Living in the shadows, living in fear.
February 17, 2016
MARIA HURRIED to a quiet corner of the airport restaurant where the coffee and the tea and the soft drinks were kept behind a folding screen, faced the wall so no one could see, pulled a napkin from her pocket and tried to stem the flow of gushing tears.
Not easy. Tears, fears controlled her. She trembled.
Eliseo, her cousin, had just called – a call she took although Doug, the restaurant manager, forbade the workers from doing that. “Waste time on the phone on your own time!” he screamed.
Maria wished she had not had to. But her brother, upset, was the one calling. He quickly told her immigration agents had just burst into the house, taking her grandson, Julio, 11, and two uncles with them.
Julio had been screaming, crying, holding tight to one uncle’s legs, imploring “Abuelo. Abuelo. I don’t want to go.”
But the agents had been determined.
Those in the house got the message.
Pack your suitcases.
In minutes, Julio and the uncles, bags in hand, were loaded into a van, bound for some distant detention center.
“No! No! This is a mistake,” Maria screamed to herself. “Julio is here legally!”
Maria wanted to run.
Run to Julio.
She couldn’t. Most of her work day lay ahead of her.
And even if she could leave, she had no car. Little money.
And had no idea where Julio had been taken. Or how she could go there even if she knew.
Maria and two other women each paid two dollars daily to Connie for rides two and from their jobs at the airport. Connie picked them up at 5 a.m., drove them home at 3 p.m. Maria couldn’t leave until time for Connie to get off work and drive them all home.
Maria stifled the tears. She hoped her diners did not notice her puffed cheeks.
Doug insisted the waitresses always wear a smile. He showed his displeasure when they didn’t.
Besides, he kept saying, smiles bring better tips.
Maria knew about tips. Tips paid the rent, put the simple food on the table at the modest, wood frame, two-bedroom house there in the suburbs where nine relatives – and now and then an acquaintance or two – tried to survive, some of them hiding from the immigration agents.
Tips had been meager in recent times. Winter storms had slowed air travel. Fewer and fewer people had come into the restaurant to eat.
So Maria was two weeks late with the rent.
The man who owned the rental home fussed at her. Cussed her.
She had been late before.
The property owner was tired of it. He mentioned eviction. His impatience about the late rent payment further unnerved her. Made her cry.
Maria fought through her work day – mostly through the terrible thoughts of Julio screaming and crying and clinging to the uncle’s leg and the desperate shouts of “Abuelo, abuelo” before being pulled away and carried to the van and driven to a detention center, whereabouts unknown to Maria.
Maria’s soul cried – excruciatingly cried to rush to Julio. Cried for work to be over for the day so she could phone the pro bono attorney to try to find out what was going on with Julio and the others. Cried, wishing she could get some end to the constant confusion about immigration rules that confounded and mystified and scared and even petrified her and the others that lived and visited in the rented house.
One day brought “news” that millions would be deported. Sadness. Another day brought news the president said, no, some of those millions could stay. Hope. Yet another day brought news some might get to stay but others might have to leave.
Confusion. Then another day . . .
After work, she paid Connie – who was always anxious to get to school to pick up her kids — an extra dollar to stop at the store, where she would rush in and as quickly as possible buy ingredients for a big batch of posole and the half-price tortillas whose sell-by date had arrived.
At home, Maria called the pro bono attorney. He was busy in court, she was told. Please have him call. Call her at home. At any hour. But not while Maria was at work. Made Doug the manager angry. And when he was angry, he fussed and fumed at the waitresses.
Thoughts of Julio reclaimed Maria. Tears gushed again.
Stay busy. Stay busy, Maria told herself.
She got out the four pots she had bought for a dollar or two each at garage sales – one for each burner on the gas kitchen stove.
Into the pots went the posole ingredients. Maria spent hours cooking the stew – the posole upon which those who lived and visited in the frame house would mainly subsist until another week or so had passed and it would again be time to cook another four pots of cheap stew.
Morning came and Maria rushed into the chilly, misty darkness to Connie’s 22-year-old Ford with 176,372 miles on it and was off to work. Before heading out, Connie would laugh about her worn out vehicle, which in an earlier life had been a big-city police patrol car, and say, “Pray that we get there!”
There, where Maria would try to hide as best she could her incessant, disabling pain. Hide it from Doug. Hide it from the diners.
There to force the smile to hopefully enhance her chance at better tips.
Tips with which to pay Connie for the rides and buy the stew ingredients to feed the many at the house and pay the rent and pay it on time.
Tips to use in locating Julio and, if not too far away, rush to him, find a way to dry his tears, still his fears – much as she so often had to do for herself.
Maria pulled herself together, hurriedly practiced smiling, by sheer will made herself briskly walk to the table where the man in the business suit was seated and, in her best broken English, greet him with, “Good morning, sir.”
His being there was a promising omen, she thought. Men in business suits were good tippers because they were on expense accounts, Doug had said.
In this moment when she felt pushed and pulled and pressed and pounded and shaken to the point of not knowing which way to turn — or to whom – Maria prayed, prayed hard, that Doug was right.
Roger Summers is a journalist, essayist and author.