The intersection of Anaheim street and Avalon boulevard in Wilmington in south Los Angeles contains little that is unique. On one corner sits a market, on another a small parking lot, and on the other two sit fashion shops stocked with garments from across the pacific. Traffic moves east and west and north and south smoothly and apart from the occasional evangelical preacher, the intersection could largely be forgotten.
Forgotten, that is, until you look closer, at the people.
The fact of the matter is that an estimated eighty-five percent of Wilmington’s residents are Latino and over forty percent were born abroad. Higher education remains low, most individuals labor day in and day out, and many, and I mean many, happen to be undocumented. Once this is grasped, the cross made by Anaheim and Avalon truly represents a juncture, a crossroads, a potential new beginning for migrants in this nation.
Wilmington, one of the most forgotten barrios in Los Angeles, has been that new beginning for thousands of migrants in search of a better life. Its canneries and heavy industries have attracted docile labor for decades, often spanning several generations. Poverty, pollution, and poor infrastructure may pervade that grey city, but it was here where my family first had a glimpse of American society. It was Wilmington where we had our first American meal (burritos), where my family first attended school (Wilmington Park Elementary, Wilmington Middle, and Banning High), and where we received our first paychecks, some as adults and I as a kid, hustling in the local swap meet.
But it was also Wilmington where we realized that migrating was the easy task, that finding a place for ourselves in this nation would be the real challenge. Yet, it is in similar barrios scattered throughout this vast country that individuals most fervently believe in and prove the American dream. It is barrios like Wilmington where the immigrant leap of faith — the belief that one day we will truly belong here — most ardently exists.
Those of us arriving from lacking conditions know this. We know that having a house, education, and enough to eat truly are blessings. But once here, once in this country, we begin to realize that what we truly desire is to be respected and accepted and recognized as vital members of this economy and society. We begin to recognize, often with great pain and suffering, that what we most desire is to be ourselves, to be free.
For Latinos, this quest began 170 years ago. As war moved the American border south and west in 1848, it crossed the Tejanos, the Californios, the Nuevo Mexicanos, and all the indigenous communities who first called this vast land home. As the border moved, it created second-class citizens who are reviled in challenging times and revered when their labor is needed. The story of Latinos in America is not pretty. Our history includes illegal detentions, mass deportations, hangings, and even public burnings.
But history is never in the past. Our dehumanization continues to the very present, however hidden some wish to keep it. One simply needs to listen.
If you listen, you will know that the undocumented continue to be held in cramped detention centers despite being overrun with COVID19. If you keep listening, you will know that undocumented agricultural workers have been identified as “essential” in this nation’s food supply, yet are still seen as nothing more than criminals with zero political protections. If you listen further, you will understand the agony and anguish of mothers and fathers whose children remain separated and incarcerated in the name of national security. If you listen even more, you might begin to feel the desperation and hopelessness and the final heartbeat of detainees who having suffered immeasurably, would rather take their own life than be locked up.
I know many won’t listen. For those who do, know that what migrants desire is merely to belong in this republic. What we long for is to be with our families and to know that today will not be the last day we see our sister or mother or father. What we dream about in that city of Wilmington, in the end, is to be free — I mean truly free — in this nation.
If you still insist that the undocumented be removed, I want you to admit that none of us are here legally. Know that the many voyages along the windy Atlantic — the Mayflower, the Speedwell, the Discovery — were not invited here. And I challenge you to explore the records of Ellis Island and find all the ways some of those migrants — who you praise for coming here legally — deceived and bribed their way in because this nation did not want them.
For the undocumented reading this, know that you must continue to remain strong, hopeful, and resilient. Know that the governors of this land cannot ignore or imprison you forever. Know that the hatred against you has little to do with migrants and everything to do with those unwilling to accept you. Know that soon this glittering republic will too be yours.
In the end, this Western house which we all occupy and love, cannot survive if its existence is not human, moral, and spiritual. The new decade requires a new direction, a renewed hope, a foundation for a better future. In this trying time, those already established in this nation must see migrants and they must see themselves and they must decide what will be done. And in making this decision, know and admit that you came from somewhere too.