by admin | May 20, 2009 6:11 pm
Jaìme first walked across el Rio Bravo de Norte from Mexico into Texas in 1998. He waded the river during the dry season and paid a coyote to drive him the 300-plus miles from the border to Deep East Texas, in the back of a truck with a dozen or so other men. Jaìme is what, in a less politically correct time, was called a wetback. Now people like Jaìme are called undocumented workers.
I call him my compadre. Loosely translated, that means he is my pal. Not my amigo; that would presume too much on my part. Jaìme calls me his patròn, though I’m but one of several Anglo men who contract for his labor and became closely attached to him because of his work ethic, integrity, intelligence and cheerful nature. Jaìme and I have spent hundreds of hours together over the past eight years, working, eating lunch, driving back-and-forth to one project or another, discussing politics, music, old movies (he’s a big John Wayne fan), and sharing a couple of beers at the end of the day.
Jaìme ’s home is an unmapped village in the interior of the state of Veracruz, below the pyramids of El Tajìn, a pre-Columbian archaeological site that’s 2,000 years old. The closest large city is Poza Rica, known now mainly for its oil refineries and misfortune for getting hammered by hurricanes. The Tecoluta River runs close enough to his house that when its banks overflowed in 1999, Jaìme had to go home to help his wife repair the damage. After a few months, Jaìme returned to the United States. He again sneaked across with the help of a coyote, making his way through McAllen on the border. Then, once again stuffed in the back of a box truck with a dozen or so other men, he returned to Nacogdoches, a small city that claims to be the Oldest Town in Texas. That’s where several of his brothers had already located — all undocumented, all employed.
For the next five years, Jaìme worked in Nacogdoches and nearby towns every day of the week — the only exceptions being if there was bad weather or nobody hiring. He repaired fences on ranches, painted houses, did yard work, minor carpentry, plumbing repairs —lo que, as he said — meaning “whatever.” As in whatever it takes to send money back home. He returned home for a year at Christmas 2004, intending to raise a few cows and chickens and enjoy the financial fruits of time spent away from his family: a completely remodeled home made of concrete block surfaced with stucco, an ornate red-cedar front door as well as air-conditioning, ceramic tile floors and a marble-floored bathroom. The photographs are impressive.
Just thirteen months later — in early January 2006 — he phoned me as he did periodically, sounding as always as if he were next door instead of 600-plus miles away in the interior of Veracruz. Jaìme had called several times in the previous year to say hello, to wish me a Happy Birthday, to see how things were going, to let me know how life was back home for him and his family. But this time, Jaìme was literally next door, back in Nacogdoches. The lure of cash to make life better for his wife and two children, a boy now 11, a daughter now 9, tugged stronger than his desire to live with his family. That is the lure for many of the — pick a number — 8 million, 10 million, 13 million undocumented workers in this country. Once again he had waded across the Rio Grande and paid someone to take him to Houston, where his brother picked him up and brought him back to Nacogdoches. A cousin in California loaned him the $1,300 to pay the coyote. He wires the cousin a bit of money each Saturday evening to repay la presta.
I first met Jaìme in the spring of 2000, when I went looking for someone to do yard work. In Nacogdoches, the day laborers — nearly all Hispanics with a scattering of blacks in the crowd — gather at a park just south of downtown, lining up along a bridge that crosses Banita Creek. When a vehicle approaches and slows, the race belongs to the swift. Up to a dozen men rush to the driver’s side of the vehicle. Usually the driver, if experienced, will hold up one finger, meaning only one worker needed, and so forth.
Jaìme was the first to get to my Jeep that day, jogging over in a pace that is now as familiar as the purring of my cat. He climbed in and immediately began talking, admiring my Jeep in rapid Spanish interspersed with occasional English phrases. He and I have worked together many weekends since — painting rent houses, fixing fences and working cattle during my brief foray into gentleman farming, once building a bridge across a creek, planing rough-hewn red oak and black walnut for furniture projects. Lo que.
Jaìme is a talker. He believes, apparently, that if he speaks Spanish long enough the person to whom is he talking will learn it by osmosis. Actually I have over the years learned more Spanish from Jaìme than I ever learned in school. We call it Spanglish here in Texas, with bastardizations such as la trucka for truck, la rufa for roof. I like to believe I’ve helped him learn enough English to communicate with the folks who hire him and have no interest in learning his language, which would be most people here behind the Pine Curtain, the popular nickname for the heavily forested part of East Texas where I live.
