California Dreaming

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My emotions run the gamut whenever I visit California. It is a truly unique place born from the hopes and dreams of generations searching for something a bit better than what they may have experienced in the many places from whence they came. It is a beautiful place with its mountains, lakes, forests and ocean coastline, but it can also bring heartbreak.

At the present time California is so dry that it is like a tinderbox just waiting for a spark to burst it into flames. Signs everywhere warn of the high probability of flash fires. The land itself is brown and filled with dust as farmers struggle to irrigate their crops to keep their businesses alive. Rain is a luxury and its scarcity is threatening the serenity of the landscape. Fire is a constant worry.

Much of the state lies along fault lines that threaten to erupt into earthquakes at any moment. Even for visitors there is a kind of tension lurking in the background, a worry that the big one might happen without warning. Still, the beauty of the state and the promise of opportunity lure many an adventurer just as has always been the case. Murmurs of “Go west, young man!” whisper in the Santa Ana winds. The gold that people seek these days is most often found in Silicon Valley, a place that called to my father way back in the nineteen fifties.

I don’t know what he was hoping to find in California, but whatever it was prompted him to pack up the family and leave our comfortable home in Texas to travel thousands of miles to San Jose. His anticipation of things to come was childlike as he animatedly described to us the wonders that we were sure to find. He delighted in the idea of visiting Disneyland in its opening year. He described the beauty of Yosemite with a kind of breathless awe. He assured us that we were going to one of the most remarkable places on earth where every day would bring new adventures and discoveries.

I’ll never know what happened to dash his dreams, but something did for soon we were heading back to Texas with a quiet resignation. California can be like that, sometimes delightful and sometimes cruel. Our family did not find gold in the hills or even the joy that my father had expected. We left with a kind of dreary sadness, and my father who had always been a giant in my eyes seemed small and defeated. Our ride back to our former home was so quiet and tense that even my baby brother sensed that something was wrong. He cried constantly making our journey feel somehow ominous.

Nothing would go quite right for us after that and the grand finale of our California dreaming would become a nightmare when my very young father died suddenly in a car accident. In my childlike mind I would blame California and it would be many decades before I was able to bring myself to return to the place that seemed somehow to have destroyed my father’s optimism and confidence. I would finally be able to view California with the eye of an adult, and I saw the grandeur that had once drawn my father to the place like a temptress.

Most recently my husband Mike and I journeyed to Sacramento, California to attend the United States of America Track and Field Junior Olympics. Our grandson Eli had qualified for two events, the 4 X 8 relay and the 1500 meter race. We came to watch him, but managed to tour nearby places on the days when he was not running.

Sacramento is the capitol of California situated along the American River. It has little of the beauty ascribed to places along the Pacific coast, but much history. The people there are friendly and much more relaxed than the folks in Los Angeles or San Francisco. The pace of life is slow and deliberate with seemingly little need for hurry. It feels much more like the California I had once seen as an eight year old child. In some ways it is a living witness to the real problems that the state faces today.

The dichotomy between those with wealth and those who are struggling to survive is quite apparent in Sacramento. Tiny homes on dusty land are protected with iron bars over the windows while more luxurious houses sit on lovely green manicured lawns dotted with flowers and shaded by massive trees. The contrast between the haves and the have nots is dramatic. There are even make shift homeless camps scattered along the banks of ditches.

On the roads there dilapidated cars roll next to high end BMWs and Mercedes Benzes. In the stores it is easy to spot the people who are wondering how much longer they might be able to survive the high cost of living in California. They walk around with glazed and resigned expressions on their faces. Everywhere there are empty buildings that point to glory days past. Perhaps it was the extreme heat that made me think that there was much desperation in the town, or maybe it was my own past catching up with me once again. Somehow I sensed that the people were longing for a time when hope seemed more realistic, but like my father they had at least for the moment begun to question the logic of their lives.

Almost everything in Sacramento is many times more expensive than similar items in Houston. A visit to a burger place cost us forty dollars and we only purchased one burger, two orders of fries, and some lemonade. Gasoline runs in the range of four or five dollars per gallon. Road tolls are six dollars. I tried to imagine how people survive when even a tiny home of about nine hundred square feet costs more than my three times larger house in Texas. Living in California these days is a brutal undertaking that requires determination.

