FRAGMENTS FROM A FIELD JOURNAL
I am too white to be here, too educated, too rich. By what arrogance do I expect this chaotic misfortune to reveal its mysteries to me? I feel oversized and clumsy, conspicuous, unassimilable. Everything is invisible except me.
I struggle with the privilege, dumb luck, and injustice of having been born somewhere else.
Trust is critical, and rapport. When informants befriend you, when they let you into their lives, you are accepted through them by others. Requests for interviews are then made within a friendship network rather than by a suspicious outsider. Carlos says to his friends, “I want you to talk to my friend Frank,” as opposed to me cold-calling with an awkward self-introduction—“Hello, my name is….”—that freezes even people who agree to interviews. Some informants mentioned voluntarily that they were talking with me only because Carlos (or Saúl or Chencho or Moreno) had asked them to and had assured them that I could be trusted.
I hired Miguel to help me find Gladys, who I had interviewed in Miches the year before.
We rode around on Miguel’s motorbike for a while but couldn’t find the house. After asking a few people and chasing down false leads, we met a guy who knew Gladys. With sudden engine revs and tire-spin and excitement we sped in caravan down dirt trails and stopped finally at Gladys’s door.
I had hoped to do a follow-up interview but upon greeting Gladys and her daughter I realized that my visit disturbed them. The previous year the daughter had declined an interviewed and discouraged Gladys from doing one, for fear that speaking about migration to a stranger—an American—would come back to haunt. My reappearance was interpreted as the coming-back-to-haunt. I took the cue and in deference to their apprehension gave them the gifts I had brought for the children and said I had come just to greet them.
My escorts outside were surprised when I reappeared a few minutes after having entered the house. I told them that I just wanted to greet Gladys and leave some gifts. They were as pleased by this as Gladys and her daughter had been, and almost in compensation for my kindness toward Gladys—as a sort of reciprocity—the guy who had guided us said he knew another migrant who lived nearby (Jamel) and then another across the street. A good deed thus earned me trust and its benefits, even though this trust was founded on something less than honesty.
Years ago, in Argentina, I knocked on Pelusa’s door with the hope of an interview. Pelusa sent her daughter to see what I wanted and I was told to return the next day. I did that, a few times, but no one ever answered the door. I spent an extra night in Posadas to try again in the morning—no luck—and then in the afternoon. Pelusa finally received me that evening. She eventually became one of my principal informants. She had been home all along, she told me later, but ignored my knocks to test my resolve and perseverance.
We had been talking for about twenty minutes when Tito, a yola captain, interrupted our exchange. Normally he wouldn’t talk to a stranger about migrant smuggling, he said, but “I see you’re sincere. If I didn’t trust you since yesterday [when we first met], I wouldn’t have told you anything.” He then apologized for having raised the topic of my trustworthiness.
We were sitting outside and Tito was greeted by everyone who passed his house. He took great pride in this deference and popularity. Across the yard a Haitian and some Dominicans were drinking rum under a tree and cleaning fruit with their machetes. A nephew approached and asked Tito for a checkerboard—drawn on tired cardboard, with bottlecaps as checkers—and then the boy went happily on his way. Lunchtime was approaching and I could hear frying from inside and then the smell of something—onions?—wafting out the open door.
After the interview Tito was clearly pleased and—it seemed odd at the time—grateful. He shook my hand repeatedly, offered me food, and welcomed me to his home whenever I wanted to return. It was a strangely, unpredictably emotional moment, perhaps because our separate gratitudes had coincided and created an unexpected bond.
I later realized that many migrants appreciated that an outsider took interest in their lives and treated them as peers. Some were fascinated by the nature of our conversation—no one had ever talked to them in that way—and were happy to continue, however long it took, until the interview ran its course.
The first time I interviewed Orlando he was pressured by friends who were anxious to eat lunch, so I asked him if he wanted to leave. Orlando replied, “You have to take advantage of the moment” and we talked for another hour.
Other informants were uncomfortable with the interview or impatient with its length and wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible.
A few were amused simply by the novelty of being involved. After I asked him to help me find migrants to interview, Rómulo got excited and said, “I’m going to be in the book.” Then, as he was walking away, he imagined out loud the passage that would narrate his cameo: “In Las Galeras I met a man who helped me….”
