Several years ago my friend, Arturo, invited me to return with him to his hometown of Santa Ana, a small village in Mexico, for its annual festival celebrating the Saint from which the town is named. Arturo began working in this village when he was nine years old, carrying forty-pound bags of sand for a construction company. When he was fourteen, he immigrated to the United States, where he worked twelve hours a day six days a week as a dishwasher in a relative’s restaurant. By his late twenties, he opened his own restaurant. And now, almost twenty years later, he owns four restaurants and employs over fifty people. He is, as they say, a self-made man.
His village was quaint, beautiful, and certainly off the tourist track. The only American I saw was the one in the mirror. But they knew how to throw one hell of a festival. Lasting a week, there was a parade every day, a carnival that stretched through the town, and twelve to twenty member mariachi bands that played until 3:00 a.m. while people danced and celebrated.
I was embraced by Arturo’s family, friends and the community stretching between a long lost brother and a celebrity. Laughing men shook my hand and slapped me on the back. Smiling women kissed me on the cheek and fed me until I felt I would burst. Each year at the festival they held a soccer game between the local team and a team comprised of men who had immigrated out of the country and returned to visit, and I was included on this team as the honorary gringo. They tousled my hair and good-naturedly teased me when we watched Mexico beat the USA in a World Cup qualifying game. They made sure I had a dancing partner for every dance until I was so exhausted I had to hide in Arturo’s truck to get some rest. I had never experienced generosity and hospitality to this extent before.
On the last day of my visit, we went to a pig roast at Arturo’s grandfather’s. A small man in a pressed white cowboy shirt and bolo tie, his white cowboy hat was so broad it seemed almost too heavy for him to balance. When Arturo introduced me to him, he took both my hands in his and quietly and very seriously said something to me in Spanish. I asked Arturo what he said.
“He wants to thank you for what you and your country have done for his family,” Arturo said. Understanding that Arturo had translated his words, he nodded at me, continuing to grip my hands.
“You’re welcome,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
When I hear the anti-immigrant rhetoric going around these days, the first image that pops into my head is the image of this kind, dignified old man, to whom I symbolized a country to which he felt so much gratitude. I think of these humble, generous, joyful people who embraced me so eagerly. I think in these times it’s easy to forget the humanity we share with all people from every corner of the earth. Sure, there are bad people in Mexico like anywhere else. But I certainly didn’t meet any rapists or murderers. The experience I describe is not the whole experience of a culture, but an important part of the whole. One that affected me deeply. I offer it in the hopes you have room for it in your worldview as well.