My Alien Roommate

I needed a roommate to share the rent. He needed a place to live. We were introduced, shook hands, and a few days later Roberto moved all of his worldly possessions (carried in a battered sports bag, a backpack and a clothes basket) into my second bedroom, along with a commitment to refrain from smoking, drinking and rowdy parties. It never occurred to me to ask him if he was legal, although I should have thought of it, having been asked to prove my own citizenship often enough since moving to this part of the country.

As it happened, he was not. Roberto was one of the seven to 12 million (estimates vary) illegal immigrants working in this country, almost 60 percent of whom come from Mexico, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.


As Roberto was getting settled in his new home, congressional leaders far away in Washington, D.C., were discussing a bill that would make giving aid to the undocumented a felony. I tried to get used to thinking of myself as a potential felon. Although I have carried my share of picket and protest signs, unlike Shanti Seltz and Daniel Strauss, I have never been arrested. The pair, members of the Arizona group No More Deaths, face federal charges of conspiracy and transporting illegal aliens because they took three dehydrated migrants to a hospital in July 2005. I admired them, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to join them.

A newcomer to this country, Roberto had more immediate and practical concerns. Was it really true that you could drink the water right from the tap? Why did I tell him to wash the dishes with hot water? (His home in Mexico had no hot water.) Everything we did was complicated by language barriers, as well. My Spanish was better than his English, but not by much. We usually ended up speaking our own fractured Spanglish, a creative mixture of the two languages combined with lots of pantomiming, equal parts frustration and laughter.

It was almost Christmas when he arrived. As he examined the artwork in my home, which included a depiction of the Last Supper over my kitchen table, he asked, "Are you a Catholic?" Lacking the Spanish to describe my spiritual journey, which included a current stay among a small, welcoming Methodist community, I paused, sighed and answered, "Yes. Do you want to go to church?" He said yes. On the Internet I found a listing for a Spanish Mass to be celebrated on Christmas Day at the local suburban mega-parish. What we got was an Anglo Mass in very poor translation. The homily was about the Catholic Church, the one true church, which had been blessed with seven sacraments, most especially with the sacrament of orders. Personally, I did not feel blessed, until Roberto turned to me after Mass and said, "His Spanish was so bad I couldn’t understand a word he said."

The following weekend being New Year’s, I once again surfed the net, only this time I looked for a Spanish parish, not merely a Spanish Mass. I located one some distance away, in the inner city Stockyards District. We set out, got lost, drove in circles, muttered curses, asked directions and finally walked in late to a grubby church with a homemade Christmas diorama over the altar - lots of poster paint and camels wandering among the poinsettias. Although the choir sang Noche de Paz (Silent Night) just a bit off key, the congregation sang and clapped the acclamations with enthusiasm. We had found a home.

Since Roberto had wanted to go to confession, we had been aiming for the pre-Mass confession period. Not knowing how long it had been for him, or how urgent his desire, I didn’t want to make him wait another week. After Mass, I very hesitantly approached the presider, explained our situation and asked if he could possibly hear Roberto’s confession. The blessed man simply held out one hand, in a gesture of welcome so gracious it brought tears to my eyes, and said, "Come." Roberto went into the sacristy with him, and I sat and soaked up the ambiance. Later, looking at the bulletin, I read the initials after the pastor’s name, T.O.R - Third Order Regular, a Franciscan community. "The spirit of Francis is alive and well in the Stockyards," I thought.

As the weeks passed, Roberto and I adjusted to each other. He stopped tip-toeing around and began to take literally my words of welcome, "Mi casa es tu casa." I grew accustomed to hearing his cheerful whistling in the background, and began to learn about his life. He was separated from his wife, but had custody of his son, who remained in Mexico in the care of his sisters and his mother. After each week’s phone call home, he grew silent and pensive.

Roberto had come to the United States because his two older brothers, who had become legal residents during the last amnesty period, had told him the traditional streets paved with gold stories. It seemed as if they never really thought he would come, because they didn’t welcome him when he got here, which was why he had needed a place to live. Their coldness was a great disappointment to him.

