Six out of 10 students at the school where I teach in South Carolina are from the countrysides or inner cities of Mexico, Central America and South America.
Many of them are like Paola, a first-grader from El Salvador who lives in a small apartment with her grandma, mom, sister and uncle. She is a wonderful kid.
The road from the countryside of El Salvador to the low country of South Carolina is long and hard.
If you take the time and make the effort to ask the migrants along that road, “Why are you trying to make it to the United States?” they will answer, “I’m trying to find una vida mejor (‘a better life’).”
The journey along this road is fraught with danger and heartbreak.
Listen to these words from journalist Oscar Martines, who embedded himself with migrants on the migratory trail from Central America to the Mexican-United States border and wrote about the people he met in his book, “The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail.”
“We walk on, telling ourselves that if we get attacked, we get attacked. There’s nothing we can do. The suffering that the migrants endure on the trail doesn’t heal quickly. Migrants don’t just die, they’re not just maimed or shot or hacked to death,” he writes. “The scars of their journey don’t only mark their bodies. They run deeper than that. Living in such fear leaves something inside them, a trace and a swelling that grabs hold of their thoughts and cycles through their heads over and over. It takes at least a month of travel to reach Mexico’s northern border. … Who takes care of them? Who works to heal their wounds?”
Before “The Beast” was translated into English, it was titled “Los Migrantes Que No Importan” (“The Migrants Who Don’t Matter).”
It is important to remember that people do not leave their families or their lands unless they have to.
If your children are threatened by violence, sickness or poverty, you migrate and look for “una vida mejor” for them.
If your house is bombed and your land is stolen from you, you migrate and look for “una vida mejor.”
If you open your cupboard, and there is nothing there but dust, and you reach into your pockets to find money to buy food, and there is nothing there but dust, and there is no sustaining work for you to do to support your family, but only dust, you migrate and look for “una vida mejor.”
No one wants to leave their family, their land unless they have to. No one wants to take on the danger and heartbreak of migration unless they have to.
But some people have to.
And here in the United States, there are seeds that need to be planted, plants that need to be tended and crops that need to be harvested, and there are farmers willing to pay a wage for someone to do it.
Here in the United States, there are motel rooms that need to be cleaned, and there are businesses willing to pay a wage for someone to do it.
Here in the United States, there are houses that need to be built, and there are builders willing to pay a wage for someone to do it.
Here in the United States, there is work that needs to be done that could provide “una vida mejor” for the worker.
There is a way for the migrant to find food, shelter, clothing, work, medical care and education where there was none before.
There is a way unless we block that way for them, unless we think they don’t matter.
My little student Paola matters, and all of the Latina and Latino students around me matter.
One time, a new student named Billy walked into Paola’s classroom.
“Hi,” Paola whispered to him as he sat down beside her. “I’m glad you’re in our class.”
She didn’t know the story of the suffering that brought him to our school, but perhaps she recognized something familiar in his taut face, quivering voice and shaking hands.
“This is your journal. It goes in your desk like this,” she explained. “These are our crayons and markers. You can use them if you want to. Don’t worry. There’s lots to learn. I’ll help you.”
Maybe her eyes are so kind, and her mind is so helpful, and her heart is so big because of the journey she made on the migratory trail from El Salvador to here.
So many of my Latina and Latino students have compassionate eyes, intuitive minds and big hearts. They are beautiful, wonderful and ingenious.
They are just the opposite of the destructive, demagogic, dehumanizing words President Trump uses to describe the immigrants at our southern border looking for “una vida mejor.”
They are human beings.
They are life.
I am here to take care of them.
I am here to heal their wounds.
I am here.
I hope you are too.
Trevor Barton teaches fourth grade and is a member of First Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina.