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Ghosts in the Land of Plenty

By
June 16, 2014

I always seek out the maids. I always want to help the janitors sweep. My wife says I have a Jesus complex. What I have is a class issue.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Daniel_Gordon_Portrait_in_Red_Green_and_Blue__1__feature_475.jpg
Image by Daniel Gordon

Why don’t we stop lying? Why don’t we deal with reality? Race is easy—class is hard. That politically incorrect, Mexican-excoriating bastard Edward Abbey told the truth: “The conservatives love their cheap labor; the liberals love their cheap cause. (Neither group, you will notice, ever invites the immigrants to move into their homes. Not into their homes!)” Immigration is so last century. But “illegal” immigration is still paranoiacally embraced in this country as a race issue. The “browning” of pristine white America. (Sorry, Crazy Horse.) Among my sisters and brothers bussing your lunch table, however, you will never see an Octavio Paz or the Mexican consul general of Dallas. You will see people of the lower class, running for their lives. Immigration was and is a class issue. Invisible people escape doom to serve us as extra-invisible people, made more invisible by language, skin color, and class. You can’t multiply a zero, but somehow they manage to become doubly nothing in the Land of Plenty.

I am an invisible man who refused to disappear.

It is one of the koans I wrestle with, seeking enlightenment. Like the Zen poet, I hope to row a boat across a lake and hear a crow’s call echo to me and have it suddenly reveal the true nature of things, shorn of illusion. Who sees the Invisible?

Well, we all see them. At least, we see their arms reach past us to deliver our after-banquet coffees. They’re ghosts, haunting the land. We see shadows, sense the evidence of their presence. The made beds we lie in after our committee meetings. The clean toilets we besmirch and leave for them to kneel at in our absence every morning, as if we had just vacated the tabernacle. The salads we eat but need not sweat for. We are generous: we pay them. And we have applauded ourselves for abandoning the whip. As far as I can tell, though, we don’t offer them the great honor of a steady gaze.

*

This is dense, this telling of truths: when I say “them,” I mean “us.” But I am no longer them. I have somehow crossed over into another kind of us. It has nothing to do with money, though I am often paid to remind good-hearted humans about the wait staff and dishwashers and cooks and maids gathered around the edges of the hall. I always seek out the maids. I always want to help the janitors sweep. My wife says I have a Jesus complex. What I have is a class issue.

My aunt gutted tuna in a cannery. So did my godfather. So did my dad, until he drove a bakery truck and graduated to being that guy who rents you bowling shoes and sprinkles foot powder into them then sweeps the bowling alley behind you and waits till closing time to pick up the tampons and drop menthol piss-cakes in the urinals. It took a really long time to master invisible things—how to wax the lanes so bowlers could roll true to their strikes; how to turn cracked pins on a lathe in the deafening clatter of the dark back room, getting high on the resin mixes that patched and healed their shells; how to reach in blindly and jigger the insides of huge machines that hid rats and tattered rags of boyhood dreams of grandeur and romance without losing a finger. My dad taught me how to clench my teeth and plod on. But he failed to teach me to embrace our suffering and pain.

Yeah—I was a night-shift toilet scrubber, too.

We looked down on the rich, because we saw what you leave behind.

*

My mother was a white woman from New York City. She lived in an agony of exile. She was like a reverse-immigrant. Fallen from socialite altitudes to barrio drudgery. From brownstones and houseboats and opera singers and Vogue magazine to dirt streets in Tijuana. To National Avenue in Logan Heights, where she lived in fear of thugs real and imagined.

We were the only apartment in the barrio with demitasse cups and Eileen Farrell LPs warbling on the stereo.

My mother lived in shame. My mother never spoke to her family in forty years. Not because she’d married a Mexican. But because she had fallen into the unbearable underclass.

We were the only apartment in the barrio with demitasse cups and Eileen Farrell LPs warbling on the stereo.

My mother lived in terror that I would say “ain’t.”

Neither of my parents ever accepted government cheese—even when we ate ketchup sandwiches. They learned to honor those who did accept welfare, however, when they helped us by bringing five-pound silver cans of peanut butter. It would be bad manners to decline a gift, you see. It was our own largesse, not our need, that made us take freebies.

One learned the great lesson of class: one had pretensions while masking them in good manners; at the same time, one watched the awkward and base pretensions of the real working-class people and laughed at them for their lack of couth. Cadillacs. Loud clothing. Really, dahling.

We spent money on books.

I did not have bootstraps with which to pull myself up.

I had my mother’s book shelf.

How fitting that I am allowed to speak to my invisible brethren and my invisible little ones about books. Sacred. As Depeche Mode says: it’s my duty—I’m a missionary.

