Freedom Ride Journal: Day Eight
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
It's our last day on the Freedom Ride bus.
The singing and laughing is louder than ever, as if the volume of our voices has a way of creating permanence. We sign each other's Freedom Ride T-shirts, etching our names into white cotton cloth. Cameras flash frantically, in a need to capture time in a 4 x 6 photo. We exchange addresses. We all want to be remembered.
One of the bus drivers is touched by the week he's spent with us. He reads a poem he wrote. We clap wildly, if only because it represents the power and possibility of the journey.
We arrive at Flushing Meadows Park in Queens for a culminating rally. All the Freedom Riders are there, as well as supporters, activists, students and immigrants. It's the most diverse crowd I've ever been in -- Mexicans holding up a statue of the Lady of Guadeloupe next to a sign that says, "Queer Irish Immigrants in Solidarity."
Last night, on the way to our hotel, we're told to look left at the Empire State Building, look right at the Statue of Liberty. What struck me most, though, was the way the monolithic Trump Plaza stands only blocks away from soup kitchens, Salvation Armies and squalor. We get a view of Manhattan when we cross the Tri-Boroughs Bridge. I don't find beauty in what's supposed to dazzle us -- the city lit up, flexing its muscle. But I take off my glasses, and that's when I see it: lights blending into lights blending into lights, until I can't tell the World Financial Center from the homeless shelters.
Now, at the rally, I see beauty without having to manufacture it. I find it in the dancing and drumming, in they way people cross cultures to hold hands.
I don't hear much of the speeches. They're not for us anyway. We already know that immigrants work the worst jobs, that their stories are filled with sorrow. The people on my bus have been living those stories, are those immigrants. It's for the media that John Sweeney gives a speech and a handful of Freedom Riders are invited onstage.
I wonder how the media will cover this event. For the last week, I've watched reporters and their camera crews participating in bad journalism. They come to interview riders without doing any research on the struggle for immigrants' rights. They come not knowing what questions to ask. Instead, they think quickly (they like to say, on their toes), and ask, "Are you undocumented?" Two days ago, there was a story about the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride in the Washington Post and it was referred to as the "freedom ride," in quotes, and immigrants were written as "awestruck" when walking around the Capitol.
I don't listen to the speeches because in a few hours, I'll be leaving my friends. I'm not driving back with them to Chicago; they're driving overnight to get home. I live in Massachusetts and I'm taking a different bus back.
The good byes start before they need to, and we stop each other. We say, let's not start this yet. It begins to rain, just a sprinkle, and Bobbe tells me to put on my hood. He says, we're taking care of you, because you've been taking care of us in another way.
It's when I walk back with them to the bus and don't get on that it starts -- the tears, the embraces. It's hard to stay composed when Francisco hugs me, and says, thank you for being my friend. We have a connection between us, despite the language barrier. He's an old man, and I notice the peeling skin on his hands when I hold them. He asks me, every morning, if I slept okay.
Janneth takes off a necklace she bought in Mexico and puts it around my neck. It says her name, and the metal is cold against my skin. In four years of living in the United States, I'm her first American girlfriend. Isidro tells me to close my eyes and presses a painted wooden necklace into my palm. It says "Mexico." He tells me not to forget him.
Jose gives me a T-shirt that says, "I'm biligual," in Spanish. I'm not yet, but he knows I plan to be, He also gives me a glass pyramid, a gift of luck. Jose was the first person I met on the bus. I talked to his granddaughter on the phone. When I come back to Chicago, Jose tells me he'll cook the best dinner I've ever had.
I'm touched by their generosity and love. It's been only eight days, and it's been a lifetime. I'm overwhelmed by the responsibility I have now -- their stories scrawled on notebooks, recorded on tapes, memorized. I start to doubt that I can capture all of this, that I can do their stories justice.
Jose grabs my arms, squeezes me tightly, and tells me to remember to be brave.
On the ride home, on a bus full of strangers, I can still hear their voices, Spanish accents coloring English beautiful. If I take off my glasses, I can almost see Jose and Lucrecia and Francisco sitting in front of me. And if I close my eyes, I can see them.
It's well known that events happen that stop the heart from beating. When it starts again, time is divided in half, into before and after. For me, I now mark time as before the Freedom Rides, and after.
Soon, I'm in my town, in the grocery store, picking out lettuce. It's strange passing people who don't know where I've been this last week. I wonder if anyone possibly could.
Today is my last day on the Freedom Ride bus, but not on the freedom ride.
Megan Tady is riding the bus from Chicago to Washington DC.