Immigrant Memories

How do I explain this? Imagine a place where the poor come to make a better life. I know, there are poor everywhere. But only a certain type come to America. These people who come here from China, Africa, South and Central America, and earlier in our history Europe, might be poor and in some cases uneducated, but they’re driven to look for something better, which sets them apart from their fellows. A poor, lazy, drunken or stupid sot very rarely rouses himself in order to find ways to get enough cash together to buy an illegal way into a country that’s thousands of miles away. So, the poor people who sneak all the way from Kenya, China, Brazil, Guatemala ,wherever, are in my opinion by definition the best these countries have to offer.

About twelve years ago I was working in Brooklyn, New York as a construction supervisor. Practically everyone on my site was an illegal immigrant, and none of us, including myself, made much money. But I’ll tell you about one in particular…Lorenzo Santiago Tzoc Vasquez, a man who became my best friend. Lorenzo came from a little village in Guatemala…San Miguel. There were about a half dozen guys on my site from that same town. Lorenzo was about thirty years old and had a wife and two children back home. He was a Mayan Indian, a group despised in his home country by the Hispanics who controlled society; this all goes back to the time of the Conquistadors. Anyway, Lorenzo, like everyone else on the site, first had to scrape together around 300.00 American dollars…a huge amount of money in San Miguel. Then he took the next step, which was walking halfway up through Mexico, hundreds of miles. Then three days hidden in the back of a truck with twenty or thirty other illegals, sweating through Mexico’s desert country, then walking all night to get across the US border in Texas. Finally, through the immigrant underground, Lorenzo made his way halfway across the US to end up in Brooklyn, New York.

Once there, all the San Miguelian’s shared the same ratty apartment…perhaps twelve or thirteen guys total sleeping mattresses spread all over the apartment, all eating from a huge pot of black beans and rice as a normal daily meal. I had managed, through all sorts of lying and padding my labor bills to add one or two phantom Juans or Pedros to the workers lists in order to make sure that if one real guy got sick or hurt I could still give him a days pay. They each made about three hundred fifty dollars for a fifty hour week, better than most sites. Three hundred of that usually got sent back to their families, ten or so got thrown into the communal pot for food and rent, the rest was theirs for Salvation Army clothes or whatever.

Lorenzo was also saving up each week for something special…he was going to buy an old box truck, load it with construction materials and tools and when he was ready to go home, which on average for these men was after three years, he’d drive it all back to Guatemala, build a house with the materials, then use the truck to start a delivery business. Remember, this was a guy, who spoke not one word of English when I met him other than hello, and barely spoke Spanish as the Mayan dialect K’iche’ was his native tongue, could hardly read or write Spanish, let alone English, having maybe a third or fourth grade education. To me, that’s the American spirit in a nutshell.

They’d get to call home once a week to talk to their wives and children for about five minutes each…the local priest had the town’s one phone., so all the families would gather there and wait their turn to talk to their husbands…a weeks worth of news in five minutes.

If they got sick or hurt, they all shared one set of legal documents from one of their friends who had become a legal immigrant but decided to go back home, so they had a Social Security card, drivers license and they’d all use it to go to the hospital. We’d laugh about the fact that poor Pedro Nunez had had his appendix removed twice, three broken legs and two broken arms, multiple cuts and bruises, the flu, pneumonia, bronchitis a dozen times and God knows what else. Don’t misunderstand this,; if they could’ve they would have paid their way, but given their status, they were forced to lie. Believe me, it’s no fun to live this way and you don’t do it out of choice.

One guy, Santiago, who was Lorenzo’s cousin, also worked for me. I didn’t know it when it happened, because he didn’t tell me, but one day he had stepped on a board with a nail sticking up and seriously punctured his foot. The next morning his foot was swollen, so he borrowed a larger shoe from someone, wrapped his foot and went to work. Three days later his foot was so seriously infected that he was forced to go to the hospital. Poor Pedro Nunez, hurt again. Santiago was there for a week on an IV antibiotic drip. He almost lost the foot. Luckily, through my phantom worker program, I was able to keep him on the payroll while he recuperated. The simple fact that I went to visit him a few times, swinging by for ten minutes on my lunch hour, nothing important, made me a sort of hero to a bunch of guys who lived in the shadows, expecting nothing in the way of caring or compassion from anyone but themselves.

One night not too long after, Lorenzo invited me to their apartment for dinner. Since I was away from my wife and home all week myself, I had no problem going; it was nice to have something to do. I got there to find they had a rickety old video camera set up facing a blank wall with a Guatemalan flag tacked to it. After dinner ( I hate black beans, but what can you do?) they took turns talking to the camera, making little speeches that I couldn’t understand, but did recognize my name every now and then. Then Lorenzo asked me to get up and speak, explaining that the village priest spoke English and would translate. It turned out that the evening was a tribute to my helping them as their Jefe’, or boss. They wanted their families to see me. They presented me with a Levi’s work shirt as a gift, costing at least thirty dollars, a large sum for them. Then they gave me a cake. A cake. I have never felt so honored or proud…never. At the end of the evening I asked if I could keep the flag, which seemed to please them all out of proportion to the request. It sits over my desk as I write this.

Immigration issue is a hot topic right now. Half the country hates immigrants. But tell me, if you had a country, what type of people would you want to come? These men, who excepting Lorenzo, who at five foot ten inches was a giant among Mayans, were about five foot, three inches tall and maybe 145 pounds, but they would lug heavy materials all day long, never complaining. If they didn’t have work because materials didn’t show up on time, they’d want to leave rather than get paid for sitting around doing nothing. Strong, simple but dedicated men, respectful, lonely, caring for each other because no one cared about them. I’m honored to know them. Tell me you wouldn’t want those guys to be legal Americans. If you don’t, it’s because you know, deep down inside, that they’re better than you and you’re afraid of them.