*

We like to help. We want to help. Don’t we? And there are incentives to help. By God, we can rent some extra square footage in our Father’s Heavenly Mansion through Works! If we send money to the mission field, we can finagle that Eternal Man Cave with floors of gold. And if we get receipts, we can get tax breaks. Amen. And if we find big enough nonprofits, with expensive enough penthouse cocktail parties in glittering Manhattan, we might be able to donate $250 and be photographed with movie and rock stars. Amen and amen. Can I get a mighty shout of praise?

Race is inescapable, I admit it. After all, everybody wants me to speak because I am a Mexican. And a freak: one of those white Mexicans. Kind of cool. It is not lost on me when the friendly Tea Party hostess of an event in Denver asks me if I’m illegal or not. “We won’t pay you if you don’t have papers.” Comma, you Beaner.

I don’t imagine she’d say that to Sting or Bono.

In Chicago, we have lots of sly Poles and Irishmen hiding out. I wonder if their papers get checked often when they speak to rich folks. Oh…right. Never mind.

Back to the broom.

I don’t mean to burn the house down. Or maybe I do. Zen riddle for the day: to combat the rock star, become the rock star.

*

One new phrase that is wresting bucks out of good people lately is “empathy.” Empathy is good. Empathy in the hands of sociopaths with no human empathy but wily reptilian smarts is evil. Se’lah.

I’m bringing you the bad news. I have been yoked to do-gooders who make sure they are photographed with dewy-eyed black kids (yes, the old reliable marker of class issues in America) under the banner of “empathy.” See how we’re helping? We hugged an African-American on camera! They put these pictures up on social media so other well-meaning folks will send them more money. A year later, those kids wake up one day and ask, “What happened to those rich folks with the big program?” I know because I have been asked this question.

How can you hope to help someone whose humanity you don’t fully recognize?

If people felt sorry and guilty about Honey Boo Boo instead of reviling her social standing, these do-gooders would be photographed hugging her, too.

*

Here is an anecdote for your pleasure.

I have been part of several major do-gooder groups. In spite of my criticisms, I am all for such things. Please continue. Please send checks. Please do good deeds. I could give you lists of incredible organizations—all of which do one thing better than raising money and getting their hands dirty. They have the steady gaze. They can see.

However. There was one. Brought out my inner Zapata.

We were in a very fancy hotel, in a very fancy city. That is not uncommon. We were so happy—the drinks and meals and rooms were comped. All we had to do was be brilliant, have feelings, think really progressive thoughts about saving the under-represented. We were Don Quixotes! Noble! Riding forth to drive our lances deep into the monsters of inequality and hopelessness. Lots of very famous people in the room.

Meanwhile, the Sancho Panza class scuttled in the shadows, refilling the coffee urns and making sure our sandwiches were fresh.

One famous character, who went on to become even more famous through brilliant political and empathic works, was there. With a Mexican nanny. Who was summoned with a snap of the fingers, and sent away with a wave of the hand. Who, we were told over a hilarious cocktail party, was about to be fired because she had requested an extra day off.

Whenever I saw her, I felt as if I were betraying her; of course, the one I was betraying was myself. We always—always—know better. We play dumb. We con ourselves. Our gut talks to us, but our mind is devious and sneaky and easy to seduce.

The radical lesson is not to shame people into giving money.

It is to teach people that the invisible meek and huddled masses are us.

Remember that jejune hippie phrase from the 60s?

I am also a you.

*

Class issues flow in both directions. This river runs uphill as well as down. Those whom we wish to save, we must first be willing to touch. But each end of the river is afraid to reach out.

My first book was about the Tijuana municipal garbage dump, and its denizens. And the heroic pastor who has given his entire life to feed and clothe and educate them. My book had a little trouble getting published—it took ten straight years of rejections and revisions to finally find a home. Sure, I was told by a successful New York City editor: “Nobody cares about starving Mexicans.” And yes, I was advised that nobody in America would buy a book by a person with a name as alien as my own. But really, I think the issue was that the book was steeped in a class rage so profound that I could have ended every sentence with “you bastards.” You have to learn how to use your inside voice.

“At least here you have garbage. In Mexico, people like us couldn’t get to the garbage.”

After it came out, something fascinating happened—and it continues to happen, decades later. Good people did send money, and God bless them. But they also wanted to see the world I wrote about. They wanted to go in and visit, but they were afraid to go without me. Sherman Alexie called this phase of my life “Dances With Mexicans.”

This is when I learned about the gaze.

I won’t burden you with yet another poetic mock-epic description of the place. I have filled too many pages of too many books talking about it. It is as you imagine it: garbage, tractors, gulls, smoke, stink, bent indigenous people moving rotten shit around. The hero of this story, the Buddha, is a Chinanteca Indian woman who told me she came to this border area because, “At least here you have garbage. In Mexico, people like us couldn’t get to the garbage.”

