The third in a series of Lunch and Learn presentations at the Hood River Library, held Jan. 23, tackled the difficult topic of immigration and why people are risking their lives and the lives of their families to cross the border between the United States and Mexico.
(What would have been the third presentation, “Gender Identity,” was canceled Jan. 16 due to inclement weather and has been rescheduled for Feb. 6.)
More than 20 people came to hear Nubia Contreras speak on the theme of “Crossing the Border/ Cruzando la Frontera.” Contreras, born and raised in Hood River, is the daughter of immigrants. She is a certified prevention specialist with Hood River County, a DJ and board member at Radio Tierra and the new community liaison for Columbia Center for the Arts.
“My parents migrated here in the ‘80s, and I don’t think they thought that their daughter would ever be doing this conversation,” she said.
Her parents crossed the border some 40 years ago, her father more than 10 times and her mother once.
“My parents did cross, and 27 years later, I’m here,” Contreras said.
“I have that luck and privilege of being born and raised in Hood River. People want a better life, to afford a house and a roof over their heads that’s not going to crumble because of war violence.”
There’s a common perception that migrants are coming to steal jobs and sell drugs, or that they wake up one morning and decide to make the trip. In reality, it’s a matter of survival.
“It’s not a fun thing to do,” Contreras said. “There’s a lot of dangers. There’s not enough water most of the time, not enough food. When my parents crossed over, my mother said she had a plastic bag with a set of clothes …
“It can cost $10,000-$20,000 to be smuggled into the U.S. (today) … and I think people are so desperate they’re willing to risk it because anything is better than their current situation,” she said. “Keep that in mind. They’re just here to work and for a better life. And I don’t think that’s a crime.”
Contreras showed three YouTube videos to highlight issues surrounding immigration: One of a border crossing simulation, another featuring a border patrol agent and a third on the much-publicized caravan that was headed to the U.S. border in 2018. In one, a smuggler says, “Immigration is unstoppable. It doesn’t matter what President Trump says.”
In another, agents show how migrants have cut through razor wire installed on the border wall between San Diego and Nogales or dug tunnels underneath. In a third, a pregnant mother of two talks about how her children’s lives were threatened by criminals and her hopes of asylum in America.
“Would you have that determination yourself … travel thousands of miles, maybe wear out your tennis shoes because you don’t have the luxury of taking a suitcase. Would you consider putting yourself and your family through that?” Contreras asked audience members.
“I don’t feel like I have a sense of how awful the situations are that these people are leaving,” answered one man. “It hinders us from feeling admiration and respect and compassion. People have this perception of, ‘They’re coming here to steal or take our jobs.’ … I can’t imagine taking your kid and walking thousands of miles.”
Contreras said the closest example she could think of would be if your house were to catch fire: The loss of the safety of a home, being forced to move from shelter to shelter or being on the streets.
But because we know the language and how to navigate the system, it’s not a true comparison, she added. Some migrants only speak certain dialects; all are at risk of being taken advantage of by those who wish to profit from their desperation.
One woman asked how someone from Guatemala or El Salvador could come up with money to pay for a smuggler.
“The easiest way is the drug industry,” Contreras said. “Not much of a want, but it ends up being a need to survive. They act as mules.” Families might also raise money that the migrants later pay back.
Another asked if there was nowhere in Central America that would be safe for those trying to cross into the U.S.
“It’s the scale of risk — come to the U.S. and make money and stay safe versus poor wages and maybe not being safe,” Contreras said.
“Do they know the risk of border separation?” she asked.
“If you’re trying to escape violence and possible death, any risk is worth it,” Contreras said.
“What are the most important things white people can do right now to help?” asked another woman.
“Vote,” Contreras said. “Volunteer for organizations. Donate to charities that help immigrants. Make them feel welcome.
“Voting is your number one tool that can help every individual here to have a decent life and be human,” she added. “We’re all human at the end of the day and we have to treat one another with respect.”
She also suggested learning conversational Spanish.
“Making that effort as monolingual English speakers — a simple ‘good morning’ — you can see and notice the facial reaction. That in itself is going to spark a good opening for them. ‘This person is trustworthy; I can trust them’ …
“I think the schools here are doing a great job, getting more bilingual and bicultural staff, but I don’t know if, in the real world, that’s really the case.
“It’s a tricky subject to talk about,” she said. “I appreciate everyone coming and giving me the opportunity to present.”
Lunch and Learn continues
Contreras will host this Thursday’s Lunch and Learn conversation, “Mi Sueno Americano/ My American Dream,” on Jan. 30. On Feb. 6, Columbia Gorge Pride Alliance hosts “Gender Identity.” Lunch and Learn events take place in the library’s downstairs meeting room and begin at 1 p.m. All are welcome to attend.