I met a man at the comedor in Nogales, Sonora, a few weeks ago—a student from Guerrero, Mexico, the state where 43 missing students at a teacher’s college are presumed dead. The young man was gaunt, malnourished, exhausted, and he knew no one in the United States. He was preparing himself for the journey northward, fleeing for his life. He was traveling alone. When I asked him why he was on the run, he looked at me with fear in his eyes.
“I saw things,” was his answer.
I pressed him for more information. He just shook his head and stared into the room of bustling activity as the Samaritans were clearing the breakfast tables. He looked like he was afraid to speak. My young acquaintance needed a shower, clean jeans, and some decent shoes. I told him about the dangers of crossing our desert—the extreme cold temperatures, the federal agents that would be hunting for him, the fear and loathing that so many Americans have toward migrants heading north. He spoke very little English, but somehow we connected. He asked for a clean pair of socks.
I asked him what kind of work he did in Guerrero. He told me he was a college student studying to be an engineer, but could do construction work. I told him, “Cuidado.” Be careful. The desert is a dangerous place. He replied, “It will be better than Guerrero.”
He crossed himself several times, picked up a packet of soap and a toothbrush, and was out the door.
And I have to confess that this kind of experience with a migrant both moves me and terrifies me. As much as I love Mexico, I cannot ignore the fact that hundreds of thousands of people in Mexico and Central America do not trust the police, their government, or the renegade lawlessness of the drug cartels. In fact, many believe that they are one and the same. This young college student believes that he may lose his life if he reports the things he saw in Guerrero.
I think about him each day, and whisper little half-prayers to the winds and to God. He is closer to my idea of a decent human being than most of the members of Congress.
He prefers taking his chances in the Sonoran desert. Free speech has a price in Mexico.
I’ve been thinking a lot about free speech and its implications since the recent massacre of journalists and cartoonists in the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris. I had never heard of Charlie Hebdo or seen any of the cartoons before this incident. To be honest, I was repulsed and shocked by some of the drawings; most of them I simply didn’t understand. Finding the caricatures crude and puzzling, I decided that the humor was a cultural anomaly–a French thing–and France was diving into areas that some Americans would label as hateful, racist and anti-religious. Charlie Hebdo reminded me of Mad Magazine, the radical rag of my youth.
Free speech in a democratic society is often messy and provocative. Frequently things get dirty and uncomfortable. We try to organize our complex world, but the best we can do is sketch out a crude map of life from our own particular vantage point. Cartoons, if they are good, often distill this complexity into a few simple drawings, a few words, that deliver deeper truths.
I applaud satire and artists who push the envelope and make me think. They peel away the comfortable layers of my civilized world, often exposing the very things that hold my life together. In a perfect world, artists should be able to create freely and not be restrained by social mores. They should give you a punch in the gut. I would like to say that I defend the right of free speech and the expression of all ideas, no matter how uncomfortable. But this is probably not altogether true. I draw the line at child pornography, incitement to violence, libelous statements, and probably a few other things I haven’t thought of.
As much as I crave order and simplicity and truth, the politics of free speech are murky.
This is not a perfect world. If a cartoon or article is provocative and offensive to some, it is impossible to predict what will happen. This is the unfortunate state of the world today. Artists and journalists were martyred in Paris for their expression of free speech. They took a risk and they died.
No one should die for a cartoon. No one should die for writing a book. Violence toward another human should not be part of the equation.
But it is.
I honor and respect the artists’ right to express whatever they choose, even if I find the art odious and offensive. Artists and writers must make a choice; there may be freedom of speech, but unfortunately, there may also be consequences. We take our chances.
So here is my truth: The world has always been embroiled in some destructive crisis somewhere. What keeps it from caving in is our desire not to die, and the miracle of being alive in the midst of it all. In fact, it is a miracle we keep things going at all. We muddle through, in spite of the massacres, the graft, and the economic disparity.
So if you need to pick a side in this debate about immigration, or Islamic extremism, or free speech, or Republicans and Democrats, pick the side of respect and connection. And if you can’t respect those on the other side, at least try to listen and see them as a human being, and not an abstract idea. Let robust dialogue and a free exchange of ideas be loud and fierce, no matter how repugnant. Keep your mind open to the views you hate to hear. Try and understand people you least relate to. Let the cartoons open your mind; feel free to close the page on some.
It is never easy, but it is better than murder.
My book, A Land of Hard Edges, is now available in most bookstores in southern Arizona, your local library, or Amazon.com. I will be doing presentations and book signings at the following venues:
Feb. 5, 2015, the Tumacacori Mission, Tumacacori, Arizona, 12:30-2 PM
Feb. 13, 2015, Green Valley League of Women Voters, La Posada at Park Center, Green Valley, AZ., Madera Room, 12 noon.
Feb. 21, 2015, Lutheran Church of the Foothills, 5102 N. Craycroft Rd., Tucson, AZ., 10 AM
March 8, 2015, Global Arts Gallery, Patagonia, AZ., 12-5 PM. Open house with refreshments, book reading and signing at 2 PM.
March 15, 2015, Tucson Festival of Books, University of Arizona campus, Modern Languages Building, Room 350, 1-2 PM
March 19, 2015, Democratic Club, Sedona, AZ. Breakfast meeting.
Please direct comments and thoughts to the “Comments” section of this blog. Peg Bowden can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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The Green Valley/Sahuarita Samaritans is a non-profit organization; the mission is to prevent deaths in the desert. Information and contributions can be directed to: www.gvsamaritans.org
Kino Border Initiative directs the activities of the comedor in Nogales, Mexico. The mission is to help create a just, humane immigration policy between the United States and Mexico. Their website is: www.kinoborderinitiative.org
The Border Community Alliance is an exciting new organization in southern Arizona focusing on the economic, cultural and humanitarian needs of the Arizona borderlands. BCA is now a 501 3(c) nonprofit entity. The website is: www.bordercommunityalliance.com