Friday, August 1, 2014

Profiles of courage and survival

What began as a relaxing retirement-type project, to digitize stashes of family photos and documents and convert them into an online photo book, has instead turned into a replaying of the hard times my family went through after the political whirlwind of 1959 and the subsequent installation of the Communist dictatorship that survives to this day.

I knew the outlines of my family's tale, their having to leave the island and abandon the things they owned and loved, such as the family home and my father's collection of classical music LPs. But the documents, scraps of paper and other memorabilia I uncovered just last week has helped me fill some of the holes in their heartrending story and appreciate the pain they must have gone through.

Indeed, in their own unheralded way my mom and dad emerge as courageous or at least indomitable people who would not bow to a hurricane of adversities.

My mother collected most of the memorabilia I found. It's almost as if she feared people would not believe our family's tale survival so she'd better save some of the evidence. But some of the scraps I must have saved myself even though I don't remember doing so. Did I instinctively stash away those items as mementos of a family I might never see again?

I left Cuba alone in February 1962, sent into exile by my parents who feared what would become of their only child under a Communist regime. The middle class in Cuba was rattled by daily rumors that all children, particularly the boys, would be forcibly sent to the Soviet Union (not true); or subjected to Communist indoctrination (certainly true) or conscripted into the Cuban army for service in Africa or God-knows-where (partially true).

As I read about the tragedy of Central American parents today sending their children to the U.S. to escape the poverty and criminal mayhem at home, it reminds me of the terror my parents must have felt. Just yesterday, Stew and I ran into a young Honduran family that included a young child and a baby, all filthy and malnourished, begging for coins at the parking lot of Luna de Queso, a local deli. The father said they hoped to reach the U.S. soon. These folks looked as desperate as my parents must have been.

And just like some of the Central American kids arriving alone in the U.S. I spent three long months at a refugee camp in Florida while the authorities decided what to do with me. My initial destination turned out to be a maternal uncle whom I had never met and who lived in fourth-floor walk-up in the Upper West Side of Manhattan with his wife, daughter and a fat, un-housebroken mutt named Cachucha. It turned out to be an infelicitous interim arrangement when it became clear my parents would not be coming to the U.S. to claim me any time soon.

To this day I wonder what my parents were thinking to send their only child, who had just turned fourteen, to a strange and huge country like the U.S., with no definite address or destination except that some charitable organization would pick him up at the Miami airport. That the Castro regime would fall in a matter of months and the family would be happily reunited in Cuba? That they would follow me out of the island shortly if the initial ideal scenario didn't pan out? That there simply were no good alternatives?

Neither one of the first two options materialized. The Missile Crisis in October 1962 led the Cuban government to shut down the daily flights out of Cuba, while the commitment by the U.S. not to invade Cuba in exchange for the removal of the offending Soviet missiles cemented the political status quo in the island.

In effect we were stuck, me attending junior high school in New York and my parents in Cuba trying to find a way to get out of Cuba. That impasse took three years to resolve when my parents flew to Spain and then to New York in 1965.

After my uncle notified my parents he was no longer willing to house me, I bounced through two foster homes in Long Island. Included in the latest cache of documents I uncovered are carbons of long letters my mother wrote to two of my favorite teachers at Joan of Arc Jr. High School on the Upper West Side, essentially pleading with them to look after me. I remember both of the teachers fondly—Veronica Mazzarro and Geraldine Schiff—two extraordinarily kind human beings who did indeed informally adopt me, a frightened teenager trying to learn English.

Dreams of a father: A mock-up of a business card
for his Cuban-born son. 
My mom occasionally would grow impatient and send me telegrams nudging me to write more often, in the style of a Jewish mother. For his part, my dad, who was a commercial artist in his younger days, sent me a prototype of a business card proclaiming I was a "Cuban born Chemist and Engineer." In his own way—he was not much of a talker—he was encouraging me to finish high school and go on to college. Though a very intelligent guy and insatiable reader, my dad was the only one in his family who never finished high school.