I found myself thinking of my father at every turn and wondering what my life might have been had we stayed in California. It is a hauntingly beautiful place, but one fraught with so many challenges. Somehow I find myself preferring to visit. California dreaming is best done in small doses unless one is able to find the mother lode. I’ll take Houston, Texas where the pace and the price allows even ordinary souls to live in king like circumstances, but I do understand what my father saw in California. It still offers the enchantment of many dreams.

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First Do No Harm

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Photo by Kristin De Soto on Pexels.com

I live in Texas along the Gulf coast. My father spent his teenage years in Corpus Christi, Texas, a place where he met his best friends and from hence he learned his love of fishing. He longed to return there to live one day, but he was never able to find a job, so Houston was the next best thing for him.

I grew up visiting Corpus Christi often and hearing my dad’s stories of how wonderful the place was. On top of having it’s own unique culture and feel, it is only a hop, a skip, and a jump from Laredo, a border town with Mexico. As a kid and then as a young adult a trip to Corpus Christi sometimes was the gateway to a quick jaunt to the other side of the Rio Grande. Things were quieter and safer then, so families traveled back and forth between the United States and Mexico with little or no fanfare.

I was raised in a Catholic family which meant attending Catholic school. Back in the day our Catholic parents believed that it was their duty to send us to the nuns and priests for our education. We not only learned the three Rs, but also studied the foundations of our faith, which included discussions of the Ten Commandments and sin.

I sat in classrooms with many of the same kids for years. We became like brothers and sisters. I never noticed that our last names read like a roll call of the United Nations. I did not even think to classify my classmates as Italians, Hispanics, Czechs, Germans or such. We were all just peers seeing each other at school Monday through Friday and then again at church on Sunday. I was probably in my sixties before it fully occurred to me that names like Luna and Villagomez indicated Hispanic heritage of some sort. I seriously just saw people as people because of my upbringing.

My mom and her siblings were first generation Americans who were often taunted not just for their ancestry from Slovakia, but also for their religious beliefs. Nonetheless they eventually melted into the great big pot known as the United States of America, and followed both the customs of both their country and their religion quite earnestly. My brothers, and cousins and I were taught to love our nation and our church as well. Mostly we were cautioned to view life as beautiful and sacred. My mom always asserted that people are people and our differences are usually only skin deep. She believed that inside our hearts we are all pining for the same things.

I’ve been rocking along for my seventy years living the way I was raised with a devotion and gratitude for my country, my state, my church, my family, my friends, and all people. For most of my life I enjoyed a career as a teacher, and many of my students were recent immigrants just as my mother had been. Most of them had come from countries in Central and South America. They struggled with many of the same issues that my mom had faced, and so I felt a particular impetus to help them to feel welcome and beloved in their new home. I also realized that some faced the additional challenge of being so called illegals. They had been brought to Texas as children without any of  the proper papers. They grew up in a state of fear that they might one day be forced to return to a place that had become foreign to them. They were the “Dreamers.”

Of late politics have pushed two issues to front and center, namely immigration and abortion. Ironically those topics are at odds with the way I was taught to think, which is to value human life above all else. On the one hand, I worry about the people fleeing to our borders in attempts to escape hopeless lives, and on the other hand I am increasingly appalled by the almost blasé attitude of the murder of unborn children. The irony for me is that quite often those who are concerned about the immigrant issues think of abortion as simply a matter of choice rather than violence, while those who are adamantly opposed to the influx of immigrants without limits are often deeply saddened by abortion. Somehow I see the two has having much in common, and find it difficult to understand the inconsistencies in current thinking.

