Made in America

Long before “illegal” was a dirty, demagogued word, Vincente Martinez crossed over from Mexico to work my family’s ranch in Wimberley. A generation later, he and his family are still living happily and working productively in the Hill Country— and that’s a good thing, no matter what the TV screamers say.

If for some reason you have occasion to be driving through the Hill Country on Farm-to-Market Road 3237, bound for Wimberley, you’re likely to pass a tall Hispanic man working alone on a sprawling quarter horse ranch known as Foothills Farm. He wears jeans and boots, and beneath his cotton snap-button shirt there are both broad shoulders and a slight paunch. His straw hat will be set evenly, revealing a face deepened less by age than by decades in the sun. More than likely, he will be leading a horse by its reins to a paddock or to graze along Lone Man Creek.

It’s as ordinary a sight as one can imagine. I wouldn’t even bother to look, except that I happen to know this man, and remember how he got to where he is today. His name is Vicente Martinez. For a quarter century, he worked directly across Lone Man Creek, on the ranch where I spent much of my youth. He had crossed the Rio Grande near Reynosa, wandering for years from one farm to another, until he found a rancher in Medina who offered him $3 a day and a ditch in which to sleep in return for working with the animals. Word of Vicente’s skill with horses eventually reached our ranch foreman, who arranged a discreet meeting one day in 1969. Vicente accepted our foreman’s offer: $125 a month, plus food and a small trailer, in exchange for being the caretaker of dozens of quarter horses. Three years later, Vicente’s pregnant wife and three young boys were smuggled across the border in a two-door Monte Carlo driven by our foreman. In this way did the Martinez family come to live and work at the ranch owned by my grandfather, the Houston attorney and former Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski.

All this took place at a time when, according to an official at the Center for Immigration Studies, there were at most 1 million illegal aliens in America. Today there may be as many as 20 million. The screamers on radio and TV describe this as a siege. They say that these lawbreakers offer America nothing, that they are sucking our economy dry, that we should round them up, jail or deport them, and then seal the border once and for all. In this yelling match, families like mine and the Martinezes have remained silent. Co-conspirators though we were in the first clandestine wave of Mexican laborers, we feel no connection whatsoever to the mess we started. Back in 1969, no one protested. No one demagogued. It was all very quiet. And so by force of habit we’ve kept our mouths shut, thereby allowing this sad excuse for an honest debate to be hijacked by clueless and petty brokers of a myth. The myth is that America has been invaded.

Instead, the story that must be told, even if it reflects poorly on some of us, is the story of how we invited the invaders, how this began as an underground guest-worker program: imperfect, demeaning, and obviously illegal. But unsuccessful?

That depends in large part on what you think of the Martinezes today.

I HAD NOT SEEN VICENTE SINCE OUR family sold Circle J Ranch more than a decade ago. Back then, he and his kin were still living in the trailer beside the barn. The moment I drove into his quiet, mostly Anglo neighborhood in the hills of Wimberley, it was evident that he had moved up in the world. A wrought-iron fence encompassed his modest home. There was a fountain in the yard, and at the entrance gate stood a sign in English advertising Vicente’s availability for landscaping. “Resident of Wimberley community for 35 years” it read.

He was 72 now and, other than his recently acquired affection for Mexican soap operas, thoroughly unchanged. He warned me of this right after we hugged. He still couldn’t converse in English. Couldn’t dial the telephone. “I can’t write my own name,” he said as he showed me inside. “I work with my hands. All I know how to do is work.”

I had brought along my cousin Joe Jaworski, a lawyer and former city councilman in Galveston whose father had been the point man in getting the Martinezes their green cards more than two decades ago. We sat under a ceiling fan, in a living room that was an obstacle course of framed family photographs. Vicente’s wife, Maria, listened in from the kitchen as she rolled flour tortillas. I was grateful for the offer to stay for dinner, particularly since most of the Mexican restaurants in Austin had been closed for lunch. They were closed as a practical matter: Their workers, largely Mexican, would be taking to the streets that day, in pro-immigration rallies staged all across America.

When I asked Vicente why he was not among the marchers, he squinted at me, as if I had asked him why he was not a practicing Muslim. “He was working,” cut in his 39-year-old son, Carlos, who served as our interpreter. He said that his dad couldn’t relate to the protests. Nor, really, could Carlos. Theirs had been an altogether different path, and they had long since completed it. Carlos now manages a grocery store just outside Austin and is married to a radiology technician named Kimberly, who had stayed long enough to introduce herself before leaving for work. “All four of us married whites,” Carlos volunteered just after Kimberly left. “And all three sons have been divorced. So, yeah,” he smirked, “we’re pretty Americanized.”

In fact, one of them had always been American: 34-year-old Christina, who had been born here three months after her brothers and mother were smuggled across the border. She arrived at her father’s house a few minutes after Joe and I did, a tall and sharp-eyed bank executive who oversees three branches in San Antonio.

“Happy anniversary!” she called out as she walked in the door with her husband, Nick, and a bouquet

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