Mother's complaint: Why don't you write?
The family business in Santa Clara, Cuba was a small printing shop and stationery store that employed probably no more than a dozen people. Older Cuban exiles in Florida often boast—prompted by nostalgia or garden-variety Latin gas-baggery—about the fabulous family wealth and vast land holdings they left behind. I tell American friends that Cuba would have to be the size of Brazil to contain all the imaginary plantations and cattle ranches exiles prattle about.

In the cache of scraps collected by my mother I found a couple of business cards for my dad's small business as well as an ominous-looking and barely legible official document, in onion-skin blue paper, detailing the inspection of his business prior to its confiscation by the government. My dad was in his mid-fifties and the business he and my grandfather had taken twenty or so years to build was taken away by no other authority than the convoluted signature of a mid-level bureaucrat. Gone overnight.

My dad's last business card
When I visited Cuba in 1998 I found that the building still stands but all the printing presses and other equipment had been hauled out years ago to make room for a warehouse for foodstuffs. The family home, a very modest affair that would have fit nicely in Chicago's bungalow row except for the architecture, also was in ruins except for the wrought iron rocking chairs still in the patio, mute witnesses to the complete destruction of my family's life in Cuba.

My parents' exit for Madrid was equally disgraceful, a final spit on the face by the Communist government as they left the island. I found a small printed note advising travelers how much they were allowed to take with them into permanent exile, mind you, not a weekend jaunt to Bermuda. Three each: shirts, pairs of socks, underwear, handkerchiefs and ties. One hat. A tube of toothpaste and a bar of soap per family, both manufactured in Cuba. A razor, but NOT ELECTRIC. A wristwatch and a wedding ring valued at no more than $60 pesos. Anything exceeding these limits was confiscated on the spot and probably pocketed by the airport inspectors.

Final insult: What you were allowed to
take into exile.
The list also includes some requisite documents from the Department of Urban Reform, I suspect certifying that the family home and all its contents had been duly surrendered to the government.

I knew my parents spent a few winter months in Madrid awaiting their visas to come to the U.S. but didn't realize their penury of their lives at the time until I discovered a ticket for what seems to have been a soup kitchen issued by a welfare agency of the Spanish government. Looking at this innocent piece of paper I remember that my proud mother had once confided—but only briefly, as I suspect she was humiliated by the experience—that they were sometimes hungry and cold during their sojourn in Spain, where they wore heavy winter coats donated by some charity.

Their arrival in New York was not a happy end to the family story, though considerably happier than it would have been if we had stayed in Cuba. During my two visits to Cuba, and talks there with relatives and classmates at the Catholic school I attended who had stayed behind, "There but for the grace of God go I" became one of my most cherished mottoes. There would be plenty more hardship for our family in the U.S., but nothing like what I witnessed in Cuba.

My mom's meal ticket in Madrid. 
For starters, my parents' acrimonious divorce had been finalized before they left for Spain, something no one had mentioned to me.

In his typically cryptic fashion my dad advised me that he and my mother would be arriving in the same Iberia flight from Madrid "together but separate." My mom's furious dreams of reconciliation, of a second chance in a new country, were just that. I went to live with my mother, and dad with his new wife who arrived shortly.

For a while my dad and I worked washing dishes in the basement of Carl Hoppl's Restaurant, a huge establishment on Sunrise Highway in Valley Stream, Long Island, that had wondrous mechanized conveyor belts on which we placed the dirty plates that cascaded from upstairs all night. The shift ended by the hosing and scrubbing down of the floor and other surfaces by the then all-Cuban crew. Some things in the U.S. labor market don't change much: Hispanics still preside over menial restaurant jobs except now they are mostly Mexican and Central American.

Eventually my dad found a job at a small printing shop in nearby Lynbrook, where he stayed until retirement to Miami on Social Security. His employer offered no retirement.