I was therefore rather excited to learn that there is a group of pro-life women known as the New Wave Feminists who are demonstrating their genuine concerns for all people and all life by raising funds to bring the immigrants now being held at the border the kind of supplies that they so desperately need. In other words, they are putting their beliefs into action rather than simply complaining about the situations. Their spokesperson, Herndon De la Rosa has expressed their thinking quite beautifully, “We are pro-life because we care about the inherit human dignity of every living person, inside the womb and out,” Herndon-De La Rosa says. She feels a heightened responsibility to not look away from people at the border because “as a Texan . . . it’s happening in my backyard,” she notes. “All are vulnerable and all are human beings.” (National Review, July 8, 2019)

We have too many politicians these days who seem to believe that being bipartisan or using consensus to solve problems is a sign of weakness. They think that there is only one possible way of seeing issues, and anything less than total victory for their causes is unacceptable. As  a result, much of the humanity that I was taught to treasure is being hurt while the fights between ideas rage on. We are indeed all human beings and all vulnerable. Our instinct should be to first do no harm, and then find a way to hammer out a way of dealing with our differences in a manner that considers the value of all humans.

I am not so naive as to think that any of our problems will be easily solved or that our solutions will be perfect, but the reality is that both the living and the unborn are suffering even as we rant and rave with one another. Surely it is time to consider that we will ultimately be stronger by remembering to love while we determine how to honor the inherent dignity of all persons both living and unborn. Long ago we got it wrong when we allowed slavery to continue as we began our country. Perhaps it’s time that we learn from our mistakes of the past and move forward together. 

A Time To Remember

prodigal_sonI grew up in Catholic schools and we were not exactly Biblical scholars. I understood the gist of the stories and parables in that great book, but I would be lost if I had to name the chapters and verses that contain various elements. Still I have enough familiarity with the four books that comprise the volume that I am able to relate both the history in the Old Testament and the story of Jesus in the New. What I learned is that Jesus was all about love and redemption. Over and over again he pushed back against the rule oriented Pharisees and preached the importance of understanding that He had come to remind us all that God is open to each and every one of us and that it is never too late to ask for forgiveness.

Jesus was often misunderstood by the people of His time which ultimately resulted in His being hung from a cross like a common criminal. So it is little wonder that even people who profess to be experts in the interpretation of His words might come up with ideas that appear to be more in line with the Pharisees than with Jesus. Somehow we can all hear or read the very same passages and come up with differing interpretations of them. It’s been happening for centuries and no doubt will continue as long as we humans attempt to unravel the instructions of how best to use Jesus’ instructions for how to behave toward one another.

One of my favorite parables was that of the Prodigal Son. Jesus told this story after the Pharisees and other critics suggested that He was often sinful in the selection of people with whom He associated. They disliked that Jesus was friends with tax collectors and women of dubious character and such. They worried about how He flaunted the religious laws by performing miracles on the Sabbath. They felt that Jesus too often excused bad behavior when He should have instead condemned it. What they didn’t appear to understand is that Jesus was preaching a new way of living that promised every human a pathway to amnesty regardless of how egregious their sins might once have been. Somehow large numbers of people who purport to be loving Christians have forgotten this message and instead use fire and brimstone passages from the Old Testament to defend their unforgiving stances on various issues.

The whole idea of illegal immigration, and in particular the Dreamers is a perfect example of how very religious people have somehow become unwilling to even consider the idea of forgiving those who broke the law or those who were brought to our country without consent when they were children. We have forgotten the story of the the Prodigal Son, perhaps the most powerful tale that Jesus ever related. In it he spoke of a very wealthy man who had two sons, one of whom became impatient to receive his inheritance and asked his father to give it to him immediately. The errant son took his father’s treasure and went away with it, forgetting about his family and living a profligate life. After losing everything he was starving and desperate. He came back home with the intention of begging his father to take him back as a servant to earn his keep. Instead when the loving father saw his son returning he rushed out to meet him, instructing the servants to clothe his child in fine robes. He not only forgave his son but planned a celebratory meal for him. When the other son who had been faithful to his father heard what was happening he was irate, questioning why his brother should be honored when he had been so thoughtless. The father reminded the angry son that a parent’s love is unconditional and that by prostrating himself the prodigal son had demonstrated his willingness to change and seek forgiveness.

