Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The Best Country in the World

           In the late eighties I went back to the States for a summer and worked with Mexican migrant labourers in rural North Carolina. I was employed as a volunteer by some radical Mary Knoll Catholics, good people with good intentions who didn’t mind that I wasn’t a believer.

          North Carolina had changed a lot since I left it ten years earlier. During harvest season for crops like salad vegetables and tobacco, the population of small towns virtually doubled. The shelves of the Dunn, NC, Piggly Wiggly were full of tortillas and candles for the Virgin of Guadalupe.

          The idea was to run a free translation service, and also (as a radical side line) to check that the crew bosses were treating the workers fairly in their camps. I was given a pickup truck and a bedroom in a mobile home.  I bought a baseball cap as camouflage.  The locals had a history of extreme racial prejudice and didn’t much like foreigners.
          One of the jobs I inherited was ferrying a few devout migrants to mass on Sunday.  I could sit outside and wait as their sins were washed away and they consumed some communion wafers and wine. Afterwards, I usually took one of the Mexicans to a Sunday barbeque at the nuns’ headquarters.

 One Sunday I had a man named Ruben in tow. We sat at a big table with the jolly sisters and ate fried chicken. They had a guest, a rich young man from Panama, who knew the priest from when he had a church in Central America. He carried a picture of himself kissing the ring of Pope John Paul II, taken when his wealthy family were granted an audience during the visit in which His Holiness refused to bless the radical priests of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. He bragged for twenty minutes or so.
           Then he said, “America is the best country in the world, isn’t it?”

No one replied to this.  Ruben bent his face to his chicken and ignored the question. But the guy kept at it.  He nudged Ruben, and said, “Well, isn’t it?”
           “I don’t think so,” Ruben said.

The Panamanian snorted. “Then why does everyone in Latin America try to come and live here? Tell me that.” He looked around at us, resting his case.
            Ruben put a drumstick carefully on the side of his plate and wiped his mouth. He glanced apologetically at the nuns and said, “We’ve come to get our fucking money back.”


  1. Great story, Art. Good for Ruben. I'm going to forward the link to my son Ben Daniel, who as a minister and writer is an activist for undocumented immigrant laborers.

  2. Just found your blog. Thanks for sharing.......I've bookmarked it to read when you write......

  3. I think they'll be there for a while, bless 'em.