Land of Death and Hope

I've had one of those weeks where a lot of new information is flying my way, all at once. One of those weeks when your brain starts to feel overwhelmed by all the information. And you start to wonder, how can all these things be true at one time? Doesn't one cancel out the other?

Doesn't all this fear, hatred, and death snuff out the hope and love that refuse to go away? And if not - why? Because it doesn't make any sense.


I can't stop thinking about a story I read this morning about the "other" river migrants are crossing to come to the United States from Central America.

It's hard to imagine on a gray, blustery, 40-degree day in the Midwest, but most journeys to America begin near the equator, in a humid, sweltering jungle.

Their journey is still early, and their faces are still shiny with hope and promise.

Photo by Liliana Nieto del Rio, Los Angeles Times

Photo by Liliana Nieto del Rio, Los Angeles Times

I look at these photos, taken by Liliana Nieto del Rio of the Los Angeles Times, and I see myself and my children. There I am, holding my 5-year-old son's hand as he traverses the playground, his other hand clutching a bag of snacks.

I see the expectant eyes of a child as she sits on her mother's lap. They have set out believing that something better awaits to the North -- something so valuable that they will leave everything and everyone they know behind, and travel to a brand new place.

At some point, my ancestors chose to do the same. They boarded rickety steamships in the late 19th Century. Their old country was rife with war and violence, often rooted in religion and ethnic dissent. They didn't know English. They heard about places called Minnesota, but they knew little beyond that.

The eyes of the adults in the photos from Nieto del Rio are more resigned. This is only the first great river crossing, on the river Usamacinta separating Guatemala from Mexico. I don't know for sure, but many of these travelers likely learned a language other than Spanish growing up, one of the indigenous languages common across Central America. They know that life is filled with struggle. Maybe their family members have died in gang and gun violence, battles over scarce resources in the face of corrupt national governments. 

I do not know their stories. I know only that they have resignedly and courageously chosen hope and love over hatred and fear, and so they have decided to cross this first river, without the naivete of childhood to protect them from what lies ahead.

Patrick O'Donnell of the L.A. Times' Mexico City bureau traveled to the Usamacinta River, to the porous border separating Guatemala and Mexico. He writes that a steady stream of wooden boats carrying migrants constantly traverses the river. He writes of howler monkeys and crocodiles and jaguars, animals who would never survive in the desert climate of Texas and the Rio Grande Valley, the next river these migrants hope to cross into the United States. But animals do not carry passports, and neither is their life's value determined by the nation in which their citizenship lies. So perhaps the monkeys would have a better shot on this journey than these migrant parents and children.

For students, like me, taught in American classrooms about the Oregon Trail and European immigration to America, journeys like these migrants are taking today too often seem rooted in the distant past. 

Why wouldn't they just take an airplane?

Couldn't they drive their car?

Why do they need boats to cross the river?Aren't there bridges?

Where are they putting their luggage?

Don't they need a moving truck?

Where are their clothes? Their toiletries? Their toys? 

The idea of leaving everything behind to move to a new place - to many Americans this plan seems unbelievably risky and preposterous. How could it be so bad where you are? Can't you wait until you get enough money saved? Can't you do it legally? Make a few phone calls?

And then I see the mother's hand clutching her child's and realize that parental love is nothing if not universal, but our options are very, very different.


Maybe the idea of risking so much simply to come to the United States seems dubious or unfathomable because it hasn't exactly been an easy year in America. Armed citizens stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, while lawmakers huddled in their offices, fearing a hostile government takeover.

Millions of Americans lost their jobs in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and as of today, nearly 550 thousand Americans lost their lives to COVID. 

And just when vaccination rates are picking up and children are finally returning to school, mass shooting events have returned to the headlines in America again, notwithstanding the fact that more Americans died of gun violence in 2020 than any other year in at least two decades.

Last week, eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed by a mass shooter in the Atlanta area who traveled to three different spas and massage parlors with signage indicating that Asian women worked there.

And on Monday, just six days later, ten people were killed at a Boulder, Colo., grocery store, where a mass shooter carrying an assault rifle opened fire in the parking lot and inside the store.

Grocery store workers have been among the most heroic and most poorly treated Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their so-called "hero pay" was short-lived, and many of these essential workers were not given easily accessible vaccine priority. Yet they continued going to work each day so that Americans could feed their families, facing in some cases angry anti-mask protesters, and fearful elderly customers.

Now, grocery store workers have literally been fired upon and gunned down. A police officer and father of seven was among those killed in Colorado. 

I read that President Joe Biden had ordered flags to be flown at half-mast due to the Atlanta shootings through Monday morning. As the news of the Colorado shootings moved across the nation, the flags were hurriedly lowered again. Will we ever escape this mourning and death spiral of anger, violence, and hate?

Flags flying at half-mast in a Midwestern town

So we have two stories, you see. A story of American despair and decline, of the killing machines that have terrorized too many of us in schools, movie theaters, concerts, and even churches. A story of death and division. Of a certain kind of male anger. Of unimaginable loss. A story of heroism that ends in tragedy. Children who lost their father. Husbands who lost their wives. Friends who would never talk to their friend again. Futures snuffed out. All in a matter of moments. The flags that seemed stuck at half-mast.

And the other story. The story of desperate parents and hope-filled children, crossing the first of many rivers and roads on a journey to a land they still believed was filled with hope, promise, freedom, and peace. A land where their families could live and love and thrive. Where their hard work would pay off. Where their children could attend school without being afraid. 

The country they dream of is the same one I dream of, this shining land of promise is the same place I drove through today, where the Stars and Stripes hung at half-mast underneath a gray sky.

We do not share the same language or currency. We are likely very, very different. Perhaps we cannot understand each other. I feel lacking and incomplete, at times overcome by despair. Our lives are incomprehensible to each other in many ways.

But we are drawn together in a common dream, and they have the most important currency which I and my fellow countrymen and women so desperately need. They have the currency of hope. They can still envision the place that has become broken in too many of our eyes. What they have to offer me is likely more valuable than what I can ever offer them. But am I unwilling to offer even that, my tepid sympathy? My muted understanding? A tiny piece of this land that we've brutalized too long? This land that perhaps their ancestors wandered centuries before mine? 

Usamacinta is far away from Mississippi. But like the water that flows through the rivers, life itself slips through my fingers, until I see my reflection in unfamiliar waters.


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