As an English major, I studied the hero archetype in literature classes spanning everything from epic poetry to the post-modern novel and even film. Heroes aren’t difficult to recognize because they’re pervasive in oral tradition and modern culture. In contemporary terms, however, we often simplify the concept. The default hero is the person or a group who succeeds—the one who wins the game, saves the day, defeats the enemy, or prevails against the odds. So I thought, accordingly, that I was going to Texas to win. That was my first mistake.
In Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the hero’s cycle includes a call to adventure, a mentor, a series of obstacles or struggles she (the hero) must overcome, a quest she must fulfill, and a transformation she undergoes as a result of these battles. The last step in the cycle describes her return to the community she left behind when she was called on her quest. As she returns, she brings something with her that infuses new life in that community. Sometimes it’s a physical object: a golden fleece, an ancient weapon. More often, the “thing” with which she returns, the solution to the problem that sent her on the quest in the first place, is her own transformation. Her struggle to pass through hell and back (often literally) provides her with the knowledge and the strength she needs to face and defeat the enemies threatening her both at home and abroad.
Thus, Telemachus returns from his journey with his father and a certain knowledge that he is the son of Odysseus and the rightful heir to the throne of Ithaca. Frodo and Sam (and Merry and Pippin) leave the One Ring in the fires of Mordor but return to the shire with the confidence and tenacity to oust Sharkey and Wormtongue and to restore order. And Harry defeats Voldemort, not with the elder wand but with a simple disarming spell and the protection of his mother’s love.
So my plans for placement break were supposed to follow this pattern: I answered the call to adventure when I applied for the Dilley project with the law school. I had plenty of mentors and no shortage of obstacles, not the least of which was my lamentable Spanish. Although I only spent five days inside the facility, it was plenty of time to transform me into a different person than I was when I left. And I returned home transformed (and more than a little overwhelmed) at the experience.
But ever since boarding the plane in San Antonio to fly back to Utah, I’ve been asking myself whether I actually fulfilled my quest. If I did, I guess my hero cycle is complete and I can turn in this reflection paper and go home. But if I didn’t, am I really a hero? Probably not. And if not, what was the point of my journey?
After a great deal of reflection, I have reached a conclusion sparked, in part, by my conversations with family and friends after I came home. At first, people asked, “Oh, did you have fun?” That was a difficult question to answer. But an even harder question came when I explained what I did in Dilley, and they replied, “Thank you for your service. I’m sure you did a lot of good.” For some reason, this was not what I wanted to hear, although I didn’t understand how or why it was such a distasteful sentiment until I’d heard it multiple times from multiple people. Then I realized that I’d had the whole thing wrong from the beginning. Their gratitude for my “service” made me feel hollow, like I was taking credit for a heroic effort I didn’t deserve. Because the thing is, I failed. I’m not a hero—at least, I’m not the hero of this story.
But if I’m not the hero, who is?
Well, obviously, the true heroes are, or should be, the women and children of Central America. I know this implicitly, without reference to linguistics, history, philosophy, or academic authority, and that sounds like it should be easy to prove.
Step one: the call to adventure. Although “adventure” is too bland a word to describe her call to leave her country, there is always a moment where the Guatemalan or Honduran or El Salvadorian woman rises up and says, “Enough is enough. I won’t stand by and watch the monsters destroy everything I love. I will save what is most precious to me.” So she gathers her children and she flees, often into dangers as great or greater than the ones she left behind.
Step two is meeting a mentor, but I’m skipping that step for obvious reasons. Step three: Overcoming obstacles. The woman in these stories struggles through malice, violence, oppression, depravity, and loss, often with only the vaguest sense of what awaits her when she gets beyond these obstacles. I don’t know what sustains her through the journey, but I do know that it refines her. It makes her beautiful and tough and strong, yet it leaves her humanity intact, which seems beyond miraculous to me. She fights for her own life and the life of her child every day, exhausting her physically, mentally, and emotionally. But when her child needs a kind word or a soft touch, she can still hold him and soothe his sorrows.
