Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Beloit - Day 2 (Monday p.m.)

Monday evening, we trade the grandeur of the Capital Building for a church hall in Beloit, a city almost falling over the Wisconsin border into Illinois.

Ten days earlier, Beloit hadn’t even been on our tour map; now we're here, receiving the warmest of welcomes as we step off the bus.

Set up: we’re now finely tuned. The traveling photo exhibit is up in no time - and here it has lots more space. Many eyes take in the images as the room begins to fill.

We take away the tables separating panel from the audience – that’s not how we want it. This should be person to person.

Empty seats become scarce, the hum of conversation rises, then falls as we call things to order.

Our format cuts to the quick - no big ideas. The immigration debate has human faces, human tragedies. The spotlight shines on Whitewater as three people speak out about lives devastated by last August’s packing factory raid. Magdalena shares the story of a normal day at the factory broken by a voice over the megaphone. The machines stop. Is there an accident people wonder? Soon they have an answer. Immigration cops are everywhere, pointing guns, shouting. “They came in as if they were looking for assassins,” she says. Bodies tense up in the audience at the image. “It’s like the world came down for us. Myself and my co-workers were just struggling to take care of our families… In that moment all our dreams were shattered.” She tells of hours of interrogation, an attorney denied. “We didn’t know we had rights. We felt very forced to answer their questions.” Six hours later they were in a jail, she says - families shattered, yet faced with the urgency of raising thousands of dollars bail to get them out. “Many of us had long stays… 9 days. It was a lot of money for all the families.”

Javier speaks next. He tells us his experience is similar, but his tone is different, angrier. There’s something he wants to add, he says. Not a story, but a question. Not one, but several, each challenging our humanity : “Would the juice that you drink taste any different if an American picked the fruit?”

The words I understand come from a translator, but I’m ahead… for all my lack of Spanish, I’ve heard them already - in the urgency of his questioning voice, in his standing tall before us, proud, unbroken. These things have spoken to me well before the translation arrives.

When Christine takes the floor, we are soon journeying with her. She weaves a path from the raw testimonies we have just heard, to impersonal, intangible acronymns – NAFTA, CAFTA - striking out borders for business and pushing workers around - literally. What do those abbreviations stand for? Misery.

We move to questions. A familiar one comes at us again, but with a difference. Last time it was hostile, tonight it’s from someone wanting ammunition to take on the myths - “People say ‘Why can’t Mexicans wait in line? Explain why.’”

The answer is simple: “There is no line”. Christine unpacks it. The line was taken away. Politicians took the immigration system of previous generations – open and mostly welcoming – and started slamming doors shut. Today, most are locked tight. Work visas for legal immigration from Mexico barely exist, she says. The quota stands at something like 500 a year.

More contributions. Questions mix with personal testimonies as Latino audience members speak up. People are heard, respected, affirmed. Hostility has found no place in the room, but one man questions the focus. “We’ve moved away from what the meeting was for,” he begins. “There’s no point talking about economics and other governments when there’s nothing we can do about it. We need to look at what we can do here and now.” Some people nod. Christine comes back, acknowledging the point: “NAFTA IS a big issue, but we need to understand it in flesh and blood.” It’s as close as we get to a disagreement.

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