I think of this parable whenever the subject of illegal immigration is mentioned. I realize that we cannot as a nation continue to allow people to break the law without consequence, but there are people here who came for very good reasons which we may or may not understand. They have lived peacefully among us, working hard and doing their best to fit into our society. Since we did little to turn them back initially they have little hope of returning to their native countries and finding a livelihood because they have been gone for too long. The truth is that we sat back for decades and did nothing to stop them. Now many among us want to simply turn their backs on these people and send banish them without any thought to what doing so may mean. There are even some who wish to punish their children who were brought when they were too young to even understand what was happening. Like the Pharisees so many Americans and lawmakers only see the rules and not the humanity of the situation. They shout down any plan that might rectify the status of these individuals without giving them actual citizenship, but requiring them to come out of the shadows. They speak of amnesty as if it is a dirty word rather than one that Jesus Himself would no doubt have appreciated given His propensity for forgiving people thought to be hopelessly broken. 

I tend to believe that our political leaders who continually oppose all immigration plans that propose even a smattering of forgiveness are mostly concerned about losing political power. They don’t seem to realize that their unwillingness to bend and compromise even a bit is only exacerbating the problem. They spread silly ideas that they should not concern themselves with the fate of immigrants rather than the safety of Americans. They point to the lawlessness of those who would cross our borders without permission and insinuate that most who come here are criminals. They raise the fears of our citizens by suggesting that terrorists will be coming if we do not have a hard line. Instead of telling us what chain immigration is and why we have it, they just make us afraid of it. They point to criminals who came here through chain immigration as though such incidents are the norm. They constantly speak of rules that must never be broken, forgetting how often Jesus did just that to emphasize our need to be compassionate and loving. They conveniently forget the ultimate message of redemption by His death on the cross.

As I write this the government shut down for a short time because our leaders were at an impasse. A few days later they grudgingly agreed to a short term fix, but left all of the big problems for another day. Who knows how well those discussions are going to go given the fact that we haven’t had many bipartisan moments in years. We appear to no longer be able to compromise. I suspect that if our Founding Fathers had been this way we might all still be part of the British Empire like Canadians. They would have argued infinitely and gotten nowhere, which is where we are now. 

There are those who want to lay blame for the state of our union and I would like to suggest that there is plenty to go around to everyone including those of us who vote. Of late we have turned our backs on anyone who has shown the desire to bring the country together for the general good. While we are bickering real people are being hurt and we are forgetting about all of those beautiful parables that Jesus taught us, and yet Jesus Himself would be loving and understanding even of those of us who have sometimes forgotten or ignored His message. Maybe the time has come to remember it the way it was intended to be.

What Would Jesus Do?

15245699_GHer name is Rosa Maria. She is ten years old and has cerebral palsy. She’s just had gallbladder surgery and is being released from the hospital with her aunt by her side. She wears a pair of pink fuzzy slippers and a balloon waves over the hospital bed on which she is being transported. She is confused and frightened because an armed man walks behind her. He is a member of ICE and is taking the little girl to a detention center because she is an undocumented immigrant who came to the United States when she was only three months old. Her mother brought her across the border so that she might get the medical care that she will need for all of her life. Her grandfather and her aunt are legal and they take her to her appointments just as she was brought to San Antonio for her recent surgery. She will go to the detention center without her aunt or her mom. She will be kept there, alone and wondering what is happening. It can’t be easy for her. She is young and innocent but she is being treated like a criminal.

Maritza lives in northeast Houston. She attends Furr High School and is one of the top students. Her modest home flooded when hurricane Harvey dumped fifty one inches of rain on Houston. The rooms are now empty and life is difficult for her family, but Maritza’s mom urges her to make the most of each day in spite of the family’s problems. Maritza is also an undocumented immigrant. She was planning to enroll with the government to extend her grace period for being here. Because of the rains Maritza was unable to meet the deadline for submitting the paperwork. She had been waiting for information from her school, but it was so damaged that it did not open in time for her request to be honored. Now Maritza worries that she will be deported and all of her hopes and dreams will evaporate. She had been on track to attend a Texas university and earn a degree, the first in her family to do so. She is a good girl who had nothing to do with her illegal entry into the country. She has studied hard and worked to be a model citizen even though that distinction is not offered to her. She had hoped that Congress would offer an extension to the young undocumented students of Houston, but they have refused.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said that it is not compassionate to offer amnesty to those who have broken the immigration laws. He and the President and many members of Congress concur that those who flaunted the rules must pay for their crimes. So Rosa Maria and Maritza and others who have known no other home than the United States presently live in fear of being sent to countries of which they have little or no familiarity. Their lives have been upended and they continually live in fear of the moment when someone will knock on their doors and take them to a detention center just as was done with Rosa Maria. Their ultimate fates are uncertain, dependent on a Congress that has shown little inclination to work together to accomplish anything, much less pass a permanent law that will protect them. They worry that they will become victims of the current anti-immigrant ardor that has taken hold of so many citizens, most of whom care little about the personal stories of those affected.