My mom found a job as a "nurse's aide," a wishful repackaging of the title "orderly", at a nursing home run by Nassau County helping out with the washing and care of bed-ridden residents. Despite her lowly position and meager pay—a precipitous come-down from her previous career as a school teacher—she considered herself lucky for the job security and became an outspoken member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Above all, she never lost her self-esteem: I found small cards she had printed offering her services as a Spanish teacher ($3 an hour) and a dress-maker:


Monday, July 21, 2014

The imminent threat of illegal (children) coming across the border

Occasionally I read something and say to myself, "Damn, I wish I'd written that!"

This is one of those cases, a post on Burro Hall, a blog whose author I don't know. I believe he lives in Querétaro, about 40 minutes from here.

Check it out so you too can share the nationwide alarm about unaccompanied children coming into the U.S. through the Mexican border:

Another good link from this morning's New York Times:

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Rand Paul for President!! Of Mexico?

Enchiladas, tequilas and mariachis we know, but who would have imagined Mexico as a living laboratory of free-market-to-the-max, let-'er-rip economic policies, a place where the heads of corporations and service providers can wheel and deal pretty much unregulated except perhaps for the long shot of an angry consumer coming after them with a gun?

Rand Paul, Paul Ryan and other Ayn Rand devotees take note: You need to spend some time here sipping margaritas, fine tuning your all-government-bad theories and stoking your loathing of anything that even smells of outside regulation.

¡Get this man a sombrero!
An internship at TelCel, part of the corporate mammoth that controls the country's telecommunications sector, would be a good place to start.

When we went to pay our phone bill on Friday, Stew—Mr. Angry Consumer—demanded an explanation for two mysterious but hardly inconsequential charges on our cell phone bill: The equivalent of sixteen U.S. dollars in "third-party outside charges" for something called MIGNT and Club Applanet.

Actually, since Stew so far hasn't been able to translate his consumer fury into any mastery of Spanish it fell on me to do the bitching.

As soon as I mentioned the charges to the young, brown-eyed woman at the counter you could see her body language take on a defensive crouch as if pleading, "please don't hit me I only work here."

Without any other questions she punched a few numbers on her computer and announced that our "membership" on in MIGNT and Applanet had been terminated as of that moment! Clearly, this was not the first time she'd faced angry consumers on this matter.

Would we get our money back? No. Whom do I call for further information? She nervously jotted down two toll-free numbers on our bill. I called both numbers and bingo, both turned up busy for ever and not taking any messages. Internet searches led me to angry pro-consumer bulletin boards but not to any explanation of how or why we were charged for unsolicited services. My favorite board was or ""

Stew doesn't calm down easily and on the way home continued growling that "if we were in the U.S., we could file a complaint with the feds against the phone company" and there would be class action suit, and blah, blah, blah.

Problem is that we live in Mexico, where weak or nonexistent government regulations and similarly toothless independent consumer organizations relieve corporations and other service providers from any worries about lawsuits for negligence, malpractice, boiling-coffee-on-your-lap and other mishaps.

If the General Motors legal nightmare over faulty ignition switches had unfolded in Mexico, the company would have had little to worry about and GM's CEO Mary Barra would not keep showing at congressional hearings looking as if she hadn't slept a wink for the past six months. In Mexico I doubt she would have had to testify to anyone about anything.

In Mexico liability lawsuits are as unlikely as a mild piquín chile. Class action litigation? No comprende. Shit happens, however you say that in Spanish.

Nowhere is that more noticeable than in the health care sector: There is no practical way for the victim of a botched procedure or adverse drug outcome to come after the hospital, physician or other service provider for financial damages.

If, let's say, a slip of the scalpel turned your vasectomy into an orchidectomy all you're likely to get from the surgical team is a shower of heartfelt ¡Dios mío!  or ¡Santa Virgen de Guadalupe! but not a peso in compensation.

In a case closer to home, Stew's use of his right hand was seriously impaired by a botched surgery in Mexico a few years back and he had no recourse whatever against the multitasking "orthopedic surgeon" who still performs surgeries of the hip, neck, back, hands or pretty much any skeletal nook or cranny, mostly on ex-pats, even though no one's ever been able to ascertain where the doctor trained or his specific specialty.

