Editorial: My Crazy, Undocumented Uncle

By Michelle Lynn Kahn, CMC ’12

The first time I saw Walter Gonzales, he was running through my house. A four-inch nail pierced his palm, stained vibrantly crimson by the blood that gushed from his wound. He was yelling in Spanish – gibberish to me at ten years old – phrases he would later teach me to never repeat. When he reached the bathroom sink, he poured hydrogen peroxide on his mutilated hand, shook his arm for a few seconds, and said, in broken English, “Okay, back to work, boss!”

I had no idea what was going on. I later discovered that my next-door neighbors, in the midst of remodeling their beautiful, two-story, Beverly Hills-adjacent McMansion, had picked Walter up at the nearest Home Depot in South Central Los Angeles, where swarms of undocumented workers still wait – day after day, hour after hour – for some sort of compensable work.

Walter was one of the masses – the nameless, faceless and yes, illegal, immigrants. Walter, his wife, and their three children had just made the perilous trek from Guatemala and had settled in a friend of a friend’s one-bedroom apartment in Koreatown. They lived in relative secrecy, trusting few and fearing discovery.

For some reason, though, Walter came to trust my father. The two had developed a strange sense of camaraderie, working together on the remodel of my garage, kicking back one too many Budweisers and howling along to Beatles songs. By the summer’s end, Walter had become part of the family, a welcome guest at barbeques and Shabbat dinners and a constant source of entertainment. To me, he was not just an undocumented day-laborer; he was a crazy uncle, a basketball competitor, and my first Spanish teacher.
Walter has remained an integral part of my life. I’ve seen him overcome injury after injury – a telephone cable cutting off his pinky, a broken mirrored wall lacerating his left hand, an accidental fall shattering his right wrist. Each time, he patches himself up and completes the construction job. His work ethic, in spite of the 12-packs of Bud Light he often shares with my father, is far better than mine.

But a few months ago, Walter missed a Friday night dinner invitation and we have not seen him since. And given Arizona’s new race-based immigration law and others that may follow, we will probably never see him again. This conservative pushback in border states necessitates progressive federal action. Absent cohesive national policy, border state governments and their so-called “Minutemen” constituents are starting to win their battle for their own conception of justice. When will diligent workers and family men like Walter Gonzales receive theirs?

Months ago, I pegged immigration as health care’s successor. If the Vitter-Bennett amendment, which sought to add a question about immigration status to the 2010 U.S. Census, was any indication, immigration strikes at the core of entitlements, the economy, apportionment, and taxation. I would also argue, to our Campus Editor’s dismay, that immigration is more pressing than climate change, to which the administration has turned its attention. President Obama on Sunday signaled immigration reform’s impending demise, telling reporters, “There may not be an appetite for it.” But like Walter, the estimated 11 million undocumented workers and their families could use a modicum of a federal effort. Green cards? Path to citizenship? We’re waiting.

Michelle Lynn Kahn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the Port Side, is a senior History-Government major at CMC. She just spent seven months in Europe, where orange juice has no pulp -- and is glad to be back in the Land of the Free and Home of the Fro-Yo. When she's not writing her senior thesis on Germany and Namibia, strategizing how to finagle her way into top history PhD programs, or learning French with a bunch of 5C freshmen, she'll be writing her new regular web-column "Schweinerei."

One Response to “Editorial: My Crazy, Undocumented Uncle”

  1. Judy Chernak says:

    What a sensitive, beautiful memoir! It is indeed heart-breaking when such a good person gets caught up in the rule of law. And, much as he himself deserves our sympathy, he and his family did indeed skirt the law of the land. If only there were a way that decent folks could be vouched for and given green cards while troublemakers could be weeded out, the problem could perhaps be solved. We must hope thoughtful, humane ways will be found to reward the good workers and deny entry to the undeserving. Thanks for writing this piece, Michelle.

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