Hard to remember, at times, that Thanksgiving is a survival story. Maybe it can be best appreciated by newcomers, whether the newcomers are 17th-Century Pilgrims from England or 20th-Century illegal aliens from Latin America. Having survived a difficult crossing and precarious adjustment to their new country, they pause to celebrate their survival, give thanks and look toward the future.
This year, among those allowing themselves to look forward with hope and a new, if shaky, sense of security are those people who have reason to believe the newly passed immigration reforms, offering amnesty to those who have resided here since 1982 and meet other qualifications, will apply to them. Following are two such families, one from El Salvador, the other from Mexico.
For a few rare moments Jose Juan and Annamaria Rodriguez were together at the same time, their four children around them, in the living room of their tiny, pleasant but crowded apartment in South-Central Los Angeles. He was about to be late for his 5 p.m.-to-1:30 a.m. shift at the maintenance company he works for downtown. She was late getting home from her job at the garment factory where she works as a seamstress from 6:30 a.m. to 4 or 5 p.m.
Here Illegally for 9 Years
Here illegally for the past nine years from Chalapa, in Jalisco in central Mexico, they were together this particular late afternoon to talk about the new amnesty law and whether it would mean anything to them.
Rushing in breathless and apologetic, Annamaria, 37, sank into a chair, getting right to the point.
"Well, I think I work just as hard as people who are here legally. I have to work for the minimum--$3.35 (per hour), but I know three there who get $5.50."
With a green card, she said, she would feel free to ask for a raise, and if she did not get one, she would look for work elsewhere.
It is the same with her husband. At first Jose Juan, 38, said amnesty and the possession of a green card would not mean much to him personally, other than a negative assurance, because it looks like those who do not get amnesty will have to leave.
He is worried enough about not getting amnesty (although the family seems to be eligible) that he is going to learn English in January and February, he said, laughing at the enormity of that claim. He thinks it will help his prospects.
Overtime and Odd Jobs
That he has not learned English to date is understandable considering the hours he works. He puts in overtime on the job more often than not, and does odd jobs on the weekends--painting, carpentry, yardwork.
And, he is always ready to help out a friend, including his friends at Las Familias del Pueblo on Skid Row, who helped his family locate better living quarters when they were living, briefly, on the Row. So he drives a truck for them in his spare time, helping to move other families and pick up donated furniture.
(It was a friend from Las Familias, Annamarie Rivera, who interpreted for him and his wife while they spoke of their life here. She was helped by the eldest Rodriguez, Anna, 15, who is fluent in English and loves interpreting, volunteering her services at Las Familias, thinking, even, of making interpreting her work someday.)
A green card would mean something economically to him, too, he said. He has worked for the same maintenance company for four years. He started at $3.50 per hour, received one raise to $3.75 and had to insist that he would refuse his promotion to supervisor if a raise did not accompany it. A raise of sorts did accompany it--he now earns $4 an hour, with no benefits and does not know if he gets sick leave. He sees men working in non-supervisory jobs receiving $6 and $7.
If he spoke up now, he said, "they'd just say, 'If you're not satisfied, there's six more waiting to take your job.' "
The Rodriguezes do not see amnesty only in economic terms. Even more important to them, they said, would be the ability to go back and forth to Mexico without fear.
Juan has never been back. Annamaria has returned just once, briefly. Unlike her husband, none of her family is here. It is clear she misses them terribly, and never in the time she was talking did her face light up quite so much as when she described the get-togethers that occur whenever the senor cura , pastor, from Chalapa comes to Los Angeles and the Chalapa emigre community prays and feasts together.
They never planned to immigrate to this country, they said. They came up here in the summer of 1977 to visit Juan's family--illegally, without any papers, arriving in the trunk of a car--intending to stay through Christmas and return. Their youngest, Juan, was two weeks old at the time.
They enrolled the children in school and once they started learning English, their parents realized how valuable it would be. Little by little, semester by semester, the family extended its visit.
Eventually, Juan said, "We just stayed."
Would Be Hard to Leave