Step four: Fulfilling the quest. Finally, she arrives at the river. She’s almost made it! Her quest is at an end, so she thinks. And she wades or swims across, carrying her children, if necessary, to the land of promise. It must be better here; it must be worth the sacrifice she made.
But just as I thought I was making a heroic journey to Dilley where I would have the opportunity to save the day, only to find that I was absolutely wrong, I wonder if she thinks the South Texas Family Residential Center is a poor reward for a job well done. Detention, credible fear interviews, reasonable fear interviews, and asylum cases seem like an awfully complicated, lengthy, and torturous way to say, “You lost. You’re not a hero. We don’t have anything here that can help you. All your suffering has been for nothing.”
Step nothing. If the quest is not fulfilled, the hero can’t return, transformed, bringing new life into her community. It ends here.
During the days I spent cloistered in a CFI Prep room that was always too hot or too cold, I heard many cases, some stronger than others, that fit. But still others were just too weak. They had a story, but it wasn’t a story we wanted to hear. It wasn’t a story that interested the law. And even those stories that were good enough to pass the low bar of a credible fear interview will probably not be good enough for permanent asylum in the United States. Either way, most of the women will find themselves returning home without having fulfilled their quest. They were transformed, but to what end? Why did they go through all of that heartache if it didn’t work?
As soon as I came to terms with who should be the true hero of the story, I began to wrestle with this second question. If the hero loses—and according to almost all definitions of success, an asylum claim rejection is a failure—can she still be a hero? No matter what happens with her claim, this woman is not going to spend the rest of her days in paradise. If she stays in the United States, she’ll still be poor. She’ll still struggle to find work and feed her children. She’ll continue to suffer in so many ways. She’ll have to deal with prejudice because of her gender, her nationality, the color of her skin and the language she speaks. She’ll worry about the ones she left behind in her country, and she’ll try to make enough money to send for them, but even if they make it here, that will only mean she’ll have one more mouth to feed. She’ll have to work very hard, and she’ll still be lonely. So how can I call her a hero? How can I believe that her life mattered at all?
The answer that I desperately want to be true is in her story.
There is value and power in telling your story to someone—anyone—willing to listen. The Greeks believed that there were two paths to immortality. The first path was through your children. When you have children to carry on your name and your legacy, you can live through them even after you have died. The second path to immortality was through story. Think about Achilles, Odysseus, Beowulf, Siddhartha, Arthur, Hamlet, and countless others. In a way, they are still alive because they told their stories and someone heard them. Telling a story establishes a sacred trust between the one who tells it and the one who hears it. It validates the storyteller’s experience and makes the events in the story real—more real than they were when they happened. Telling a story creates truth and listening to that story recognizes that truth.
In Spanish, to feel is “siento.” To say, “I’m sorry,” you say, “lo siento.” I feel you. And while my Spanish is limited and mostly incomprehensible, I know how to say, “lo siento.” Better yet, those words encapsulate the one gift I did give these women. I listened to their lives, witnessed their heartaches and traumas, the depths of their sorrows and the intensity of their struggles, and I said, “I feel you.” I testified that they lived, that they tried, and that they were transformed.
I want the gift of hearing these women to be what completes their cycle and transforms them into true heroes. I have no idea what will happen to them; if I think about it too much, I feel paralyzed at the hopelessness of their plights. But I do know that each woman I interviewed found her voice. She told her story, and I heard it. That makes her a hero.
At least, that is how I want the story to end. I’m about 65% confident that it should. I still worry, though, that I’m extracting a meaning from all of this that the facts simply won’t bear. I’m trying to justify my experience so that I don’t just shrivel up and blow away in the face of their injustice and my own helplessness. Maybe we are none of us heroes. And maybe God has simply turned away His face from their suffering.
But in my heart, I can’t believe it. I remember precious moments when I sat across from these women, knowing them each by name, and I heard them. And if that was the only thing I could do for them, I hope, with all my heart, that in that moment, it made them the heroes of their own stories. It made them heroes in my eyes; maybe that’s all that matters.