A good writer does not ask questions on the page, instead she answers them:
I have had nothing but questions since the caravan of asylum-seeking people gathered in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
Do I write about …
The people coming up from Honduras and Guatemala?
The proposed wall?
The illegal immigrant children locked up by our government?
The parents separated from their children?
The influx of border crossers here in our backyard?
The toll this is taking on Border Patrol Agents?
The toll this is taking on people seeking asylum?
The effect this is having on our rural border community?
The free pass the cartels have to move drugs along the border because Border Patrol Agents are stretched so thin?
The problems at the Port of Entry at Antelope Wells?
The government shut down?
A good writer does not include her process on the page, instead she begins with her subject. This may include an assertion or thesis:
I don’t know where to start. My thoughts are a jumbled mess. We live seventy-five miles from Antelope Wells Port of Entry, half that distance as the crow flies. A place on the border most folks never heard of before the caravans coming from Central America showed up. It is a border outpost a hundred miles from a hospital and grocery store. In the summer the temperatures can reach 110˚. This time of year, it can dip into the teens at night. Often 300 people at a time are crossing at this tiny dot on the map, and it’s taxing everyone from ranchers to Border Patrol Agents; illegal immigrants to medical service employees. It’s where seven-year-old Guatemalan girl Jakelin Caal crossed with her father and died shortly afterwards. It’s where three days ago a man with a flesh-eating bacteria was identified before being taken to a hospital for treatment. Those of us along the border have been warned to lock our doors. There are simply not enough Border Patrol Agents to spare. The drug cartels are having a field day moving drugs through the wide open, unprotected desert, and we are smack dab in the middle of it.
I should be afraid except we haven’t had any problems here at the ranch since this all began. But then I hear about neighbors who are finding dozens of illegal immigrants in their barns and Border Patrol Agents who are sick on the job fearful of what they may have contracted. Those who work for our volunteer ambulance service are working the border. If something happens to someone in the community, we’re on our own. Border Patrol busses loaded with unfamiliar faces are disrupting this otherwise quiet, desert landscape. Our president and some of the news outlets make it sound like we are living in a war zone. If we are, I’ve seen no evidence of it. That said, we are locking our doors. Admittedly, most of us down here are a bit edgy.
A good writer writes what she knows:
I lived in Honduras back in the early 90’s. As an idealist, I thought I would help people less fortunate; give back something in return for all I had. I hadn’t even pulled my luggage from a heap in the corner of the San Pedro airport before I needed help, and it continued to be that way for the duration of my stay. I needed help with Spanish. Help with transportation. Help with a messy bureaucratic system. Help with shopping for food, asking for directions, finding a place to live. Help with finding a doctor, a dentist, and a pharmacist. I was the proverbial babe in the woods, and if it wasn’t for the kindness of others, I wouldn’t have lasted a week.
As the rhetoric continues to heat up over, “What do we do with these people?” I find myself sharing memories of living in Latin America. While in Antigua, Guatemala, I partnered with a medical student, Chris, who was working with a government sponsored program to inoculate children. The first house we visited wasn’t a house at all, rather a blue tarp secured at the corner of a concrete wall in the back of an empty lot where a divorced woman and her four children lived. Inside the two-sided structure was a small table, two chairs, a propane hot plate set on a shelf next to a few canned goods. Against the far wall was an ancient dresser and a double-sized mattress. An old car missing its wheels sat not far from the structure and contained everything else the family owned. The kids, shy and curious, smiled at us as Chris asked the mother for her children’s birth certificates. I looked around the small space thinking how insensitive this guy was asking for things this poor woman clearly didn’t own. Before I could nudge him, the mother produced a manila envelope from the top drawer of the beat up dresser. Proudly she handed it to David. Inside were the birth certificates along with family photos. I felt my face flush with shame. I had equated poverty with ignorance and lack of caring for family.
One day I missed the last bus out of the campo (a farming community) in central Honduras with no way home. A woman I’d worked with on a rural health project asked me to stay with her family for the night. I didn’t want to impose, but I had no other choice. A room divider made from flour sacks sewn together and strung tightly around a wood frame, something found in most rural homes, split the one room house in half. After a delicious meal shared with her husband and five children, her two daughters moved the divider to the front of the house while the woman unwrapped the finest cotton sheets I have ever seen from layers of yellowed tissue paper and made up the family’s only bed. I knew the sheets had been a wedding gift and had never been used. When I protested, she said it was an honor to have me as her guest. I slept in a room the girls made spacious for me while the woman and her family lay crowded together on blankets covering the dirt floor.
My first bout of malaria struck while I was staying with an American nun up in the mountains in central Honduras. When the fevers made me delirious, she didn’t know what to do. Leticia, a woman from the church, and a curandero (healer) came to the house. She made me strong teas from local plants to sip and kept my skin cool with damp washcloths. But mainly she sat with me and prayed. After a few day and no improvement, she arranged to have me taken to a doctor in Sulaco, a village an hour away over a bumpy dirt road. There Esteban, a doctor I had worked with in a cholera clinic, gave me an IV of electrolytes. For two days he sat by my bed reading the paper. When I mentioned he should go home, he smiled and said he liked the quiet. Leticia and Esteban saved my life.
This is what I know of the Hondurans. I was treated with respect and as a friend. No one ever asked me for money or for something of value. I didn’t meet a single person who took drugs or sold drugs. Instead I met hard-working people who were trying, like most of us, to provide a good life for their families.
I returned again in 1998. By that time the military police had all but been replaced by a civilian police force. In a few short years, I saw how this change was whittling away the spirit of the Honduran people. Strangers no longer looked at me and smiled when I went into a store or walked down the street. Folks kept to themselves on busses and in public spaces. Casually dressed men carried pistols in holsters on their belts. I went to a police station in Tela after my wallet was stolen and immediately regretted reporting the incident. There were men handcuffed to chairs, others laying on the floor handcuffed to desks. I was asked to write what happened on piece of lined paper. When I asked who was in charge, a tall man wearing a button down shirt and black jeans brandishing a pistol laughed, “Supongo que soy yo.” I guess I am.
I saw it then, a systemic weakening of the Honduran spirit. People were fearful. There were rumors of gang activity in San Pedro Sula and the capital city, Tegucigalpa. The cartels are moving in, I heard from old friends. It seemed Honduras was ripe for the picking. I left knowing I would never go back.
The caravan is made up of asylum-seeking folks like the divorced mother with four kids carrying her children’s birth certificates, the woman who graciously offered me a bed, and of course, Leticia and Esteban. They are beaten down and scared for their lives. What do we do with these people? We begin with compassion.