Last September in Chicago I saw a play called “Amor de Lejos,” which is Spanish for “love from afar.” It was performed by a theater company of high school students and offered a few short, but vivid slices from the grueling lives of day laborers from Mexico and Central America living and working in Chicago.
Watching it was one of the most moving and provocative experiences I’ve had in some time. Not simply because the performances themselves were so wonderful. Not just because these 14, 15, and 16 year-old students had conceived, researched and written the play themselves. And not even only because the real stories the students told were so compelling.
No, the piece made such an impression on me in large part because I realized in watching that I had so rarely seen anything like it in any format — the lives of poor, mostly undocumented, Latino immigrants rendered holistically and with compassion.
What these student-actors brought home that night was that these men – all the narrators were men — had histories, aspirations, people they’ve left behind, people they long to see again. These would seem to be obvious points, no? And yet the truth is that our national context for discussions of immigration over the last several years — the national “immigration debate” — typically abstracts away from the textures of the lives at its core. The stories told in Amor de Lejos made clear that the laborers had sacrificed a great deal to get to the United States and had accepted the terrible risks of doing so with eyes wide open. Surely it’s incumbent on us to better understand why they would do this — how, literally and figuratively, they came to this place.
The popular “bottom line” argument that undocumented immigrants are “criminals who must be treated accordingly” rings particularly hollow when assessed against the deeply humanistic testimony to which these Chicago students gave voice. It is both remarkable and shameful that we hear such compelling testimony so rarely.