El Mirage, Arizona was founded by migrant farm workers in the 1930’s and it still has that flavor even though the cotton fields around it have been turned into track houses and chain stores. It’s an island of the old country, a place surrounded on all sides by a culture of newness and mass production. El Mirage is a stubborn, rooted place.
When Miguel Miguel came here from Guatemala as a teenager in 1986 he came to work in those cotton fields. He walked for two days and two nights through the Arizona desert with his soon-to-be bride Maria. She was 13. He was 15. “Thanks god we made it.” He says it with a weary smile. “They didn’t catch us.” They were escaping a raging civil war in Guatemala. In their home village, Miguel says he saw 18 people executed by the government after they were accused of being communist guerillas. Right in front of him, one by one, eleven killed the first time. Seven killed the second time. They weren’t even guerillas, he says. He doesn’t know why it happened. It was a mad, insane time in Central America then. Millions died.
Their first year here Ronald Reagan declared an amnesty for undocumented agricultural workers, which was a supreme stroke of good fortune. Now they were both on the path to legal residency. They married a year later. It was an unofficial commitment in the eyes of the law—she was 14, he was 16—but that didn’t stop the couple from starting their family. Twenty-one years later they have seven children between the ages of five and 21. They all live at home in a modest 3-bedroom home. Roosters and hens run around in the backyard. Gang members shoot at each other near the front yard.
As for digital technology, their attitude is one of indifference. They don’t have the money to even hope for the latest and greatest. And compared with where their family has its roots, their lives now are flooded with technology. Until three years ago, for instance, Miguel was still communicating with his mother by recording into cassette tapes and sending them back and forth to Guatemala. He had no choice. She had no phone so he couldn’t call. She can’t read so he couldn’t write. It would take three months to get an answer to a question.
But it all comes back to money, of which they have little. Because of this they must manage their expectations and desires. Wants are expensive things to have. Mariela Miguel, their 15-year-old daughter, says cellphones are unnecessary when she can simply walk to her friend’s house. Face-to-face communication is better, she says. Makes us more human, she says. But what if someone bought you a cellphone? I wouldn’t take it she says, you’d have to pay for the minutes. How about a cellphone with unlimited minutes? She smiles. I’d take it, she says.
Consumer infatuation hasn’t penetrated the Miguel house. But it’s starting to. You can feel it. There are two Ipods floating around and they’re in constant use. There’s one laptop and it’s on until it overheats and shuts itself down each afternoon. The first thing the oldest kids bought with the money from their teenage jobs were cellphones.
Still, the thing that gets the most use is out back and it has no corporate logo. It doesn’t need batteries. It didn’t come in a box or a bag. You can’t get it on Ebay or at the Apple Store. It’s a patch of grass. That’s all. A 30’ x 30’ patch of grass. On it there are four or five chickens, a friendly black dog, an arbor of grapes, and some metal frames that stand in for a jungle gym. But really it’s a blank canvas for the imagination, a screen with the highest possible resolution.
Does Mariela, the 15-year-old who covets cellphones, feel unfortunate for what they’re lacking? “At least we have something. Not too much and not too little.”
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