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In praise of long lines

Elena Herrada  |  Issue: June July 2021
Elena Herrada
Elena Herrada with her grandson.

As an elder in Detroit, I regret that younger people will not know the feeling of waiting in lines for the things the state imposed on us.

As a young pregnant woman from Detroit at a time when auto factory shutdowns required workers to go to the Unemployment Offices, a whole world opened up to me. I was laid off from a temporary job and waited in the snaking line outside of the office on Michigan and Clark, around the corner from the Cadillac plant and across the street from UAW Local 22.

Outside, there were people playing the shell game. Literally, not the ones we hear of in scams. People stood around them when they came out and watched for hours as the experts moved the shells around between three cans. I saw people lose their whole two weeks checks.

Vendors sold all manner of items such as African clothing, food, books, records and tapes. Anything could be found outside the Unemployment, legal and illegal.

When my first child was born and I was nursing her, the sound of any baby crying would bring in the milk. After this happened once, I turned to a man holding an infant and asked if I could take the baby for a few minutes and feed him. The man quickly agreed to release his screaming baby to me. I exited the bathroom with a sleeping child and a roar of applause from the crowd.

unemployment lines in Detroit in the 1970s
During the1970s, the auto industry suffered setbacks that caused massive unemployment. International competition, and a sharp increase in oil prices forced the Big Three, General Motors, Chrysler and Ford to introduce cost-cutting techniques focused on automation and thus reduction of labor cost and the number of workers.
Photo: Mlive

That was in 1979 and there were layoffs all over the country. Detroit was hit hard and lots of people went to the office every two weeks. We organized potlucks and had conversations about life, about Beloved Detroit and how we would survive the brutal winter. People of all ages and races waited together as we discussed the state of the world. Chicanos often translated for people who did not speak English and I later learned that the bilingual staff were being overworked and were refusing to speak Spanish to people in line. There was a Supreme Court decision on this shortly after that time, which required that people could earn more money for their language skills or not be forced to use them. It was a time.

The Secretary of State office was another important venue. The lines are always long and filled with people who cannot get tag renewals online. There’s a huge class distinction between those who renew by mail or online and those who go to LA Insurance on the day of their tags’ expiration and get the one-week certificate for a huge amount of money and get their tags after that. It’s a whole shuffle.

Some racist from Michigan presented legislation outlawing immigrants’ right to drive without a Social Security number and for years I had tags in my name for workers who simply needed to get to work. I entered Secretary of State with a stack of titles and got tags for a fleet of hoopties [a hooptie is an old, worn-out vehicle]. On my birthday every year, the fleet would arrive in front of my house and we would put tags on cars. The state criminalized us all.

The insurance industry in Detroit is an apartheid project. We pay up to 10 times more for car insurance than our suburban (read: White) counterparts, getting only liability while they get full coverage for far less money. Cars get stolen, smashed, damaged and we get nothing but the right to drive. Eventually, the insurance industry got the technology to allow police to run a plate without pulling over the driver and checking to see if there’s insurance on it. Then the car is towed and the driver is ticketed and still cannot get a driver’s license because those licenses have been outlawed for undocumented people. Countless immigrants have lost their cars to predator impounds.

In the Secretary of State office on Bagley, which I have affectionately referred to as the Mexican festival, important conversations are held involving all manner of people waiting for their number to be called. Once a Latina woman said in Spanish that she was going to wait in line for the Latina (Spanish-speaking worker) could wait on her as the Black worker behind the desk waited with no one in her line. I called out the woman in Spanish. I asked her if she speaks English, why wouldn’t she go to the English speaker? She said she did not want to deal with a Black worker and I said, “You must be pretty unhappy in Detroit.” This started a very lively conversation from Mexicans who did not speak English and were newly arrived and had no guideposts for conversations on race. It was one of the most transformative moments I have ever had in my life in these trenches. A Black and Brown conversation ensued and there was absolute joy in it. All kinds of questions about why people came here, when, what life was like. People shared their experiences and I got to translate a lot of that conversation between my Spanglish and other bilingual volunteers who came out of the woodwork to join this rare discussion.

Revolution and redemption can be fomented in the long lines of the state. I miss talking to strangers at the predatory Water Department, at monopoly DTE, at the brutal Secretary of State. It’s a sweet life in Detroitistan if you know where to look.

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