I’ve got this whole immigration debate figured out, and I owe it all to popsicles.
I’m in the Paleteria Michoacana on Zuni SE. This bright, bustling popsicle and ice cream store is one reason why what used to be Albuquerque’s War Zone is now The International District. Not long ago, this was a dark, deserted and dangerous-feeling block. These days, new American cars and trucks fill the parking lot every night. Parents with kids and teenagers on dates chatter about whether they should get a paleta de agua de fresa or a paleta de crema de pistache, an icy horchata or El Gran Rey of popsicles, an esquimale, sweet ice milk dipped in chocolate then coated with chopped nuts.
The answer to the whole immigration debate is right here before my eyes. I confess, I don’t understand the prickly details of competing guest worker proposals, or whether amnesty for undocumented aliens will hasten the end of the rule of law. I haven’t parsed the arguments about building a gigantic border fence, or figured out whether Minutemen are sincere patriots or rank racists. What I know is that I like what I see.
The place is packed. Everyone is happy. The customers in here are better-groomed, friendlier and more smartly dressed than most people I see on the sidewalks in Nob Hill.
Unless I’m misreading the clowning and giggling, the large crew of servers enjoys their work. There’s no scrimping on staff to shave a few bucks off overhead. As soon as a customer steps up to the counter, they’re met by a pleasant smile and a “Que quieres, usted?” It’s great, innocent fun, Norman Rockwell’s America to the blaring sounds of conjunto music.
We sell millions of people short to say that America must resign itself to new immigrants to do work we won’t do ourselves. What I’m seeing in this paleteria is the mark of an entrepreneur chasing a dream Americans weren’t seeing, and taking a risk Americans weren’t willing to take. Instead of hooking up with a formulaic franchise, this entrepreneur built something new for our city. And he’s scored a hit.
I’m the sole Anglo here (only in New Mexico is a Scarantino considered an Anglo). The man in line next to me wears battered, torn cowboy boots, pressed jeans and a clean white shirt. I don’t know if he got here legally. Considering that I’ve been called “wop” more times than I can remember, I don’t care whether he has his papers in order. I haven’t forgotten that “wop” stands for “without passport.” Two generations ago, desperately poor immigrants from southern Europe arrived on America’s shores without the right papers, but were not shipped back. Who doubts America is a better country for that bit of mercy?
I’ve got a trade to propose for anyone who thinks illegal immigrants pose a threat to us. Let’s exchange all of our slackers, our soft, lazy, young men and women without dreams or ambition, for anyone willing to make the trip across mountains and deserts, hiking the final 50 miles with only a plastic jug of water, through murderous heat and freezing nights, dodging Border Patrol and bandits alike, just so they can work their ass off seven days a week.
It’s not like Mexico is dumping its losers on us. Legal or illegal, through immigration we’re getting the toughest and most motivated people any country can produce.
The man ahead of me buys a frozen banana dipped in chocolate with Technicolor jimmies. My turn comes. I order in Spanish. The clean-cut young man behind the counter responds cheerfully in English. I reply in Spanish. He jokes in English. We understand each other perfectly.
He hands me a paleta de agua de pina. There’s big chunks of pineapple trapped in the frozen bar. Last night I had a watermelon popsicle, before that I tried tamarind. Tamarind. Wild.
Within a couple blocks are several new Mexican restaurants. I’m not talking New Mexican, like Garcia’s on Fourth Street. I’m talking about an entirely different kind of cuisine, a lot more interesting than the standard combo plate smothered with the routine chile and shrouded in the same old melted cheese. I’m talking savory sopa de vuelve a la vida, or chiles rellenos ahogados, or arroz marinero, and more kinds of fresh, adventuresome salsas than you’ll ever experience at Garduno’s.
That man in the cowboy boots with the pressed jeans and spotless shirt has gone back through the line and passes me, biting into one of those fabulous esquimales. His eyes sparkle like a delighted little boy as he chomps through the chocolate-nut crust. I can’t resist. I double back to get one for myself. As I wait to order, I’ve got my mind firmly made up about Mexican immigration: We’re getting the better end of the bargain.