In the Water

An immigrant in the water is a story or a lesson, but an immigrant on land is our responsibility--they might become our neighbor

“And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”
--Epilogue, Moby Dick, Herman Melville

THE pax romana of my personal life saw unprecedented peace and stability last summer during the mercifully constant coverage of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The opening ceremony was full of bombast and bad politics, but I still cried when the first ever Refugee Olympic Team walked in, waving tiny white flags and dressed like a college a cappella team. The stadium erupted into a standing ovation.

The network ran segments on the athletes. Yusra Mardini, now an 18-year-old swimmer, fled the Syrian civil war on a small boat headed to the island of Lesbos off the coast of Greece. The boat was overcrowded and, on its way there, began to sink. Mardini and her sister, two among four people on the boat who knew how to swim, jumped into the water and helped push the boat for three hours until they reached the shore. The boat carried 20 people. Mardini, the daughter of a former swim instructor, had always been a talented swimmer, but had not trained for two years because of the war. She was ecstatic to be at the Olympics and gave serious interviews. “It was quite hard to think that you are a swimmer, and you are going end up dying in the water,” she said of her decision to jump into the water to push the boat to shore. This is, of course, a hero’s natural fear; no valiant swordsman wants to imagine being hoisted with his own petard. But those are also the worries of an expert, a master. The official website for the Rio Olympics ran a story on Mardini and her “41st place finish that felt like gold.” Inherent in the article’s title was the erasure of Mardini’s ambitions as an athlete, supplanting them with those assumed of a refugee: surviving somewhere away from dust and death. Athletes are not generally known to feel that anything but gold is gold and, indeed, Mardini is training for the next Olympics.

If there is something mythical in the telling of this particular story, it is because in narrating the journeys of migrants, the form of the epic is hard to shake. Epics tell the story of nationalization. The classic backdrop is an Ancient Greece that has just formed or is about to fall, and the stories often follow a single theme, fate, or argument with a god through generations and genealogies. Epic heroes are born mere mortals and become heroes only when they are tested. These stories break down their impulse to fight: why, how, for how long. These are the same fundamental questions that migrant narratives seek to answer.

THE American immigration narrative is, in some hands, an epic: a story about people who force their indigeneity onto a land that tries to expel them. With few exceptions, it is always a story about water and dry land, the wet and the dry. Imagery of early European immigrants arriving in New York is split into two camps: one involves a boat on the Hudson, and the other, processing at Ellis Island. The stories about immigrant names misspelled, the invasive examinations, the literacy tests, are the first examples of immigration that American schoolchildren encounter in textbooks. These interactions all occurred on land, but the huddling masses yearning to breathe free huddled and yearned on boats in the water. This parallel imagery holds true today: An immigrant in the water is a story or a lesson, but an immigrant on land is our responsibility--they might become our neighbor.

In 2016, the image most associated with immigration in the United States was that of a brown man. The American anti-immigrant pejorative “wetback,” translated from the Spanish “mojado,” loses some of the latter’s material meaning, because English forces a choice between noun and adjective. A crude translation from the Spanish makes no distinction between noun and adjective: it simply means wet. The 2005 song “Mojado,” a collaboration between Guatemalan singer-songwriter Ricardo Arjona and the Mexican folk band Intocable, became a popular radio anthem during the May Day immigrant marches of 2006 and is equal parts symbolic and literal: “The wetback feels like drying off / the wetback’s wet from all the tears flowing from his nostalgia.”

