I was sitting at the bar in el Hueso del Fraile, a coffee shop in downtown Brownsville. Laura, the owner, was working with a younger friend of hers putting together sandwiches. My friend from the ACLU was going to show a film ("Two Americans") later that evening, and the two women were getting ready for business.
As they laid out sandwich meats and dressings, they shared dreams. “I would like to found an orphanage based on art,” said the younger woman. “Art helps you discover yourself even as you express what you discover.” Her eyes shone with the idea. Laura smiled and said that she knew just the place, a large, abandoned house down the street. I chimed in that I had had my eye on that place as well, and that I, too, thought that it would be a great space for a community of elderly folks mixed with younger ones.
Laura and I discovered that not only did we both like that house as a possible place for a community, we both liked it so much that we had made it a point to buy a lotto ticket each week, “just in case” fate agreed with our grand ideas.
The two women continued to lay out their plans, these Mexican immigrants intent on using art to defuse loneliness and need, plotting on ways to make things a good deal better than they were.
Soon afterward, Hank, a tall, rail thin man dressed in khaki, from his brown ten gallon cowboy hat down to his boots, wandered into the café. After ordering his coffee, he folded himself into one of the chairs and started looking over the ACLU material. He peered over at me and said, “Hey! Are you ACLU?” I smiled in my most disarming manner and said, “Yes, sir, I am a card-carrying ACLU nutcase.” He looked at me for a minute, and shook his head. He picked up a pocket constitution that the ACLU hands out, and he asked, “You folks are all about the Constitution, right? Then you tell me where in the Constitution it says that illegal aliens have any rights in this country?”
While I knew that this was a rhetorical question, I was, after all, card-carrying, so I started sharing my scant knowledge about the fifth and fourteenth amendments and equal protection under the law. Hank would have none of it. “You need to start with the eleventh amendment,” he said, “There ain’t no place in the Constitution that says that we should protect illegals.”
Laura, the immigrant with good dreams, brought Hank a refill for his coffee.
A short time later, the film began. It was a hard one to watch, as it featured Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Katherine, a nine-year-old victim of one of the Sheriff’s immigration raids in Phoenix. Arpaio and his cronies positively crowed about their meanness, the sheriff nodding and winking as he spoke about “law and order.” The filmmakers interviewed a couple of white midwestern retirees about Arpaio, and they gushed and carried on as if the whole anti-immigrant operation was somehow cute and with no real consequences for people (much less for a nine year old who loses her parents in Arpaio’s game).
After a particularly dreadful spewing by the sheriff, Hank got up and left the café., taking a seat outside. Perhaps he was equally disgusted by Arpaio, or perhaps he was bored.
When I left, he was still sitting there, flipping the constitution open and shut. “Hey! ACLU man!” he shouted at me, “Let’s talk about rights!”
I ignored him, and continued on my way, leaving the white man sitting alone at his table.
As I opened my car door, a border patrol unit slowed down in front of the café, and then sped away, the patrolmen off to do their duty.
I looked back toward the café, the sun shining off of the front window. Inside, the movie was coming to a close. Astrid told me later that there was no applause at the end of the show, but that there were sandwiches, quiet talk and some music. And, I am sure, at least two immigrant women were speaking about how to humanize a frightened world, perhaps with art, or with music.