A Way of Life
Writer Robert Draper on remembering his own experiences with illegal immigrants.
texasmonthly.com: Why tell the story of Vicente Martinez now?
Robert Draper: The story of the Martinezes has stayedwith me throughout the years. But while covering President Bush, Senator John McCain and others during the past year for book- and magazine-related projects, I’ve been chagrined to listen to them encounter hostility from citizens who decry the “invasion” of “twelve million parasites”—referring, of course, to hard-working folks like Vicente, Maria, and their children. It struck me that I had an obligation to tell their story in an effort to add an encouraging narrative to this overheated debate.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think the country’s moving toward a guest-worker program or not?
RD: I wish that were the case. But I don’t see it happening during the Bush administration—not through the president’s lack of effort, but because the Republicans on Capitol Hill are largely against such a program, while the Democrats are reluctant to hand Bush a victory.
texasmonthly.com: The story speaks out for a guest-worker program. Can you understand why people are against it?
RD: Yes, I can understand it. People fear what they don’t understand. And as they feel their culture eroding due to a confluence of social forces, this is a tangible, visual area to which they can point and raise objection. I do have some sympathy for the sentiment that numerous immigrants refuse to assimilate. On the other hand, what exactly is the result to be feared? That English will cease to be America’s primary language? The reality is that those who don’t assimilate are doomed to be marginalized, or at least to be denied full access to the American dream.
texasmonthly.com: Vicente’s views of current Mexican workers and the rallies were interesting. Were you surprised by that?
RD: Very, and it proves that things are never as simple as they seem. In this case, generational attitudes trump national loyalty. Vicente identifies much more with blue-collar Anglos than with those who affect entitlement.
texasmonthly.com: Did your grandfather ever get in any trouble for having his own guest-worker program?
RD: No. His son (my uncle) fairly quickly began the arduous paperwork that would result in the Martinezes obtaining a visa and then their green card. That said, in the sixties and seventies, the number of illegal immigrants was small, and those who discreetly kept such workers seldom if ever exacted a penalty for doing so.
texasmonthly.com: How long did you work on this story?
RD: Not terribly long—probably a month—though the subject had been roiling inside me for some time.
texasmonthly.com: How often do you stay in touch with the Martinezes?
RD: Not often enough, alas. Geography has separated us further, but I also don’t want to exaggerate our kinship: as the story indicates, the Martinezes led a lifestyle altogether different from ours. Our bond consisted of the ranch and my grandfather, El Patrón. It was immensely gratifying to spend extensive time with them for this story and to see how many of the socioeconomic divisions between us have given way—to see the Martinez kids, for the first time, as peers, rather than as shadow children of an illegal hired hand.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing you found out? Anything you didn’t know before about the Martinezes?
RD: I was, to my shame, unaware of the extent to which fear of deportation informed their lives. And I was surprised to learn that Vicente didn’t view himself either as a Mexican or aspiring American—but simply as a man whose destiny it was to sacrifice his own identity so that his children could become Americans.
texasmonthly.com: You don’t focus really on any numbers or research about guest-worker programs. Why not include any more research in the story? What’s the benefit to just telling the story of the Martinezes?
RD: Because this is the story that hasn’t been told, at least in my view: how the “invasion” began as a solicitation, with full knowledge (and often complicity) of upper-echelon society . . . and how this system, in the absence of a legitimate one, was demeaning and yet still managed to produce individuals like the Martinezes who, far from representing a threat to our nation, represent what’s best about America.
texasmonthly.com: You haven’t written for Texas Monthly in a while. What was the reason you decided to come back for this article?
RD: I’ve wanted to come back much sooner! But this book on the Bush presidency (which will be published this September) has preoccupied me for the past three years. I’d love nothing more than to do more work for Texas Monthly in the near future. If anybody’s got a story suggestion, feel free to send it to me at [email protected].