Monday, January 29, 2007

Fulgencio, Travelling from Grand Junction to Acapulco

Fulgencio was born in Chilpancingo, in Guerrero. He first came to the United States when he was nineteen years old, and following the advice of some friends he found work in a restaurant at the Denver International Airport. The restaurant served breakfast food, sandwiches, pizza, chicken, and burgers. Fulgencio collected dirty dishes, cleaned tables, and occasionally helped out in the kitchen, where there were cooks who spoke Spanish. Although his English skills were very basic, Fulgencio enjoyed the awkward conversations he had with customers who came from as far away as Korea and the Middle East. After working there for a year, Fulgencio had developed a good friendship with one of the managers at the restaurant, who had himself emigrated from France, and married a woman from Denver. When Fulgencio decided to return to Guerrero, this friend promised to bring his family to Mexico for a visit. A few months later Fulgencio's friend arrived and stayed for several weeks with Fulgencio and his mother, in Chilpancingo.

Fulgencio moved to Acapulco and found work there in a restaurant, and stayed with some friends from back home. Through friends, he met a woman whose family was from Acapulco, and shortly after they began dating they decided to get married. As she was still living at home, and Fulgencio was staying with his friends, they began planning a way to earn enough money to buy a house and live together. Fulgencio was dissatisfied with the work he had in Acapulco, and didn't like having to wash dishes, so he suggested perhaps he could return to Colorado and find work there, then return after a year or so. He invited his fiancee to come with him, but she was frightened of the trip, and wanted to stay close to her family.

Back in Colorado, Fulgencio found work with some aquaintances who were working in construction. They taught him the skills he needed to become a framer, and they worked jobs in Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs, and Cheyenne. When I asked if he could sink a nail with one blow, he smiled and mimed the gesture, sayng "Like this? Of course!" He liked this job, he liked going to different cities, and he was earning better wages than he did at the airport. His only compaint was that the wind and cool air in the Rockies made him fear for his health.

After about six months of work with this crew, the head contractor offered Fulgencio a new job, delivering landscaping equipment to various locations around the US. The contractor told Fulgencio that if he could find a way to get a driver's license he would give him a raise and a chance to travel all over. Fulgencio decided to go to Indianapolis to get his license, and was back in Colorado, ready to start, in just a few days.

This new job was his favorite. He followed routes from LA all the way to Kansas City, and even as far north as Missoula, Montana. The scenery led him along, he said, and the weather was always surprising. However, he was living in the US without papers, and he began to worry that at some point he would be pulled over by the police, who might want to investigate his citizenship status. His English hadn't really improved, as most of his friends spoke Spanish, and he always spoke to his boss with a friend to interpret for both of them. Once he had spoken with the police when a break-down left him stranded by the side of the road, and they had helped him by giving him a ride to the nearest town, and towing his truck out of harm's way. However, he was still unsure that the next time would go as smoothly.

Sometimes he would drink a beer when he paused at a rest stop or convenience store. He told me he didn't think drinking and driving was a great idea, but when he was younger a beer didn't really effect him much. When he was finally pulled over for speeding, his cab had three empty bottles in it. When he was released from custody to await trial, he decided rather than face charges he would return to Mexico with the money he'd saved, and try to convince his wife to come back to the US with him.

A few months later they came to US together, and went to Indianapolis to try to arrange a temporary work permit legally using Fulgencio's driver's license as some form of proof that they would find work. His prior arrest and outstanding fines (which had increased in his absence to $1700) turned up, and he was taken back to jail for a few days until his case could be tried. He was given access to a public defender, but felt frustrated that he couldn't speak to the lawyer directly and had to rely on a translator. The judge suspeded his fines and sentenced him to a year of probation, along with classes and mandatory attendance at Alcoholics Anoymous meetings. In addition to regular drug testing and meetings with his probation officer, Fulgencio had to adhere to a strict schedule of call-in sobriety tests. Every evening, between six and seven, he would call an automated service that was programmed to play a memory game with him. In Spanish, it would supply him with strings of numbers or letters, which he had to re-enter into the phone exactly. If he missed a single button, he was required to come in the next day for blood and urine tests.

