When Manuel lived in Mexico he ate rice soaked in water for dinner with a little sugar added. Manuel is an American citizen. He cleans the juvenile detention center. I’m a chaplain and I’ve been visiting youth for eight years. Manuel says, “Hola, my friend!” each time we see one another—as he cleans the women’s restroom or takes the flag down from the pole on a summer night. His simple greeting lifts me on those dark days when I have heard one too many stories of abuse. One day we sit together in the staff room. I’m waiting for the kids to finish their dinner; he is taking his lunch break. He eats his meal of salad and hot food from the steam table. I don’t eat that food. I bring my organic salad with smoked salmon from home.
Manuel is soft spoken, a small man. He is a devout Catholic who loves his family. He saved enough money to take his family to see Pope Francis in Mexico last year. He was so excited about it. I know he cares about the kids I visit in the jail. His daughter, Guadalupe, was born in California, his son Pedro here in Seattle, at Providence Hospital. Lupita went to Western Washington University. She was an ultimate Frisbee player in middle school who made the college team but they never let her play a game. She quit the team after her freshman year. She quit college after her second year. Manuel asks me if I think she was discriminated against back then. I tell him I don’t know, maybe. She works for the bank now, Manuel tells me, smiling with pride. She wanted to be a teacher, then a veterinarian, he tells me. “She loves animals so much!” She took accounting last year and is doing well at the bank, he says.
His son is still in high school, Manuel says. He studies hard and gets good grades. He’s learning how to drive. He’ll go to the community college and take the aviation program. “Maybe he’ll get a good job at Boeing,” Manuel tells me, his voice a question mark of hope.
Two of Manuel’s co-workers used to watch the TV news during their break. Whenever Trump came on they would say, “That’s my guy!” Manuel told me they talked about the wall Trump promised to build. They said it was a good thing. “Right in front of me. They said that. That really hurt my feelings,” Manuel tells me. His head dips down towards his plate.
When Manuel was first hired some twelve or more years ago one of these men protested to management—he shouldn’t have gotten the job, he didn’t belong here, he wasn’t “one of us.” Manuel told me he stays away from them, keeps his head down. He is afraid of what will come in this year. After Trump was elected his son came home and said, “Let’s move to Mexico, Dad.” Manuel tried to tell his son how it was when he lived there, to show him how it is now, so much better. “He doesn’t understand. We won’t ever go back,” he tells me. He points to the steam table. “Some people in here complain about the food. Some won’t eat it. Many people in my village would be so happy to have this food. It would be a banquet to them.” I look at his lettuce, his hardboiled eggs, his chicken and rice, then back at my vegetables and smoked salmon. I take a small bite.
We nod back and forth, talking softly, about how wrong Trump is, how uneducated Manuel’s co-workers are, how hard it is for his people to be accepted here and how hard they work. Manuel wonders why so many kids of color are in the jail. He wants to know how many are African American, how many are Hispanic. “Most are African American, some Hispanic,” I say. “Some are Native,” I add, “and mixed race, Asian and Pacific Islander.” He nods. Not many are white, but we don’t say that.
I wonder about Manuel’s co-workers. Are they afraid of losing their jobs? The black snake of terror is a steel band that chokes their hearts and squeezes and squeezes until hurtful things are said in righteous anger. Held tight by the snake they defend themselves with loud proclamations about immigrants and walls, while the object of their fear stands before them, like Jesus before Pilate. The snake has become our God, our craven idol, the tool of our new demagogue. It is the evil Manuel prays will not come slithering at him one day, without warning.
We blame all immigration, legal or not, castigating the government and the immigrants themselves. We call for deportation in hopes of wiping out imagined threats from those who look different from us. We don’t know what we are talking about. We are sore afraid.
As we leave the staff room together Manuel speaks so quietly that I can hardly hear him. “I can trust you, you are a good person.” I say he is good too, and yes, he can trust me. We are friends, I say. These are simple truths, spoken to one another in the cocoon of our fledgling friendship. We see each other in the quiet light of connection. I feel fear for him creep up my backbone at the sound of his whisper. Next week I will eat salad and steam table food with him.
© 2017, Flash Non-Fiction from Juvenile Detention Chaplain, Lisa Ashley