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Tragic Legacy of Mitch Migrates to the North

Central America:The poor in desperation are more inventive than the resources of any border patrol to keep them out.

November 15, 1998|RICHARD RODRIGUEZ | Richard Rodriguez is the author of "Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father" (Viking) and an editor at Pacific News Service

These days, whenever the earth quakes in Latin America or the sky falls, Californians should expect to see more of the brown poor, looking for work in Glendale.

In the absence of leadership north or south of the border, nature has become the main political player in Latin America. It was a hurricane that blew away the Somoza family's hold on Nicaragua. An earthquake in Mexico City unsteadied the PRI, Mexico's corrupt ruling party.

Now, Hurricane Mitch has left thousands dead and millions destitute in Central America. Washington has dispatched emergency supplies and has sent Tipper Gore and former President George Bush to survey the misery. But no one at the State Department or the White House is talking about the long term.

In Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, the lucky poor, the "survivors," have seen their families and tin shacks disappear beneath mud. The girl, the sole survivor of a lost village, surveys with crazed eyes acres of mud. What do you imagine she imagines as hope?

The governments of Central America cannot deal with the calamity of nature. Last week, when the president of Honduras left the safety of the presidential palace, he was jeered by a mob of peasants.

No one believes the politician. After several decades of guerrillas and military strongmen, after decades of terror, there is no left in Latin America, no right, either. The poor do not dream of ideologies. The only force that matters, the only force that can undo one government and establish another is nature. Rain. Drought. Wind. Quakes.

By now everyone in Honduras knows. The plantation will not be hiring for another two years. Tegucigalpa holds no promise of jobs, not even the tourist hotels will be hiring any time soon. The best alternative that the poor, especially the young, the daring poor, possess is the option of movement.

In Latin America, as elsewhere in the world, you can see them--on dirt roads and alongside highways. In airports and bus stations. In movement. Ugandans are slipping into Cape Town. Albanians are arriving in Rome. Guatemalans in Glendale are looking for a job at a laundry or across from Home Depot.

The movement of the poor has become the most revolutionary force on Earth today, unsettling borders and troubling governments, angering the citizens of the world's wealthy economies.

There may be no way to stop them, because desperation is more inventive than the resources of any border patrol. And desperation is not innocent. There are villages in the Andes and in Central American jungles today that know when the apples are being picked in the valleys of Washington state or when hotels are hiring in Atlanta.

It is we, the middle class of the world, who are the innocent ones--or the naive. In California, a few years ago, we voted for Proposition 187. In California, where we have constructed dams to keep us from floods and drought, and where we have codes to keep buildings from falling in earthquakes, we do not fear nature so much as we fear the poor.

Indeed, we describe the poor coming from the south as though they were a force of nature. We speak of peasants in movement as a "flood" or we speak of "waves" of people coming this way.

We voted for Proposition 187 and we tried to convince ourselves that the poor were coming to Glendale only for an umbrella of welfare services. Remove those benefits and the poor would disappear, go back to Mexico, to Honduras, to Peru.

What the middle class of California did not comprehend is the meaning of work for the desperate poor. Work is life. The hoe, the hammer, the iron--the weight of labor--holds all the optimism there is in the world. Work! Work faster, harder, work because the handful of dollars in your pocket is the only protection you have against the storm or the quake.

As forlorn as King Lear, the little girl stands in the field of mud. We shudder watching her on CNN. The president of her country has no promises to give her. The president of the United States has no plan for Latin America that might spell anything remotely called el futuro.

But she--the tiny child of Latin America--looks up at the television camera. She is curious about the gringo aiming a camera at her. She wonders about the houses where her face is being seen. She imagines palaces in America, with roofs that withstand the wind and walls that do not melt into mud.

She dreams. She thinks there must be a path, a highway somewhere, surely, that might bring her here.

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