There used to be a Mexican guy who worked here, but he’s gone now. I come for the coffee, but I liked that guy. He worked without pause, bussing tables, shooing away the grackles, sweeping away leaves in the autumn, or cleaning white bird shit from the black wrought iron chairs with a wet rag. Always smiling he was and I liked that his approach made me consider my own work and my own life; how he could manage to be so happy at a no-recognition minimum wage job, while I have to work at happiness even though I probably possess a hundred times his assets.
I always talked to him in my poor Spanish and he seemed to appreciate the fact that at least I tried; that at least I acknowledged his existence. But my Spanish sucks, so about all we could talk about was the weather, what a nice day it was, or how hard he was working. I was never good enough to talk to him about anything of substance: how he felt about immigration law; if Texas was better or worse than other places in the States he’d worked; was that Mayan ancestry I saw in his facial structure?
That was beyond the depth of my conversational abilities and now he’s gone. The last few times I’ve been here to write and drink coffee the grackles were running roughshod over the patio furniture and the bus trays have been stacked to precarious levels before anyone comes out to empty them. Did that fellow find a new job, or did he grow tired of the whole situation and head back to Tamaulipas or Chiapas to finally spend some of his life with his wife and children? I’ll never know these things and can only imagine.
As a building contractor I had guys who subcontracted work from me year after year who were as illegal as I am white, but they did the best work and were generally an agreeable lot who worked hard and didn’t complain, who cooked lunch beans and tortillas over a small open fire, who replied “Si se puede” when I requested a change in the work. I had foundation crews who worked like dogs and stone masons who were truly artists -- puzzle masters who inevitably put the perfect stones in just the right places, every time. Most of them lived six or eight men to a singlewide trailer, far from family and home, wired most of their pay home and likely did without sex for long periods of time in order to send that lifeblood dinero back to Mexico, keeping back a few dollars for their beans and tortillas, some pork chops and chilies, and a few cervezas. As a Patron, the best I could do was to pay them promptly for services rendered and to show up at the jobsite with a case of beer on Friday afternoons where we would lean against dusty pickups and somehow communicate despite our limited common lingo.
Every Christmas season, most of them would go home to Mexico, usually spending a month or so getting reacquainted with their children, making sweet love to their women, and doing a little more work on their own abodes, which were always in some phase of expansion and construction. Because they worked hard and wired money home, they were considered well off in their own villages – men of some means, whose daughters perhaps owned a computer, men who could hire their own countrymen to help with the inevitable concrete and block work necessary to enlarge their own homes. Maybe their esposas conceived over that month of nightly lovemaking, maybe not, but that was between the esposa and La Virgen de Guadalupe. That was a thing for the women to decide for the man simply fertilized the seed placed by La Virgen, and seldom ventured into the churches where the women prayed for whatever it is that women pray for. I often wondered if a disproportionate number of young Mexicans were being born in September and October because of those annual Yule time pilgrimages home by the workers. And what might the effect be of a nation with an unusual amount of Virgos and Libras coming of age at the same time? I suppose time will tell on that one.
The real depth of these men's character was evident by what they went through in order to get back into Texas and back to their work. The ordeal usually involved a trip to a border town on the Mexico side to bide their time awaiting the call from one of the many coyotes, the human smugglers, to tell them it was time to move.
¡Ahora mismo! Date prisa! ¡Esta noche! The call would finally come.
Men and women were dropped into the desert so far from any town there was absolutely no urban light glow on the black horizon in any direction. No light except a waxing or waning moon’s light with which to make out distant hills, the faint deer trail to follow, or the silhouette of a La Migra vehicle, blacked out and waiting like a predator across the known people trails. A new moon rendered it impossibly dark and a full moon could paint a man like a target. Only two plastic jugs of precious agua and a vague understanding of where to rendezvous for pickup separated the living from the dead, for there is scant margin for error in a desert large enough to consume New England. If La Migra didn’t find you, there was a fair chance that no one else would either. It was easy to become disoriented in the darkness and begin walking in vast circles until the water ran out. Or often they arrived at the appointed rendezvous point only to be abandoned. The men paid in advance in a deal of trust with often unscrupulous individuals. Most coyotes were in it for the long term and worked off an underground referral system amongst the illegals, but shit often happened. Shit beyond anyone’s control. Shit like vehicle breakdowns or impoundments. Shit like too much heat from La Migra in that particular quadrant of the vast ocean of desert. Unpredictable shit that left people dead of exposure or thirst or left them seeking La Migra in order to remain among the living.
The lucky ones were those crossing with brothers and uncles, men who would watch your back. The best scenario was the company of men from your own village. Men who knew you and were maybe even distant relations; so distant you couldn’t claim one another but your blood knew. Blood always knew and blood watched out for its own. It was unfavorable to make this crossing with strangers if it could be avoided. Wild cards could get you killed or busted and deported. Busted and deported meant you would never have the opportunity to obtain a green card in the future. A green card meant you no longer need pay a coyote thousands of dollars; meant you could possibly bring your wife and kids into the country when you had a legal job; a job you could only find by coming across illegally and impressing some US Patron into sponsoring you. Being busted and deported would eliminate even that unlikely opportunity. For men who risk their lives getting back into the US to work seven days a week if they can, to send back all their money except for the bare necessities, to not see family for eleven months at a time, even an unlikely opportunity for a green card provides reason to hope.
Yes, I wonder what became of my amigo with the ready smile and the grackle rag. Is he back home in Mexico with his family or at another job here in Texas? I’d like to think he won a large scratch-off lottery prize and is now a Patron in his own village instead of the possibility that he could be just more bones bleaching in the Coahuila desert sun.