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The Golden Door

Maya Méndez, an illegal immigrant living in Alabama, suddenly faces an uncertain future when the state passes an immigration law that will make it a crime for her parents to work and will prohibit her from attending a public university. For a while they are able to live with the situation, but the spirit of the law eventually catches up with Maya and her family, and out of its tragic consequences she struggles to find a mission in life.


Lying in bed, she thought about the conversation at the restaurant, and she remembered the last time she had gone out of control. She had just turned twelve, and she was at the middle school, in seventh grade. They were having recess, and several kids were on the field kicking a soccer ball around. She had the ball, and three boys ganged up on her and tried to take it away from her. With her skillful footwork she managed to keep it, and one of the frustrated boys said: “Give us the ball, you greasy spic.”

She abandoned the ball and went straight to him and punched him in the mouth, breaking his lip and drawing blood.

When he started crying she refrained from calling him a baby, but she had the thought that if you can’t take it, don’t dish it out, and she stood there defying the other two boys to retaliate. Instead, they went with the wounded boy to the principal and accused her of attacking them for no good reason.

She was called into the principal’s office, where she had to confront her accusers.

“They say you attacked Brandon,” the principal said. He was a mild man who obviously didn’t like having to deal with violence.

“I had a reason,” Maya said.

“What was the reason?”

“He called me a name.”

“Well, you know what they say,” the principal said. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.”

“That’s not true.”

“What’s not true?”

“That names can never hurt you.”

“What did he call you?”

Maya hesitated, and then she blurted out: “A greasy spic.”

The principal turned to Brandon and asked: “Did you call her that?”

“No. I didn’t. I didn’t call her anything.”

The two other boys supported him, swearing that he hadn’t called her anything and claiming that she had attacked Brandon without provocation.

“We seem to have two different stories here,” the principal said, clasping his hands.

“We’re telling the truth, and she’s lying,” one of the boys said.

“I’m not lying. You’re lying,” Maya said, feeling the rage that had made her hit Brandon. “He couldn’t get the ball away from me, so he called me a name.”

“You’re not going to believe her, are you?” Brandon said to the principal.

“Why shouldn’t I believe her?”

“You know why.”

“No, I don’t know why,” the principal said, beginning to show some backbone. “Why shouldn’t I believe Maya?”

The boys were silent.

“If you mean what I think you mean, I’m inclined to believe her. You might as well have called her a name just now.”

“We didn’t call her anything,” one of the boys said.

“Get out,” the principal told them in disgust. “The next time you call someone a name like that, I’ll have you suspended. You hear?”

The boys were again silent.

“And you better have a doctor look at your mouth. You may need stitches.”

When the boys had left, the principal said: “Their behavior was unacceptable, but so was yours. If someone calls you a name, you can’t just punch him in the mouth.”

“Well, he hurt me, so I hurt him.”

“Is that what your pastor would tell you to do?”

“No. But no one’s ever going to call him a greasy spic.”

“I have to admit,” the principal said, “I don’t know what it’s like to be called a name like that. I can only imagine. But hitting people won’t solve the problem.”

“What will solve it?”

“Ignoring them and acting with dignity. I hope no one ever calls you a name like that again, but if someone does, just ignore it. Rise above it.”

“How can I rise above something that drags me down?”

“That’s a good question,” the principal said, “but I think your pastor has the answer.”

“I know what he’ll say. He’ll say to turn the other cheek.”

“Then you already know what you should do.”

“I know what I should do,” Maya said, “but I still want to hit people when they deserve it.”

The principal looked interested. “How often do you want to hit people?”

“I don’t know. I guess about once a week.”

“Do people call you names that often?”

“No. But they say other things, and they do things that make me feel—” Maya wondered if she could trust the principal.

“Make you feel what?”

“That I don’t belong here.”

“So you want to hit them when they say things or do things that make you feel you don’t belong here?”

“Yeah. I do. I usually stop myself, but not always.”

“If you don’t mind,” the principal said, “I’d like to talk with your parents about this. I’d like to find a way to channel your violent feelings into some activity.”

“I don’t mind,” Maya said. “I’d rather not hit people. For one thing, it hurts my hands.”

The principal smiled. “I’m sure it does. It also hurts you in other ways.”