Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced two weeks ago that he is activating 1,000 National Guard troops as a “force multiplier” to “combat the brutal Mexican drug cartels that are preying upon our communities.” Perry noted, “I will not stand idly by while our citizens are under assault and little children from Central America are detained in squalor. We are too good of a country.”
State and federal politicians seriously engaged in the current debate concerning Central American asylum seekers at the United States boarder, should read Sandra Cisneros' 1984 classic The House on Mango Street to help inform their flawed policy discussion. Raw, poignant and stylistic, The House on Mango Street is a series of 44 vignettes that form an insightful collage of emotions and environments faced by American immigrants. In particular, Cisneros exposes dissociation, sexual exploitation and desperation—the same heavy costs of leaving home which Central American asylum seekers confront today.
"Geraldo" is one of the many powerful vignettes of Mango Street. No one knows the last name of this young man who is killed by hit and run on Saturday night after attending a dance. While the hospital and police are slow to respond to Geraldo's care, no one can properly identify him. "Just another brazer who didn't speak English. Just another wetback. You know the kind. The ones who always look ashamed."
Dissociation is also shown when Esperanza, the preteen main character, has just moved to Mango Street and wants to make friends. Cathy, the lady with hundreds of cats in her house, says "I'll be your friend. But only 'till next Tuesday. That's when we are moving away. The neighborhood is getting bad." In the end, Cisneros's story is about a girl who does not want to belong to Mango Street, yet Mango Street's inherent instability consumes Esperanza as she enters adulthood.
Sexual exploitation is another central theme of the book. On the day that hips suddenly bloom on young Esperanza, she wonders where they will take her. One friend notes, "They're good for holding a baby while you're cooking."
The women surrounding Esperanza are painfully exploited. Alicia must raise a household full of children because her mother has died. Young and smart, Alicia tries to attend university classes, two trains and a bus ride from her inherited responsibilities. Rachel, another preteen, wears flashy lemon shoes to feel beautiful, which attracts a drunken bum offering money to kiss her. Gorgeous Sally's father beats her when she interacts with boys. When she finally slips her patron, Sally rebels with promiscuity in the neighborhood garden. Sally quickly ends up married to a traveling marshmallow salesman, even though she is still a teenager. Sexual exploitation engulfs life, especially for the young and attractive female migrant, and this infuriates Esperanza.
Desperation is everywhere on Mango Street, like the four skinny trees that fight to stay alive on the block. To survive, Esperanza must help support her family, and despite that she is underage, her aunt gets her a minimum-wage job at a photo-finishing station. Esperanza borrows money for bus fares and lunch, because she does not get paid for weeks. She learns hard work from her Papa, "who wakes up tired in the dark, who combs his hair with water, drinks his coffee and is gone before we wake."
If American immigration policy makers were less political and more humane, they would comprehend the desperation, sexual exploitation and dissociation that currently face Central American asylum seekers. In short, these children chose a hostile American environment over an unlivable homeland, a hardship that they are painfully aware of in their home countries.
How horrendous and unsafe must the conditions be in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala (a horror created by voracious illicit drug consumption in America) to inspire children toward a dubious American future, away from their family and friends? Just as Central Americans hear rumors that "they will not be refused at the border," these same asylum seekers know the hardships of American immigrant life which Sandra Cisneros articulates so beautifully.