Op-Eds The Kindness of Strangers

New York Times, December 24, 2004

Velarde N.M.

THE young couple knocks on the heavy wooden door. They are weary and the hour is late; it is bitterly cold.

The husband says: “En nombre del cielo, os pido posada,” in the name of heaven, I ask thee for lodging.

From behind the door comes the answer: “Este no es mesón, sigan adelante, yo no debo abrir, sea algún tunante,” this is not an inn, move along, I shouldn’t open up, it may be a thief.

The centuries-old tradition of las posadas is celebrated throughout Mexico and in practically every Mexican neighborhood in America in the days before Christmas. José and María trudge from door to door, turned away again and again until they are finally allowed to bed down in the humble manger where the Christ child is born. Everyone in the neighborhood gets a part in the play.

Like many traditions, this one can resonate with different tones according to the political tenor of the times. And with the immigration debate on the national agenda – President Bush is once again promoting “guest worker” legislation – this Christmas parable asks us to step inside the shoes of both the protagonists and antagonists, the migrant couple seeking shelter and the innkeepers who, momentarily, hold such power over the couple’s fate.

Las posadas is a story about hospitality, certainly a “moral value,” but not one pollsters ask about. Based on the notion of pilgrimage, a spiritual journey undertaken through the flesh, it is present in practically all the world’s religions. Without the hospitality of those who live along the roads of one’s pilgrimage – be it the hajj of Islam or a Catholic penitent’s journey to a shrine – one would never arrive at one’s destination. Hospitality implies reciprocity: the pilgrim received with generosity will one day have the occasion to return the favor. To shut the door on the wayfaring stranger would be to negate the possibility of one’s own journey.

Of course, we shut the door all the time. We conclude, as the innkeepers do in the posada play, that José and María aren’t pilgrims at all; they are “thieves” intent on taking from us and giving nothing in return. That is precisely what a strong majority of voters in Arizona apparently believed in November when they passed Proposition 200, which denies most public benefits to illegal migrants; on Wednesday, a federal judge cleared the way for the proposition to become law. “They” have come here merely to feed off America’s welfare state – to take something for nothing. We do not extend hospitality to thieves.

Philosophers have long debated the ethics of hospitality, which raises a series of existential, legal and moral questions. Is pure hospitality practicable in a world of human unpredictability? Or is hospitality an indispensable practice precisely because of human unpredictability? In the post-9/11 world, we ponder the question more in terms of national security. How does one discern between the stranger to whom hospitality should be extended, and the stranger who poses a threat? Does war automatically exempt us from showing hospitality? Does a “war without end” permanently suspend such values?

Americans have long had a troubled, contradictory relationship with immigrants. We famously say that we are immigrants, indeed a “land of immigrants,” and just as famously render them “them.” While Liberty opens her arms to the tired, poor and huddled masses, we also greet the immigrant with ethnic slurs and sweatshop wages, with savage and simplistic representations on our movie and TV screens. We are immigrants who despise immigrants. To enact hospitality in this context is a radical act: it automatically erases the border between us and them. To open one’s door to the stranger is to recognize that he no longer is one.

The nativist reacts against the immigrant with prosaic notions of “law and order.” José has broken the law by crossing the river without the proper documents. María breaks the law by baby-sitting for money under the table. (The nativist has little to say about the natives who also break the law by hiring illegal aliens; he gains nothing politically by implicating himself in the crime.) But immigration codes are very human laws, born of economic and political realities – laws that blind us from perceiving the migrants for who they really are.

This notion of the foreigner as an economic mercenary has no relation whatsoever to the way migrants regard themselves. Ask Mexicans why they cross the Rio Grande and they will invariably say, “to seek a better life.” They do not mean only material gain. Migrants travel through space and time, and are transformed by their encounter with the newness of the landscape, beginning with language. They are changed by their encounter with their other, with us.

Anyone who has grown up with more than one culture knows that to switch between languages is more than a matter of grammar and accent; meaning itself shifts, sometimes subtly, sometimes profoundly. To travel from one country to another, one language to another, is a journey of both spirit and flesh. The migrants sense this. In America, they are among our most fervently religious communities. In the barrio storefront church, they meditate on and give meaning to their passage – their sacrifice, their yearning for the transcendent, their crossing of the river.

And so now it is time again to face our contradictions head-on. The Bush administration is pushing an immigration agenda that is questioned from both the right and the left. The proposal offers documentation to immigrants who can prove gainful employment in the form of “contracts” of up to three years. President Bush on Monday repeated that the program would not be an amnesty (like that granted several million illegal immigrants in 1986). Nevertheless, conservatives argue that the program would reward criminals and pose a threat to national security. Liberals complain about institutionalizing the exploitation of foreign labor and the impact on native workers. Both sides reduce the immigrant to caricature. And both still imagine – in their rhetoric, at least – that the broken border between the United States and Mexico can be fixed.

But there was never enough of a border between us for it to have come undone. Immigration laws have always been enforced selectively, largely according to the needs of the labor economy. To a great extent, there is no functioning border, but we insist on believing there is one: imagining a borderless world is a leap into unfamiliar territory, a place where, in a sense, we would all be strangers.

Yet perhaps it is only in such a place where we might begin to offer genuine hospitality. At the very moment one opens the door to the stranger, one also crosses a border and sees not an immigrant, not an illegal alien, not a Mexican, but a face – a human face.

TONIGHT, in the final representation of the posada, José and María will wearily walk from door to door seeking shelter in the barrios, even as thousands of Josés and Marías arrive at the shore of the Rio Grande, the river they dream of as Jordan. They look to the other side, imagining la vida mejor. The Border Patrol stops some of them. Other migrants, in distress, find doors shut to them when they seek help. But most find a bed to sleep in. With family, with friends, even with strangers – that is the story of immigration in America these days. Perhaps we are a hospitable land, after all. How else could we have become this “land of immigrants”?

In New Mexico, one of the most lyrical metaphors in the posada tradition is that of the farolitos, votive candles that glow inside paper sacks weighed down by sand. These light the path toward that place where José and María will finally be recognized for who they are: pilgrims seeking shelter on the road, faces that serve as mirrors to our own.

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