Fulgencio told me the strict regimen of probation requirements made it difficult for him to find regular work, as he was accustomed to on-call arrangements with fluctuating schedules. Further, most of his contacts were outside of the state, and he was forbidden to cross the border. His wife worked to support them both, but she was pregnant and would need to take a break towards the end of her pregnancy. During this time Fulgencio worked hard to establish evidence of having paid tax on his wages from years past, and to complete the paperwork required for his family to become eligible for social services like Medicaid and WIC. This work was successful, and though we did not talk directly about how these programs had been useful to his family, Fulgencio expressed a deep admiration for these systems of social care, which he believed were much more available and supportive than equivalent programs in Mexico.

Also, Fulgencio succeeded in attaining a US citizenship for his son when he was born in Indianapolis. He was very excited about this, because he believed this meant his son would attend public schools, and be able to enjoy the stability afforded by full citizenship, rather than Fulgencio's experiences with temporary work permits, under-the-table jobs, and a persistent concern about the security of his stay in the US. However, shortly after his parole ended, Fulgencio's wife decided to move back to Acapulco with their son, in order to be closer to her mother and sister. Fulgencio was disappointed by her decision, and laughingly said that she "didn't last long" in the US. He decided to stay, in order to save enough money to buy a house in Acapulco.

Fulgencio spoke with friends in Colorado, and through them he heard about a job in Reno installing roofs on new houses. With his prior experience as a framer, he got the job and moved away from Indianapolis. As before, Fulgencio enjoyed the work. After the house had been framed, he would lay down a layer of plywood and tarpaper, and then would lay out the shingles. Instead of having to haul all of the bundles of asphalt up to the roof, Fulgencio's boss had invested in an ajustable conveyer-belt ramp that could lmove a roof's worth of hingles to the top of a house in twenty minutes. He said that it was a little scary working so high up, and always wearing a harness, but I sensed that this was also an exciting part of the job for him. After about six months the contractor who had hired Fulgencio hired a second roofer, who was only nineteen years old. Fulgencio liked his new assistant, and saw an opportunity to be a mentor, and help a young man in his first few years working in the US. They worked together as a roofing team in Reno for several years, and Fulgencio was able to send enough money to his wife in Acapulco for her to buy a small house. When we met one another in Grand Junction, Fulgencio was on his way home for the first time in three years. His son was four years old, and he had not yet seen the house his work had paid for. He told me he was planning to stay a few weeks with immediate family in Chilpancingo, andt then to spend several months with his wife and son in Acapulco. After these visits, he told me he was planning to return to his job in Reno.

I asked Fulgencio if he felt his family was facing a difficult decision between staying within their family network in Guerrero and living permanently in the US, so their son could take advantage of his US citizenship. Fulgencio agreed. He himself felt certain that life was better in the United States, and seemed pretty clear that he wanted to persude his wife to return to the US. In his eyes, the Unted States was a place of greater security and better employment opportunities. He shared with me some of his fears about being mistreated by police in Guerrero and other parts of Mexico, of paying bribes and having his possessions taken away. He told me "sometimes they take your money and just leave you in the street." He contrasted these fears with his own experiences in the United States with police and jail. He saw his own arrest and punishment as justified within the laws set by the United States, and he did not feel like he had been made a victim. I asked if he felt his probation had been beneficial, insofar as it had connected his family with social programs. He agreed, but also told me that this year had been the hardest of his life.

We finished this conversation by the time the bus had reached Queretaro, north of Mexico City. The bus driver turned on the television, and Fugencio and I watched "The Family Stone." Later, we drank coffee in the bus station, and he told me that he wasn't sure whether he liked the tacos for sale in Reno better or worse than the ones he would find in Chilpancingo.