Safe House

The recent executive orders  regarding amnesty and immigration has turned so ugly, and fills me with grief and rage for the extraordinary men and women and children I have known who have lived in the U.S. without documentation. It  is perhaps the one of the darkest outcomes of this dark election.

I decided to share this small excerpt/draft from a larger non-fiction project I am working on – exploring  good and evil, memoir, and psychotherapy.


West Coast, April, 1978

14 years old

I woke up in the middle of the night and saw a man – a white man with blue eyes and a black beard – standing next to my bed. In the pitch black. His eyes lit by the reflection of the street light shining  through my bedroom window, the one that stood at the corner of our backyard of tall weeds. I screamed so loudly that the sound of my own voice  terrified me even more and I screamed louder still as I flew down the hallway toward my mother’s room. “A MAN!!!!! A MAN!” My mother and brothers raced toward my room as I ran in the opposite direction. Away.

Father took off down the stairs to the back basement to make sure everyone was in place and accounted for:

There was no evidence that anyone had been in my room at all. The doors and windows were all secured. The house was searched. Everyone was in their proper place.  Father’s verdict: Just a nightmare. Or me trying to get attention again. (The nightmares, gone for a while, had come back and I’d taken to  sleeping on my younger brothers floor two or three times a week to just to hear someone breathing in the same room.)

No good reason at all for me to have terrorized the whole house by screaming at the top of my lungs in the middle of the night.

It was the “others” in the back basement that Father had checked on. The ones who came and went only for one night or short stays, who were passing through, who had escaped from the strawberry fields mid-season – the ones who weren’t “regulars” so we didn’t all always learn their names – but recognized them by sight as they snuck down the side fence through the tall grass to the hidden side entrance. Usually we paid no attention and were used to the comings and goings of quiet strangers in and out of the basement. But Oscar and then Eddie – they had lived with us since the beginning.

None of them had work papers or green cards or visas. All of them had crossed the US/Mexico border illegally.

We met Oscar almost as soon as we arrived in California. Father, who was by now completely suspended from the pulpit, wanted to start his own business. He spent a few months trying to build fiberglass boats in an industrial park  warehouse. (It was the  first of many get-rich-quick schemes: a “Pyramid Power” sleep aid that people were supposed to stick their  pillow and head in at night.  The Paperbacks Only Book Bus – a retrofitted bus filled with book racks and books for sale that immediately ran afoul of all local zoning laws. “Guano Gusano”-  bags of earthworm shit sold as fertilizer with a creepy smiling worm in a sombrero as its logo.

Father came home from the boat warehouse one night with Oscar. Maybe he was sixteen or  seventeen years old – I didn’t know really, to me he was just old enough to be generally categorized as “grown up.” A shy, pretty boy with a curly mop of hair-  we couldn’t communicate with him since at first we had no Spanish and he had no English – but Father knew Latin so he could understand him well enough.

He’d been sleeping outside behind the industrial park, and was in the US to earn money and send it home to his parents and siblings who were very poor, almost starving. He was sick with fever, no where to go, no access to medical care.

What about the “back basement” Father wondered,  behind the garage, behind the spare bedroom and the rec room –  that large basement crawl space next to the unused garage with its practically hidden side door? A dirt floor sloped steeply upwards where the house was cut into the hill. A cot with a bedroll. A lightbulb or two. Some fans in the summer heat. A few blankets in the damp California winter. An outlet in the garage with a long  orange indoor/outdoor extension chord to power the small TV tuned by coat hanger antenna to the Spanish station at the lowest volume.

From that day on, Oscar lived “with” us, in the dark, dirt room. Sometimes he would have to hide  in a small shed which also served as an outhouse with a medical supply commode inside – entirely hidden in the unbelievably tall blind of weeds growing in our completely feral  backyard. The neighbors complained bitterly that our yard was a nuisance, a fire hazard, a home for pests –  but they would have hated us even more if they had known the realities it was actually hiding.