Suspicion is nevertheless a formidable obstacle. Javier agreed to an interview but always postponed, fearing that I would somehow entrap or deceive or take advantage of him. His friends had reinforced this idea—it was some sort of trick. There were strong winds along the beach on the day he finally agreed to meet, so I suggested the shelter of a nearby carport to facilitate recording. Javier declined; the escape routes were too restricted. We wound up meeting on the beach later that afternoon, after the winds had died down.
I usually did interviews on beaches and at homes—either an informant’s home or that of an intermediary—where informants felt comfortable and at ease. The home interviews were sometimes done outside, sitting under trees; the beach interviews were done on the sand, in the shade, or leaning against overturned or beached fishing boats. In Sánchez I once did back-to-back interviews half-sitting on the wale of a boat. I was there for a couple of hours and rearranged periodically to alleviate the pressure of the wood against my butt. Moreno noticed and, in reference to a yola crossing, said, “Imagine 30 hours.”
For my second interview with Johnny we carried white plastic chairs to the shade of a mango tree. Every few minutes the whoosh and then thump of a falling mango punctuated the silence just behind us. Johnny’s wife, his fishing partner, an older man, and a couple of kids were hanging around, moving in and out of the house. Johnny proudly showed me the lobsters (langostinos) he had caught the night before. They were in a pot on the stove, uncooked, and looked dead. Johnny goes fishing at night using lights—we used to call this “jacking”—when the fish and langostinos “are asleep.”
Background (and sometimes foreground) sounds on the interview recordings: music, motorbikes, waves and wind, rain, the slap of dominos on wooden tabletops, dogs barking, fruit falling, kids playing, roosters crowing, kids imitating roosters crowing, and joyful noise for Jesus from the Pentecostal church.
You hope for rain. You run for cover and get stuck together and the shared predicament brings you closer. Everyone relaxes. The formality of inquiry (however informal) yields to easy conversation and the narrative flows more naturally. That’s how I got to know one of my assistants, Carlos—waiting out a downpour.
The pastel shimmer of ocean between shacks.
When interviews were going well some informants touched my knee periodically for gestural emphasis, as though to say, “What do you think about that?” Touching was also a sign that rapport had been established and that the informants were experiencing the exchange more as a conversation than an interview. When it happened I knew I’d made contact, because they’d made contact.
I bought a roasted chicken from a pregnant woman who had such a kind and likeable demeanor, such a gentleness and warmth, that I got the idea to give her the last of the baby clothes I had brought from the States. I went back a few days later, bought another chicken, and gave her the clothes for her baby. She was so deeply surprised, so flattered, that she fell into a speechless state of suspended sensibility, not sure what was happening, and in those moments of silence, after a long distant gaze into my face, her tentative hand reached out toward me, as though it wouldn’t obey her or belonged to someone else, dreamy, and touched my chest. It was a gesture I don’t think even she understood.
Some questions remain unasked because the indiscretion would undermine rapport. And some remain unanswered because I rescue informants too quickly. I take the pressure off when they seem uncomfortable. I fill the silence to alleviate awkwardness rather than letting tension build until informants fill the silence. I need to use silence more strategically.
I remember an interview in Spike Lee’s marathon documentary on Hurricane Katrina. He was interviewing a boy who left his trumpet behind while escaping the flood. Lee asks the boy where he thinks the trumpet is now, the boy doesn’t respond, Lee keeps the pressure on for an interview eternity—fifteen seconds, thirty seconds, even a minute—until the boy finally delivers one of the best lines of the film: maybe the fish are playing the trumpet.
You train your face not to react. If an informant says he wears his mother’s panties on his head, you follow up routinely: what color, how did you get them, like a beret or pulled down like a hairnet? If it’s normal for them, it’s normal for you. Otherwise you’re a tourist.
It’s hard to keep some informants focused. They’re not accustomed to developed, nuanced narration of their experiences. They want to tell you the whole story in a couple of sentences. The details seem unnecessary, insignificant. Tell me some things that happened en route, things people did and said, anything you think is interesting. “Nothing, we arrived with no problem.”