The term “wetback” originally referred to migrants who crossed the Rio Grande. It has always been a slur, first to describe migrants who would swim across the river in order to enter the United States, and later to refer to any undocumented immigrant. It’s a difficult cross to bear; not only is the river fast, but there are also material obstacles in the way. Crossers could get stuck on shopping carts or tires, or on water plants, like the hydrilla, an invasive species. Often, migrants take off their clothes and put any identification or money they have into plastic bags that they carry above their heads. If they drown, the water will destroy their features, or fish and turtles will eat away their faces and fingers, such that nobody could identify them--not the locals who see the bodies washed up on their shores, nor the authorities that have to respond to those calls. Not that there is money for that anyway. Bodies that wash up to shore do so on the coastlines of some of the country’s poorest towns. Migrants that die crossing the river are called “floaters” by people on the ground, a name ascribed within 24 to 48 hours after the drowning. It’s a taxonomic category of utter anonymity. Floaters are usually naked, which ostensibly makes the river easier to cross, but also dissuades authorities from conducting any investigation, because these bodies are identifiably migrant. Autopsies are not performed. Writing about the migrant dead that wash up on the small town shores generally focuses on the cost to local coroners, funeral homes, and cemeteries, the human-interest angle being the question of where the migrants will be buried. Stripped of the language of affect, it is fundamentally a question of local politics and real estate.

THE ocean will always be the last frontier; its place in our imagination has no rival. Although this is not quite true in reality--there are maritime limits and boundaries--we tend to regard the ocean as a place where man has no jurisdiction. It is easy to admire the immigrant who crosses angry waters to make it to this country. It is a way to admire both the ocean and ourselves, or, at least, our ability to recognize in the immigrant something we value in ourselves, something we claim belongs to the “human spirit.”

In 1995, the Clinton administration revised the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act to accommodate a new policy, which eventually came to be known as the “wet foot, dry foot policy.” If Cubans fleeing the island were found in the water somewhere between Cuba and Miami, they would be sent back. If they made it to Miami and literally stepped foot on sand, they could remain in the United States with legal recognition. Coast Guard employees, acting as de facto immigration officers, would come to intercept more than 80 percent of rafters. The interest in the rafts as objects was widespread, so much so that the Transit Home and Museum in Key West houses remarkably constructed rafts. They truly are a model of human ingenuity--rafts made from planks of wood, bed sheets, melted Styrofoam cups to form a catamaran, even a green 1950 flatbed Chevrolet made buoyant by 55-gallon drums and a propeller.

In 2000, Gabriel García Márquez wrote an essay about Elián González, the young Cuban boy found on a raft by two fishermen in the waters between Cuba and the United States. His mother had drowned, and the two countries became embroiled in a bitter standoff about his future. The media was obsessed with the boy. A story circulated about dolphins having rescued him. García Márquez observed that “an infallible formula for a positive reception in the United States is arriving in its territorial waters as a castaway.” Although García Márquez was famously close friends with Fidel Castro, his observation is more literary than political. Clinton’s policy made just the slightest sliver of sense, not because it implied that winning a battle against the sea meant someone had strong character and deserved to be our neighbor, but because winning that battle meant they were a strong fighter, a good navigator, a person with enviable fortitude--someone you’d want for war. Because darker-skinned people are often associated with the earth and the natural elements, it is not a stretch to accept that they might be sea-tamers, swimming against currents, walking across scalding hot deserts filled with sharp-tongued ophidians, or mountains even orologists would not climb. But once they arrive on dry land, they have reached the state. It is humans who make borders and enforce laws pertaining to them. On dry land, they are subjects. Or rather, you are subjects, some of you.

Images of migrants on boats are painfully easy to conjure because the European refugee crisis has been photographed extensively. Of these photographs, one of the most widely circulated is of the young Syrian boy Alan Kurdi lying facedown on a Turkish shore. His small lifeless body is, to borrow a term from the anthropologist Mary Douglas, matter out of place. He is too young to be dead. He is a baby. When he was still on the boat, he was packed into the vessel with too many people, swaths of brown skin weighing it down, speaking in Arabic, women and children, but men too; men like the man he should have grown into one day--maybe even an “unassimilable” man. Would a picture of that boat have made us cry too? The boat in the water is another man’s problem, just migrants doing what migrants do: trying their best to not die. Since 2014, ten people a day have died in the European waters. Cemeteries are reaching maximum capacity with unmarked graves.

The drowned bodies are full of water from the ocean.

The drama’s done, Ishmael said. Why then here does any one step forth? Because one did survive the wreck.