Keeping Out the Riffraff

As the Braniff International Airways flight banked over the red tile roofs of Asunción, Paraguay, heading north, I dropped my head into both hands. What would America feel like? How would I fit in? I had spent most of my nineteen years in Paraguay, where my parents were Mennonite medical missionaries.  Now in August of 1970, I was off to go to school in America, the land of promise and opportunity, so I was told. But it felt scary.

The captain’s announcements crackled through the cabin, and I raised my head. The stewardess (that’s what we called them in those days) came by to ask if she could help. A hot pink and purple mini dress barely concealed her model-like body, and her shiny black hair was coiffed into a flawless bob with perfect bangs. I felt like pulling on those perfect bangs to see if it was a wig. I looked down at my homemade blue bell-bottom pants and the blue and white checkered shirt that didn’t quite match, both of which my mother had sewn for this journey to the United States. I had seen wide-legged pants like these in an American magazine, and thought for sure they would make me fit in. Now I was no longer so sure.
“I’m fine,” I answered, turning toward the window and through my tears putting on my most grown-up confident smile.

I had packed my few belongings into a large duffel bag. Most of the bag I filled with yerba mate, the Paraguayan tea I thought I couldn’t live without. In the winter months, we prepared a hot form of the tea by putting dry yerba leaves and twigs into a hollow gourd, filling it with hot water, and sucking it up with a bombilla or metal straw. In the long hot Paraguayan summer months, we consumed yerba with cold water, referred to as tereré. 

Today, you can buy yerba mate on Amazon for $3.75/ounce, displayed right next to the array of Numi and Yogi stress-relief teas. But here’s what’s completely lost on Amazon. The real deal was never about the tea itself. Drinking mate or tereré in Paraguay is most of all an important social ritual that occurs multiple times a day, signifying togetherness and community. 

The ritual follows a clear set of rules.  People sit in a circle. A designated brewer or moso prepares the yerba in the gourd and takes the first set of sips. He or she refills it and passes it to the next person in clockwise order, who then sips the few mouthfuls and returns the gourd to the moso. Each person gets their turn and this continues around the circle until a recipient says gracias (thank you), which means, “I’m done.” The practice is ubiquitous. You can even see people walk the streets carrying the mate and termo (thermos) in their arms and there are cold and hot water stations to refill the termo while on the road. 

My plane landed on time at the Miami airport. Large men in khaki pants and brown shirts covered with badges checked everyone’s documents and rummaged through some of the luggage. When they got to my tattered canvas bag, four of them huddled together, saying stuff I couldn’t quite hear, occasionally nodding or shaking their heads.

“You’ll need to step over here and wait,” one of them said. I stared at him blankly. I understood English perfectly, but he thought not, so he repeated in Spanish. “Espera aquí. Tiene su pasaporte?” He took my passport and left.

I ran after them. “Wait. Where are you taking my bag and my passport?” I called out.

A large woman stepped out from behind a counter that had a big sign over the top saying “PASSPORT CONTROL.” Her orange hair was piled high on her head like a shiny haystack.

“They need to analyze the contents of your bag, miss,” she said as she approached me. “You need to wait here. This is where they’ll be bringing it back to you.” Her eyes seemed kind. 

“OK. Thank you,” I mumbled, wondering why they had chosen my bag to “analyze.”

After about an hour, I walked up to the PASSPORT CONTROL lady with the orange haystack hair. “I need to get on a plane to a city called Houston. And then I need to get on another plane to someplace called Wichita.” She raised her eyebrows questioningly. “The problem is, the plane to Houston is leaving in half an hour. I don’t know what to do.”

“You will miss that flight to Houston,” she said. “Do you have someone you can call?”

I fished the piece of paper with my uncle’s number out of my handbag and handed it to her. “I need to call him collect. Can you help me?”

She pointed to a red booth across the room.  “There’s a pay phone. You just dial “0” to get the operator.”

I heard a ringing sound after the operator dialed Uncle Herb’s number. Once. Twice.
“Ja, hello?” It sounded so much like Dad’s voice I wanted to cry. 

“Will you accept a collect call from someone named Marlena Schmidt?” the operator asked.

“Well yes, I suppose so,” the clipped dad-voice said.

“Hello Uncle Herb. This is Marlena,” I said, my voice quivering slightly.

“Yes, I know that,” he said. “What’s going on?”

I tried to explain the situation.

“Make sure you get someone to help you book a new set of flights,” he said. “And call me back when you know what flights you’ll be on. Susan will be picking you up in Wichita.”

“Susan…?” I asked.

“Your cousin. Susan’s my daughter, remember?”

I didn’t. I knew I had lots of cousins in the U.S., but I didn’t know their names.

I hung up the phone and returned to my spot on the floor near the orange-haired lady, my back against the wall. I watched people coming and going. Everyone seemed to be in a hurry. And everyone seemed to know where they were going. I fought back tears. 

One of the officers who had taken my bag came back to chat with the PASSPORT CONTROL lady, and said in a voice loud enough for me to hear. “People like that shouldn’t be allowed to enter our country. Did she think she could get away with this?” 

I stared at them both, not registering what he had just said. Suddenly I panicked. Did they think I was a bandit of some kind? This was all a big mistake. I stumbled to my feet and ran toward them.

“I’m not a bandit. I have parents in Paraguay who do important work for the Lord. They’ve sent me to go to school …” I felt no qualms about pulling out the God-card if it would help.

The orange haystack lady held up both hands. “Please, miss. You’ll get your bags soon. Please don’t make a big commotion, or you’ll get yourself arrested.”

“Arrested?” My eyes grew large, and I slumped silently back onto the floor.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. When would Mom and Dad find out if I was suddenly surrounded by those gunmen and taken away? What if they decided to shoot me? What if I died here? 
I stared in dismay at the hamburgers, chips, sodas, and cookies people were consuming as they walked past me. Even though I was free to walk around to find food, I had no American money. Eventually, I fell into an intense fog, barely registering what was happening around me. 

A rough tap on my shoulder shook me out of my befuddled state. 

“You can go now,” said the officer who didn’t want me in the U.S. He handed me my scruffy bag and my documents. “We have determined that your bag full of grass is not a drug after all.” 

“Grass? Drug?” I mumbled. “What do you mean?”

“Go on. Get your flights straightened out at that counter over there.” He pointed to the far end of the concourse. 

Go on, get your flights? That was it, after spending six hours waiting for my bag? I wanted to ask them why they had done this to me, but they had already turned to leave. 

Today I understand that those men were searching for marijuana.  Much has changed since then. Now 8 states and Washington D.C. allow adult-use recreational marijuana and 28 states have approved medical marijuana programs. Unfortunately, much has not changed. We still try to keep out the people we have labeled as riffraff.