I had taken a deacon from Indianapolis into the muddy pit. In the mud, he noticed a belt. Black leather, filthy, studded with what appeared to be silver coins.

“I’d like to take that belt back to my church to show the Sunday school kids what happens to man’s riches.”

That is my kind of theology.

“Take it.”

“I couldn’t.”

“You should.”

“I can’t take it from these people.”

Now, it is important to note that neither he nor they looked at each other. They afforded each other the most cursory glances, nervous and surreptitious. But they refused actual eye contact.

I called over my Chinanteca friend.

She had once told me she loved me because I was not afraid of her. Because I hugged her in spite of the lice. I remember thinking: LICE?

I explained about the belt. The church. The fate of man.

She got it.

“Yes! Yes!” she cried. She looked into his eyes. “Si!”

“But I don’t want to steal from you,” he said.

He was blushing. She took his hands. They smiled at each other. She could see his terror and worry. She could see this poor rich man needed to be comforted.

She raised her hands.

She said, “Hermano—this is the garbage dump. There is plenty for everybody!”

*

This is the garbage dump.

Is there plenty for everybody?

Are you afraid of the lice?

Have poor people offered you Grace?

Mercy?

Did someone pick tomatoes for you?

So I speak. It has become my job. I speak and speak and speak. I speak to conservatives and I speak to liberals, I speak to Christians and atheists and Jews, I speak to Latinos and Border Patrol agents. I count myself blessed every time I step onstage—even if I can no longer stand the plane trips.

I am not afraid.

I have this greeting I always give. It reminds me of who I am. And it startles the audience. I shout it out in Spanish.

Buenos dias! Tijuana in the house!

Race is easy. If we start with race, that great taboo, we can go anywhere. I love my audience, but I am not addressing the Ladies Who Lunch. Or the I-Fly-At-30,000-Feet visionaries. Or the wealth-building team from the bank, or the gathered deans and chancellors, or the grads or even the TV cameras. I am addressing the Invisible. My sisters. My brothers.

The waitresses. The busboys. The dishwashers. The cooks. The maids. They hear the Spanish and they stop and stare. They smile. We see each other.

They can’t gawk—they have work to do.

My dad was a busboy once.

So was I.

This Spanish greeting is a reminder to myself. And a code to the gathered workers. And a warning and welcome and reminder to the good people sitting before me, people who need to remember to look, to open their eyes and witness, to attach their brains to their hearts and guts.

Tijuana in the house!

I will always say:

Tijuana in the house!

G

Luis Alberto Urrea is the award-winning author of thirteen books, including The Hummingbird’s Daughter, The Devil’s Highway, and Into the Beautiful North. Born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and an American mother, Luis draws on the themes of borders, immigration, and the search for love and belonging in his work. A 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for nonfiction, he’s won the Kiriyama Prize (2006), the Lannan Award (2002), an American Book Award (1999), and was named to the Latino Literary Hall of Fame. Urrea lives with his family in Naperville, IL, and is a professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

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2 comments for Ghosts in the Land of Plenty

  1. Comment by Johanna van Zanten on June 16, 2014 at 10:57 am

    Great piece, and so recognizable. Whenever I am traveling or vacationing with my best friend (we are two Causasian ladies from Canada) and her husband who is Mexican we get the response that the people we get talking to assume her husband is our driver, or in other ways is hired by us. It is really astounding how Luis Alberto Urrea writes and holds a mirror up to us, bastards!
    Johanna van Zanten

  2. Comment by Amy L. Hayden on June 16, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    A lovely piece, as all of yours are. I am not Mexican, nor a woman of color, but I grew up poor and living among Mexicans in rural Texas and didn’t realize truly realize the extent to which race and class issues co-existed until I moved North to Chicago. Perhaps because my family was always poor/working class, and my father always worked with the Mexicans, I just assumed it was a class issue I was dealing with.

    I can see, now, the invisible advantages I have had as a white woman, but growing up poor and struggling (and continuing to be poor and struggling, albeit now possessing the cultural capital that comes along with two MAs and almost 20 years of white-collar work) leaves me with the sort of history that’s difficult to talk about, and one few people want to hear. At a business lunch the other day, I was asked if I had a job in high school. I was speechless trying to figure out how to answer. How does one explain working 40 hours a week at age 14 because your parents just can’t handle it on their own? It’s almost 30 years later, and I clean up well. Like you, no one can tell from the surface that I have more in common with the busboy than I do with my lunch companions and their summer jobs at the country club. It’s a life I physically left behind a long time ago, but I can’t entirely leave it behind (and won’t) because it’s unfair to those who are still forced to live it. They deserve not to be forgotten.

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