Specificity or explicitness is likewise uncommon outside of interviews. Early in my research I saw a number of signs for pica pollo and asked Carlos what it was. Rather than saying fried chicken, or even chicken, he said “A kind of food.”
Alejandro was having a hard time narrating detail, so I said to him, “Imagine the trip in your mind as though you’re watching a movie, and tell me what you see in the movie.” He got a scared look on his face and replied, “I’ll try.”
Literalism is another obstacle. A fragment from trial testimony is characteristic: Prosecutor: “What was supposed to happen when the captains brought you to shore?” Witness: “Definitely what we were planning to do was to jump onto the sand.”
In another perspective, however, this response is full disclosure because many migrants have no plan or know of no plan other than to jump and run. To jump and run is the plan.
You have to speak their language. If I say engañar (to deceive) in a couple of interviews and the informants expresses the same concept with meter embuste, then in the future, with other informants, I use meter embuste.
Informants had varying emotional responses to narration of their memories. Many were stoical or nonchalant but a few were emotionally engaged. Caridad’s intense sadness brought her to tears; Franklin took responsibility for migrants’ deaths with great guilt and anguish; Gregorio’s narration was imbued with fear; Víctor relived his angst and panic; and Marta, Moreno, and Morena were outstanding in their passion, animation, and emotive cognition.
I braced myself for an outpouring of emotion when I interviewed (separately) two young widows who lost their husbands on yola voyages in 2009. What I encountered instead was flattened affect and—particularly in one case—exhausted surrender, as though their feelings had been shut down and stored someplace deep until it seemed safe to use them again.
They were also uninterested in the details of their husbands’ deaths. The husbands were gone, what’s the difference how it happened? The specifics were irrelevant.
And they faced their precarious futures with something of the same defeatist indifference, or some combination of bewilderment, procrastination, resignation, and aversion, as though they had acquiesced to the reality that fate was beyond their control.
What happened? I don’t know, no one survived to tell. Was the weather bad that night [I had read in the news that there were storms]? I don’t know. What do you plan to do—how will you support the children? I don’t know, I guess I will have to get a job. Are there any jobs, any possibilities? I don’t know.
One could attribute this minimalism to evasion if these women had not been forthcoming and informative—even animated in one case—at other moments and on other topics.
A squeaky wheelbarrow pushed by a man with a limp. A flat soccer ball that won’t bounce.
Cacao beans drying on a scrap of corrugated roofing.
We stopped for gas at the cruce in Sánchez and across the road someone got shot with a pistol. The wounded guy was trying to escape through tall brush and the guy with the gun was trying to get in another shot. A crowd of men gathered around to watch—momentary alleviation of tedium before everyone went back to being bored.
You’ve been waiting for a month when the call comes. This time it’s for real. Maybe you’re half asleep or work weary or cramping in spasms because you’re having your period or a hangover locked on early. Your back hurts, your tooth throbs, your toe got infected and you limp. You dress and pack the backpack that you had packed and unpacked because you needed the T-shirts and socks. You gather the cash that you’d hidden around the room and hide it now around your body. There’s hardly time for goodbyes, your sister is out of minutes, you lie to your mother on the way out the door but she knows your lies and where you’re going. A motorbike takes you to the bus and the bus takes you to another and while you’re waiting you buy salami and crackers and water and a motorbike takes you to the smugglers who take you out of town on a bumpy road that gets smaller, and then you wait in the monte until almost dawn and muck through mud down a precipice to the boat.
Thus begins the migrant journey: off-balance.
You’re horrified by monstrous people crammed into yolas but charmed by those same people when they serve your piña colada—in a coconut, with the little umbrella—at an all-inclusive beachside resort.
Another night tortured by music, sleeping with a pillow on my head. Then I realized the music was live and nearby. I got dressed and followed my ears to a group of guys sitting on chairs in a circle outside a colmado. The colmado provided the drink and, through the doors, the yellowish light. Two guitars, a tambor (bongo), a güira (which looks like a cylindrical cheese grater), and lots of rum and harmony.