Such legal or regulatory vacuum, of course, accounts for the much lower costs of medical care in Mexico. There is no malpractice exposure as such, and with it no worry about malpractice lawyers or the added costs of just-to-be-sure, redundant medical tests.

Back in Chicago after his surgical mishap, Stew was referred to a wrist and hand surgery specialist who after a series of expensive MRIs said he didn't want to try to mend Stew's wrist. The doctor was probably worried he might do further damage and decided not take a chance.

Had Stew's surgery been done in Houston or Chicago, it would have involved a panoply of expensive tests, attendants, specialists and so on and the costs would have been ten times higher. Of course, there also would have been a comparably higher chance—not a guarantee, mind you—that today he would have a fully functioning right hand.

Tell you, I used to hate those damn personal liability lawyers. Since coming to Mexico, not so much.

But back to Tel Cel, a part of Tel Mex, owned by the richest or second-richest man in the world, depending on the ups and downs of the Dow Jones Index.

From all I've been able to find on the Internet I must have "unwittingly approved"—the phone company clerk's wording—membership in these services. Is there any proof that I signed for a open-ended monthly charge for a worthless service, wittingly or otherwise?

Sir, you have to call the numbers that I noted on your bill, and which of course led me nowhere. And round and round, a consumer scam by any other name at least condoned by the phone company which agrees to bill its customers for bogus "third party charges."

Welcome to the free market, Mexican style. Rand Paul ought to come here don a sombrero and learn the nuances of deregulation-run-amok. Even if he doesn't change his mind the sombrero would help cover whatever it is he's got on top of his head.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Bunnies at the Gate

One of the two visitors.
Weighing at least sixty pounds, our one-year-old dog Roxy is an awesome and beautiful creature. She can charm by simultaneously resting her haunches on the back seat of the pickup, her two enormous feet on the front console and her head on your shoulder while you drive, there to leave bits of drool to remind you of her affection.

But she can do a scary guard dog routine too, crouching, growling and baring her formidable teeth if she doesn't recognize or like visitors outside the main gate. If I were asked about Roxy's mixed-up pedigree I'd venture equal parts Doberman, Rottweiler and honey.

The clumsy hunter at rest. 
This time of the year, when it's rainy and cool, the ranch turns Irish-green, looking almost subtropical except for the cacti poking their thorny heads above the vegetation. It's also time for wild animals to go into reproductive overdrive and for the dogs to start chasing, killing and sometimes eating the younger and more defenseless ones.

We're convinced that Gladys, our Dowager Mutt, undermines our attempts to put her on a diet by catching and eating her own appetizers outside, mostly rabbits. In fact, the less we've fed her the more rotund she's become, gradually turning into a four-legged watermelon.

Roxy catches stuff but not much. She doesn't trot, gallop or in any way move discreetly or elegantly, like a greyhound or a jaguar. She leaps and galumphs instead, her huge legs not quite synchronized with the rest of her powerful body. Stealth is not part of her hunting style.

And when she catches a rabbit or a mouse she doesn't kill or dismember it but instead deposits the prey on her cushion on the garage floor for further nose-to-nose observation, showing a surprisingly delicate touch as if she were dealing with one of her own puppies. Sure, some of the animals she catches die but I'm convinced it's mostly from fright. Imagine yourself staring up close at the face of a rhino that just snared you with the tip of its horn, no matter how gently. I predict a quick, two-step demise for you consisting of soiled underwear followed by a massive heart attack.

The doctor at work.
Two days ago Roxy brought us two tiny bunnies, their eyes still shut. Stew found her on her cushion staring curiously at one tiny rabbit. As soon as Stew removed the critter, I found Roxy on the driveway with another bunny, probably from the same litter, giving it the identical here's-looking-at-you treatment.

