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Showing up for migrants who were pawns in a cruel gambit

If a political stunt would deny the Venezuelans their humanity, the outpouring of support from family, friends, and neighbors on Martha’s Vineyard sought to reaffirm it.

Vineyard volunteers, including the author's wife and daughter (foreground, in white T-shirts), helped administer COVID tests to Venezuelan migrants at St. Andrew's Church in Edgartown on Sept. 14.Ray Ewing/Vineyard Gazette

I am the managing editor of one of the local newspapers on Martha’s Vineyard, the Vineyard Gazette. Usually I know about what is happening on the island first, but this time it was my wife who checked in with me. Cathlin is the minister at the First Congregational Church in West Tisbury and has a long history of community organizing.

“Two planes of migrants just landed at the airport,” she texted me. “Pickle and I are headed to the site.”

Pickle is our daughter, and everyone has been calling her by that nickname since her birth. She is now 14 years old and recently started her freshman year of high school. In Spanish class there was a decision to make: Did she want to be called Pepinillo, which means Pickle, or Pepino, which means Cucumber?

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She chose Pepino.

At the time it did not seem like a big deal, choosing a Spanish name and preparing to dig deeper into this foreign language. She had studied it a bit in middle school but only had the rudiments down and a limited number of vocabulary words. But then, on Sept. 14, she found herself trying to recall every one of those vocabulary words as she and a host of other volunteers tried to make nearly 50 Venezuelan migrants comfortable here in her home of Martha’s Vineyard.

At first the site was Community Services, then the regional high school, and then Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, located in downtown Edgartown, two blocks from my office.

I gathered our reporters and photographers for what I knew would quickly become a national story and walked to Saint Andrew’s to take in the scene and meet my family. Cathlin told me that Pickle had been nervous about coming because she didn’t know what she was supposed to do. I asked Cathlin what she said to our daughter, what words of organizing wisdom she passed down.

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“I said to her, ‘We put our sneakers on and we show up,’ ” Cathlin told me. “That’s what we do.”

The island community understood this, too. Already, just a few hours after the migrants landed unexpectedly at the airport, the scene at Saint Andrew’s was surprisingly calm. Cots and air mattresses had been arranged, pizza delivered, COVID tests administered, warm clothes donated (the chill of September on the island had shifted nights and mornings into long-sleeve affairs).

Pickle stood next to her Spanish teacher, who lives a few houses away from us, helping with COVID testing. Her Spanish teacher spends her summers as a server at a local restaurant, helping to make ends meet. Not far away, the woman who runs the community suppers at Cathlin’s church was serving soup she had been making earlier in the day. The community suppers run all winter, feeding the homeless and hungry, the lonely, and the families who work three jobs each summer to get by and then, during the off-season, pray that their small stockpile will get them through to spring.

I saw Vineyarders who each summer move into tents or shuffle from home to makeshift home because so many rentals are divided into summer (too expensive) and the rest of the year (potentially affordable). They were blowing up air mattresses or arranging enough pillows to create beds like they do for themselves for months at a time.

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I saw students from the high school AP Spanish class arrive to help interpret. I saw a Spanish-speaking theater troupe, here to put on a play about Pablo Neruda, pitching in.

I saw the owner of a local dive bar and stopped to talk to him. “My wife speaks Spanish,” he told me, “and I am good at lifting things.”

I saw the police chief bend down on one knee to offer a Venezuelan child a toy, a green and yellow plastic tractor.

I saw wealthy Islanders rolling up their sleeves to pitch in. Others offered to donate food, clothes, money, even their homes for shelter.

I saw a rainbow of nationalities — American, Brazilian, Jamaican, Serbian — my neighbors all rushing to help in any way they could.

Then I went back to the office and saw some national media outlets accuse us of being in disarray, as if we were clutching our pearls and spilling our Chardonnay and not able to handle the situation.

And after we posted our first story about what was happening on the ground, how these people had arrived thinking they were landing in Boston or New York, where they were promised jobs and housing, and how they were pawns in a political stunt, the comments and phone calls started to come in. Some were kind, but there was also a flood of hateful messages directed at us, at the Venezuelans, at Democrats, at everyone, really, except for the politicians who had lied to these people and put them on a plane for media attention and an agenda of cruelty.

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At the Gazette we had a discussion about what word to use: refugee or migrant or newly arrived. None seemed quite right, but for the most part we went with migrant. But the word I really wanted to use was, simply, people. It is so easy to other someone when we give them a label, to lift off from the obvious and make them an idea or subject to be studied. But these are people with individual stories, most of which began with the line, “I walked from Venezuela to Texas,” and then took their own twists and turns.

And for two days, their collective story took them to Martha’s Vineyard. A friend I spoke with on the scene said to me: “The devil didn’t know it, but he was sending them to heaven.”

I looked around at the scene and mostly agreed with him, but it wasn’t the heaven of my childhood imagination, a place free of worry where everyone simply hangs out with a beatific smile on their face. No, the heaven I saw and believe in is a place where people of every color and background, income bracket and education, put their sneakers on and show up for one another.

Bill Eville is the managing editor of the Vineyard Gazette.