I suppose I should start by saying that, on paper, I should be anti-immigration. I am a white male who was born into a deeply conservative middle class family in the heart of Texas. Both of my parents are registered Republicans, and until I was 16 I would’ve proudly told anyone that I was too. It all changed that summer, when I landed a job as a floor hand at a local aluminum plant.
When I arrived for my first day of work, I realized that my new job was not going to be at all what I expected. We worked 10 hours a day, five days a week in a shop that, during the sweltering drought, hovered around 90 degrees. Because each of the metal presses required two people to operate, everyone had a partner. Mine was a man who, for the sake of anonymity, I’ll call Jose.
Jose, a 63-year-old who had illegally immigrated several years before, was well known at the plant for working hard, complaining little and never missing a day or showing up late. However, there was one problem with Jose, he spoke next to no English.
I am embarrassed to say that when we first began to work together I held Jose in a sort of contempt. He worked fast and hard, causing me to constantly lag behind, and because I could not communicate properly with him, my frustration only continued to grow. In my mind, I began to identify Jose with every negative stereotype about Mexican immigrants. I regarded him as a job thief and thought him too ignorant to learn my language. My annoyance with Jose became so great that at one point I asked my boss for a different floor partner. In the end, I decided to stick it out with Jose, and I am glad that I did.
Over the following weeks, Jose and I slowly became more accustomed to each other, learning to work together in a unique way. We developed our own kind of language, composed of broken phrases in Spanish from me, broken phrases in English from him and, most importantly, a series of gestures and body language. We began to eat together at lunch, and although it was often a quiet affair, sometimes we would watch YouTube videos or play games on my iPhone. It was during these times that I began to learn more about Jose through pictures and broken communication.
Jose had lived most of his life in a small village in Mexico about 30 miles south of Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas. There, just as in America, he had spent the majority of his time doing manual labor in order to help provide for his three children. However, when Jose was 59 years-old, he decided that it was time for a change. A local drug cartel had been steadily gaining power in the region, and Jose wanted to get his family out. And so, to that end, Jose packed a single bag and headed north. Once he crossed and managed to secure steady income, he sent for his family.
Since their arrival, Jose’s children had kids of their own: two granddaughters for him to dote over. I remember this vividly because when he was describing his family to me he was very adamant that they were born the U.S. “They can take me back, but not them,” I remember him saying.
It was during this conversation that I first truly began to grasp the reality of Jose’s situation. After living in the same place for 58 years, he was forced to flee. He had to work a low-paying, high-intensity job, from which he paid taxes. Yet, his life was one of constant worry. At any moment, someone could take him from his family and throw him back into the brutally violent situation that they had fled. He could lose everything he had spent years working for.
And as for the job stealing, I can assure you that after many months of working alongside Jose and many other undocumented immigrants, the jobs they take for the pay they get is nothing to envy.
Looking back now in the context of our current administration, I find it very disturbing that decent, hard-working people, like Jose and his family, are seen by many as what’s wrong with this country. In fact, in my eyes people like Jose embody the very essence of the American spirit, and the pursuit of happiness.
Photo Credit: Macarena Hernandez