So we've inherited two baby bunnies that we are trying to nurse. For that we called on Félix, who must have genetic bits of Dr. Doolittle and Francis of Assisi running in his blood. I'm convinced he can communicate with animals. While we unsuccessfully tried to feed Cat Sip, a special kind of kitten milk recommended on the Internet for baby rabbits, Félix calmly took over and nursed both of them as if he had been doing it all his life.  Maybe that's what being born and raised in a farm does for you. He warned us that one of the babies had been injured on its shoulder and didn't look as lively as the other. Indeed, the weaker one died this morning.

Meanwhile, Félix has retrofitted a cat carrier with layers of dirt, dry straw and shredded toilet paper to serve as a new nest for the survivor. This tiny bunny is in good hands right now though given the realities of life in the wild, the future doesn't look so bright.


Sad news update: After three or four days of nursing and intensive care, both of the baby bunnies died. In truth, it's always a very long shot to try to rescue wild animals that small. It was a valiant try on the part of Félix though, who seem pretty upset about it—particularly for a guy raised in the country where critters are born, live and die in front of you all the time

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

An Olde-Timey Fourth of July

How Olde-Timey you ask?

So Olde-Timey that the guy dressed up as Uncle Sam was about the youngest person among the 200-odd attendees at the Democrats Abroad Annual Fourth of July Party in San Miguel.

Uncle Sam's younger brother?
So Olde-Timey that the large American flag hanging on the outdoor pavilion where this leisurely paced party took place had only forty-eight stars—yep, the flag that was retired sometime during the Eisenhower administration in favor of the present fifty-star model—a detail none of the attendees seemed to notice.

I wasn't expecting hip-hop for background music—I wouldn't understand the lyrics or shake my booty to that racket—but the 1960s protest songs of Joan Baez vintage that played during the event made my booty feel particularly arthritic. A favorite of mine, circa high school or college, Baez today is completely gray as it befits a 73-year-old music veteran who still fills auditoriums with chubby baby boomers.

I couldn't even make out the words coming from the AARP combo trying to serenade us. Was it distortion in the sound system or my tinnitus acting up?

The biggest buzz of the party came when people lined up to get food, a spartan offering of hamburgers or hot dogs accompanied by cole slaw and potato salad.

Really old Old Glory
Stew's one-line review of the food was, "I had no idea cole slaw and potato salad could be this tasteless."

Still, some folks, including Stew, also clamored insistently—practically pounding on the table—"Where's the cake?" as if that was the climax of a memorable gathering, which indeed may have been the case.

One of the highlights of the celebration, though—seriously speaking now—were some of the amazingly dolled-up women, none of them spring chicks but looking smashing nonetheless. Wish older men could reinvent their faces and hair half as successfully as these babes.

Finally someone bravely grabbed the microphone and tried to arouse the political passions of the crowd, the longest of long-shots given the ideological rigor mortis that grips both national parties today. He even exhorted the crowd to get out and vote in November so that Democrats could retain their majority in the U.S. Senate. Yea! The reaction to that iffy proposition was a low-decibel groan.

Whenever Stew and I attend public events in San Miguel the audience around me strikes me as a gently undulating sea of white-haired heads. Just as predictably, Stew points out that we both are old too: he sixty-seven, me sixty-six. That was the idea, remember, of moving to retirement community in Florida, Brownsville, Phoenix or Mexico. So shut up about it already.

Still, it bothers me to be surrounded by people who are, hmm, old, just as old as I am or maybe just a tad older than me. What's the problem? Fear? That these people are mirror-reminders of my own age? Is this what I'm going to look like in a few years, or what other people perceive I already look like right now?

Maybe next year we'll try the Republican Fourth of July Party, though that crowd is bound to be even geezier and wheezier than the Democrats. But the food is bound to be better, maybe a nice piece of filet and a slice of Strawberry Shortcake followed by an espresso.

Problem is that given the minuscule number of Republicans in this town that celebration likely will be held in someone's cozy, chandeliered living room, with clinking brandy snifters—and turn out even bigger bore than the Democrats' shindig.


