Cramped into a mobile home, we were standing in a circle holding hands, each person uttering a brief prayer of thanksgiving in Spanish. Three were Mexicans, three from Colombia, two from Peru, one from Honduras, one from Panama and myself, the lone “gringo” of the bunch. What made this prayer group seem so out of place was that we weren’t in East L.A., but at a large trailer park in Anchorage, Alaska. As is the custom here, we had shucked off our shoes at the front door, for it was darkest winter with lots of snow outside on top of the slick ice. No respectful guest wants to tramp snow through the house.
Alaskans are the least churchgoing group in the United States. Most are lured away on Sundays to hunt, fish, ski or just enjoy the magnificent view of the rugged mountains. Sixty-two percent of the 655,000 people—spread throughout an almost roadless terrain two-and-a-half times the size of Texas—rarely darken the door of a church. Catholics are the largest denomination, with 8.4 percent of the population. Thirty thousand Hispanics make their dwelling here, about a third of Alaska’s Eskimo/Native population. Eighteen thousand of these Hispanics live in the largest city, Anchorage. Half are Mexicans; the rest come from the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Peru, and a scattering from El Salvador, Panama and Honduras. The average Sunday attendance at the two Catholic churches in Anchorage that offer Mass in Spanish would come to only about 800 persons.
One might think it odd that people from much warmer climates would settle in the cold North, with its lengthy winter darkness. But the money is here for those willing to work long hours under difficult conditions.
I recently finished a sabbatical year doing some writing while ministering at St. Christopher by the Sea in Dutch Harbor, 800 miles west of Anchorage and halfway out on the Aleutian chain. It is the last parish in the western United States, closer to Tokyo than to Los Angeles. Dutch Harbor, or Unalaska, as the residents prefer to call it, is the largest processor of fish in the United States. The fish you get at nearly any fast food restaurant swam through the Bering Sea and were processed in Kodiak or Dutch Harbor.
The biggest percentage of the fishery workers are not “Americans,” but Filipinos, followed by Hispanics and then a few Vietnamese. “Americans” will be found only in the higher echelons of administration, management or maintenance personnel. Working in a fish-processing factory is tedious, wet and cold. Twelve-hour days are the norm. When fish are plentiful, employees are urged to work 18 hours. Recently a woman from Chile who has been employed a good number of years in the same plant told me she could hardly keep going because she had been working a string of seven consecutive 18-hour days, chopping up fish as they came down the conveyer belt. Skilled forklift drivers alternate one-hour stretches wheeling the processed fish around in minus 20-degree giant freezers for storage, moving agilely about like kids in bumper cars at the fair. The irony is that Japanese, who during World War II bombed Dutch Harbor and invaded Attu, are now the major owners of these fish companies.
Like the Hispanics who carry the weight of the agricultural work in the West and South of the lower 48 states, they are willing to work for low wages and under conditions most Americans would not tolerate.The fisheries on Dutch Harbor provide dormitories and a cafeteria for their workers and pay on average $7.50 per hour. Generally the workers are also provided airfare to Seattle, which runs about $1,400 round trip. What makes the work attractive to them is the time-and-a half pay they make for every hour beyond the eight-hour shift. Both the Filipinos and the Hispanics send most of their earnings back to their home countries. In Anchorage, though, the heavy workload is further offset by the advantage of living in an area where there are a number of recreational opportunities and medical facilities.
Although most downtown restaurants cater to tourists who are anxious to savor the fresh Alaska salmon and gigantic halibut, there are a dozen or more Mexican restaurants that offer a tasty menu of traditional Mexican food cooked by authentic Mexican chefs. I was amused once, going to the local Benihana Japanese restaurant for the wedding reception of a Mexican who was marrying an Argentinean, to discover that the fellow in the chef’s outfit juggling prawns and flipping stir fries was not Japanese, but Ecuadoran. Many Hispanics are hired as waiters, cooks and dishwashers in the Mexican restaurants. The women often have jobs cleaning houses or tidying up rooms in the hotels and motels of the city. The men tend to work in construction.
Life is never easy for the undocumented. Kodiak, some 300 air miles southwest of Anchorage, has recently fared better because the one immigration official there is a member of the National Guard and, happily for the undocumented, was shipped off to Iraq. Anchorage itself has proven to be an unsafe haven. Its population of 250,000 lives in a rather compact valley where there is little room for those without papers to fade into the background. Worse still is the fact that only recently the local Catholic social service agency, because it lacked funds, had to end its affordable legal counsel to the undocumented. These men, women and children are now left adrift without much guidance or hope. On the other hand, because the cost of making one’s way to Alaska from Mexico or beyond is expensive, the total number of undocumented people is not great.
Living in Alaska often feels like living in a foreign country; it is very isolated from the “lower 48”; and when people leave on business or to visit family, they say they are “going outside.” This is not just a matter of distance; there is also a shortage of human resources, like Catholic higher education and quality media reporting. There are almost no counseling and legal services in Spanish. (The Catholic Extension Society still defines Alaska as missionary territory.) The normal flight to Seattle, in some respects the center of the world for Alaskans, takes over three hours. When people leave on business or to visit family, they say they are “going outside.” For Hispanics and Filipinos, Alaska is a long way from home, but in their dedication to provide a better life for their families far away, they happily endure the hardships of nature and awkwardly adapt to the different ambience of the American culture, clinging at the same time to their own language and customs. Like the Hispanics who do the stoop work of harvesting vegetables in the Southwest, or pick peaches and apples in the Northwest, or pluck chickens in Georgia, these hardy souls help keep the American economy afloat.