A few years back, my then-wife and I were hosting two junior-high Japanese exchange students for two weeks. I introduced the students to Jaìme , who began speaking rapidly to them in Spanish.
“Jaìme ,” I protested. “These girls are from Japan. They don’t know Spanish.”
He looked at me and replied rather haughtily, “Well, I can’t speak Japanese.” Jaìme continued talking away en Español.
My compadre is now 47(CHECK) and delights in pointing out he’s five years younger than me. He’s short, with a modest paunch that bothers him enough that he’s foresworn cheeseburgers, drinks only Diet Coke and loves our miserably hot summers, since he loses weight by working outside. It’s hotter back home in Paso del Correo, his home village. Its name means “post office.” There his wife feeds him a steady diet of tortillas, refried beans and other carb-and-fat-loaded foods. Jaìme has shed probably 20 pounds since returning to America nearly two years ago — an anomaly in a nation rapidly expanding its collective waistline.
Jaìme sports a thick-black moustache, equally dense black hair kept in check with a stained gimme cap, a pock-marked face, and a ready smile. He is hands-down the most cheerful human being I’ve ever known, and one of the most observant. Jaìme misses little and possesses a Rain Man ability to recall dates and events, such as, “Mr. Gary, four years ago today we started painting that rent house.” Or, sadly, “Mr. Gary, my brother died one year ago tomorrow,” as he told me not long ago.
He prefers the slow pace of small towns such as Nacogdoches and Lufkin — which is where I now live, 20 miles south. Both towns have roughly 35,000 residents. The latest census count says about 18 percent are Hispanics, a number that simple observation indicates is laughably low. In both towns upwards of two dozen businesses have sprung up in the past few years to serve Mexican immigrants — from tortillerias to cambios for wiring money back home, to hair salons and discotecas. These tiendas provide an international flavor to our towns that I enjoy, though that seems to be a minority view among the Anglo majority — unless they’re looking for someone to do yard work. Considering Nacogdoches in particular was founded as a Mexican colonial outpost, and many of the county’s most-venerable families sport Hispanic surnames, it’s ironic there’s this antipathy to a rejuvenation of the Mexican culture.
For a time Jaìme and his family lived in Mexico City where he worked as a security guard at the Mexican corporate headquarters for Costco, the big-box discount store. He liked the job but hated the pollution, crime and fast pace. So Jaìme quit, moved his family back to the village in which he was raised, and headed north.
Mexican workers migrate, I’ve gathered, largely by word-of-mouth to certain geographic locations. Thus, in Deep East Texas towns like Nacogdoches and Lufkin, many of the workers are from Jaìme ’s region of Veracruz. At least thus far, there is little worry here about la immagraciòn, though that appears to be changing. Recently Pilgrim’s Pride, a poultry company that has two huge processing plants, one in each city, announced it was laying off a significant number of workers who couldn’t prove they weren’t working with false Social Security cards.
Jaìme doesn’t carry a fake ID but proudly displays an official ID card from the Mexican consulate. He, like uncounted others, lives below the radar, doing the work others won’t do. He’s paid in cash, stays out of trouble, drinks no more than three beers even during a fiesta, and sends money home every Saturday afternoon from El Tapatillo, the cambio located about five blocks from the run-down trailer park where he lives in a decrepit double-wide trailer with three other men. He’s such a good worker that he can command $7 to $8 an hour in cash, a couple of bucks more than most folks are willing to pay. Roughly every two months, someone with a green card makes a southbound run in a truck down to Veracruz, delivering televisions, bikes, toys, clothes and other items — usually bought from Wal-Mart — from the men working here to their esposas y niños back home. This is the fruit of their labors; they purchase products made in China, sold in East Texas, and then trucked back to Mexico.
Now that’s globalization.
Six months after Jaìme returned from his one-year sabbatical in Mexico, one of his brothers was killed on the loop in Nacogdoches. He had gone with some friends to a Hispanic rodeo at the Exposition Center, where he apparently got in an argument with some other men. He and his friends left in his Ford pickup and were headed down the loop, chased by the people with whom he had a dispute. The police had been summoned, and a patrol car switched on its booger lights. Jaìme ’s brother panicked, stopped his truck, got out and began running across the loop. He was struck and killed by another vehicle.
Jaìme called me late that night to tell me his brother had been killed. There wasn’t much I could do at the moment, and he knew that. He just wanted to know if the story would be in the newspaper so he could get a copy of the clipping. I made sure it was, of course.