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A memorable gay day in Mexico City

If we may wade into stereotypes for a second, the organization of Saturday's Gay Pride parade in Mexico City was typically gay—that is to say, rather chaotic—and its punctuality typically Mexican—it started a couple of  hours late. Next to the big-city Gay Pride parades in the U.S. that over the years have acquired glitz and production values approaching Mardi Gras, Mexico City's version was huge yet small-time. That is precisely what made it so memorable for Stew and me.

Most of the noise came from people, not bands.
There was no official lead contingent with people carrying flags or banners announcing the event, but just hundreds of people soon to grow into tens of thousands, cheerily meandering down Paseo de la Reforma, the most majestic boulevard in the city and perhaps the world. Some participants came on horseback, dressed as cowboys headed for a roundup, others as sequined vedettes sashaying and waving to imaginary fans as if en route to a cabaret gig downtown. There were, of course, dozens of Frida Kahlo wannabes with the starched Oaxacan headdress that appeared in one of her self-portraits but no Diego Riveras. A placid and clean-shaven young man also walked by wearing nothing but a dusting of talcum powder and tennis shoes.

A hefty Frieda looking for her Diego
The noise came mostly from the lungs of the marchers and an occasional battery of drums. There were very few bands or floats, and those didn't arrive almost until the end. The only visible corporate participant was Google which sent a large van full of screaming people, including a shirtless young guy on the roof melodramatically waiving the rainbow flag in the style of a citoyen during French Revolution.

No mayors, governors or other prominent politicians were seen, as we would expect in big-city pride parades in the U.S. Although Mexico City approved marriage equality years ago along with legislation protecting the rights of gay residents, I suspect that to actually show up at the parade and lock arms with a line-up of high-kicking drag queens would be a step too far for any Mexican politician.

This marcher seemed mesmerized by the rainbow flag 
The parade ostensibly began at the traffic roundabout with the iconic, gold-clad statue of the Angel of Independence lightly perched atop a huge classic-style column, within shouting distance of the Zona Rosa with its dozens of gay bars. From there the parade moseyed along at an erratic pace—we didn't see any parade marshals or even police officers to keep the growing human avalanche moving—past dozens of statues of Mexican heroes and notables that line Reforma, to end in Mexico City's Zócalo, the vast main square that is the heart of the city and one could say Mexico itself. Right at the foot of the imposing Metropolitan Cathedral, the National Palace and an enormous Mexican flag, the parade dissolved into a raucous party.

Despite its enormous size the parade ultimately looked more like a wild block party that had caught fire and engulfed the center of the city and along with it tens of thousands of people of all ages and sexual persuasions.
Brokeback Mountain, Mexican style. 
Fingers with flashy jewelry and manicured nails
 wrestled with a restless wig.
Get ready Las Vegas, here I come!
Grass-roots marchers vastly outnumbered the glamour types.
And it was that ordinariness and spontaneity, crudeness even, that made the parade so memorable—awesome, spectacular, amazing—sure to induce goosebumps if you paused to think about how far and fast the movement for gay liberation has  advanced worldwide over the past ten or fifteen years, including in this capital of 20-odd million residents. 

There were few screaming drag queens carrying on the stereotype of Gay Pride parades that newspapers pick up every year, and even fewer gym bunnies, those young men who cloister themselves in health clubs in preparation for the one day a year on which they get to tear off their shirts and walk across town to a chorus of oohs and ahhs.

From where Stew, our friend Ron and I stood for two or three hours before hunger and fatigue set in, there seem to be little organizational backbone to the parade: No Association of Gay CPAs or Presbyterians United Against Homophobia or some such with professionally printed banners, though some Socialist groups showed up with their tired signs with tiresome slogans.

Instead, most of the folks were individuals or couples who may have stayed up late the night before hand-painting signs or cooking up some special costume, or who joined the march on impulse.