Oscar brought friends –  Eddie came the next year –  and their friends and co-workers who needed long term or temporary shelter, or emergency support, the others who we never knew. We shared Mom and Father’s old clothes, used sheets and blankets, and school books – whatever we had to spare that could be of use or sold or circulated. When we had leftovers from dinner I brought  them down.  No hotplates permitted.

We had a big Spanish English dictionary that we used when we needed to communicate something from upstairs to down, or from downstairs to up: Comida.  Frio. Calor. Agua. Gato. Perro. Papel hygeinco. Bombilla.
“We are put here to feed, clothe, house the poor.” Father would say. “And to make sure they have proper medical care…”

“Medical care? You mean they can’t go to the hospital ?”

“They could  be deported if they did.  I was a medic in the Korean War, remember? So we needn’t take that risk if we can address it ourselves.”

He took his large, metal military looking medical kit downstairs to the back basement once a week and would close the basement door and  stay down there for an hour or so. Once he gave Oscar some strong brown alcohol and put stitches in Oscar’s foot when he stepped on a piece of glass that cut right through his flimsy, worn sneakers. He took everyone’s  temperatures and kept them hydrated when they all got the barfing flu. He put cold towels on Eddie’s forehead and chest when he had a fever that went up over 104, and tylenol every two hours until the fever broke.

I was down in the rec room watching TV with Oscar when  he suddenly reached for the big dictionary and whispered, his eyes big, his tone grave:  “I. love. you.”

“Como?” I said.
“I love you.” Oscar repeated with a flicker of fear in his eyes. He handed me the dictionary.

I didn’t take it. “No lo entiendo? Um…  Buenos noches!  See you mañana!” and I marched quickly back to the upstairs.

Oscar was almost an adult. I was thirteen-  I didn’t know what was going on, only that it felt like the glimpse of a terrifying secret – and I was certain  that he already knew that those words translated to:  Te amo.  Te quiero. Te adoro. I knew that even though I hadn’t ever had Spanish in school yet.  Unsettled for the rest of the night, I finally told Mom what happened just before bed and Father went down to talk in the basement.

After about  twenty minutes or he came back upstairs:

“Oscar told me that when he was getting dinner earlier, the woman  st the register and looked him over and said ‘I loove you!'”  Here Father dropped his voice into a cartoon girly seductive whisper, flared his nostrils, flipped imaginary hair off his shoulders and made kissy lips. Father and Mom both started laughing at his show.
“She said ‘Who are you? I luuuv  you…’” now with even more mincing and lisping and  a flappy wrist just like when Jerry Lewis or Danny Kaye acted silly and dressed up in lady’s clothes.

“…so Oscar just wanted to know what it meant. That’s what he was asking. It was just all just a big misunderstanding… So its good we cleared that all up!” he brushed imaginary dirt briskly from his hands.

I  knew Oscar to be kind, his eyes always soft and protective when he was around us kids.  We watched afternoon TV together after school in the rec room  – with Oscar mediating  our sibling bickering about what channel to watch with patience and fairness.

We’d spend afternoons together so  Oscar’s English could get better – and we could learn some Spanish. “How to you say ‘palm tree’ in Spanish Oscar?”  we’d ask, pointing at one out the window.

“Oh, muy difficile!” He’d answer deadpan:

Palma.” and then roll his eyes and shake his head at us  making us all laugh.

I was in charge of my brothers  at home at night when Mom and Father went out on dates – whenever we asked where they were  going  Father would only answer: “Out. Away from children. Out.”-  I felt safer knowing Oscar and Eddie were downstairs, just a scream away if  some bad guy came and I needed help.

I didn’t think that Oscar was in love with me. But I didn’t think he was trying to tell me the silly story Father reported either. I didn’t know what Oscar was asking but wasn’t about  love. It was about something more frightening that that.

The mystery remained unsolved with a fresh distracting  scoop of danger each new day.

