The expenses of an undocumented worker:
Calling cards
Money home

In 2005, a thirty-seven-year-old Xhosa[1] woman named Liso learned of a call for missionaries through her church in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. An American church was advertising the opportunity for foreign parishioners to come live and spread the gospel in the U.S. Liso quit her teaching job to join the cause. She entered the U.S. on a four-month “R” visa for religious workers, leaving her husband and twin twenty-one-year-old daughters at home.

In Houston, Texas, however, Liso quickly found her host family more interested in her cheap labor than her faith, her teaching, or her good works. They put her to work as an underpaid housecleaner and babysitter, and refused to allow Liso to teach the children or engage in any other missionary work. Further, the church ignored her inquiries about her visa status and eventually allowed it to expire. After several months, and with the help of a sympathetic family who belonged to the church, Liso fled.

She made her way to Portland, Oregon, where, having now overstayed her visa, she has ended up as a live-in nanny working for a wage that amounts to less than five dollars per hour. Still, she continues to send a majority of her earnings back to South Africa in order to support her husband and children, as well as her HIV-positive mother and sister. She buys almost nothing for herself save for calling cards. She calculates that it will be 2010 before she can afford a plane ticket home. And she remains determined, in her words, “to plant something here.”

Liso’s story is one of seventeen in Underground America, a collection of oral histories from undocumented immigrants struggling to build a life for themselves in a country that needs their labor, but at the same time has become increasingly hostile to their presence.

These men and women, like millions of others who come here from around the globe, live and work without legal status, and are far too often exploited by those who prey on their fear and vulnerability. Often they live in hiding and are denied the protection of some of the most basic human rights, including the right to a fair wage. In some cases, they are also the victims of extreme psychological abuse and violence. Unwilling to go to the authorities because of fear of imprisonment and deportation, these undocumented people endure in silence.

Underground America is part of McSweeney’s Voice of Witness series. Using oral history as its foundation, the series seeks to illuminate contemporary human rights crises by giving a voice to those who experience them.

All of the narrators in Underground America have taken a significant risk by telling their stories publicly. Here, Liso’s name has been changed and certain details have been altered, but her story remains faithful to her interviews. Annie Holmes and A. Nicole Stewart contributed to this piece.

—Peter Orner


LISO: It wasn’t long after I got married the second time that a church from Houston sent a letter to my pastor in the Eastern Cape. The American church was asking our church for missionaries to volunteer. My pastor’s wife called me that Saturday. She said, “There’s a church in the U.S.A. that needs a missionary. Are you still interested in going to America?” I said yes right away because—to tell the truth—I have a lot of debt at home. And, you know, we have the idea that everything in America is perfect because that’s what we see on TV and in the movies. In America, you find dollars lying in the grass, every leaf on a tree is a dollar. Right now, if you call somebody in South Africa and say, “Do you want to come to America, even if it’s to wash my pig?” I promise you that that person will say, “Oh yes, please let me come and wash your pig!” People will do anything to get here, to make money to send home. So, even though missionaries don’t get paid, I was sure people in America would help me.

I was a teacher at home and I knew that if I gave up my job I would not get another teaching position—lots of South African teachers are unemployed. But I felt it was God’s will for me to become a missionary, the right way to serve Him.

When I first told my husband, he said, “Ah, no! We’ve been married just five months and then you leave me again?” We had been married before, from 1994 to 1998, when I divorced him. Then, in May 2005, I remarried the same guy! Life’s funny that way. Being divorced was not good for me at all. I came to realize that my husband was the best, that there was nobody like him. What helped me to change my mind is that I accepted Jesus Christ as my savior. I went back to my husband and said, “I’m sorry,” and everything was fine. He didn’t even ask me any questions. He just said, “It’s OK.”

  1. Xhosa people speak of one of the eleven official languages in South Africa.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

Peter Orner, editor of Underground America, is the author of the novel The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Esther Stories, a New York Times Notable Book. He lives in San Francisco.

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