A mother and son duet. She in a plain denim shirt,
he with perhaps the most most peculiar outfit of the day:
A purple wig, black lipstick, Anna Wintour shades and a dress
to resemble the lid of a grand piano with a keyboard running
across. I forgot to ask for an explanation. 
This little queen came with her father who was on the
sidewalk a few feet away, wrestling an Aztec bird costume
with a plumed headdress about four feet high. 
The Individual Initiative Prize went to Carlos,
who cooked up this Liberacian outfit, complete
 with a scabbard-like contraption to hold a
rainbow flag that was almost bigger than him. 
Other than a religious group revving up their rage at the parade before it had even started, there was no jeering, booing or any hostility from the crowds on the sidelines.

A troop of Girl and Boy Scouts gathered
on the plaza in front of the Palacio of Bellas Artes,
oblivious to the roar of the parade a block away. 
Even the weather cooperated. Overnight rains had scrubbed away the perennial smog clearing the way for a rare sight of the mountains that surround this enormous metropolis. A fabulous dinner that night with our friend Ron at Dulce Patria, a restaurant in the Polanco neighborhood, guaranteed that Stew and I will return next year, especially now that we know there's no point in getting up early to arrive to the parade on time.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

On the road to The Other Side

Magdalena García is a fellow Cuban refugee and a Presbyterian minister who performed an act of kindness I'll never forget when my mom died twelve years ago. She organized and conducted a beautiful memorial service at her church in Chicago, with music, flowers and a moving eulogy, after the Roman Catholic parish to which I thought I belonged had brushed off my request.

Magdalena's husband Augusto is from Ecuador and entered illegally through Tijuana more than 30 years ago, eventually settling in Chicago, where he became a newsman at one of the local Spanish-language television stations, then went into real estate—and unemployment after the 2008 economic crash. They adopted a baby boy from an orphanage in Ecuador and named him Miguel. All have gone through some good and less-good times and no one can question that to the last one, the three have become an asset to the U.S. as members of that immense, and forever maligned, organization called the American Melting Pot.

Her own family history, religious convictions and concern for people in need have led Magdalena to follow news about immigration. Two weeks ago she alerted friends on her Facebook page to the latest immigrant crisis brewing along the Texas border. Since October an estimated 47,000 unaccompanied children mostly from Guatemala and Honduras, had arrived in addition to God knows how many adults. The reaction by the Obama administration to the emergency, which had been percolating for months, was improvised and chaotic, something the Republicans quickly, and not totally without justification, complained about.

Headed for the promised land: Dionis García Palma (l.) and Gerson Andrés Palomo.
Back at our ranch, Félix the gardener—an oracle on everything from the incomprehensible World Cup ranking system to the local fauna and flora—said he'd heard about the wave of Central American immigrants headed for that mythical-sounding but very real place known in Mexico as "El Otro Lado" or The Other Side.

Sure, he said as if it were universal knowledge, for months there's been a stream of Guatemalans and Hondurans immigrants trekking through San Miguel and heading north. They tend to congregate at the railroad station, since so many ride the trains, hobo-style. Stew and I remember having seen small groups of young men asking for money from drivers who slowed down to cross the railroad tracks, but we hadn't made the migrant connection.

After church on Sunday Stew and I headed for the train station to verify Félix' story. That's where we met Gerson Andrés Palomo, 25, and his friend Dionis García Palma, also in his twenties. They were both from Honduras' squalid capital of Tegucigalpa and had been traveling on foot, catching rides aboard cars, trucks or trains, or by bus when the money allowed—first out of Honduras, then through Guatemala and so far two-thirds of the way through Mexico—for the past thirty-seven days. Gerson said he'd run into many families with small children along the way. Dionis predicted he and Gerson would reach the U.S. border in three or four days, a wildly optimistic estimate.

Indeed, Stew Googled some rough estimates and came up with a distance of about 1,500 highway miles from Tegucigalpa to San Miguel, and another 515 more miles to McAllen, Texas on the U.S.-Mexico border, for a total of more than 2,000 miles before these guys even lay eyes on American soil. As reference points, figure that Chicago is about 750 miles by car from New York, and Dallas 239 miles from Houston.

