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Illegal Aliens Doggedly Pursue a Simple Dream of Frutas

October 11, 1987|LEE BROWN | Lee Brown, Ph.D., is a professor of journalism at San Diego State University. and

He was peeking at me from the corner of my garage as I went out the front door to get the briefcase I had left in my car. The small, brown-skinned man hesitated, assessing me as I stopped, then walked toward him. I could pick up only a few of his words, but I could understand, " . . . no comida . . . dos dias . . . . " I repeated them back to him as a question, and he nodded vigorously, "Si."

He didn't seem frightened, but he did seem apprehensive. He had a direct manner, and he looked me squarely in the eye. He seemed like a man unaccustomed to asking for help.

I motioned him to follow me into the house, but he didn't seem to want to. I gestured for him to wait, and he sat down on the sidewalk. I walked in and told my housemate, Carol, there was an illegal alien in the front yard who said he hadn't eaten in two days, and that I wanted to feed him.

She walked to the door, took a look, returned and began slicing the last of the meatloaf we had enjoyed the night before. I started back out to get him, but stopped. Two of them were seated side-by-side on the sidewalk. I called the new count back to Carol, told her we needed another sandwich, went out and escorted both men around the house to the patio in the backyard.

The first man I took to be about 40; his companion probably was in his late 20s. Between them they possessed not one word of English. Our minimal Spanish, dominated by the vocabulary of restaurants and shops, made possible only limited conversation as they tore into the sandwiches, melon and bananas Carol had given them. Indeed, they were hungry men.

I got out maps. The older man pointed to an area in Chiapas, very near the Guatemalan border, and moved his finger in a small circle to indicate that his village is in that area. He said he had been on the road for 45 days and that he had traveled by car, foot and rail. There was a note of subdued pride in his telling of it. He gestured with both hands as if he had spent a long time hanging on to the iron rungs of a freight car. He also showed how his black-and-white tennis shoes were splitting apart.

The younger man pointed to Quaretaro, a town about 100 miles northwest of Mexico City. Like his companion, he wore shirt and trousers that were an indiscriminate medium blue darkened with grime. He seemed content to let the older man do the talking, silently nodding assent for the most part. Neither had bedroll nor blanket. Through gestures, they showed how they slept with their heads on their hands.

"Frutas. Frutas." His hands moved in unison as he repeated a motion as if plucking fruit from a bush or tree. "Frutas," the older man said again.

He also said "Escondido" and " Camino 395." Carol and I concluded that he was following an old dream. We didn't know how long ago Interstate 15 had replaced Highway 395 between San Diego and Escondido, but we knew it had to be at least 10 years. "Frutas," he said again, earnestly, almost intensely.

As we talked, a helicopter beat across the nearby southern face of Cowles Mountain.

"Imigracion," I said, in the best Spanish accent I could muster, and pointed skyward. I made a clutching gesture toward the older man's arm and, with my other hand, pointed to him. "Retorno a Mexico," I said.

There was a flicker of understanding, but he showed no fear or consternation. Neither did his companion. Then it struck me. They were driven men who had endured much to be here. They came to pick fruit and to make some money, and they were not going to be deterred by the fear of capture. A second realization came as swiftly as the first: They were growing restless as we talked. They wanted to continue their journey, though they didn't know how to do it.

Using my San Diego map, I drew an X at our San Carlos location, and drew a line down Mission Gorge Road to the intersection of Friars Road and Interstate 15, and showed them the way to Escondido. I watched their curiosity as they oriented themselves, tracing with a finger a vague route from Tijuana. The older man said they had walked all night from the border to our door.

By now, Carol had attempted a phone call to the Immigration and Naturalization Service in an effort to get information about short-term documentation for them. Instead, she got a recording about amnesty programs.

We knew there was a program offering 90-day work permits for agricultural workers, but we also had the distinct impression that our unannounced guests would be deported if they were apprehended before they got their papers.

I dropped them off at the ramp to Interstate 15 north, and I instructed them to hitch on the ramp, aqui, and not on the freeway, alla . We had given them oranges, the map to Escondido and $5 each. At least they could buy a meal, and I hoped they would find a grower who could get them squared away, temporarily documented and busy in a field full of "frutas."

I would have driven them to Escondido and found a grower if I hadn't had a "must attend" meeting downtown that morning. I felt guilty simply dropping them off, and I felt guilty all day. I thought about them often and occasionally repeated to myself what I said to them as I drove off, "Buena suerte, amigos."

Television news that evening showed an Immigration and Naturalization Service van in a North County coastal community, ostensibly there to help agricultural workers and other aliens with the greater amnesty program. I hoped some kind person had helped them find the van and get the papers they sooner or later would need.

The next morning we read in the newspaper that it was a crime to give food or other aid to illegal aliens. We didn't feel criminal, though. Rather, we wished we had been able to better help those two good travelers in a strange land. Buena suerte, amigos.

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