When I first arrived in Little Rock on May 21 of last year, I knew precious little about the region and the state of Arkansas in general. I knew that Bill Clinton had been governor of this state before becoming the 42nd president of the United States, and that he had been born in Hope. And that was about it.
During the last 25 years, I have made many journalistic “pit stops” all over the Southwest, Northwest and Midwest. Everywhere I've lived and worked, I've encountered more or less the same stories from immigrants I interviewed: Something about how a relative or friend, back in the old country (be it Mexico or some other Central American or South American nation), had related to them how it was possible to earn a much better wage, and access a much higher standard of living, in some city in California, or Texas, or Oregon, or Kansas, or any of the other states traditionally associated with Latin American immigrants.
Their beliefs, based on information they'd gotten from people who'd never been to the U.S., were almost like fairytales: When they got to their destination in the southwest, they thought, they would encounter money growing on trees, sweet manna falling from the sky, and untold riches would shower them in no time at all. I interviewed them shortly after they had arrived, whether it was right on the border, in El Paso, Texas; Albuquerque, N.M.; Pueblo, Colo., or in Stockton, Fresno, or some other town in the San Joaquin Valley in northern California.
The immigrants I interviewed in Little Rock did not come here directly. Most had first arrived in California, but some came here from Chicago, or Florida, and a few from as far away as New York. It was after months, or years, that they made their way to Little Rock. Like me, most of them had never heard of Little Rock — or Arkansas, for that matter — before arriving here. Unlike me, they came here fleeing from insidious gang violence, interracial strife, and disappearing or dead-end jobs.
All the Latin American immigrants I have interviewed here have told me that they are thankful they found Little Rock, since it has provided them with jobs that they can live on, and a peaceful, family-friendly lifestyle they most definitely did not find at their first destinations.
Many of them, especially the ones from Central American countries, are wary and do not volunteer information easily (many of them have been deported before by la migra, the border patrol and immigration authorities, and therefore do not trust strangers, even if they do speak Spanish). But once I got past their justified mistrust, I was able to glean that most of them are savvy about the way things work in the U.S., and do not cling to any misguided rags-to-riches, pie-in-the-sky fantasies.
One Central American man in his sixties, Walter Alvarez, summed it up best when he told me, about a week after my arrival in Little Rock, that while it might be true that the construction job he had at the moment was not very well paid, and that in some instances in the past he feels that he has been exploited, “Still, even so, my current economic situation is better than what it was in the past, and certainly much, much better than what it was in my native country. Look, let's be honest here: People often say that we, the undocumented Latin American immigrants, are exploited in this country. But we've been exploited all our lives, and the first ones that exploited us were our own countrymen, back in our native lands. That's why we elected to leave, because we had no future there, other than to starve to death. We have passed from being los de abajo [the ones at the bottom rung of society] and los olvidados [the forgotten ones] in our countries to being los invisibles [the invisible ones] in this country. But we like our invisibility. It keeps us out of harm's way and allows us to work and live in peace here. That's why many of us live in trailer parks, because they're invisible, and we like it that way.”