When we had friends over  they would sometimes see Oscar or Eddie or one of the others coming home along the fence: “No trabajo aqui!! NO TRABAJO!”  they would yell as their parents had taught them to when Mexican speaking laborers came to their front doors seeking yard work.
“No, no its okay. I think Father asked him to fix something in the garage – our lawn mower is broken or something…”  I’d say pointing the the seven foot tall wall of weeds behind the house.

We never permitted anyone to use  any of the  bad names for Mexican people in our presence –  which caused battles with white friends  at school . But we could never ever tell anyone why we fought so hard either, or about the people  who lived in the basement.  Mom and Father explained that we were  committing a federal crime for “harboring illegal aliens” and they could be sent to prison if we said a word about it to anyone at all.

It had to be an absolute secret.

At night we all froze in place and hoped everyone was inside and away from the small cellar windows whenever the INS choppers circled overhead shining spotlights in everyone’s yards and in our bedroom windows. “INMIGRACIÓN! INMIGRACIÒN!”  blared from the helicopter’s loudspeakers, trying to flush frightened human beings out of hiding in order to capture them, like hunters did with game.

There were close calls. The time that Oscar got pulled over after borrowing Mom’s moped. His fake ID somehow passed inspection, but the officer wanted to confirm that the bike was borrowed and not stolen, and escorted Oscar back to the house. Mom turned white as a ghost and Father told us to stay inside and to tell whoever was home in the basement to be absolutely still and for none of us to speak a word.  He went out onto the front patio with a relaxed smile,  his hand extended for a handshake.

“Hello!” he said, introducing himself using his Reverend title.

“Can I help you officer?” Father calmly, glibly assured him that everything was just fine officer,  his hand on the police man’s shoulder like they were old friends posing for a class reunion photograph.
“Well, no,” he said chuckling,  “certainly no crime committed at all.  Oscar and his whole family are my parishioners! We’ve known them since he was a just little boy, and watched him grow up! We lent him the moped to go visit his grandmother in the hospital. He spoke loudly  like Oscar was hard of hearing, like the white people around us usually spoke to Mexicans and Mexican Americans. “How is she Oscar? Beuno? Getting discharged soon I hope?”

My brothers and I lay on our bellies and peered at the scene from under the full length curtains my mother had closed in front of the sliding glass door  before she stepped out. I held my breath, waiting to see them all carted away in handcuffs, silently making  a plan about what we would do, whose house we would go to until we could reach Dad and he would fly us to live with him forever while Mom and  Father served their time in federal penitentiary.

I believed we were practicing liberation theology, living out Christ’s radical Gospel, to serve the least among us, to minister to the poor, to see the face of Christ in every human being.  We might be brave but that didn’t matter compared to the bravery we were supporting. This was the very least we could do, and it was still not enough.  Mom and Father said this is why the “hobos” had marked my Grandmother’s stoop- because she would always cook them a warm meal and hand them an old quilt and offer a few nights stay in the barn. This is what “good” Germans should have done for the Jews.  This is what only a few good white people did during slavery times and the Underground railroad. This was having the courage of our convictions. This is what Christ calls us to do. We must disobey all laws that go against God’s laws. We must  be willing to lose everything, as Christ did on the cross.

We went to lots of protests as a family, and because we were the only kids ever there  they took lots of pictures of us. I got my photo in the San Diego paper holding a sign that read “I’m not going and neither is my brother!” when we went to a demonstration against registering 18 year olds for the draft. I got credit even though the words were Father’s idea.  We marched in ecumenical solidarity with the religious leaders of our town when the synagogue got spray painted with bad words. Father wore his collar even though he didn’t have a pulpit anymore.  We marched in support of free speech when the Christian  fundamentalist mayor tried to close down the one adult book shop in town, with the gay bar in the back. We gathered there again and lit candles with a small crowd of men from the community the day that Harvey Milk was shot dead.

Standing up for what what right was important. But caring for the poor was Christ’s most elemental ministry.