I sat on the curb; they welcomed me in. The welcome was hesitant at first but then some of the neighbors offered me rum, got me a chair, took interest in me and in my interest in them. The drunk guy tested me to see if maybe through fear I’d hand over whatever was in my pocket. Then he stole the rum that I bought for the musicians. I found the whole experience tremendously moving, particularly when they played “Amor con delicadeza” by Rubén Torres (“El Poeta”), about the death of a wife on a yola voyage.
You have to walk fearlessly into the group to undermine the macho and sometimes hostile façade. I was returning unannounced to Tito’s house and on approach I saw not Tito but rather a group of giant, shirtless, drunk Haitians with machetes. They looked at me, then at each other, and then back at me with an expression that suggested, “Who the fuck is this guy, and should we cook him or eat him raw?”
They were crowded around the door of the house and didn’t move to open a passage, so I kept my pace and made my way through them, still unsure where this gauntlet would lead me. Tito was sitting on the steps of the house, hunched over a bucket and cleaning some kind of creepy floating seafood. He sensed something was going on and as he lifted his head and saw me I said, “Tito,” to which he responded, “You remembered my name.” That defused the tension.
If you can extrapolate from a small sample and make an exception for the drunks in Tito’s yard, Haitians are among the gentlest, humblest, most beautifully human people I have known.
I was staying at a beach near El Cedro, a small town about an hour from Miches. I had walked a mile or two out a dirt road to wait for a bus on the highway. Across the road there were men holding donkeys flanked with metal containers. A milk truck came shortly after, the milk in the containers was emptied into the truck’s tank, the truck left, and the men hung around talking. My bus still had not come. The men looked at me and I looked at them. Another guy arrived on a motorbike.
For some reason the situation felt tense—maybe it was just my vulnerability—so I walked across the road and greeted them, shaking their hands one by one. What had felt like threat turned quickly into welcome, once they recomposed from momentary shock. I asked about the bus—I had been waiting quite a while—and they said it should be along soon.
A half hour later, after they had gone, I was still waiting for the bus. The sun was strong. The guy with the motorbike passed by, was surprised I was still there, made a U-turn, and offered to take me to a place where I could wait more comfortably. I took the chance. He dropped me off at a shaded seating area outside some stores. Some older men passing the day there told me that the busses were not running, then got quiet when I explained the nature of my research.
About a half hour later the guy with the motorbike passed by again, stopped, and offered to take me to Miches. I was hesitant—highway, no helmet—but agreed because I had no options. On the way home he was pointing to show me something in the distance and consequently overlooked a giant hole in the road. The hole had a branch sticking out of it, and when that branch registered in his peripheral vision he made a last-minute jumpy handlebar evasive maneuver that somehow got us through without falling.
I gave informants the option to give real or false first names, and most opted for false. Informants in Miches, however, were adamant about giving their real names. They made a point of it, usually adding their paternal and maternal last names for good measure. It seemed almost a matter of defiant pride, as though they weren’t going to let anonymity take migration away from them.
In 2008, Clave Digital sponsored a forum for opinions on how to stop yola migration. One contributor said: “easy, raise navy salaries.” Others took a socioeconomic approach: “by eliminating poverty,” which is perpetuated because “the Dominican system of government does not guarantee education, sources of work, health services, social security, supply of basic services, etc.” Two contributors said migration could be stopped by getting rid of the corrupt government—“professional superthieves”—which “is destroying the country by stealing everything.” One of these contributors added that yola trips could be reduced by “eliminating the massive illegal immigration [of Haitians] which causes the unemployment of hundreds of thousands of Dominicans.”
I asked two late-teenaged girls in Miches why young people no longer migrate by yola. One said because a lot of people drown and the other said because the situation in Puerto Rico is not good. The topic was of absolutely no interest to them; they hurried back to their game of Parcheesi.
The de facto standard operating procedure of most public affairs officers at federal agencies is as follows:
Your first email gets no response.
Your follow-up gets an immediate response: yes, of course, whatever you need, how can we help, but with no specific action related to your request.
