Up until the point I moved to Atlanta for college, every year I would spend the days before Thanksgiving helping my dad out with hauling 100 turkeys from the warehouse of a store that had the best deal on them for the sake of charity. Once we would find a free evening that worked for all of us, my sister and mom would join us in hauling the truck full of turkeys to a Catholic mission in Homestead, Florida, where they would be distributed to the migrant workers that called the mission a home.
Aside from the church, the mission was more of a community center than anything else. While we would occasionally come over and stay for the mass, kids would be playing out in the courtyard or running around in the rec room, while the mothers took care of their babies and the adults would mingle. I would have very passive interactions with some of the people there, and some often came over to thank us for providing food for a holiday meal they would have never had otherwise.
Each year that we passed into Homestead, we would converse with the mission’s priest and talk about the state of the mission and the migrant community that relied on them for support. From there, I would hear about the troubles of the largely Mexican population of families being housed by the church. Between the conditions of extreme poverty that forced them out of their country, and the narco-war that was increasing in influence over the years. Having this mission available to the needy refugee families in the area became a valuable bedrock in the lives of the families present, and was probably the only remotely steady institution in their lives, as the breadwinners would have to change jobs and travel around to find work at times.
Reports of the fear that these families lived under day-to-day came to my attention as we visited the mission more and more. Every day that the heads of these families would work in the fields, they were risking being tracked and taken away by police and federal agents that would often detain them and send them to arbitrary drop-off points across the Mexican border without their children having any knowledge of their whereabouts. As more and more families became torn apart by what would be kidnapping in any other context, a very real dilemma would begin to brew in the minds of those who remained: stay in the United States and risk having the family broken apart at any moment in time, or move back to Mexico where jobs were scarce and there was a very real possibility of getting killed by gangsters. Some of these families chose to go back to Mexico, opting to risk their lives and economic well-being together as a family, while others opted to try their luck in seeking out other parts of the United States where immigration enforcement wasn’t so tough.
Bringing the turkeys to this Catholic mission was probably one of the family traditions that had the most lasting effect on how I viewed people. Even when I was very young, I came to the realization that the people who I was helping out were hardly different from myself. One of the primary reasons why my own family has been able to do so well in this country is because of a political grudge against the communists that allowed for Cuban refugees to enjoy the freedoms afforded to any legal US resident so long as they made an effort to reach the nation. For these Mexican migrant workers, they had no such luck. Their lot in life became one that had always been out of their control thanks to economic and political forces in the places they happened to be born. It was the illusion of national borders and the willingness for those to uphold the law over showing some humanity to those in a vulnerable position that made life extremely hard for them.
I am extremely thankful for what I have. By most standards, I have lived a very privileged life and I remind myself of this fact most every day of my life. I’ve been blessed with level-headed parents that have always been open to foster my interests from the time I was a child; I’ve had the opportunity to travel the world, and I’ve been blessed to be in a financial position to study at world-class institutions while making valuable contacts in the fields of my choosing.
It’s valuable to reflect on what we are thankful for, as this national holiday encourages among all participants, but what really matters are the actions that indicate how we deal with our individual positions of privilege in the context of humanity as a whole. Many people contribute to canned food drives, give money to their food banks, or even donate to charities that help negatively afflicted people of all kinds. While these actions are all well and good (assuming that the organizations you contribute to are trustworthy), none of these have the same impact on both parties than directly helping people face-to-face. Instead of only contributing to ‘causes’ and large charities, we should be more directly contributing to the active well-being of those who are unable to help themselves due to circumstances beyond their control. That’s what being a humanitarian is all about. While individual merit has a valuable role to play, we are all largely creatures of circumstance; our actions should reflect that fact.
So as you pray, meditate, or even fall into your food comas tonight while reflecting on your lot in life, think about the last time someone you didn’t expect came up to you and thanked you for your works no matter how small. Think about those who aren’t able to enjoy what you have, whether it be in knowledge, opportunity, or the love of your friends and family. From there, make an effort to give back using the gifts you have been blessed with, no matter how miniscule you think they may be. We’re all in this together.