Soon after Makina sets out from the barracks, “a horribly pasty policeman” runs into her and makes her kneel with a lineup of Mexican men who “all were or looked homegrown.” The policeman declares himself a “patriot,” berates them for not being “civilized,” and tells them to “fall in and ask permission.” He notices that one man has a book—it is a book of poetry, and he mocks the man for “com[ing] with no money, no papers, but hey, poems.” The policeman tears out a page of the book and tells the man to write a confession of “what [he] did wrong,” but the man is so anxious that he cannot bring himself to write.
The policeman’s virulent racism confirms Makina’s fear about the United States: for many white people, “American” means white, and therefore “patriot[ism]” means defending white supremacy, even with violence, and preventing immigrants who seek to become Americans from doing so. It is no accident or coincidence that the racist in question here is a police officer, as systemic racism and police brutality against minorities are significant political issues in the U.S. In a sense, suffering this kind of brutality becomes a sort of baptism into American life for Makina and the other Mexicans whom the officer lines up. The crux of the officer’s complaint to the book-toting migrant is that he is needed to provide labor and follow white people’s orders, not to think for himself. Of course, this subservience runs contrary to Makina’s rebellious nature.
Makina grabs the man’s paper and pencil, confusing the policeman, and then writes for a long while. The policeman grabs the paper and reads a confession on behalf of “we [who] are to blame for this destruction, we who don’t speak your tongue and don’t know how to keep quiet.” She references a variety of racist stereotypes against Latinx people, who supposedly “deserve to be chained by neck and feet,” and “are happy to die for you, what else could we do?” No longer so righteous, the cop reads her last line with a concerned whisper: “We the barbarians.” He then talks into his radio and abruptly leaves, freeing everyone in the lineup. The men try to thank Makina for saving them, but she is already walking far ahead down the road.
The overarching message is once again that language can transform human relations, make the familiar strange, and vice-versa, by building bridges between groups and creating mutual recognition between people who do not recognize one another’s humanity. Makina’s abilities as a communicator and translator again save the day: she manages to show the police officer the errors of his ways, and also that she and her fellow migrants are capable of talking back to him. The policeman seems to dehumanize them because they are incapable of answering back in his language, and Makina shows him that they are just as intelligent and emotionally complex as him. This forces the officer to empathize with the migrants’ experiences, whether he likes it or not. Makina she uses the word “barbarians” not only because of its emotional weight, but also, undeniably, because of its history—the word comes from an ancient Greek term for anyone who was not a citizen, and so points out the political origins of racism, the racism underscoring the policeman’s florid speeches about “culture,” and Europeans’ long history of inventing reasons to denigrate those outside their communities.