move to what they hope is a new life somewhere else? What about my own ancestors, how did they get to Minnesota and why did they leave families and places they knew they would never see again?
I find myself noticing migrations of peoples and researching the reasons people leave their birthplaces. Earlier last month, in the vicinity of Columbus Day, a group of migrants from the country of Eritrea, a country on the Red Sea that lies between Ethiopia and Sudan, was in the news for a moment. They were passengers on a boat that capsized in the Straits of Sicily off the coast of the island of Lampedusa, the part of Italy where Europe comes very close to Africa. The tragedy occurred after the engines failed on the 65 foot ship that was crammed with more than 500 persons, and only a hundred meters from the harbor. It turned into a body count. More than 350 people died that night, many of them women and children. After a few days, news of the tragedy became confused with that of the other three small boats that sank in that area in the first two weeks of October. Another 200 deaths from those sinkings could be added to the total. But I tried to stay focused on just the one and in pictures and video I watched the Italian coast guard and navy carrying body bags and lining up coffins by the hundreds. I kept track of them on my computer, rows of colored packages, aqua blue, green, black, and white. It had the look of any other industrial age cleanup really except for the legs and arms showing in the ones where zippers were left undone in the hurry.
It makes me think of the strange authority of borders in the world. Body bags lined up on the docks in a town in Sicily and my old hometown of Long Prairie, Minnesota which has migrants of its own. They are moving there to work at the low paying jobs in the meat cutting industry. People are not sure about what to think about their new neighbors, perhaps because they look a little different, speak a different language, and generally stick to themselves. But Minnesotans are good folks who do their best. Almost 500 people attended Cinco de Mayo celebrations last May and they have Spanish Mass at the Catholic Church each Sunday. Of course some are less tolerant, even hostile; they complain about the crime and the strain on the welfare system, there is a sign in the pool hall window on the old Main Street that reads “Stop the Invasion”.
There is a tendency to treat the newcomers differently. They are accused of taking jobs, except the only jobs that are missing are the low paying ones at Hormel Foods. Because they are thought of as illegals, criminals, the law treats them differently. A simple drug raid casts a wider net if Latinos are the suspects. The sheriff and his deputies kick in the doors of an extra brother or cousin just to be sure. Women and children are confronted, and the family’s cash is taken for evidence.
We know laws are often different for different people; even being illegal depends on location. A person with fifty percent Native American blood can move freely back and forth between the United States and Canada. Most indications from the Mexican genome project are that the average Latino in Mexico is fifty five percent Native American but there are different rules on the south border. Native Americans from Mexico cannot go online and fill out a form to acquire instant permanent residency in the United States.
I have learned some things about my own ancestor’s arrival in my old town from reading their letters home. They left the same kinds of things these others have left. My polish great grandfather and his brothers were facing conscription in the 1870s. There was poverty and problems with the Germans. When they got to Minnesota, they did not speak English and didn’t have money. They came looking for a way to live, they knew they would never see their homes again and the only hope of ever seeing a family member was if one of them followed. Their mother did not want them to go to America. It is difficult to leave our family and native soil, not knowing when or if we will ever get back.
But people go to new places and add to them, make them theirs. The sign in Irish’s pool hall back home says someone should stop the invasion, but it’s not an invasion. In that crippled old town the sound of children’s laughter on Main Street, in any language, signals reinforcements. It’s students for the schools and someone to do the work we no longer think we have to. It’s the human race coming to the door and saying things are going to be just fine.
The French aviator and poet Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who disappeared while flying over that same inland sea where that crippled old boat sank, wrote that when a person dies an unknown world passes away and who can tell what visions of pasts and futures vanish. “Never again will be heard exactly that note of laughter, that intonation of voice, that quality of repartee.” I’m drawn back to the body bags, lined up on the docks in Lampedusa Harbor. I remind myself there is an empty human form in each one. Did they even find all of their names? What about the people in the homes they left, parents, friends, even lovers. Eritrea is a country by the sea. Someone may still be back there hoping they get where they want to go, what they want.
What was it like when that boat rolled and water started over the rail? What did it sound like when the voices began crying out? Who did they blame or curse as they struggled in that dark water? Did they think it was just their bad luck? When they prayed did they think about our Sunday God who created the earth for all of his children, then gave it to thugs?
In the rescuer’s eye witness accounts, one boat captain called it horrific, that there were so many bodies floating in the area that it was difficult to reach persons who were still alive. There were more than one hundred dead inside the sunken hull; some locked in embrace, some holding children. They were stiffened and tangled, like fish in a hold. Of the one hundred women on the boat, only six survived. At the bow the divers found a young mother with her newborn in her arms still attached by its umbilical cord. It brought me visions of the crowded holds of the slavers that brought so many to America.
Antoine d Saint-Exupery also said one of the miraculous things about the human race is there is no pain or passion that does not radiate to the ends of the earth. We already know this, how could we not be diminished by this distant opening of the shared abyss, a ship overturned on its way from Africa. We also know it doesn’t matter what place we call home because where we are at any given moment isn’t that important. It’s all the same. On the days I can see this, I do a lot better.