Through the next several emails and phone calls, which are mostly yours, you try to bridge the abyss between abstract helpfulness and actual fulfillment of your request. In my case the requests were generally for visits and interviews. At some point during these exchanges there is a long silence because your contact is at a conference and then very busy catching up. Other silences are occasioned by changes of command, special exercises, visits of high-ranking officers, federal holidays, vacations, heavy rains…
Eventually you get a message saying that the meetings have been approved but you are not told when or where you will meet. Sometimes you don’t know with whom. You request that information several times, and with increasing desperation, because you need to finalize your travel plans and buy plane tickets. Ultimately you get a vague response—a day or day range—so you take the chance and book the flights.
Finally, on the night before or the day of the meeting, if you haven’t given up (erosion of will is the intent or byproduct of this evasiveness), the meeting is scheduled. On occasion the person you are supposed to interview cancels or postpones, however, or is unavailable when you arrive.
There are notable exceptions, and I was fortunate to work with a few of them, but generally public affairs officers waste your time with their arrogant incompetence and their delight in petty gatekeeper power. Once you get through them, however, the agents and officers you interview are quite knowledgeable and usually (I had three exceptions) very generous in sharing their knowledge.
“Freedom of Information” is a joke. You spend months following up on Freedom-of-Information-Act (FOIA) requests and finally receive heavily redacted documents with less information than a mediocre newspaper article.
I wasn’t asking for the launch codes; I was requesting historical documents and information of public record concerning migrant interdictions and prosecutions. The National Archives and the U.S. Coast Guard historian could not produce a single document on Operation Able Response (April 1, 1995 to October 1, 1997), which was a major operation that involved several cutters and more than 9,500 Dominican migrants. The FOIA office at Customs and Border Protection was particularly uncooperative and, on one occasion, when I protested the insufficiency of a response, almost hostile. I regard this poor performance as cynical disregard for the spirit of the law and for citizens’ access to public information.
I am standing before a bulletproof, plate-glass window outside the U.S. embassy in Santo Domingo. The glass’s greenish tint makes my own reflection more visible than the woman on the other side. They cannot find the Coast Guard officer with whom I have an appointment so I must wait outside. Not even an anteroom; not even for a citizen. I wait in the sun and sweat; there’s no shade. At one point it started to rain. I call and no one answers, feel insulted, demeaned, locked out, subordinate to an inhuman, defensive apparatus. But ultimately I will get in.
The experience reminded me of Dominicans on the huge lines and in the stadium-like waiting room at the U.S. embassy’s consular section (which does have shade). Their sense of debasement must be exponentially greater than my own. The fortunate few get interviews and their fate is decided through the same type of plate-glass window.
The nature of truth changes with the level of research. A public affairs officer tells you that a Coast Guard sector has five cutters, and that is true, but during interviews with officers you learn that three of the cutters are out of service.
There is also a substantial difference in the information conveyed by migrants when they talk to me, when they are interviewed by Border Patrol, and when they serve as material witnesses in smuggling prosecutions. These variations obtain even in response to the same questions.
The prosecution version, however distorted and contrived, becomes the dominating truth of record after convictions. And it determines, among other things, how much of someone’s life will be spent in prison.
Johnny went on a hunger strike while in immigration detention because the air conditioner was blowing directly on him. This lasted two days; he was repatriated on the third day. He attributes the repatriation to his successful hunger strike and his threat to hang himself with a sheet.
Víctor could not eat in immigration detention because he thought U.S. authorities were poisoning him with the food. He was terrified that he wouldn’t make it out alive.
Both of these migrants manifest the same behavior (not eating) in the same context, but for different reasons. And both interpret their experiences through their respective erroneous beliefs and the attending attitudes and emotions.
Johnny’s experience is shaped by an illusion of control, which affords a self-congratulation for actions (hunger strike, suicide threat) that he believes expedited his release. Víctor interprets the experience through paranoia induced by fear and views himself as helpless in a hostile environment controlled by others. His dominant emotion is ultimately relief for having survived.
As our plane landed in Santo Domingo, a returning Dominican man turned to his son and said, “We’ve arrived to the land of disorder.” Then he added, “The land of no education.”
The motoconcho guys get envious and mad if they see me riding with a competitor. I was talking to a group of them and one—I ride with him frequently—complained about a trip I had taken to the supermarket with someone else. I said, “What’s it to you? You’re not my girlfriend,” and everyone cracked up. When I ride with someone else and he sees me on the road he makes an upswing gesture with his arm, palm-up, to communicate something like “Oh my God” or “What the fuck?”
