My husband, Fernando, has been going down to Trenchtown to hang out with some guys he met down there since we arrived in Kingston. He told his friends that I was conducting research on deportees, and one of them mentioned that he was a deportee and that I could interview him. Fernando arranged for us to go to Trenchtown on Sunday morning so I could interview his friend, Ken.
I called the taxi driver that has been taking us around, and asked him if he could give us a ride to Trenchtown. He pointed out that was not a very safe place. I told him my husband has friends there, and that we were going to Culture Yard. He agreed to take us. At 10am Sunday morning, Fernando, Tatiana, Soraya, Raymi, and I got in the taxi and made our way to Trenchtown.
The driver let us out at the corner of Second Street, and we walked over to Ken’s house. Ken is Nando’s friend who is was deported from the US a few years back. Ken invited us in, and we saw that he lives in a room that is about 10 feet by 10 feet. He had his shoes lined up on the floor, several pairs of glasses on his dresser, his clothes hanging around the wall, and a full bed in the middle of the room. My daughter, Raymi, asked why his house was so small, and he said that is how people in Trenchtown live, everyone in their own small room. When I stepped outside, a woman appeared in the next door, with just a bra on. When I looked back, she had put a shirt on. There were several children walking around outside, barefoot.
Once Ken was ready, he walked us around the corner to Culture Yard. Poverty was evident in this inner-city housing project. Many children ran around half-clothed and without shoes, the cement houses were small, and there were large empty lots. Culture Yard is the “government yard” on First Street that Bob Marley refers to in his song, and locals have secured funding to turn it into a tourist attraction.
We were the only tourists there that Sunday morning, but there were a few people hanging around, reggae music blasting, and the place was well-kept. Ken pointed out to me the room where Bob Marley used to practice his music, and to where Ziggy Marley was conceived. We sat down in the courtyard, and Ken told me his story.
Ken was born in Trenchtown in 1958. He described the neighborhood as calm and peaceful, until the 1970s, when conflicts between Jamaica’s two major political parties – the JLP and the PNP – began to emerge. After graduating from Trenchtown High, Ken went to school to learn to be a machinist, and later a welder. When he was in his early thirties, he secured a tourist visa to go to the US. Once in the US, he decided not to return to Jamaica and overstayed his visa.
Ken worked a series of low-paying jobs in the US that kept him on the brink of poverty. He was having difficulty dealing with the stress of not being able to pay his bills when he learned his mother passed. This pushed him over the edge, and he was diagnosed with a bi-polar disorder. This made it even more difficult to hold down a job. Around the same time, his marriage fell apart, and Ken was living on his own.
Ken was staying with a friend when he was arrested by ICE agents. The immigration agents came to look for his friend, and, as he was there, they picked him up as well. Once it became evident he was undocumented, Ken was deported. He had been in the US for fifteen years, and had been married to a US citizen for about six years. Ken has been back in Jamaica for three years, and barely makes enough money to get through each day. At fifty years old, and no work history in Jamaica, it is hard for Ken to get a steady job.
After my interview with Ken, the kids and I walked across the street to have a look around. We relaxed near the soccer field for a while. There was a bamboo set up there where Ken said they sometimes sell drinks when there are concerts. Tatiana, Soraya, and Raymi had fun playing with the Trenchtown kids, running around, chasing butterflies and lizards.
Eventually, my second interviewee, Winslow, showed up. He is a friend of Ken’s, and was willing to share his story. Winslow comes across as very calm. He spent thirty years as an undocumented migrant in the US. Winslow was in the US in 1982, and should have qualified for the IRCA amnesty in 1986. However, he didn’t apply for amnesty, as he had been caught smoking marijuana, and was concerned that would jeopardize his application. His wife, however, applied and she eventually attained citizenship.
Winslow has three children in the US. His oldest son is in the US Army. While in the US, he worked as a welder. He never had any trouble with the law. His kids were in college. He had everything, except legal documentation to remain in the US. For that, he was deported.
My last interview for the day was with the taxi driver who brought us back from Trenchtown, Melvin. He is much younger than the first two, and doesn’t share the same idyllic memories of his youth in Trenchtown. When he was growing up, Trenchtown was already stricken with gang violence. His strongest memory is of Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, which destroyed his home. Melvin was in the US for five years when he was picked up during a drug raid on his block in Newburgh, New York. He pled guilty to a drug charge, spent two years in prison, and was deported.
Back in Jamaica, Melvin was able to get back on his feet, as his sister who lives in Kingston lent him some money to get his papers. He found a person willing to rent him a car to drive as a taxi, and Melvin is able to get by on the money he makes as a taxi driver. Back in Kingston, Melvin has two small boys, and has settled back into his old neighborhood in Trenchtown.
Melvin recognizes that he was an uninvited guest in the United States, and regrets that he wasn’t able to stay longer. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that others have it much worse than him. He was only gone a few years, and was able to pick up where he left off. Melvin told me about a man he knows who arrived in the US as a small boy, spent all of his life there, and was deported as a grown man. With no familial support, he was unable to adapt to his new surroundings, and now walks around downtown as a madman.
Every deportee has a different story. The three I interviewed today were all undocumented. Unable to obtain legalization, a minor interaction with the police led to deportation. Back in Trenchtown, they are having a hard time making ends meet, especially the two older guys who had been away for so long.
So far, it seems as though resources in Kingston are carrying deportees farther than resources abroad. I had thought that connections to the USA might be useful for deportees once they are back in their home country. That is not proving to be the case. Back in Jamaica, those ties quickly wear thin. In contrast, a house in Kingston, or a relative with resources in Kingston can provide a more consistent source of support.