By Barrett McElhenny Fife
In his 1990 book The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien wrote that “a true story is never moral […] if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue.”
In keeping with O’Brien’s statement, the story I’m about to tell is unfinished, and it certainly has no rectitude. There isn’t a neat resolution or a self-evident moral. It’s sad and it’s real and it’s true.
This started out as a college essay. In the past few weeks, I have experienced a heartbreak that I will carry with me for the rest of my life, and I thought there was a way to channel that loss into something greater. But I quickly realized two things. Firstly, being the verbose writer that I am, I was going to grossly exceed my 650 word limit.
But more importantly, I realized that this story isn’t about me. To make it about me would be dishonest and unfair to the real main character. And with outlets like Blue Virginia, I can give a voice to my friend.
This friend. He’s a work colleague, but a friend all the same. He’s ten years my senior, and on paper, we have absolutely nothing in common other than our place of employment. Frequently, we’re on such different wavelengths that we can barely understand each other. But over my three years at, let’s call it, Brownstone Bakery, a small business in Alexandria, Virginia, my coworker, whom we’ll call Albert, became one of my favorite people, not just at work, but in my life.
Let me introduce you to him.
My favorite story about Albert sums him up quite nicely: he and some of the other employees at Brownstone Bakery used to periodically keep a hidden stash of gatorade in the business office, which I discovered after working with them for about a year. When Albert realized that I was partaking in and enjoying their hidden treat, he started making sure the stash was always fully stocked (with orange, which he knew was my favorite flavor). He wrote cute notes on my employee swipe card. We had nicknames for each other. I invited him to my events at school, and my friends knew him by name from all the constant stories.
In addition to his kindness, Albert is the best employee a business could ever dream of. Whenever there’s a problem or question at Brownstone, he’s the person we call. He knows everything about everything, and no matter how close to a mental breakdown he is (it often seemed that Albert was single-handedly running Brownstone Bakery), he’s always ready to serve customers with a smile.
And, most important of all, he always kept a Costco-size 54-pack of rice krispy treats in the break room.
Albert doesn’t work at Brownstone Bakery anymore. He wasn’t fired. He didn’t quit. He just, he doesn’t work there anymore. He’s very much alive–no need to worry about that–but it’s possible to cut a person’s life drastically short without actually ending it. Perhaps clarifying a few details will give you a better idea of the situation.
What if I told you that the reason Albert and I sometimes couldn’t understand each other is because Spanish is his first language? And what if I told you that Albert is actually named Alberto? And finally, what if I told you that he wasn’t in this country legally? Would that change the way you felt about my friend?
A few weeks ago, Alberto went out for a fun Friday night with friends to close out a week comprised of six 12 hour workdays at Brownstone Bakery. He got a bit more intoxicated than he should have, yes, but he didn’t drive anywhere, he didn’t operate heavy machinery, he just wanted to enjoy his night. While walking home early Saturday morning, he was picked up for “public intoxication,” a crime that white people seem to be charged with pretty much never, and within hours, he was in the custody of the United States Department of Homeland Security: Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
I haven’t seen Alberto since then. He’s being held in Farmville, Virginia, hours away from his family and friends in Alexandria. And his brother, who now has to run Brownstone without the help of his closest ally and partner, is forced to carry on like everything is okay. He has to continue working, he has to keep his head down, he has to move on. We all have to do that. Just…move on.
This isn’t a loss that can be mourned in churches or cemeteries. We don’t wear black or call out Alberto’s name during the intentions portion of Mass. No, in fact, we should be celebrating this loss! The system works! Another one of those moochers, those users, those illegal aliens, those criminals will be removed from our great nation.
You could never get me to say that Alberto isn’t an American, no matter how true it may be in a legal sense. I don’t know what iteration of the American Dream others were taught growing up, but I was taught that if you worked hard, if you were happy, if you loved and were loved, you were living it.
Alberto will always be the hardest working person I’ve ever met. He speaks three languages, knows everything there is to know about Brownstone’s products, and worked 12 hours a day, six to seven days a week, 51 weeks a year. Alberto was well on his way to achieving the “American Dream.”
So, even if we did adopt the heinous “merit-based system” of immigration, as Donald Trump calls it, even if we did start hand picking and choosing the immigrants who are supposedly best for this country, Alberto would still meet even the most uncompromising, unsympathetic, unwelcoming standards you could think of.
But Alberto broke the law, so it’s all over. He’s done. None of his work matters. None of his contributions, his aspirations, or his dreams. His dream to start his own small business. His dream to bring more of his family over from Guatemala (his sister is taking English classes right now). His dream to start a family of his own. No, none of it matters, only the law. Which he broke. So that’s that.
But that isn’t that. The Brownstone family is rallying together to do what we can for Alberto. We’ve hired lawyers. We’ve reached out to every possible contact. I’ve sought the help of my boss, Delegate Mark Levine, as well as of many other elected officials (thank you to Delegate Levine, Senator Mark Warner, Congressman Don Beyer for all your help). Many of us have made the long trek down to Farmville to visit him. We’ve raised over $2000 through a GoFundMe campaign. But time is running out. Soon Alberto will be shipped off to another penitentiary in Texas, and from there, back to Guatemala.
I’m writing this because I don’t know what to do. I don’t have any answers. I’m not a politician or a lawyer or a superhero. I have a keyboard and a modicum of literary ability. This is all I can think of to do; it is both my parting gift to Alberto and my desperate plea to the rest of the world.
I’ve been given varying degrees of hope in our ability to save Alberto. The assessment that seemed most realistic was also the most depressing: there’s nothing you can do now that he’s in custody. He has no rights, so don’t hold your breath. However, that same piece of advice was tinged with hope. Right now, the most important thing to do is change the system for future Albertos.
My heart is broken, but the hearts of so many others can still be saved. Maybe, the stories of Alberto and people like him can turn a few hearts and change a few minds. Maybe they can give someone that final push to stand up for what’s right. Maybe, their suffering will not be in vain.
Currently, things seem bleak. This country’s values seem to be moving away from those of inclusion and opportunity for all. But this is not who we are, and there is so much we can still do. There are countless events to attend, bills to support, organizations to join. The Dream does not die with one heartless president.
America is a Nation of Immigrants. It is a Refuge from Tyranny. It is a Home for All, regardless of race, of background, of gender, of religion, of sexual identity, of productivity, or of homeland. America is a Nation of Dreamers. America is Alberto.
This true story has no rectitude for those involved. We haven’t learned an inspiring lesson. We come away with nothing but a hole in our hearts. But maybe the honesty and tragedy of our narrative, of Alberto’s narrative, can change the story of someone else, if not for him.