The Braided Man by Sarah Jennings, MDiv3
In May I was given a wonderful opportunity to participate in an immersion trip to the US/Mexico Border. Over the previous spring break, I had taken a group of undergraduates to Florida to learn about immigration policy and reform, but this was my first time to see the physical border constructed between the United States and Mexico. I knew it would be mentally challenging and heartbreaking, but I had no idea what to do to prepare for these emotions. After being there for a day, I found myself heavy with emotions. As the week passed, I continued to be weighed down with sadness and even anger about the stories we witnessed while in the desert.
While in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, I met a man and had a beautiful interaction with him. He shared his story as I braided his hair in the Mexican heat. Upon reflection of my time with him, I realized I never asked for his name. I became so caught up in his story that I completely forgot to engage him on one of the most fundamental levels we as humans have – names.
There is something in a name. There is something in the process of naming things that gives people peace. People put a lot of effort into names whether it is for a child or pet or even something like their boat or farm. Even illnesses can play into the process of naming. People who are sick long for a name to be given to their illness. They live in anxiety until they know exactly what is ailing them.
But I forgot – I forgot to ask his name.
This vignette is dedicated to the Guatemalan man I met in Mexico. Although you will never read this, please forgive me for not asking your name. It is a regret I will live with the rest of my life. May your love for your son infiltrate the hatred in so many hearts surrounding the issue of immigration.
The Braided Man
He sat on the dusty floor as I placed my hands on his head. “Can you give me cornrows?” he asked. His oily hair fell just below his ears. He spoke in seamless English, explaining he had lived in New Jersey for 18 years prior to his deportation. I combed a part into the center of his head and began braiding. The dirt and sweat made the braid stick better to his scalp without loose strands slipping out of place. Hair salons will always tell you to not wash your hair the day before you come in for a big up-do. This man didn’t have the luxury of a hair salon. He was born in Guatemala but was journeying back to New Jersey for his 13-year-old son. “A boy needs his father,” he told me, “and I’ve been gone for two years.” The excess oil from his hair began building up on my fingers. I rubbed my hands onto my shirt and continued braiding. “I will cross into Arizona on Saturday, unless the cartel gets me first,” he continued. It was a Tuesday.
I returned on Thursday to air conditioning, over-priced coffee, and clean, crisp sheets. I didn’t think of the man much. After a few days I looked at the calendar and realized it was Saturday. As I began praying for the man I realized I never asked for his name. I dug through my dirty laundry to see if his oil was still on my shirt. I smelled the stain and ran my fingers over it as I sat at the kitchen table. There was no way of knowing the fate of this man – if he had been picked up by the cartel or arrested by Border Patrol. I had no way of knowing if the braided man survived his trek in the desert. Feeling sick to my stomach, I ran to the bathroom.
I didn’t shower for a week.