Behind the kitchen door – An Irishwoman’s Diary on California’s sanctuary cities

Behind the kitchen door in every Californian bistro, bar, restaurant, or family home is an invisible, underpaid, undocumented workforce

Behind the kitchen door in every Californian bistro, bar, restaurant, or family home is an invisible, underpaid, undocumented workforce

 

It’s the first week of 2019. President Trump and Congress are still in deadlock over the building of this stupid fecking symbolic $5.9 billion wall, which he wants but the majority of Californians don’t.

So here we are, my Guatemalan goddaughter Daisy and I, eating beef tacos with Daisy’s father Jose and mother Jemima. Jose is a handyman, Jemima is a cleaner and caregiver. None have papers; but ever since the last amnesty 30 years ago, this has been a “sanctuary city”. Jemima and Daisy have just arrived: they’d walked 3,000 miles across Mexico and the length of the state. And we’re drinking inky-black Guatemalan shade-grown coffee from the wild cowboy town near the border where they’re from, Huehuetenango.

On a day when nobody works except for immigrants, and the US government is still stuck at home over this stupid stand-off, they’ve been up ladders cleaning gutters. It’s not their first ladder – there’s a lot of border wall already. Jemima fell off the existing wall three times yet tried again.

Behind the kitchen door in every Californian bistro, bar, restaurant, or family home is an invisible, underpaid, undocumented workforce of many – Asian, Latino – even Mayans, speaking the Mayan of Montezuma.

Like all neo-Californians I can’t imagine a world without immigrants, and at the same time I feel guilty. Who would run the local cafe without them? Who would pick grapes, make wine, smile and serve? Who would pump gas, stock supermarkets, tend kids, the elderly or sick? Visitors sometimes wonder why there is no working class here. But there is – immigrants doing the work that white people won’t. We are always immigrants: a cliché that happens to be true; and this place was Mexico until 1846.

And some do really well – our own district attorney, or Amelia Moran Ceja in Napa, the first Hispanic woman president of a vineyard, Ceja, most highly praised in Napa, with the flintiest whites.

Amelia was born in Las Flores, Jalisco, but her father worked in the “bracero” in “El Norte” from 1942 to 1964. Founded during the second World War, this programme invited immigrants to replace the missing soldiers on farms by agreement with the Mexican government.

It wasn’t permanent but worked pretty well along “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” lines.

Then Reagan gave three million immigrants an amnesty in 1986, and it became political tinder.

“My mother, my sister, and I lived with my grandparents while my father worked in ‘El Norte’ as a grape picker. We didn’t realise it but we had the very best food. My grandmother Juanita Fuentes was a fabulous cook, with ingredients from her ten hectares: chickens, cows, goats, pigs. My grandfather grew corn, beans and vegetables, plus wild epazote (bitter greens) and mushrooms.”

I’ve collected her recipes: simple, authentic and vivid.

“Every year my grandparents picked out new beans and corn for tortillas and stored them in their dry adobe room harvested as needed. Cheese was cow and goat, meat too – not idyllic, but every year my father came back with his pockets full.”

She followed him north and met her husband Pedro and his brother Armando, studying enology and viticulture at university. Together they bought and founded their vineyard. They crushed and fermented their award-winning pinot noir and it’s thriving. I’m telling you this story because I love Amelia and Pedro’s wines – too much – and am proud for them. This is how it should be, isn’t it?

Meanwhile the many thousands of Latinos who are here illegally are crushed by not getting decent employment they are qualified for, or fearing ICE ( Immigration and Customs Enforcement), and now they have to fear for their kids too, and it’s unfair in the simplest sense. Our cities are “sanctuary cities” and a similar “bracero” programme again for supercoders would be feasible and easy. God knows it would be preferable to little children dying of dehydration in the desert, 550 locked up and crying or being dragged into a cell.

When Ronald Reagan was announcing his amnesty for three million immigrants in 1986, something the current administration forgets) he didn’t talk insultingly about criminals and drugs: “Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit,” he said. “And then while they’re working and earning here, they pay taxes here. And when they want to go back they can.”

Nobody found that objectionable. Reagan added that the border should be open “both ways” – and border security should “take into account the economic challenges facing Mexico”. After Reagan, George HW Bush said immigration policy needed to be “understanding” toward the “really honourable, decent, family-loving people” that had crossed the US-Mexico border without documentation.

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