The Bracero Monument, a sculpture by Dan Medina at Migrant’s Bend Plaza in Los Angeles, California. It honors the Mexican Migrant Workers who came to the US to fill labor shortages during WWII. But in my mind, this monument also honors the thousands who continue to labor in American fields, homes, factories and businesses where still, after all these many years, their struggle has lessened very little if at all.
© PJ Hayward, New York 2010
“Wetbacks” they were called by many – named by people or someone who never met them, didn’t know them, had never had a conversation with them and had no idea about them. “Wetbacks” – the name given to the starved, exhausted, often ragged and desperate human beings, mostly men, who had hiked for miles through the Mexican land and then taken the daring swim across the Rio Grande river from Mexico – arriving soaked and bedraggled on the other side – the United States. Daring because some of them would drown in the attempt, while many more would reach the other side only to be arrested or sometimes even shot by the border guards. All this was done in the attempt to find work to support families living in the Mexican countryside.
When I was a young woman living in L.A., I came into contact with many of these men. There were women and girls too, but the women usually worked practically or literally as slave labor for the rich Americans living near the border towns from California to Texas. I never really met too many women, but I met and got to know many of the men.
The men I met always lived in groups in tiny apartments – usually 5 or 6 to a room, often sleeping 3 and 4 to a bed – head to toe. The jobs they found paid them less than the minimum wage, which as I recall in the early 70’s was way under $2.00 an hour – so these guys may have even made less than $1.00 an hour. Yet, they were always smiling and laughing. Rarely would you find a man whining or complaining. Maybe in some secret place, sure that he was alone or perhaps only with a close friend……but I never witnessed it. I knew for a fact that often my friends hearts were breaking for loved ones left behind, but I would rarely ever see it shown openly and even then, unintentionally.
For those of you who may not have heard the term “Chicano”, I think technically it refers to people of Mexican descent who are raised here in the US. But back in the day anyway, most of the Mexican people I knew called themselves Chicanos. Everyone took advantage of them. Many of the friends I knew could not read or write even in Spanish.
Some of the men would go to spots where people sought out day laborers and they would find work that way. Some of them had full time jobs – by full time I mean well in excess of 12-15 hours a day – sometimes 18-20 hours. I remember one friend who was a carpet layer. One Sunday he was very, very sick with the flu. His boss actually came to his room and pounded on the door and forced him to come to work that day – sick or not – Sunday or not.
Once I had a job for 2 weeks as the front office assistant in a factory. Part of my job was to make out the paychecks and record everything in a big ledger. This meant that I had to review all the time cards. When I handed in the checks for my boss to sign, he told me to re-do every check – deducting all the Saturday hours. On Saturday the men would work at least 12 hours or more but apparently never got paid for them. A Slave Day. Their tribute to the boss for not handing them over to the INS.
I threw a fit at my boss and refused to make out the new checks. I don’t remember anymore whether my boss fired me for insubordination or if it was me that quit over this incident – but whichever it was I didn’t work there after that.
I was prompted to write this story for two reasons. The first is that I was reminiscing about some of my old friends and how much fun we used to have on Friday or Saturday nights. We would dance and drink and laugh till the break of dawn, they speaking no English at all and me speaking my weird and broken Spanish. What I learned from these friends was what it means to truly have Heart – to laugh and dance and sing and tell stories all in the face of the deepest heartache and pain – but never showing the pain – just the Laugh and Dance.
I don’t know where any of those friends are now. Along the way I met my son’s father and fell in love. We moved away and when we moved back to L.A., all my friends were gone to parts unknown. Snatched by the INS? Gone back to their villages in Mexico? I will never know.
The main reason for writing this story is that I want to comment on the cruelty of our country’s immigration policies. The men that I knew faced an avalanche of anger and hatred from multiple sides. The jobs they performed were jobs that those same people who hated and reviled them, themselves refused to do.
From their less than meager earnings the men I knew kept enough money for only the barest essentials. The rest, they sent home to help their families.
In the face of loneliness, isolation, sickness, poverty and hunger – still my friends laughed, danced and showed their magnificent Heart.
Today, only the names and faces have changed. The men and women of today face the same horrific mistreatment, the same prejudicial employment and housing discrimination and the same on-the-job abuse as their predecessors. And the new names and faces of today still exhibit the outward Laugh and Dance that proves the Chicano Heart is still alive and well.
