The secret in their eyes

It’s been more than a month since my last post.  I’ve been busy writing (my essay), tutoring (three new students–two Sri Lankan monks and a literacy student at LALDEF), meditating (30 minute sits at home on days not going to Princeton Insight Meditation or Meditation for the Western Mind at the monastery), and trouble-making.

Concerning the last, two observations last Thursday seemed worth mentioning here.

You may have heard about the recent flood of refugees from Guatemala that is overwhelming facilities along the southern border.  According to a story in the Washington Post, officials are often just putting ankle-bracelet electronic monitors on people and sending them on for processing later.  I didn’t know this when I volunteered to drive a father and son down to Mt. Laurel, NJ for them to check in at USCIS.  Turned out they’re living just around the corner from me in downtown Princeton.  When I met them, the father told me that he had just arrived from Guatemala in the first week of October.  He had papers saying that he had to report to USCIS in Mt. Laurel at 9 am that morning.

After waiting for an hour at the government office, he was sent over to another office in Marlton.  When we got there, it turned out that this was an office for BI Incorporated, the private company that supplied his ankle-bracelet and which provides other monitoring services to the government.  I smelled the prison-industrial complex here.  Later research showed that this company has made more than half a billion dollars in contracts from ICE.  I will say that the contractor staff spoke Spanish much more fluently than the government staff we met at USCIS.

When they called the father in for interviews, they said that children were not allowed in the facility and that the son would have to stay with me.  The son and I spent the next five hours together.  Mostly in the waiting room where he was playing with a cell phone, which had an app he could use to make “fun house” pictures of me.  Distorted features and multi-colored clown wigs were his favorites.

I took him to lunch at the McDonald’s down the road, where I had my first encounter with things not being what they seemed.  As we were dipping fries into a blob of ketchup, I started asking him if he had any siblings.  He told me that he had two sisters, but when I followed up to ask if they were older or younger, he diverted the conversation.  He said he didn’t understand the question because of the way I was pronouncing joven. We went round and round about how to say joven, but I never quite achieved the nuance he was looking for.  Later I realized that it wasn’t about my gringo accent at all.  The subject of his sisters was just too painful.  At least I had had the sense not to ask him where his mother is.

The whole long wait was worth it for me when his father finally came out the door from the back offices.  The joy on his son’s face just lit up the room, I could physically feel the boy’s happy energy.

The father had had nothing to eat or drink during five hours of interviews so I took him to the McDonald’s.  This was when I had another glimpse into the secret behind a person’s look.  As I was translating the menu options to the father, I happened to look at the sixty-something Anglo who was taking the order.  The typical how-can-I-please-you smile was gone.  His lips and eyes had tightened as if he were offended that I was speaking Spanish in his presence.  When I turned back from another translation, that same look was still there, even harder.  Nothing said, but I could see the secret in his eyes.

That phrase “The secret in their eyes” is the title of an excellent Argentinian movie, a murder mystery in which the key to finding the killer is finding the passion that guides his life and in which there is a subplot involving a decades-long love that remains unspoken until the woman lawyer calls out the man, a cop, on it.



  1. So glad there are people like you in this world. The hate in the world can be so overwhelming especially these days. It is a struggle to not just give up.

  2. Thank you for your writings, Ken, as well as the work you are doing with refugees. It is dispiriting to be living in the charnel grounds of the ongoing holocaust that is US history and US present-day policies. The work you do,as well as that of many others, shows all is not lost: bodhisattvas walk among us. Thank you so very much.

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