There is a kind of coldness of heart, a meanness that is sweeping the land in a so-called effort to make America great again. Many citizens view the immigrant situation through a narrow lens that does not allow for exceptions. Surprisingly a fair number of those who are so adamant that the undocumented should be sent to their original homes have never even met any so called illegals. They have little idea of the human cost of decisions that do not consider the unexpected consequences of their thinking. They suggest that they might be willing to offer a DACA like law for the young people, but only if it includes the building of a wall between the United States and Mexico and if there are strict penalties for those who came here without documentation as adults. Sadly it appears that none of those things will garner enough votes to pass, and so the fates of Maritza and Rosa Maria and others like them hang in the political balance.

I live in the Houston, Texas metropolitan area. It is estimated that that ten percent of the students in the Houston Independent School District are undocumented and were brought here by their parents at a time when they wee too young to have any idea of what was happening. They have lived here for the entirety of their lives and know no other ways. They speak English and have adopted many of our customs in addition to those of their parents. They cheer for the Astros, the Texans, the Rockets and the Dynamos. They wear western gear when the rodeo comes to town. They enjoy going to movies and shopping at the mall. They have friends at school and teachers who care deeply about them. They like to eat Whataburgers and buy groceries at HEB. They feel as American as any of their peers and yet they hide the secrets of their situations. For a time after President Obama signed DACA through an executive order they felt safe. They began to dream. Many of them went to college and earned degrees. They have been working and living decent and productive lives. Now a shadow hovers over them. They have no idea what they will become of them. President Trump gave Congress six months to pass legislation to fix the problem. The clock is ticking and no solution appears to be on the horizon. Nobody seems willing to budge from their ideologies to help them. They can only wait and hope but their fears grow with each passing day.

Rosa Maria still sits alone in a detention center without her mother or the love and protection of her family. It is heartbreaking to attempt to imagine what a nightmare this all must be for her. It is difficult to understand how uncaring the adults who have done this to her appear to be. Sometimes we need to remember that forgiveness is not a sign of weakness. One of the last acts of Jesus before He died on the cross was to forgive the thief who expressed his sorrow. I have always believed that this was a very purposeful act designed to show us that how we also should behave and to help us understand that nobody should be forever doomed for actions done in the past, particularly when they had no control over what happened. If we ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” I have little doubt that the answer is couched in mercy.

It’s past time for all of us to demonstrate enough compassion and trust in our fellow man to grant people like Rosa Maria and Maritza the peace of mind that they so need. We must urge our Congresspersons to think beyond their own prejudices and find it in their hearts to model kindness for all of us. I have grown weary of the fighting and ugliness that so permeates our world. It’s time for a change and this is a good place to start.

End the Pain

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Most of the students whom I have taught over the years were Hispanic. They have been delightful, hard working and determined to make the most of their lives. Many of them were the first in their families to graduate from high school and then they went on to earn degrees from colleges or become certified to perform certain trades. They epitomize the kind of individuals that we hope will take the reins of leadership in the future. I have been profoundly honored over the years to teach and serve them and their families.

Now and again I encountered a gang member or someone intent on causing trouble but those kinds of kids were the rare exception and I have grown to love the gentle and giving natures that my kids have brought from countries south of our border. I never bothered to find out who was here legally and who was not, but when I was the testing coordinator it became all too apparent who was not a citizen because they did not have Social Security numbers. So many of the students in that category were incredibly talented and hard working. I worried about their immigration status constantly. I watched some of my proteges crying and greatly distressed when they received acceptances and scholarships from prestigious universities because they feared that leaving the state of Texas might reveal their status and place them in danger of being deported, so they often stayed within the boundaries of home rather than taking risking travel.