With motoconchos I routinely overpay to help out (however modestly) as I can. You have to let them know you’re aware, though, so they regard you as generous rather than as a fool.
While Dominicans are leaving, foreigners are arriving. Sometimes their reasons are similar—a better life—although the improvement plays out in different registers. Expatriates— primarily French, Swiss, German, and Italian where I researched—“live like kings” as my informants put it, even though at home these Europeans are far from royalty. Some few have money; the rest feel rich in an impoverished context.
Many Dominicans view these foreigners favorably, because they represent significant and necessary income. One informant in Las Galeras said, “We need the French to come here and build things, because the government doesn’t do anything.”
With the exception of the kind ones—and there are many of these—who are caring and generous, and who act with the appropriate humility of guests, many expatriates are asshole exploiters who feel lordly through demeaning condescension toward poor people they regard as inferior.
Nature reclaiming a hotel that went to ruin after the murder of its Italian owner.
An outstanding example of ethnocentric judgment: a European woman—I’m not sure if she was a tourist or expatriate—looked with absolute deprecation and anger and scorn at a Dominican mother who was getting on the back of a motorbike holding an infant. I understand the European’s concern, but her hostility misunderstands the reality of the Dominican’s options. What did the European expect, that the Dominican mother would ride in an SUV or soccer-mom van with a child seat and nanny in the back?
En route to an interview I stopped with Chencho at the funeral of his cousin. A closed casket with a piece of glass above the face. Two of the dead man’s young-adult children were sitting beside the coffin, deeply saddened and distressed. Others were milling around inside the house and outside people were sitting on wooden benches. Chencho seemed unfazed. One woman said we need to go to the clinic when we’re sick but God calls us when he wants us.
Palm trees, as Columbus put it, “beautifully deformed” when erosion undermines their roots.
When I was a boy growing up in New York, the only thing worse than a Puerto Rican was a Dominican, because the Haitians had not yet arrived. We used the word “hate” to describe what we felt for them. It was not a hatred that we actually experienced, not animosity for someone who we knew and despised, but rather was a diffuse, potential emotion held in reserve, a thoughtless presumption, a cultural responsibility of solidarity by exclusion. The word “hatred” expressed our fear of invasion—like our dutiful hatred in the abstract of cold-war Russians—and assigned an emotion to our prejudice. It was almost an obligation, maintained by lazy conformity and culturally biased common sense. You were supposed to feel it because it came with membership in your group.
My group, the Italians, presumed for itself an inherent superiority, and the other groups around us (Irish, Jewish) did the same. We lived in a dynamic of competing ethnocentrisms. Rather than a melting pot or salad bowl, our society was an unfinished puzzle. Its pieces were contorted to impossible shapes as each group defended its mutating boundaries and self-identity in opposition to inferior groups surrounding it. The pieces interlocked to form a reluctant composite. And that was the picture, with all of its fault lines exposed.
Our perceptions of Hispanics were conditioned by a general aversion to otherness, but I think we most feared their poverty. Many New Yorkers from my grandparents’ generation were poor immigrants themselves, and by virtue of more felicitous conditions—racial consonance, better access to jobs, easier assimilation, good luck—managed to gain a hold in the middle class. My parents’ generation consolidated that hold. Poverty was close behind, however, as though it were trying to catch up, and prejudice flared when precarious social status felt threatened or when European immigrants trying to feel “American” needed an identity boost by downward comparison. Much of the tension was also about neighborhoods, about turf and real-estate values, and the earlier waves of immigrants (or those who could afford it) moved to the suburbs to escape what they viewed as encroachment.
Poor people wanted to strip our cars, would kill us if they could, had kids in gangs. Such perceptions were extrapolated from a criminal minority and imposed as a collective judgment on all Hispanics, but we didn’t know that. We believed the stereotype, we were scared, and we reacted defensively. That defense was offensive, consequently, insofar as it responded not to actual people but to the distorted stereotype that represented them. At the same time, the notorious criminality of Italians was idealized and romanticized, even within families (like mine) that had values incompatible with a mafia stereotype.
