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The Undocumented Question

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"America is another name for opportunity."

—Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I continue to be fascinated by the consuming human idea: the right to follow the enticement of our own imaginations. It is a worn out cliche to speak of the United States as a nation of immigrants, yet it was the colonists asserting their 'freedom to dissolve' all connecting political bands that birthed its conception. The Declaration of Independence confirmed Locke's notion that all persons possess natural rights bestowed by their Creator, including the fruits of his or her labor, but in place of one's right to "Life, Liberty and Estate," Jefferson craftily deflected Locke's most radical element with the light of men's dreams, the elusive and esoteric "Pursuit of Happiness."

Matilda de 'pon dyin' bed,
Me want go to Colabra,
Me want go to Colabra,
Matilda de 'pon dyin' bed.

From the Prodigal Son to Tuareg nomads to explorers who took ship and sailed across oceans, we humans have stared at the horizon and been moved to wonder. Like Matilda, who left her lover in Jamaica to labor on Panama's infamous Snake Mountain, we are willing to pursue our happier vision of life and face all perils, even if it takes us far from those we love and who love us most. What else explains why so many set sail from their island homes and risked their lives to dig a canal somewhere as dangerous as 19th century Panama, or why, even now, these determined dreamers get in their heads to pack themselves inside truck containers and cross a scorching desert to spend backbreaking hours harvesting tomatoes?

Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez never met Leon Campbell. If she had she might have warned him not to bind to that brittle dream too tightly. Sadly, she will not have the chance. Maria died tying grapes vines, not too tightly, in 108 degree heat in the fields of Stockton, California.

Maria was seventeen, from Oaxaca Mexico, two months pregnant and engaged to her one and only sweetheart. Leon is thirty-nine, from Jamaica's St Mary's parish, the father of two half-grown children. Like Maria, Leon left home bound to his own American dream that by resolve and unstinting labor he would assure his family of a happier future. A respected mason back in Jamaica, Leon is now bending in the fields a thousand miles away in Brewster, Washington, shoveling manure and picking fruit. The locals are delighted to see Leon and his oncoming wave of fellow Jamaicans. After the 5,000 acre orchard was forced to fire its Mexican workers, many having worked there for twenty-odd years, half of Brewster's businesses folded. There were fears the whole town was about to go bust. So no one asks about Leon's official status, for while Leon admits the work is "very hard" as far as the local sheriff is concerned, Leon and his mates "are nice to talk to ... always polite and cheerful."

In my mind, I see Maria's young face light with a guileless smile as she held that first California pay check. She may not have warned Leon Campbell from her grave, but her death still serves as a caution. Leon knows his own test is coming: "it's going to get hot," he muses softly, looking out to the horizon. How long that dream can sustain him while he labors to resist the heat is the unanswered question.

A nation has grown flush in glory and wealth thanks to dreamers like Leon and Maria. Like the thousands of West Indians who worked and died in Panama with their sights on a finer life, they staked their future on Jefferson's elusive promise, convinced that no law nor accident of birth foreclosed their right to chase Happiness.

"There are those, I know, who will say that the liberation of humanity, the freedom of man and mind, is nothing but a dream. They are right. It is the American dream." —Archibald MacLeish

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Guest Sunday, 17 December 2017

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