If only some of our people here in America could have met some of the people I have met, they would do all in their power to reverse our ways of doing things here. There is plenty of room in our country for all of us to work together peacefully and still have enough of everything to go around. All it takes is a little teamwork as opposed to choosing sides. And it takes a lot of Heart.
4 thoughts on “CHICANO HEART”
I agree that the Mexicans are very hard workers and very dedicated to their families and loved one’s. However, no matter what nationality one may be you will always find hard working men and women dedicated to their families and loved one’s. To me that is not a reason for people crossing borders and coming into our country illegally and wanting our citizens to treat them medically, receiving govt. Aid etc. Let these honest individuals get visas and come legally and they will not be in hiding and will receive fair wages etc.
Our own citizens are having a hard time finding work and their families have fought like hell for the freedoms we have in America even though it is not a perfect society. In reality it must not be that bad because so many foreigners from all countries are entering America illegally.
I feel that if there is such chaos in the country they wish to Leave they should stay and fight for freedom and try to change their corrupt govt. However, many immigrants come to America and try to change our laws, protest in our streets, take advantage of our medical system and all these financial burdens fall on the legal immigrants and citizens of the United states of America.
Also, when we have to fight a war are these illegal people from various countries standing to volunteer in our military? I don’t think so. I want all people to enjoy our great nation and be afforded the opportunity to live here but do it legally. I cannot see any other nation changing all their laws to accommodate us and giving out free aid because we want to leave America. It’s me again P.
Hi Anon, Yes I do understand and definitely agree that so many of us here in America are suffering greatly and deeply with all the issues we have going on here. There are millions of people in desperation here because they have been without jobs – sometimes for years – their children are hungry, often they have lost their homes, everything you already know. There is no way I could disagree with any of that. I think though, that having said that, one has to have witnessed what it is that goes on in Mexico that drives people across the borders. I cant speak on the corruptness of the govt there. But the level of poverty I have seen it with my own eyes. Out in the countryside the poverty is on such a scale that it is hard for us here in this country to comprehend. For example water, at least regarding the time period I was writing about in this story (although I admit I can’t say about today) but even the one commodity most necessary for life – water – was often unavailable and arrived out to the countryside in big trucks. People had to come with their pots and bottles to PAY for the water dispensed from these trucks. There is no welfare like there is here. I hear what you are saying and again, can’t argue or disagree with the fact that we need jobs here for our own people, but I guarantee you that a good percentage of Americans would NEVER agree to do half the jobs many new immigrants from ANY country do in this country. Because when push comes to shove we have soup kitchens, food banks and all kinds of social programs to help us when we are really down and out here in America. Still again, I believe the problem is one of perception and misunderstanding as it is in all cases of cultural disagreement. If you have not witnessed first hand what drives an action – in this case the migration to America of people from Mexico – it’s really difficult to make an informed criticism if you don’t have all the facts necessary to make an informed criticism. I appreciate and thank you for your comments, because this is exactly what I had hoped to see from this blog. If enough people express their views – and people are always going to disagree and have opposing views – maybe a tiny door of mutual understanding can be opened between the differing opinions. Thank you!
A real heart warming story it makes one realize just how many injustices are experienced even in a civilized world. You impressed me with your behaviour in the face of a lie, in spite of the fact that you knew you would lose your income..Two sides to every story one must always bear this in mind..
Thank you so much A. Injustice – yes it’s so true – but then you of all people know so well about injustice in a country. About my behavior in that situation, the lie was not actually the motivating factor, although looking at your viewpoint now I can see where it would seem that way. I just couldn’t understand how anyone could exploit such hard working people in that way, or anyone in that way. This particular boss especially, drove to work in the latest model Cadillac. His wife who also worked there was dripping jewelry and wore the best clothes to work even though it wasn’t some big high tone company but just a simple factory and not even a really big one either. I mean of all people they could certainly afford to pay a living wage but not only did they pay these skilled workers (it was a shoe factory and the shoes they made there were made very well) less than minimum wage but then they wanted to rob them of their Saturday 12 hour pay? No, I wasn’t going to play any part in that. You have to wonder how many similar situations are going on all over every day all throughout the world……