As the snows begin to recede here in the southern Rockies, the descansos by the sides of our roads come back into view. These are shrines created by families who have lost someone in a car wreck at that spot.
Made up of artificial flowers and wooden crosses with names written on them, they often sport tiny American flags. Since the names are mainly Hispanic, it surprises me that at a time, and in a usually tolerant state, where the legislature is debating changing a long standing law allowing “illegal immigrants” to get drivers’ licenses, in a country with a long history of hatred of minorities (not minorities, here), these family tributes reinforce their traditional allegiance to a country that has done so little for them, and acts now with increasing violence against them—i.e., ICE swooping down on schools to access the status of the children’s parents, often snatching away people who have been working here for many years, dividing families, and plunging these “illegals” into months-long detention at a hellish jail in the southern part of the state.
And these are people who have committed no crime other than that of crossing our shared border.
New Mexican natives fight in all our wars. A large percentage of the battalion that suffered through the Bataan Death March was from this state. And they fly the US flag, even on the roadside shrines that bring to mind so many family tragedies.
Still, we pick at them, trying to drive them out, in spite of all the proof of their enormous importance to our economy, in spite of appeals to mutual understanding. I’m reminded of my chicken-raising days, years ago in Kentucky.
I acquired my first chicks when I was ten, ordering them from a breeder. They arrived, cheeping loudly, in a cardboard box. I was excited, and frightened; they were tiny, incredibly delicate and vulnerable, and they needed care. With great care, and corresponding pride, I raised most of them until they became the pride of my little barnyard, Rhode Island Reds and Leghorns strutting the dirt, with the curious cooing sounds hens make when they aren’t celebrating their laying.
There were of course problems: one of my two feisty roosters developed something called Bumble Foot, a large swelling on his foot. My father in one of our rare moments of intimacy helped me to operate on the swelling with a kitchen knife. The rooster recovered, angrily.
But there was one hen who was not so lucky. For some reason I couldn’t decipher, she began to loose feathers on her neck. In all other ways, she seemed healthy and happy, picking about the yard with her sisters.
But then her sisters turned on her.
As soon as they saw the bare spot on her neck, they began picking at it with increasing viciousness. Soon she was nearly bald, sore, and suffering. The outcome was inevitable; I had no way of fencing her off by herself. And when I discovered, one morning, her pitiful limp and nearly featherless body, I imagined the other hens were triumphant.
They had done away with the different one.
I’ve had the miserable experience at several times in my life of seeing the wounded among us picked to death. There seems to be something in human nature that can’t abide difference, that sees, or exaggerates, threat in what may be illness, deformity, or simply an exception from the “normality” we all expect.. When our urge to pick someone to death is aroused by the sight of a vulnerable patch of psychic bare skin, we go at it as relentlessly as my hens.
I can only find a hint of hope in my faith—perhaps the same faith that allows my neighbors, so often derided and attacked, to mount crosses and fly little American flags on their wayside shrines.