The keynote speaker at a ccommunity college onference last week asked participants to think about the first picture that comes to mind when they think of a person creating graffiti. Of course, everyone thought of a brown-skinned male wearing baggy pants and gang colors holding a can of spray paint. The speaker, now a university administrator, then identified himself as a contributor to building and sign graffiti in his neighborhood until a teacher praised the graffiti designs on his papers as “art.” Thinking of what he drew as art and himself as an artist changed this man’s life.
He then asked the group to picture other kinds of people such as terrorist, welfare recipient, or illegal immigrant. When my daughter who attended the conference told me about the exercise, I also pictured the usual stereotypes for graffiti vandal and terrorist—which is normal since I’m not personally acquainted with either. Well, I did teach junior high for ten years. I probably did teach a few graffiti artists. I just wasn’t thoughtful enough to praise the doodles on their papers as art. And I’ve seen a few kids who terrorized their school and everyone in it, but so far their names haven’t hit the news.
Do I know any welfare recipients? That depend on the definition of welfare. Church welfare recipients are somewhat different from state clients I’ve met—not necessarily better—just different. And no, they don’t all work for what they receive. My dad called all Social Security recipients welfare receivers, so that includes all senior citizens who have been on the system longer than the seven years actuaries say it takes to withdraw all our contributions.
The one category that gives me an unambiguous picture is illegal immigrant. Rosa (not her real name) haunts my memory. I only met Rosa once when I substituted in her ESL class. She was the only student there that day. Unbidden, she told me her life story. She first came to the U.S. legally with her husband. When she was expecting her first baby, her mother begged her to come back to Mexico for the child’s birth. Not realizing the legal implications, Rosa left to have her baby. She was unable to obtain permission to return—probably because neither she nor her husband knew the legal steps she had to take. She was in Mexico for a year without obtaining legal permission to return. Finally, she crossed illegally with the baby to be with her husband.
I didn’t know what to tell Rosa. Had I been more experienced, I would have directed her to Catholic Community Services which can provide legal advice to immigrants.
But whenever I hear the word “illegal immigrant” or worse, “illegal alien,” I think of Rosa. I wish people who picture all illegal immigrants as criminals could meet real immigrants and replace the stereotypes in their heads.
Kudos to the Church for supporting humane laws and treatment for illegal immigrants.