One day Oscar went missing –  we hadn’t seen or heard from him at all for over two weeks. Had he been injured? Was he lost? Sick? Deported? Early in the morning, over our breakfast cereal before school – Father told us that he had received a call late the night before from a coyote, a man who helped  move people across the borders without getting caught. He said Oscar was captured  by immigration and was in a cell in Tijuana.  The coyote said that if we wanted Oscar to come back home we were to put $1,000 in cash in a paper bag left at a special drop off spot at a certain time. Father said he was going to the drop off spot late in the evening – and we had to make sure everyone was out of the basement and that they brought all the bedrolls and personal items went with them –  just in case it was a trap set by the INS to capture Eddie and the others and arrest Mom and Father. If he didn’t come back by a certain time – we were to make sure none of them ever came back because our safe house wouldn’t be safe any more.

For any of us.

Father did return on time but with someone who was completely unrecognizable to me. Oscar’s face was blackend and  bloody,  his whole face swollen beyond anything I could comprehend. His eyes  swollen closed and so tight they looked like the creases of two ripe purple plums. He had huge bruises and lacerations on his face, and torso. His foot was so swollen he couldn’t tie his shoe, a possible fracture. He looked to me like he had been stomped to pieces.  I had never seen anyone so harmed, so wounded, so broken except for paintings of Christ on the cross.

He went in and out of consciousness for several days. He had a terrible concussion – was confused, disoriented, dehydrated. Father and Mom checked in on him, waking him hourly in shifts.

When he was strong enough to stand and talk and eat he came upstairs (only after we had drawn all the curtains and shut the window and locked the doors, the standard “coming upstairs” protocol).

My Spanish had improved by then, Father had his Latin, Mom could now understand some  and by now Oscar had more English words too. We sat around the dining room table while Oscar ate some broth:

“Can you tell me what we did wrong? Was there something we did that angered the coyote?” Father asked.

“No.” Oscar responded. “Not the coyote. Inmigración…. Inmigración.”

It took us all time to take it in: US Immigration officers had done this. Had beaten a skinny, shy adolescent boy nearly to the point of death.

“Its not Constitutional!! We have to do something! We have to get them arrested or fired! ” I said.

Father turned to me: “He isn’t a US citizen. He has no constitutional rights. They can do whatever they want to him. He’s not even going to end up in a U.S. jail once INS has him – when they dump him across the border there is no record or recourse at all.”

The reality cracked open my fourteen year old brain: Oscar and Eddie and the others who came and went and smiled and thanked us and hid in the weeds – had no human rights at all. None. No protections. The men who had done this to them were capable of extraordinary hatred, like the Klu Klux Klan, but were government employees and there could be no recourse. None at all.

Father reminded me that sometimes even U.S. citizens, and people born here had been deprived of their rights  and subjected to violence- like slavery, or the Jim Crow South or like the Japanese Americans during World War II, or the way that Native Americans were forced to live on reservations.

I understood, finally, what unfathomable danger these men and women lived with, what courage they had to call forth in order to send money to support their families at home. I knew they lived secret lives of legal non-existence, of hiding, of lack of access to basic services to make sure their parents and siblings could survive. For the first time I understood that the people in the basement could be killed, their bodies disposed of, and that no one would ever know. I was flooded with how lucky we were to have Oscar back, to know what happened to him – that he could be erased, annihilated and we would never even know what had happened.

I stopped saying the pledge of allegiance at school after that. I got sent to the principal’s office repeatedly. I didn’t care. They couldn’t make me. They could call my Mom. They could call Father.  I would never again pledge allegiance to a country capable of this.

Father would remind me: “Martha, basic human rights, your own and others are are something you must always be prepared to fight for. They can be taken away in the blink of an eye.”

God called us to this.  This is what it meant to be faithful. To do unto others. It meant risking everything for justice for everyone.

There was only one part of the pledge I would recite silently in my head, my hands at my sides, my lips still, a private prayer not a public declaration of loyalty:
“With liberty and justice for all.”

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