Whitesburg KY

Too many have to leave area

A lot of people, when they think about immigrants, think about them “coming in.” They don’t think about what it was like for them to leave their homes in the first place. I do, because one day, I might have to leave my home in the mountains.

I live in Jeremiah, Kentucky in a white rural county. For generations, people in my family have moved from state to state for jobs, and put their lives at risk in the coal mines. Here, leaving the mountains is a rite of passage, just like crossing the border might be for others. I hear kids every day making plans about their future, and eastern Kentucky isn’t a part of that.

I never thought I would have anything in common with teenagers from other countries like Mexico, but I do. Seeing the immigration debates and demonstrations on TV, I understand that big companies look at our families as dollar signs, as people who can pack coal out or bring the tomato harvest in.

Many people think economic migrants in our country had a choice. I can tell you there is no real choice in the decision to leave home. I look around my community and see how many people are out of a job, trying to get by working at Wal-Mart, or getting hurt in the mines.

So far, I can count 23 people in my family who have left the community for financial reasons. I don’t want to become the 24th . . . someone my family sees only on the holidays. Making a choice to leave means going where people don’t wave as you drive by . . . Where nobody knows me or my family . . . Where people look down on my way of talking . . . A place where my customs and traditions are seen as backwards.

Knowing where I’m from is one of the things I value. I don’t want to give that up for a paycheck. And I’m afraid if I go, I’ll never be able to come back.

Machlyn Blair is from Jeremiah. He read this essay aloud to former Senator John Edwards on July 18 during a forum held at Appalshop in Whitesburg. The text was transcribed from an audio recording of that forum.

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