The most heart crushing aspect of their situations was that the vast majority knew little or nothing about the countries from which they had come. They were brought here by their parents when they were far too young to remember the worlds of their births. They grew up in the United States of America speaking both English and Spanish, but they were bonafide Americans through and through. Being here is what they know, and while they were children they had little idea of the danger they were in. It was only as they grew older that they began to realize the uncertainty of their situation. It might be argued that they need to be sent back because their parents’ broke the law, but I would posit that it is ludicrous to punish them for something that they did not do. We were lax and lazy and unwilling to reform our immigration laws. We allowed time to elapse to the point where it really is too late to do anything other than make them all legal.

There were bipartisan attempts to pass laws that would have permanently reformed immigration, but they were defeated and resulted in some Congressmen like John McCain and Marco Rubio who sponsored the bill being treated like pariahs. The truth is that they were the true heroes along with the other six lawmakers who had the good sense to understand that we could not continue ignoring the problem.

I worried when President Obama created DACA for the Dreamers by executive action. He had to know as I did that all it would take to eliminate the safety net was to get someone in office whose political philosophies did not mesh with his. It was apparent that the plan might one day be rescinded because it was not a law. It was wrong to mislead so many and have them believe that they were finally safe. In fact I watched an episode of the program Nightline in which it was noted that President Obama actually jumped the gun with DACA because Congress was literally on the verge of passing a law that would have protected the Dreamers. When Obama grew fearful that it might not go through he issued his executive order and essentially killed the idea of actually passing a law. So in some ways everyone has a bit of guilt with regard to this issue and that includes those of us who vote because we became complacent.

I suspect that President Obama wrongly assumed that Hillary Clinton would follow him into the presidency and give the Dreamers more time and protection. Now the issue has come to a head, and it’s time for all lawmakers and voters to face the music and devise a bipartisan plan that is fair and just and that takes a good hard look at all of the issues. This will require political compromise, not rancor. It is time to settle this once and for all and admit that these young people did not break the law and that they are simply victims of legislative laziness and lack of foresight.

We the People must challenge both Republicans and Democrats to work this out. Reforming immigration laws to help the Dreamers should not be a political football. It must take into  consideration of the needs of a group of young people who are presently terrified. All grandstanding has to be set aside, and that includes blistering commentaries from those who want to make political hay. Such harangues will not get things done the way they need to be approached. Instead all of us who understand the realities of the situation in which so many young people now find themselves must exert political pressure on all lawmakers to do whatever it takes to resolve the issues and produce a reform plan that is both realistic and sympathetic.

I have never believed in punishing young people for the sins of their fathers or grandfathers. If we were to adhere to such a way of operating few of us would be accepted by society. Instead we must consider what will happen to young men and women if they are suddenly ushered out of the country that has been their home for decades. Put yourself in their shoes and consider how you would feel if you were abruptly told that you were brought here illegally when you were still a child. Would you be happy about being sent to live in Slovakia or Italy or France or any foreign place from whence your parents might have come? Of course you would not. It would be a most disturbing prospect. We need to reassure the Dreamers that we have no intention of allowing such a thing to happen. It would be a travesty of the highest order.

I happened to watch a program about the division of India the other evening. Fourteen million people were displaced as a result of an order that suddenly created Pakistan and independent India. Those of Muslim descent who had lived for their entire lives in territory belonging to India felt the need to move and vice versa. Lives were totally wrecked and the death toll from the partioning was inexcusable. We have to use our common sense and not be tied to black and white arguments, but must take into account shades of grey. As both a parent and a teacher I found again and again that sometimes rules must  be changed to make any sense whatsoever. This is one of those times, and this is the moment when we must make the protections ironclad by creating a law that forever eliminates the fear that has stalked these young people for far too long.

In the name of humanity this we must do. We here in Houston have learned the value of every single life in the last couple of weeks. One of our own was a Dreamer who actually died while attempting to rescue others. He was extraordinarily heroic, but he was also not so different from the other young people who were brought illegally into this country before they were old enough to even realize what was happening. They are good solid citizens, the kind of people who will always help in an emergency. We need them here. We want them here, so please members of Congress put the animosities aside and create the law that you should have passed long ago. End the pain now!