I got a letter from a friend in El Salvador.
I think it’s worth thinking about as we sit down to our Thanksgiving meal — my favorite holiday. It’s worth thinking about too because it’s from what the immigration experts call a “sending” country, and immigration is big news these days.
Here is what my friend wrote. I’ve translated it for you.
“The harvest was superlative. Everything was better than it should have been. The rains were perfect throughout July and September, gorgeous heavy rains, sometimes night after night, the corn crop splendid.
“Then the rain stopped, a month earlier than it was supposed to stop: all late-planted corn and beans ruined, the sorghum stunted, the sesame a disaster, small farmers shocked by the financial consequence. What was generalized euphoria by the peasants just three weeks ago is sudden gloom.
“Went today into remote sugar plantation towns; the sugar harvest started this morning. Dust is everywhere, dust a month early. Many thousands of unemployed young men will have the chance to make $4.50 a day cutting cane with machetes. Some up before dawn cut enough to do a double — $9 — but they can barely walk if they do a double.
“Everyone contemplates darkly going to the USA. A dad I spoke to this morning described how his daughter made it to Pennsylvania. His daughter’s an organic farmer who just couldn’t make it here. He said the women are leaving with the youngsters, leaving the men back, waiting for the sugar jobs. El Salvador only barely makes it when the rain cooperates. Migration is the plan now: dreaming that a Pizza Hut will let you wash the floor.”
That, my friends, is why people are sneaking across the border.
It’s not because they want to rape you, or sell you drugs. It’s because their children are dying.
A young Salvadoran mother told me inside an immigration prison in Texas: “My children will never drink milk. I came here to try to make enough money so my children could drink milk.”
What would you do if you were in that situation?
But enough about the campesinos. What about the urban professionals?
“San Jose is a barrio deep inside Soyapango, the sprawling slum east of San Salvador. It has limited cable access, as the cable installers refuse to enter. There is no mail delivery; it’s too dangerous for letter carriers. For most of the past year even the police did not patrol the streets. The gang that rules San Jose is called 18. They are considered moderate and don’t kill police. But they extort. Every bus that enters San Jose must pay a dollar per trip. Usually a young man boards the bus and the drivers know the rules. There is no resistance; guns remain invisible. Every tiny store or vegetable seller pays a dollar or two a day.
“Everywhere there are young men hanging around with cellphones, reporting the comings and goings. Outsiders are not allowed to enter. Everyone knows the rules. Everyone obeys the rules. As a result the homicide rate has fallen.
“Recently, an anti-gang enforcement operation has forced the known leaders off the streets. Heavily armed police and army units with armored vehicles are capturing hundreds of alleged gang bangers, the petty extortionists and the suspected killers. Conversations on the bus rarely mention the gangs. People complain about the price of beans, the quality of the new crop of little Mexican avocados, the difficulty of crossing Mexico to get to McAllen, the price of Christmas lights, the cost of funerals.”
Happy Thanksgiving, my friends. I love the holiday — surrounded by family, food and laughter.