The Land of Everybody

Posted in: Uncategorized | By: | June 13, 2008

“The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges, or churches, or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors, but always most in the common people.”

-Walt Whitman


If you had been driving the two lanes that cut through the limestone hills of Central Texas, you might have seen him running. There are fine trails and country roads that rise above the Colorado River and open to glimpses of the long western horizon that hides the distant Chihuahuan Desert. In his hometown of Marble Falls, he has been a diminutive figure whose churning legs have carried him places his parents never dreamed.

Leonel Manzano was a two-time NCAA 1500 meter champion for the University of Texas and won nine state titles for Marble Falls High School, and he has become, almost improbably, a member of the US Olympic team bound for China. The improbability of his success has nothing to do with his 5 foot 5 inch stature in a sport of spider-legged athletes. Manzano’s story, which will be told with a flourish next month on television, is the distinctly American type that fills us with both pride and political conflict.

Manzano, who was born in Mexico, immigrated to the US at age 4. According to reports, his father, Jesus, crossed the Rio Grande into Texas 16 times searching for work and returning with money to his impoverished family. And he did not even know how to swim. Eventually, in 1987, he acquired legal residency. What Jesus Manzano was able to provide for his family in America as a farmworker went beyond simply food and shelter. He gave them a chance. And Leo ran off with it to finish second in the US Olympic 1500 meter trials.

“I’ve been looking forward to this day since the summer of my sixth- or seventh-grade year in high school,” he told his hometown newspaper the Marble Falls Highlander. “I hear everybody say it is a dream come true, but I guess you really don’t know what it feels like until you make it. Let’s just say I almost don’t believe it. I am excited, really excited.”

We can build a wall along the Rio Grande to match the height of the skyscrapers of our great cities and we will not stop the Jesus Manzano’s of the world. They know what our country represents for them and their children. Many of our accomplishments are by-products of a long history of calling out to immigrants and now we are trying to tell them to stay away. Along the Rio Grande, people have lived on both banks of the river for thousands of years and thought of it as a body of water that connected their families and cultures. They do not want to believe it is what divides us.

In Marble Falls, though, they are not thinking of political affairs. The phones are ringing with chatter about Leo, the son of an immigrant who walked the desert and the brush country to find work to feed his family. Leo, who learned humility from his father, may bring an Olympic medal to the little town in the Texas Hill Country. They all might get to be a part of his amazing story.

Leo Manzano’s teammates in the 1500 meters are also immigrants. Bernard Lagat, a naturalized US citizen from Kenya, who won the trials, is the reigning world champion in the 1500 and 5000 meters. When he turned around to see who had finished in second and third in order to qualify for the team, Lagat saw Manzano and Lopez Lomong, a refugee who had been swept up into the Sudanese civil war when he was kidnapped at the age of 6. Lagat seemed as struck by the demographics of the race as much as he was by the fact that he was going to be wearing the red, white, and blue at the Olympics.

“That means America is a melting pot and America is where they welcome everybody regardless of their place of birth,” Lagat said.

For Lomong, America has been a kind of resurrection. After spending 10 years in a Kenyan refugee camp, Lomong ran away and came to the US where he was known as one of Sudan’s “Lost Boys.” But he has found himself through running and brought an NCAA national championship to Northern Arizona University. When he earned a spot on the US Olympic team, he jumped up and down, shook his head wildly, and jiggled in a childish kind of wonderment.

“I’m dreaming my whole life, Olympics, Olympics, running for the United States,” Lomong said. “This is America, this is the land of everybody.”

There may be a politician somewhere who knows how to solve our immigration problem. But when you look at the 1500 meter runners it is not easy to think we have a problem. Building walls at the border won’t change them or the dreams of any other immigrants. But it will change us. Who knows what we might become? And why would we want to be something different?

We are the land of everybody.

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