Most Americans know that the United States is “a country of immigrants,” but few understand much beyond that. Current immigration is often perceived as an anomaly, an aberration, as though suddenly our national identity were being overrun and deformed by undesirable foreigners. But waves of immigration are what populated the United States, and the newcomers generally have been met with negative perceptions (criminal, uncouth, burdensome, responsible for social ills) and with adverse legislation.
In the 1880s, about 70 percent of immigrants to the United States came from northern and western Europe, and twenty years later, during the decade of 1900-1910, the same great majority came from southern and eastern Europe. The Anglo-Saxon population from the earlier waves and from colonial times considered these new arrivals inferior. Like the Chinese who began to migrate generations earlier and like Hispanics today, the new Italian, Slavic, and Jewish immigrants lived in ethnic enclaves and to some degree were ostracized by the dominant society. Even Catholicism, which is now such an integral part of mainstream America, was a threat to values and national identity.
Many Americans hardly appreciate that their grandparents or great grandparents suffered through the same cold reception that we extend to immigrants today. Throughout history, and certainly in current anti-immigrant attitudes, Americans who are intolerant of change tend to fix what it means to be American around a perception of themselves as the prototype and ideal. They define “American” in terms of the perceived norms of their time and place and with the conviction that America has an essence that is static, sacrosanct, and unchangeable. The wall goes up around them. One can imagine their offense when they view the radical changes in demographics and values that occur across the span of a lifetime.
A mythic kind of thinking that is impervious to logic and nourished by the proof that contests it.
Most young Dominican migrants and U.S. Coast Guard personnel, at least in the greater context of yola migration, are extraordinarily motivated, determined, and mature in comparison to most of my students.
On the migrant side there are comprehensively disadvantaged youth who risk everything to make something out of nothing, who arrive empty-handed in wet clothes and somehow build a life from this foundation of misfortune, or at least fail trying.
On the Coast Guard side there are trained, disciplined youth who are responsible for migrants’ lives and for one another’s; who face dangers unknown outside of military service; and who are entrusted with and competent in the operation of complex equipment—cutters, helicopters—worth millions of dollars.
I have no doubt that on both sides of the line there are exceptions—unmotivated, apathetic, irresponsible, indifferent, lazy, incompetent—but in general these young people evidence a level of initiative and responsibility that far exceeds the norm among American college students.
An exchange in English between Dominican-Americans responding to a 2009 news article reminded lyrics by Rubén Blades: “el que va adelante casi nunca mira atrás” (“someone who gets ahead hardly ever looks back”). The article described the rescue of yola migrants by the Coast Guard and included a photo of an overweight woman.
One commenter wrote: “the lady getting off the boat looks pretty fat to me, she does not seem to have any problem with food.”
Another responded: “Please don’t tell me that you can make a life quality assessment of a person based on their picture. How can you possibly tell from a picture what duress or personal motivation a person may have? Perhaps her daughter is sick and she cannot afford the medicine. Perhaps her mother is dying and she is risking her life to provide the financial resources to send her to a private clinic. Perhaps she wishes for her son to get an education and is risking her life so that he may get what she never could.” And finally, yola migrants are “not coming here because they are hungry, they are starved of hope.”
A long exchange with these and other participants explored whether the migrants were coming because of “need” or “want.” The exchange then degenerated into jokes (“My wife put a mirror over our bed. She says she likes to watch herself laugh”) intermixed with insults and counter-insults (“you are so sad you would make a fish cry”).
The guy who initiated the exchange took delight in this—“We started out with a fat lady joke and now the thread is ending with some good one liners”—but others were dismayed: “This is a human tragedy. Reading some of the callous and inappropriate comments above makes you really sick. Please have some compassion, for these are human beings whose desperate socio-economic situation has compelled them to risk it all.”
The thread ended finally with: “let me tell you i am a citizen of the united states. but i wish some americans can go through one week of what dominicans go through on a daily basis. maybe some of us would think before we speak or write such unnecessary comments.”
The research is over when after years of reading you can’t face another page. It’s something like cicadas that screech in chorus and then somehow, suddenly, all go silent at the same instant, leaving you with your own disquiet.
In the end you have to put it all aside, all of the scholarship and all of the interviews, to make sense of what’s happening for yourself.