Jose stood in front of a large oil drum dropping pieces of wood onto the glowing embers and hoping his supply of wood would last the night. As the flames began to shoot up the light revealed his forehead, wrinkled with concern and his sad, tired eyes.
The large, callused hands and drawn face told of years of hard labor. The ragged clothes, layered against the cold, and stubble beard betrayed his present hard times.
Blowing into his hands and rubbing them together hard to warm them, he thought to himself, “How did it come to this? And where am I going?”
His thoughts drifted back to the warm, carefree days of his childhood. He smiled as he remembered his parents and the small village in Mexico in which he grew up. How beautiful the world appeared to him in those times. From his parents and grandparents he had learned the secrets of when to plant corn and beans, tomatoes and peppers; how to care for the farm animals; how to tend the grapevines.
As he reflected on those days, he understood how much a part of the earth he was. In a way it was as if he and the earth were one, and this awareness made him feel even closer to God, the Creator.
Then his mind touched that fateful winter day and suddenly his face darkened, his eyebrows knit even tighter together, and anger flashed in his eyes. The pain that shot through him had not lessened after all these years. He was only nine at the time, but he knew even then right from wrong, and what happened on that day was certainly wrong.
A man dressed in a fancy suit and accompanied by two large, armed men had driven up to Jose’s grandfather’s house in a government car and handed him a piece of paper. As his grandfather read the letter his eyes grew larger and rounder. Sensing that something was amiss, the family gathered round, fear gripping all. By the time his grandfather had finished reading his face had become dark red from rage. He turned to the man in the suit and told him to get off his property immediately. In a threatening tone, the man told Jose’s grandfather that he would be back and there was nothing that could be done about it.
When the men had gone, Jose learned that their land was being taken to make room for the expansion of the neighboring coffee plantation. The family “would be fairly compensated for their loss” the notice had said. “How does one fairly compensate’ for another’s livelihood?” Jose thought to himself. They, of course, were given practically nothing. And it seemed as if Jose had been rootless and on the move ever since.
Jose’s parents went first to Matamoros looking for work at one of the factories on the northern border, across from Brownsville, Texas. His father found a job in one of the tanneries. It was dirty work and the fumes made even Jose nauseous, when he waited near the factory for his father after work. The wages were so bad his mother went to work cleaning houses.
There was never enough money for food, even with both parents working. Poverty makes even the most preposterous rumors seem true. Everyone had heard how wealthy people could become, if they just went across the border to the United States. So when Jose turned twelve he left home to find work north of the border.
The sound of the police car’s siren broke into Jose’s reflections. He looked quickly around, frantically searching for an avenue of escape. The vacant lot had buildings on either side and a chain link fence at the back. Debris lay strewn about: old tires, empty bottles, a battered stove. The ground was so hard and desolate that even the weeds had struggled to find a place to grow. Jose’s pulse quieted as the siren’s wail faded into the distance.
Twenty-five years ago, crossing the border was not as difficult nor as dangerous; finding work, though, was. Jose eventually landed in Florida in the midst of orange groves. Here began his twenty-five year odyssey, following the growing season north to south, east to west and back again. He was on a tour of the United States that definitely was not listed in any tourist brochure. It was hard, back-breaking work; work that paid enough to stay, but not enough to leave. Over the years Jose began to see the inequities. He felt demeaned and used, but did not know, at first, how to fight back.
(Editor’s note: This post is part of a serialization of Rev. Bill Sterritt’s 26-page short story recasting the birth of Jesus in modern day America. For more about this project click here. Check back tomorrow for the next installment in the Amicable Nativity Story.)