From a purely historical standpoint, the plight of undocumented Hispanic immigrants residing in the U.S. can be accurately characterized by the term Hispurgatory: A moment in U.S. history when the resident, undocumented Latino immigrant population is caught in a state of legal limbo. Their standard of living is typically well below the official poverty level. Their daily existence is one of endurance and survival. They are motivated by the hope that their service to this country as upstanding, creative, contributing, law abiding residents will be rewarded someday with legitimate, official acceptance by the government of the Promised Land.

For these Latinos, the hope for citizenship in the U.S. is heaven. Visions of better jobs, education, healthcare, housing, protections against discrimination, racism, the ability to be all one can be, to contribute to the United States economy and culture on an equal footing…these are the elements of their hope. The country they departed was, at least, economically oppressive. If the prospects for a better life for their families in their country of origin was without hope, then, that is hell.  Hope led them here. Hope keeps them here. They hope that we will awaken from our self-righteous indignation and accept them formally into this, the Promised Land. Until then, they remain among us, their lives suspended precariously between heaven and hell, in a state of Hispurgatory.

Getting In

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always wanted to speak to somebody who has actually lived in either heaven or hell. I haven’t met either yet (although I’ve met people in both categories that, in my opinion, belong in one or the other). However, I have met a vast number of people who presently reside in Hispurgatory. Let me tell you about one.

Juan (not his real name) lives in Santa Ana, CA. He came to the U.S. when he was 8 years old along with his 3 year old sister in 1991. He can remember the squalor they lived in the Saravia Michoacan region of Mexico, some two hours inland from Guadalajara. The family inhabited a one-room shack. The windows were just uncovered holes in the wall. The room had a dirt floor. There was no plumbing. Juan’s mom stayed home to care for the 5 children. Dad worked from sun up to sundown. The family would wait for dad to get home at night so they could eat dinner together. Most nights, dinner consisted of one tortilla each. Juan recalls the nights, too numerous to count, that his father gave his tortilla to his baby sister who crawled onto dad’s lap at suppertime.

Juan’s mother and father have been married for 30 years. His father entered the U.S. 28 years ago, living with his older brother in Santa Ana, working as a landscaper. Dad sent money to the family in Mexico every month from the U.S. Mom would visit dad in the U.S. once a year or so and shortly thereafter, would give birth to a new child in Mexico.

The first time Juan met his father in-person, he was 8 years old. Mom and dad decided that they wanted their children to have a better future by obtaining an education in the U.S. Dad had returned to Mexico with U.S. birth certificates from Juan’s uncle’s two children that matched the ages for Juan and his 3 year old sister.  Juan distinctly recalls the horrific screams and crying from his other brothers and sisters when they realized they would have to remain with mom in Mexico, rather than accompanying dad, Juan and his baby sister back to the U.S. Dad and mom promised the family that they would all be together in the U.S. within two years. It took four. The coyotes had raised their prices to U.S. $1,500.00 per person and it took the family two extra years to save the ransom.

Today, Juan is 22 years old. He remembers holding his father’s hand as they walked through U.S. customs in Tijuana when he was 8. He recalls his mother carrying his three-year old sister in her arms in front of him. This sister is 17 now. Nobody ever asked Juan or his sister to consent to this action. They were too young to argue with mom or dad. Juan lives with his parents and three sisters in an apartment in Santa Ana. Their rent is $950 per month. Mom continues to care for the children. His dad still works in landscaping where he brings home $320 per week (weather permitting…do the math). They have moved only once within Santa Ana since arriving in the U.S. The motivation to move occurred when Juan’s brother was shot four times while standing on the balcony of their apartment, in a random, drive-by shooting. Juan’s father missed filing for citizenship prior to the 1986 cut-off. Dad has a work-permit today, sponsored by his employer. They don’t have any medical insurance. Juan’s 5-year old sister has suffered from heart problems requiring 2 major surgeries. She needs another one but they just don’t have the money.

The Awakening – Liberty and Justice For All

Juan completed all his education in the Santa Ana school district. He is the first person in his family ever to graduate from high school. During high school, Juan received numerous academic awards as the top student in his class in Spanish, Planning and Compter Graphic Design and an award for perfect high school attendance. (Noteworthy as the drop-out rate for Latinos in Santa Ana high schools is about 50%).  He graduated from high school with honors. He graduated early.

