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Hard Landing

Hard Landing
Photo by Jonathan Barkat

(page 1 of 6)

Juan Antonio Rangel was an “illegal” who came to Minnesota to work, and died on a warehouse floor. He was also a son, a husband, and a father. This is his story.

Guanajuato, Mexico, July 7, 2006

LEAVING THE MAIN ROAD on the outskirts of the city, we immediately begin to climb: past older stucco houses, a row of new town homes, a bullring, then a cluster of makeshift shacks built mostly of corrugated aluminum; one is barely larger than a queen-size bed. To our right, women and children trudge uphill, hunched forward against the steep slope. Many carry flowers.

The road charges straight up. It’s paved with round, fist-size stones; the car wobbles and rattles. My translator and guide, Laura Espinosa, drives in first gear, her small red Chevy laboring with the weight of five passengers. In the back seat, Maria Chagaka sits beside her daughter Janette, 13, and son Marco Aurelio, who is almost 9. Janette holds a small bouquet of artificial roses.

There is a cemetery atop the bare, windswept hill. Land is scarce in Guanajuato, a city of about 100,000 in central Mexico, 200 miles northwest of Mexico City. Guanajuatenses bury their dead above ground, in long rows of reinforced concrete tombs stacked six high, each just big enough to contain its coffin. A few tombs have engraved marble fronts. Some are decorated with ceramic tile, others with paint. Most are bare concrete.

Maria and her children walk slowly to grave number 27, in the second row, the 10th from the left. There someone has carved a mixture of upper- and lower-case letters in the concrete: J. ANTONIO RANGEL ChagaKA 3-11-05. A bouquet of red plastic carnations sits on a ledge, partially obscuring the name.

Juan Antonio Rangel died in a construction accident at the Supervalu warehouse in Hopkins, Minnesota, on November 3, 2005. According to the state’s workers’ compensation law, his family is entitled to reimbursement of up to $15,000 in burial expenses. Though Juan Antonio was working, directly and indirectly, for five separate companies—two of them giant Minnesota-based corporations—he is buried in a pauper’s grave.

Juan Antonio was Maria’s oldest child. A day short of her 39th birthday, she stands silently for a long time in front of her son’s tomb, staring. Making the sign of the cross, she prays. She alternately leans, first on Janette, then Marco Aurelio. Her shoulders tremble. Who is comforting whom?

A mother’s grief is excruciating to watch; a child’s death, I once heard a rabbi say, “is the world turned upside down.” Twenty minutes pass. Laura wanders off, studying the graves of strangers.

“I like visiting him,” Maria says in Spanish, as we leave. “But I worry that he is lonely. I hope he can take care of himself. He has no one to protect him.”

On the ride back to the Rangel home, Maria confides to us that she is pregnant, with twins due in November, near the anniversary of Juan Antonio’s death. After eight years without a pregnancy, she says, she had assumed her childbearing years were over. “An angel is watching over you,” Laura says.

Maria agrees. The twins are, she says, “a gift of God.”

Guanajuato is some 6,600 feet above sea level. The air is thin; on a summer morning, it’s as though someone has stripped a layer of gauze off the world.

In the United States, we argue about immigration in terms of economics—jobs lost and gained, taxes, the cost of living. In Mexico, it’s a matter of life and death. Immigration is like the river that divides us. Mexicans call it the Rio Bravo, the Brave River. We call it the Rio Grande, the Big River. The same river, even the same language, but very different ways of seeing the river—and the world.

The Star Tribune told the story of Juan Antonio Rangel’s death three days afterward, in 104 words. “His exact address,” the article said, “was not known, but he apparently lived outside the United States.” A second, unnamed coworker also “suffered head injuries.” Two men fell. One died. There seemed to be little more to say.

Meanwhile, debate about immigration swirled, and continues to swirl, in Minnesota and across the nation. Much of it focuses on economics, politics, and the law. In the process, flesh-and-bone human beings—the men who clear dishes after restaurant meals and cut lawns, the women who clean hotel rooms—become abstractions. My editor faxed me a copy of the Strib story and asked a few simple questions. Who was Juan Antonio Rangel? How did he get to Minnesota, to a warehouse nearly 2,000 miles from home? And what happened to the other man?

Guanajuato, Mexico, July 4, 2006 Guanajuato is San Francisco without the ocean—a city built on hills. A 300-year-old city with streets of stone, many of them callejones (alleys) so narrow that cars cannot pass. To accommodate modern traffic, a half-dozen roads run beneath the historic city center, through tunnels blasted in stone. UNESCO has designated the city, built with money from nearby silver mines, a “World Heritage” zone.

Like Mexico itself, Guanajuato straddles three centuries. In the triangular Jardín de la Unión, the throbbing heart of the city’s public life, a young woman sits with her laptop computer on a wooden bench, hijacking a restaurant’s wireless Internet access within earshot of several mariachi bands that play for outdoor diners. Across the street, at an ornate 19th-century theater, workmen remove three-foot-long stone slabs with mallets and chisels, struggling to carry them away in a wheelbarrow.

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