On Tuesday, Jan 13, 1972, early on in a 15-month odyssey, I crossed the border from Mexico to Guatemala in the rugged El Tapon area.
I was traveling in a Jeep station wagon with my then-wife Barbara and our 5-year-old daughter Kris, on a journey that would take us through Central America, around the Darien peninsula by ship, and through Columbia, Ecuador and Peru. And then back.
This evening we were driving slowly on a narrow, winding road, through mountains and canyons of savannah and scrub forest. We were still far from our destination, La Libertad, when light started to fade. We pulled off the road and in a brushy field found a level place to stop and camp in the Jeep, as was our custom on this trip.
Night fell as we prepared dinner in the back of the station wagon. A group of half a dozen Mayan men and women gathered several hundred feet away and started a campfire. They greeted us, told us we should visit the gringo priest in La Libertad, and were a quiet benign presence as we ate dinner and went to sleep. They dispersed at the first light of dawn.
The next morning we broke camp and drove into small rural La Libertad, where a bustling market day was in full swing. We bought groceries and supplies, and one vendor, for a few centavos, had a trained parrot that pulled a message from a miniature treasure chest and, to Kris’ delight, placed it in her hand.
We visited the village priest who invited us to stay the night at the church offices. Later he told us that the Mayan families who had seen us set up camp outside of town were concerned about our safety because there had been a murder in that area in the past few months. They quietly took it upon themselves to stay near us and watch over us through the night. Later they alerted the priest to our presence, knowing that he could talk to us in English, and look after our safety.
During our journey, we experienced many similar events of extraordinary kindness, hospitality and generosity from a wide range of people in Mexico, Central and South America. These were hard-working people of modest means, who shared their food and homes with us with no expectations of return.
Kris, who picked up Spanish as a native speaker, eventually worked in the Peace Corp and Peace Corp administration and now teaches high school Spanish. On return to the states, I worked as a physician in a migrant workers clinic in Woodburn, Oregon. I have returned to Latin America many times as a tourist and medical volunteer.
As I watch our immigration policy hijacked by hate, anger and misunderstanding, and see the cruel and sadistic treatment of vulnerable people seeking refuge in the United States, I feel incredible regret and shame. These immigrants and refugees are the sons and grandsons of people whom we met in our travels, who value family, hard work, generosity to others and community. Given our blessings of material abundance and political stability, our current treatment of immigrants and strangers is unforgiveable.
Unless we are pure-blood Native Americans, we also are descendants of immigrants — good, hard-working people. As Chinese, Iranians, Irish, Italians, Mexicans, Japanese, Jews, Poles, Senegalese and a multitude of other origins, our ancestors often faced challenges and hate when they came to the United States.
Understanding the perilous journeys of our own homeless ancestors, from their diverse countries of origins, would we not naturally greet today’s immigrants and refugees with kindness, dignity, generosity, and justice?
That which unites us as human beings and intertwined communities is so much more powerful than that which divides us. We cannot allow those who seek to divide us push forward their agenda of hate and divisiveness. Our country has always stood for respect of human rights and supporting others in times of need and in situations of crisis. This is what has made us great. Let’s not turn away from what has always represented our hearts’ deepest feelings and values.
Martin Albert is a physician practicing functional and integrative medicine. In 2017 he moved back to Oregon from Virginia and now works with Rogue Community Health in Medford, where he and his wife are expanding the Integrative Medical Clinic.