He was surprised at how hard I work (I run a small bookstore). I explained that most people work hard in this country, and tried to give him a sense of how the vast numbers of modestly secure incomes compared to the rarity of wealth. His life was full of wonderment caused by the new culture, and I was kept busy explaining. Buying a truck or car is only the first expense. Then come the legal costs: the license plates, the tags, insurance. Trying to bribe a police officer will usually make a difficult situation worse. It is possible to be arrested and do time in jail for domestic violence. People expect you to show up on time for appointments. Sometimes I resorted to the equivalent of Because I said so: Because this isn’t Mexico, and that’s how we do it here, that’s why. At other times his questions were poignant: if the authorities arrest and deport me, will they allow me to come back here to get my things to take with me? I didn’t know the answer to that one.

One day he asked me why I was renting him the room. Was I being a good Samaritan? I laughed and explained that I needed help paying the rent. His face lit up. Ah, he exclaimed in delight, Mutuamente! His life in Mexico had been a web of mutuamente - mutuality, the constant interweaving of lives giving and taking - and he was overjoyed to find an instance of it here. Mutuamente led him to trim my hedge, fix my television and wash my dishes, while I drove the car to church, ran the Sunday afternoon errands and tried my hand at Mexican cooking. It was not a negotiated exchange, but rather an ongoing flow of habitual generosity that kept the universe in balance.

It was the lack of mutuamente in American life that caused him the most puzzlement. You have so much, he said. But don’t you realize that you would have even more if you shared it by taking care of each other? As he grieved over his brothers, what saddened him most was this: They have lost mutuamente.

Yet I could not lose sight of the fundamental illegality of his situation. He was committing a crime simply by existing here, by breathing the air in this country. There were so many things he could not do: get a library card, travel by plane, vote or participate in any civic process, enter into a contract, appeal to the law to protect him. A friend of his wanted to buy a piece of equipment and start a small business painting houses. What will you do if the contractor doesn’t pay you, I asked, since you can’t take him to court? I have only once sued an employer, but the shape and discipline of the laws have protected me all of my life. As fragile and imperfect as our justice system is, the thought of living without it is genuinely frightening. It seemed to me that he was living his life in the shadows. Each night the news on the Spanish channel included a report on the border situation: deaths and killing in the desert, protest marches, drug-running, rational discussions, prayer vigils, proposals for guest worker plans and racist ranting all scrambled together.

"Why do you want to be here," I asked, "if Mexico has mutuamente and family and so many things that give meaning to life?"

"Mexico has everything," he answered, "except work. The work is here."

And that is the bottom line. The work is here. U.S. citizens like getting their houses built, their offices cleaned, their lawns mowed, their restaurant dishes washed and their crops picked by sturdy, hard-working, uncomplaining, relatively inexpensive workers who can never organize a union or protest the working conditions.

Our world, the world of legals, is supported, buoyed up, by the shadow world of illegals. Even people who would never hire an undocumented worker benefit from the lower wages associated with their contribution to the economy. There are costs as well, of course, particularly in health care (undocumented = uninsured) and education, since the undocumented send their children to school here. It is no accident that the issue of illegal immigration has moved to the front burner as health care and education costs have risen, while simultaneously services to the poor have been cut in our domestic budget. For the first time, it seems possible that the costs might outweigh the benefits for us, or if not, at least that the costs are unfairly distributed, with our border states bearing a disproportionate share of the burden. Yet, as Roberto said, the work is here. And so, in spite of horror stories of death in the desert, the undocumented continue to accept the risks and slip across the borders, and the documented continue to find ways to hire them.

As swiftly as he came into my life, Roberto left one day. His employer offered him substantially more money to work in a nearby city, and, of course, he immediately relocated. He left behind a jacket, two shirts and a gift: the idea of mutuamente. Could mutuamente be what Jesus was referring to, I wonder, when he said, Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be poured into your lap, for the measure you give will be the measure you get back (Luke 6:38)?

As I adjust to Roberto’s absence, I realize that, as inevitably happens with truly human contact, we each subtly, almost imperceptibly, altered who the other was. I am grateful for the many little lifts over the minor rough spots of life that mutuamente gave me, and so I am trying to give in that spirit to others.

Unlikely as this outcome may seem now, I also pray that our two countries can one day learn to live in mutuamente. While acknowledging the many complexities of the immigration issue, still it seems to me that we can put our time, energy and money into building a giant fenceor we can try to build a relationship. Realizing that the immigrants are not stealing from us, but rather giving to us, might be the first step toward healing the breach that currently exists.

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