Gerson, the most talkative of the pair, was reed-thin and the deep lines and scraggly beard on his exhausted face made him look far older than twenty-five. His naturally cinnamon complexion was darkened further by the road grime he'd collected during his trip. What did he carry in his backpack? He showed me a blanket, a pair of pants, some crackers and a bottle of water.

Three years ago Gerson actually reached the U.S. but was promptly arrested and sent back to Honduras. He didn't sound daunted by the nearly Sisyphean odds against ever reaching the U.S. again, much less getting in, finding a job and settling somewhere. His only contact in the U.S, an iffy one, is a cousin in New Orleans who is supposed to come and pick him up as soon as he arrives safely on The Other Side.

By now Gerson must have noticed the incredulity crossing my face, so he showered me with details to convince me of his story. This time he entered Mexico through Tapachula, he said, a town in the Mexican state of Chiapas, on the border with Guatemala. The first attempt to enter the U.S. three years ago took him to Eagle Pass, Texas, by the Rio Grande. This time he could have paid a smuggler US$7,000 to take him from Honduras to the American border, and another $700 to someone to actually get him across. But he didn't have such money plus he'd heard that many of the smugglers' clients were assaulted and robbed. So he's doing it on his own, financing his trip mostly with some money he'd saved plus panhandling and free food.

I should have believed him because immigrant stories like his are common. Eight years ago it was Félix' turn to make a dash for the U.S. He remembers precisely when he took off from Sosnavar, his dirt-poor hometown about a mile from the ranch: Eight days after his eighteenth birthday. He crossed the Rio Grande on horseback and then, led by a coyote from Sosnavar, walked eight days before someone picked him up south of Austin and took him to Dallas where he ended up for two years, working in landscaping and construction. Homesick, he returned to Mexico only to make the trip to the U.S again a few a years later.

Garson blamed the hellhole violence in Tegucigalpa, orchestrated by drug traffickers and gangs, as the chief reason for wanting to go to the U.S., as well as the inability to find a job in his trade as a drywall hanger. Desperation makes daredevils out of the commonest of people like Gerson and Dionis.

He blamed the high unemployment on the government's doubling of the minimum wage which instead of helping the poor, he said, led many employers to lay off workers to cut expenses.

Curiously, back in the U.S. Republicans also argue that raising the minimum wage will lead to reduced hiring or layoffs, though economic conditions in the two countries are vastly different. It was almost amusing hearing that argument from Gerson who in his disheveled condition didn't look anything like a fat Republican.

His plan for settling in the U.S. is far-fetched, borderline delusional, but if the stars align properly it might work. The drywall hanging and taping trade in Chicago, for instance, is populated largely by Mexican immigrants most of whom get along without the nicety of immigration papers. Construction in Chicago is rebounding.

Yes! I can visualize a happy Gerson in Chicago hanging drywall, making decent money—and freezing his ass off.

After all, Magdalena arrived from Cuba penniless and so did her husband. Félix made the trip twice. And so did I and later so did my parents. And so did Stew's parents who came from Norway, during the early 1900s, when his dad was only six years old. And so did my two cousins in Miami who arrived from Cuba about twelve years ago; now one of their sons is a pharmacist, the other a chemical engineer and an M.B.A. And so did the husband of yet another cousin of mine who entered the U.S. legally last fall and works as a laborer in construction in Austin, Texas, for $10.10 an hour, with more overtime than he can handle. (Under a Cubans-only clause in immigration laws, most immigrants from the island gain legal status as soon as they touch U.S. soil.)

If history is a good indicator, immigrants will keep on coming to the U.S, legally and illegally, and both the newcomers and the country will be stronger and richer for it. I have no doubts.

Reporters are not supposed to pay their sources, but as a defrocked journalist I dispensed with that injunction and gave Gerson $100 pesos (about US$8.50) at the end of our conversation, to tide him over to his next stop.

And as I left them, I silently prayed that as illegal and improbable as their odyssey might be the two of them make it safely to The Other Side.