He has never been arrested and doesn’t have a fake Driver’s license, social security card or birth certificate. He takes the bus everywhere he needs to go. He has never driven a car. He has made money distributing flyers, doing odd jobs and babysitting for neighbors and doing some filing a few hours a week at a law office.

It was reciting the pledge of allegiance one morning for the umpteenth time in high school that Juan realized that something was wrong. “When I said, ‘with liberty and justice for all,’ it dawned on me; all my efforts in school might be for nothing if something doesn’t happen to change my situation. I became confused, angry and depressed. Liberty and justice were for some.” Shortly after this awakening, Juan was unable to join his classmates on a field trip to Ensenada. He couldn’t join a friend and his family on a vacation trip to another state by airplane. He couldn’t take the test to get a permit to drive. He couldn’t get a real job like many of his high school classmates. He was in Hispurgatory.

This spring, Juan will receive his Bachelor’s degree from a four-year university in southern California. Most of the financial support he received for college was donated by a local church, as he does not qualify for federally funded student financial aid programs. Once again, he is graduating with honors. Juan wants to be an elementary school teacher. He completed his student teaching with first graders in a local elementary school. “It’s what I was created to do,” he says. He recently tried to sign-up to take the California teachers exam. They wouldn’t let him. He doesn’t have a social security number.

Now What?

“I want my younger sisters to continue to see me as a role-model.” Juan’s 17 year-old sister has a 3.8 GPA and is ready to graduate from high school. She faces the same challenges as Juan. “I need to be here for her; to encourage her to press on in the face of the hopelessness and confusion of it all. My biggest fears are that I won’t be able to teach here in the U.S., I won’t get the opportunity for citizenship here and that I will be deported. The U.S. Government should allow people like me and my sister to become citizens. We’ve earned. They should allow us to serve in the U.S. military too. I wish Latino celebrities like Jennifer Lopez, Arte Moreno (owner of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim major league baseball team), Ricki Martin, Dahlia and Alex Rodriguez (New York Yankees) would get together and advocate for the resolution of all this. I would, if I were in their position. This is my country.”

Juan is considering the continuing his education, obtaining his Master’s degree. He doesn’t know who would help him out financially. His life, his future are suspended in a state of legal limbo. This is Hispurgatory.

So What?

There are millions of Juan’s in the United States today. As I read my Bible, it is the plight of the Juan’s of the world where the rubber of good news of the Gospel must meet the road.    As theologian Thomas Merton wrote, “We must never overlook the fact that the message of the Bible is above all a message preached to the poor, the burdened, the oppressed, the underprivileged.“(1)

For those living in Hispurgatory in the United States today, they are people occupying space where there seems to be no room. As Merton says: “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited.  But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, and yet He must be in it. His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, or exterminated.  With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.” (3)

Yes, we do have a moral crisis in the United States today. Part of this crisis is caused and perpetuated by those who claim the name of Christ, sit on the sidelines, and shout at the Juan’s in this country. “The moral crisis that we are facing in this country is crying out for spiritual leadership.  It offers evangelicals the opportunity to put our faith to work-to roll up our sleeves and become players instead of sitting on the sidelines.”  (3)

It is time that we demand more of ourselves as Christians.  We are the hands and feet of Jesus Christ, and if the world is going to see, feel, and touch him, it will have to be through us.”(4)  It’s time that the Christian community repents, takes the leadership role and opens the door to the cell of those imprisoned within Hispurgatory in the United States.

Let them in America! It’s God’s grace we are shutting out.

Bibliography & Notes

1  Merton, Thomas.  Seeds, SHAMBHALA, Boston © Copyright 2002 by Robert Inchauti p. 111.

2  Merton, Thomas.  Seeds, SHAMBHALA, Boston © Copyright 2002 by Robert Inchauti p. 137.

3  Perkins, John M.  Restoring At-Risk Communities – Doing It Together & Doing It Right, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan © Copyright 1995 by John M. Perkins p. 10

4  Perkins, John M.  Restoring At-Risk Communities – Doing It Together & Doing It Right, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan © Copyright 1995 by John M. Perkins p. 12

One thought on “Hispurgatory”

  1. Your nice blog is worth a read. I didn’t realize that the issue was so important – while universal. You definitely put it in perspective for us. Thanks for the fantastic advice.

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