Poetry to put ourselves in the shoes of hurting immigrants
“I challenge you to put yourself in my place,
Walk in these shoes, travel this road,”
“Quest,” a poem from the book “Abrazos” by Rebecca Padilla
Rebecca Padilla told me a story that forever changed my impression of institutional meals.
You know those meals you get at school or the hospital or wherever one crew cooks the same meal for hundreds of others? The kind of meal that is served on a rectangular divided tray with an eye on meeting a nutritional guideline? Descriptions of those meals, often regarded as mediocre at best, are usually garnished with punchlines and almost always a wince.
But Padilla, a former mental health worker at a Karnes County facility where immigrants caught entering the United States illegally are detained, is also a poet and storyteller.
She described watching a woman who stared at her breakfast for a long time. The woman had not eaten much on the tray. It was a standard meal: a small entree and a side, a cup of coffee and a container of milk or juice, perhaps an apple or a banana, and maybe a bite of something sweet. Still, the woman just stared.
The woman was asked if she didn’t like the food. She did, she said, and she was thankful. But how could she eat it knowing that her parents and her young children were hungry? When she’d left them in an attempt to find a way to send home money, they didn’t have anything — and they were hungry then.
So she couldn’t eat. She found it harder still to get up and throw away the food left on the tray. Not knowing what to do — or how to feel — she sat in front of the food and simply stared.
For this woman, that tray held guilt, betrayal and fear. And until I heard this story, I never really understood the tremendous guilt of feeling secure.
Padilla makes it clear that she writes from a place of humanity, not from a political platform. She says she knows the immigration issue is a complicated one with no easy answers. She knows there are many sides, many angles and even more spins.
But she says that having worked in a facility that was in place to help women and children, she has seen and heard a lot of stories that need to be told for no other reason than to urge people, regardless of their politics, to open their eyes and hearts.
“These are women who are truly, truly hurting. I heard their stories,” she said. “I saw their scars.”
So she took the stories she heard from the women — the ones who left abuse and poverty in search of anything better, the ones who can’t read a clock because back home there are long lines and no appointments; the young girls who ran away to a paradise they were promised on Facebook; the mothers and children who came to find the fathers who rejected them at the border — and the things she saw — the results of PTSD, the guilt of leaving others behind and ending up with clean water, the women who helped others in the detention center because they saw a glimmer of empowerment in the simple act of translation or support — and she turned them into poetry.
Literature — be it a collection of poems, a motion picture or a memoir — allows us to see parts of others and how they relate to us in ways that might otherwise be too emotionally wrought, too complicated or too tough to digest. It gives us a chance to see through another window without losing the place to which we have firmly committed.
It lets us walk, if only for a minute, in someone else’s shoes.