I ran into Bernardo on Monday. Bernardo is my neighbor. He is also an immigrant laborer, a husband, and a father. We met a few years ago when we worked on a daylaborer center together. We run into each other from time to time and this week it was apparent he was not doing well.
Bernardo’s wife is ill in Mexico. His son has dropped out of university. When things were good here and work was plentiful, he was able to support them. He was able to pay the rent, buy the medicine and pay his son’s tuition. The sacrifice and costs of being separated seemed to be worth it. But now there is little work and his wife’s health is declining. Bernardo feels like he is failing them and the added stress of being so far away was a visible burden I could see as he spoke of his family’s situation.
Families being separated because of economic hardship is not a new narrative. Some of the best Blues music of the south was born out of this harsh reality. During the Great Migration of the 1910 – 40’s, approximately 1.75 million African-Americans moved north where there was work, often separated from their families. The common theme of the Blues- “my baby’s gone and I will be soon…” wasn’t about a woman just walking out on him. It was about the socio-economic reality of being separated by necessity to find work. She (or he) left to work in the North. The music is great and telling because it gives voice to the authentic pain. The pain of being apart from those you love, the pain of making choices in desperation, the pain of the social realities that led to the situation.
I wonder what gives voice to Bernardo’s pain. Perhaps that is why I write about him here, to give the pain of his separation a voice. I understand that he had a choice. I understand that for generations many people migrating for all different reasons had choices. But I am not sure how much of a choice “starve here or leave your family and find work” really is. I have heard poverty described in terms of the availability of choices. If those are your two choices, I suppose you are quite poor.
Sunday, June 19th is Father’s Day and I can’t help but think about the thousands, even millions of fathers out there like Bernardo. Fathers separated from their families because of their lack of available choices. Fathers who are sacrificing to provide food, education, and medical care, for the ones they love. And I wonder what my response to them should be?
What would I do given those choices, what would you do? It is easy for me to judge the choices of others. I consider myself quite resourceful and creative, sure that I could come up with some solution. But I have not had to face the choices that many of my neighbors like Bernardo have faced. Though we live in the same place, our realities can be quite different. Our challenge now is to build a new shared reality together that will hopefully be plentiful in choices for all of us.