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Monday, March 20, 2006

A Tough Week for Hispanic Nashville

Its been a bad week to be Hispanic in Nashville. Our own Senator Bill Frist sent signals that "illegal immigration" will be a cornerstone in his anticipated presidential campaign. Restauranteur Aureliano Ceja, owner of La Hacienda in the Little Mexico area of Nolinsville Road was beaten to death in a home invasion; his wife remains in critical condition similarly beaten. Land owner Fermin Estrada, while shooting off his pistol in a traditional Mexican celebration during a family barbecue was shot in the head with a rifle by a Shelby County Sheriff's deputy who says he felt threatened. Indeed, this has not been our finest week as a society.

During my last eight years before coming to Nelson I worked in and around El Paso, Juarez, Chihuahua City, and Torreon setting up manufacturing plants. Here I'll admit my bias that I'm a fan of the Mexican people and feel that Hispanics in general are getting a raw deal in today's political climate.

During my Mexican tour of duty (which includes El Paso if you've ever been there) I saw true poverty. Our manufacturing workers had some of the best jobs in the cities where we were located; they made the equivalent of $32 - $64 per week depending upon the pay grade of their job. They typically hauled water and rigged hand-made wiring from the nearest utility pole to steal electricity. On cold mornings you could rarely see Juarez from the mountains of El Paso because people burned anything they could find in hand-made brick fireplaces to keep warm: this included pallets, tires, trash, etc... It amazes me that so many Americans who pride themselves in our American ingenuity and grit fail to see the parallel between the modern Hispanic experience and our own ancestors. I submit to you that faced with similar living conditions and lack of opportunity, most of us would swim the Rio Grande to America and would not care if American considered us there legally or not. Hungry is hungry, especially if its your children.

Many of you know that I recently moved from the Logan County, KY area about an hour north of Nashville. This is tobacco country and low-cost, manual agricultural labor is important to the local economy. I have seen grown men (there both legally and illegally) living 12 to a single-wide trailer and saving as much money as possible to send home to their families. And, typically, those are strong Christian families who stay together either in Mexico or eventually in the U.S. With values of faith, family, hard work, and determination to succeed in our world (their new world) they should be held up by all of us as modern-day examples of what our families endured for our sake in generations past.

And, success is in no way guaranteed. Aureliano Ceja was 72 and worked all his life to make his family successful Americans. His final reward, in this world, was ultimately to be killed by someone who coveted his wealth. Fermin Estrada was celebrating the purchase of 14 acres to call his own and was surrounded by a loving extended family that had come from as far away as Georgia when he was killed by at best misunderstanding and at worst prejudice.

In this context, the Hispanic experience in Tennessee is heroic and not parasitic as some politicians and radio shock jocks would have you believe. In our company we have many fine, long-serving Hispanic employees. As this next political cycle heats up let's not let the politics of the day convince us that any of our people are simply "those people".


Roberto Rivas said...

Thank you Jim for your kind and understanding insight. I just wished more "Americans" thought just like you.

Now, without meaning offense to you, think about this: aren't Mexicans, Guatemalans or Peruvians Americans also? Weren't Aztecs, Mayas or Incas in the American Continent long before the first European settlers founded the 13 colonies? Isn't this a way of discrimination also?


Graciela Lelli said...

My heart goes out to these families.
As an immigrant myself, coming to the States as a missionary to the Spanish speaking people in New York City, I had witnessed many difficult situations from the lives of the people in our churches and even personally, I have had my share of prejudice and discrimination.
For example, although we have several degrees, it seemed at times, that speaking with an accent equated having no brains.
I still experience, after almost 2 decades of being in this country, my appearance or accent trigger some discriminating attitudes.

What always amazes me though; its how soon Americans, just a few generations down, have already forgotten they are ALL from immigrant descend. I often wonder if the Native Americans considered them "LEGAL" back then.

maria clara mejia said...

Thank you Jim, Your voice is the voice of reason and humanism but also the practical voice of an observer with eyes open to the hard realities of poor immigrant families. I join my voice to yours and to millions others. Something got to be wrong with our society if the very people upon we all depend and benefit can not be granted the minimum human rights and instead are criminalized for working and growing this country.

Jim Thomason said...

Roberto, no offense was intended in referencing North Americans as "Americans". Your point is well taken, and with thanks.