Often, the narrative of the Latin@ immigrant is one of “good” immigrant versus “bad” immigrant. That is, there is the “good” hardworking, family centered, grateful, unquestioningly US loving immigrant and the “bad” fuck ups who are every other immigrant (queers, those who won’t/don’t learn English, women who are pregnant, drug addicts, etc). Vivir Latino has investigated this good/bad dichotomy for a very long time–and tried to complicate it. Which is why I found the following article about a drug dealer from Mexico to be very compelling and interesting.
Esteban Avila–an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, lived a life of extreme poverty and surrounded by violence until he found a way out. He was recruited to sell black tar, or heroin, in the US. Life improved considerably for him and his family (and oddly enough, even for his community), but came at the expense of the people in the US who he sold drugs to:
When he was a boy, the village of Emiliano Zapata was poor and notorious for its violence. In The Toad, where Avila’s family lived, roofs leaked and the hills were the bathroom. When Avila and his friends went to the village basketball court, other boys ran them off with rocks and insults.
Later, Avila wanted to join the Mexican Navy or highway patrol, but only sons of well-connected fathers were admitted, he said.
“In the United States, there’s no need to be a criminal to live well,” he said. “But in Mexico, they throw you into a dead end.”
At 14, Avila traveled to Tijuana, then slipped across the border and made his way to the San Fernando Valley.
“I wanted to look for some new way to live, something with a future,” he said. “I wasn’t going to find it in the village.”
But he didn’t want to go to school and he was too young to work. So he returned to Emiliano Zapata and bided his time working in the sugar cane fields.
In the mid-1990s, men from Xalisco began selling black-tar heroin across America. A friend who ran a heroin network recruited Avila to work as a driver in Phoenix.
Avila, then 19, accepted. Every day, he drove around the city, his mouth full of tiny, uninflated balloons, each filled with a tenth of a gram of heroin. Addicts phoned in orders. A dispatcher relayed them to Avila, who delivered the drugs to customers and collected payment.
Five months later, he took a bus back to Xalisco with $15,000 in his pocket. He was wearing new Levi’s 501s — a prized garment in many Mexican villages.
“That night was the first time we had more than enough to eat,” Avila said.
There were a few points in this article that made me uneasy. Namely that Avila feels no compunction at all about his drug selling. Coming from a community that has been devastated by drugs, I know that the people he was selling to were not top of the line drug users, but my next door neighbors (if that makes sense).
Also, I have a really hard time with sellers that display their drug wealth through clothes and extravagant lifestyle choices. Again, as somebody from a community that has been devastated by drugs, the jeans and thick gold chains and flashy cars are like a slap in the face to community members struggling to deal with the violence, addiction and even deaths of loved ones.
And yet, in Avila’s testimony, there remains the unequivical truth. Selling drugs made it so that his family could eat without worrying about where the food was coming from or how much if it there was for the first time. As somebody who has lived with poverty on and off throughout the years, I understand how desperate hunger can make a person–and how hunger in a loved one can send you over the edge. How it can harden you to the point you don’t care about anybody anymore–just the food. Getting the food so that you don’t have to hurt.
What it shows is that even in the cases of “bad” immigrants, what we are talking about is a complicated twisting of capitalism, a free market economy and human rights. In other words, what is the difference between “go getters” like Joe Kennedy (of John, Robert and Edward Kennedy fame) and Avila?
What is the difference, really, between Avila and a “good” immigrant that just wants what’s best for her family? Avila is more broken (or is he?) than what we think of as “good” immigrants–but at the base level, he wants what’s best for his family. He wants his family to not be hungry.
SO what do we do here, with this “bad” immigrant? Will punitive actions stop Avila’s from coming into the US–or from contributing to addiction (and all the government violence directed toward ending addiction in the US) in the US? What would happen if we stopped looking for punitive ways to end drug violence in the US–and assume that sellers (as WELL as users) are people acting from a place of humanity? That they want what’s best for their families, just like “good” people do? Or, by way of compromise, if we put drug pushers in jail AND work on ways to end poverty in the various communities that are sending their sons into such dangerous work?
Is there a way to complicate not just the good/bad immigrant dichotomy, but to also complicate the *responses* to “good” and “bad” immigrants?