As I parked, I heard a tap on my window. The tap came from a neighbor from the building next door, a 40-ish African-American man with an unfashionable, immaculately coifed Afro and John Lennon-style glasses, radiating quiet intelligence and blue-collar dignity. We had never interacted much, outside of a few occasional nods, but he seemed decent enough from what I could tell. I noted him because the license plates on his older model car read “Hinds County, Mississippi.” People flock here from rural, backwater Mississippi because of our booming economy, and Mississippi license plates become more widespread each passing year. My neighbor was one of a dozen or so men in our apartment complex I see spending their Saturdays – and sometimes weekday evenings too – with hoods up, tinkering with engines, hoping to make their “hooptie” go another week without breaking down. In Huntsville, a city with minimal public transit, the stalled car means social as well as financial death.
“Sorry to bother you. Can you help this guy? He’s trying to go somewhere, but I can’t understand a word he says and I don’t have time.” He pointed behind to a small wiry, anxious man with a medium Afro, standing on the sidewalk.
“Sure. No problem. Does he speak Spanish?”
“I think so. Thanks, man.”
Smiling, I motioned the man over. He had fierce, burning eyes, high cheekbones, and an intense, hawk-like gaze, but a warm smile. Looking at him, the man appeared to be Afro-Latino. He couldn’t speak a word of English and I only spoke a smattering of Spanish.
“UniBersity!” he said, pointing to University Drive, one of the main drags in Huntsville a few blocks away. We drove to the very end where University meets Memorial Parkway, a major north-south conduit for north Alabama. I then automatically turned right on Bob Wallace Ave. Huntsville’s Latino community starts here on the south-side so I figured that’s where he was going. But to my surprise, he shook his head, saying “No, no!”
I turned down a one-way street the wrong way (well, it was a very small street) and gently bumped the curb (well, it was a very tight turn-around) to get back. I imagined the man silently thinking to himself, “And the gringos say WE’RE poor drivers.” Before we headed out to Bob Wallace again, he made a call and handed me the phone. The man on the other end sounded like a supervisor; factory or construction site sounds buzzed in the background. But fortunately this man, speaking in a Spanish accent, was also bi-lingual and told me to drive to the Occupational Health Clinic at the Huntsville Hospital Medical Mall, an entity well known to me.
In 2011, Alabama passed HB 56, the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, which is arguably the most repressive and sweeping anti-immigration law in the country. Among its many provisions, HB56 mandates E-verify ID checks with hefty fines, grants police the right to ask for ID on mere suspicion that someone might be undocumented (i.e. a blank check for randomly stopping and frisking Latinos); anyone found without papers is swiftly turned over to ICE. Children of undocumented parents get barred from all parts of the school system, from kindergarten to college (by the way, Alabama is the only state in the country where children have no legal right to public education). And the list goes on, all 72 poisonous pages of it.
Not surprisingly, HB56 has been subjected to many lawsuits and injunctions and I have no idea where any of it stands now. But on the ground, at least in larger cities, I don’t pick up buzz of any particular strong anti-immigrant sentiment: Latinos walk freely and without fear. Here in Huntsville, the police relentlessly dog the homeless more. I suspect (without hard evidence) that anti-immigrant sentiment is concentrated more in Alabama’s rural areas and especially in areas with little actual immigration. In partial support of this, there’s the case of Albertville, a small city of 20,000 and with many large poultry plants, about an hour away from Huntsville and a small patch of the urban in the mostly rural Sand Mountain area (now nicknamed “Meth Mountain” because of its sky-high rates of meth addiction). Albertville, like most of Sand Mountain, was historically a “sundown town” and even now, the Black population is only 5%.
Yet, today, Albertville is one-quarter Latino. When you drive through the newly flourishing downtown, colorful, hand-painted Spanish language signs pop-up everywhere. The most popular local restaurant is Mexican. Albertville transitioned without much conflict; local clergy got involved, especially in the school system. It also helped that Latinos congregated in the poultry plants, where no native workers wanted to work and so no one saw Latinos as unwanted competition.
In anecdotal support of my theory about the rural-urban immigration divide, a friend who grew up in a nearly all-white, rural west-Alabama county near the Mississippi state line told me a story that his parents, devout fundamentalists, had told him about knowing “someone” who knew “somebody” else who had married a Mexican woman. When the couple divorced, she allegedly was awarded the house, threw him out, and promptly moved all her large, extended family up from Mexico.
I told him the story was a complete crock. But although surely it was made-up, you can see the underlying fears in this sort of apocryphal tall-tale: fear of being swamped by foreigners, fear of these outsiders swooping in and taking your hard-earned property away, leaving you home-less and penniless, and the government (via the law) helping THEM and not you. It’s a potent, noxious brew of faux-victimization that will continue to bubble and resonate as a socio-cultural meme, no matter how tenuous or far-fetched.
I saw my passenger again when he came up to my car a week later and gestured if I could give him a ride. I assumed he wanted to go back to the Occupational Health Clinic again because he was now wearing a leg brace. But no, he wanted to go to Walmart – a sure sign of rapid acculturation to American life – which is where we headed. This time, both of us more relaxed (I did not go down any one-way streets or hit curbs), he introduced himself as Luis and said he was from the Dominican Republic. This time too we communicated better, thanks to the wonders of Google Translator. I found out he actually lived where I did – I had assumed the first time we met he was lost or staying at the Mission two blocks down, whose guests wash up in waves on our parking lot.
Several days later, I encountered Luis again, standing on his balcony. He smiled broadly, opened his arms as wide as they could get and said “My friend!” I smiled and shouted back: “Luis, mi hermano, mi hermano!” We both laughed.
But a few days ago though, when I walked past the apartment Luis was staying in (along with others, shadows in the background I never fully saw) and looked up, the lights were dimmed and curtains drawn. Construction companies frequently rent short-term for crews here and maybe Luis was part of a crew, moving on to somewhere else, alone or together, when work dried up . . . to another site . . . to another state . . . maybe to another country. . .
Uprooted and always in motion.