A few days later, an Anglo preacher called me. Jaìme had given him my phone number. The preacher had driven Jaìme down to the Mexican consulate in Houston to arrange for his brother’s body to be transported back to Mexico. The preacher and I worked together to establish a bank account to raise the money needed to bury •••••. I put a notice in the paper in both English and Spanish, and the preacher and I quietly seeded the account. About $2,000 was named, thanks especially to the owners of the local Spanish-language newspaper, who chipped in $500. The Reyes brothers run a weekly paper, a Spanish-language AM radio station, and a translation service, along with a host of community projects, such as an ever-growing Cinco de Mayo festival. They are quiet hard-working heroes in my small town
Jaìme took the death of his brother stoically, best as I could tell. He was back working for me the following Sunday, though I assured him that wasn’t necessary. He talked about the difficulties of getting his brother’s body transported back to Mexico, how thankful he was for the money raised, how his brother had two wives and families — one here, one back in Mexico — who were now bickering over the pittance of an estate.
Lo que, he seemed to say, though not quite. Whatever.
I sense a change in Jaìme during his latest tenure in America. He has always closely followed the news, and immigration reform is often a topic of discussion with us. He wants to become a documented worker here, if the laws are changed so that is possible. He doesn’t seem interested in becoming a citizen but would like the option of working here six months and spending the slow season (winter, in East Texas) back in Mexico.
Now that work on his house is largely done, Jaìme has a bit of extra cash to spend on the gadgets most of us take for granted. He bought a cell phone a year ago, which he funds with a tarjeta replenished at the cellular store once a week or so. That makes it both cheaper to call home and easier for the people who contract for his labor to find him. And about eight months ago, he bought a 1997 Ford Ranger pickup for $3,300 paid in cash over a couple of months. He is proud of his truck, which is dark green with a ding in the tailgate but otherwise pristine — though the air-conditioning doesn’t work.
Jaìme , at my request, showed me proof of liability insurance, which I had strongly advised him to obtain. I’ll leave it to others to figure out the inherent contradiction between an “illegal alien” able to legally buy a motor vehicle and obtain insurance, both paid for with folding money, though Jaìme doesn’t hold a driver’s license. I’m just glad he has insurance.
He’s a cautious driver, certainly less of a risk than my teen-aged daughter, zipping about with a cell phone plastered to her ear, the stereo at eardrum-splitting level, and a Big Gulp between her thighs. At least I hope so.
We both commiserate on the amount of money it takes to keep children supplied with the toys they want: video games, bicycles, dolls, Walkmans. I try to imagine what it’s like for him — living in close quarters for a couple of years at a time with three other men, the only contact with one’s family being by telephone. He sends most of his money home, lives here without sex (he assured me he’s faithful and I believe him), without hugs from his children, or a sense of place. He ruefully told me one evening that most of the previous evening’s phone call home had been a litany of complaints from his children. More money is needed to supply their wants: another video game, money to buy a new dress for an upcoming fiesta.
Jaìme just keeps working.
There are hundreds of thousands of Jaìme s out there, toiling away in the underground economy. They work as our landscapers, restaurant cooks, construction workers, farmhands and bricklayers. I once asked Jaìme how Pilgrim’s Pride, the behemoth poultry processor that is the largest employer here, is able to staff its plants with legal workers. He burst out laughing.
“They’re not legal,” he said. (I’m paraphrasing since I wasn’t taking notes, and my Spanish remains suspect.) “They all have fake Social Security cards,” he said with a rather superior tone. Jaìme , for whatever reason, takes pride in not carrying a fake ID card.
I don’t have any answers to the sticky wicket of illegal immigration, just some observations. In small towns such as Nacogdoches and Lufkin, the two neighboring towns where I’ve lived most of the past 35 years, our economy would sputter and stall if somehow every undocumented worker was vacuumed away tomorrow. That’s not a stout enough argument for unfettered access, admittedly. A stronger case can be made, however, for making this country stronger by letting folks like Jaìme work here. He just wants to earn money to support his family, which is surely what drives most of us. He works incredibly hard, pays taxes, albeit indirectly, wears his seatbelt and never drives drunk. He keeps up with current events more closely than most 20-year-old Americans I’ve encountered.
In short, he’s the ideal immigrant, and there are many more like him. People who will do whatever.
Note: Jaìme returned to Mexico, presumably for good, in May 2009. This was written in May 2008.
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