First published in the Bisbee Observer, December 6th, 2018
Not long after Thomas Jefferson signed a fat check to Napoleon, nearly doubling the size of the United States, he outfitted a couple of guys we know as Lewis and Clark and sent them out exploring the country’s new digs. Along the way, the expedition encountered Native Americans, tossed them a few medals for being well-behaved, and then claimed the land they were standing on and everything else from here to there as the United States of America. The Indians pocketed the medals and then rode off into the sunset complaining that the new arrivals didn’t speak the language.
The Lewis & Clark Expedition spent two years on the trail, couldn’t find the Northwest Passage-because it didn’t exist- and made it to the Pacific Ocean. When Thanksgiving came, the crew probably hit the woods with their muskets, picked off a couple of wild turkeys, and sat around the campfire- just as many of us sat around the dinner table a couple of weeks ago- not complaining about dry white meat, but giving thanks; thankful for jobs, loved ones, and the land around them. Their reconnaissance helped pave the way for people looking for a better life than the one they currently had.
For the entirety of our existence as a nation, people have come to this land looking for better. Whether they crossed the ocean to make a buck or to pray as they saw fit, they have seen this country as a place where they had a new chance. Yet, too often those seeking a better life here, did so at the expense of others; Natives were dislocated. Africans were enslaved, Mexicans were ripped off, and Chinese were sent home after carving a railroad into the hard rock of the Sierra Nevada.
I’m under no illusions that we can turn back time and make it right. I am a beneficiary of the hard work of others, whether legitimate or forced. Still, I ask: Can we do better as a people? Can we improve on our history? Can we make amends? Can we be the country that many in the world still think we are?
The Central Americans identified as the Caravan are arriving. The news tells us as much, so too the military vehicles that increasingly fill the roadways around my home. I understand the need for security and protection. I also understand that our country is in a momentous battle for its national soul. Who are we as a people? Have we not identified ourselves to the rest of the globe as the one country who takes a chance on the tired, the poor and the huddled masses? Has that generosity not been the essence of our national character even if the wrong done to others has stained it?
America has the ability to take the worn out, the desperate, the misfits of other lands and offer another chance. That is our greatness and why Providence still pays us attention. If we don’t handle the Caravan crisis better than Tijuana tear gas and Naco concertina wire, then our national light, that bright beam of hope and prosperity- and self-correction- then our beam of hope will dim and our future will suffer.
Those who seek a new start here stand not at Ellis Island, but at our southern border. Some perceive them as invaders. I have students with ties to Mexico who, thanks to social media, parrot the characterizations they hear of Hondurans as violent, criminal, and those who don’t bathe. I prefer to see them as an opportunity to help us rediscover the American Dream.
Our National myth is only as real as those who cobble their unique circumstances, opportunities, and sweat into a business, a home, an education. In so doing, they will tell the story, as so many have before them, about an opportunity granted and the blessings that new start manifested. The telling of that story will hearten us and remind us the good things that happen when you take a chance on the underdog.