|FORCE OF NATURE|
January 11, 1999
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: The sky is falling, the earth shakes, through much of Latin America these days nature has become the main political player.
It was a hurricane that undid the Somosa family's grip on Nicaragua. An earthquake in Mexico City toppled the assurance of Mexico's ruling party. Who speaks today in Latin America of left or right, so much as of drought or rain? Some weeks ago, Hurricane Mitch flooded a great deal of Central America - oozing mud, buried thousands, displaced millions. We saw orphan children in Honduras staring at what remained of their lost worlds, then directly at us. Crowds in Central America steered local politicians who surveyed the damage. From Washington came plane loads of emergency aid and a procession of visitors, but no immediate vision for the future. In Latin America, as through much of the world, increasingly the poor looked not to right nor to left for remedy. They moved straight ahead - by bus, on foot, by boat. The international migration of the poor has become the most revolutionary movement in the world today, defying borders, reconfiguring the known world. Albanians are arriving in Rome.
There are Ugandans looking for work in Capetown. And now that the mud has hardened, sealing the dead and the living, now that banana plantations will not be hiring for at least two years, you should expect to see more Central Americans in Brooklyn or Kansas City or Tampa. I see them all the time in California - young men from Central America and Mexico. Their cheap running shoes have transported them several thousand miles. They gather on street corners like this one in Los Angeles. They are waiting, waiting perhaps for a building contractor or a landscaper or for you to give him work.
A few years ago here in California a majority of voters passed Proposition 187. The assumption of the majority was that if you deny welfare and government aid to illegal immigrants and to their children they will stop coming. The unsettling truth is that the immigrant poor are not making for welfare; they want work. The question looming is whether the working class in first world economies can compete with migrant labor. The migrant will work for less, will often work harder. For what the migrant laborer knows is that the only protection from the mud and the wind is a job making beds in a motel or digging swimming pools in California.
We Americans do not fear nature. We have building codes, insurance, and there is government disaster relief to shelter us. But, curiously, Americans now speak to the migrant workers coming from south of the border as though they were a force of nature. People describe peasant workers as a flood, or people speak of waves coming this way, or a tide. We fear death by drowning. Peasants in Latin America know fax machines and telephones even E-mail. There are villages in the Andes where people know when apples are being picked in the Yakima Valley of Washington. There are villages in Mexico or Nicaragua where peasants know when a hotel near O'Hare Airport is hiring migs. It's we middle class Americans who are the innocents now in the great world - we travel to the third world with our bermuda shorts and our Japanese cameras, oblivious of the fact that we are being watched and desired. The faces of the young in Honduras - imagine the world from their point of view - all my family lost, there is nothing senore for me in the village. There is no village.
A television camera has found these faces of desperation - the faces stare back at the camera. They imagine the world through the lens where you are sitting - the comfort of your living room, the solid roof over your head that protects you from the wind and the rain.
I'm Richard Rodriguez.