Saturday, March 24, 2007

Don Werner Lives in Itzapa and Massachusetts

Rational Actors, Irrational Stage
After I left the army, I was working as a schoolteacher here in Itzapa. My wife and I met when we were both studying to be teachers. She is still a teacher, at a school in El Tejar. We were living together in one of the houses built by Canadians after the big earthquake. Our first daughter was born, and sometimes she would get sick. Even though we were both working hard, our wages were low and we didn't feel satisfied with what we had. I'd heard about how good the wages can be in the US, and I started to feel restless. One of my hunting buddies, who'd already been to the US, offered to loan me the money I would need to pay a pollero, and I decided to do it. I borrowed $4500 US to travel from my doorstep in Itzapa all the way to New Jersey. In November of 1996, after being married for one year and four months, I left for the United States.

Above is an example of the prefabricated houses built in Itzapa
by Canadian aid organizations after the earthquake of 1976.

We rode north inside of a tanker truck. There were one hundred of us all sitting inside the tank, older people, younger people, and one little girl who was seven or eight years old. There were two lights inside, one red and one green, controlled by the drivers up front. When the green light was on we could move around, shout, whatever. When the red light was on we had to stay very still and quiet, in the middle of the tank without touching the sides, so when the immigration officers beat on the tank it would sound empty. I didn't like being in the tank, because there's no way to run away from the migra if they catch you. The doors are closed with padlocks, and it gets really hot in the middle of the day. For the whole ride I only saw the sun through little holes in the lid of the tank. They gave us water to drink and plastic bags to piss in. We were all seated, back to front, between each other's legs, one hundred of us. I don't know where we went, or on which roads. We got into the tank before sunrise, we drove through the day into night, another day, another night, another day, and then in the middle of the night we all piled out in Mexico City. After all that time, some of us could barely walk.

From Mexico City we travelled north in a first-class tourist bus. Those of us who were well dressed sat up in the seats, and those who were poorly dressed hid down between the seats, or on the floor between someone else's legs. The whole trip was really well organized. When we drove, the guides were in contact by radio with scouts in the hills. Your would hear the drivers saying "How's it look up ahead? Is it clear?" Every caravan has a few scouts, keeping everyone along the route informed. They called us pollos. They'd say "How many pollos are you carrying? Okay, andale, buey!" After a long day's drive we arrived at a ranch outside of Ciudad Juarez. There, at around three o'clock in afternoon, we all split up into groups of fifteen. Each group had two coyotes who were going to take us across the desert into Arizona. They gave us some cookies and a gallon of water, and we left everything else we had in Juarez. We were each wearing two pairs of jeans, two pairs of underwear, two t-shirts and two shirts. When we crossed, the idea was that we could take off the clothes that were dirty, so we could enter the United States in clean clothes.

When you cross the desert, in the scrub lands, you see the skeletons of other immigrants who might have died of thirst, or from snakebite. You don't have time to find out what happened, you just look at them and keep moving, because if you lose the rest of your group you are dead. No one will find you out there. We walked from three in the afternoon until two in the morning, when we met up with a big truck that took us the rest of the way to a safe-house in Phoenix.

The first time I crossed, I barely even saw the migra. We were all covered with blankets and coats in the back of the truck, and in the distance we could see the headlights of a patrol as we drove away. But every year there are more migra, pushing polleros further and further out into the desert, to where it is really dangerous, to ranches that are four or five hours outside of the city. The second time, in 2003, I crossed near Laredo in a group of twenty-five, and when the patrol showed up we all took off running in different directions. They're pretty good, and they caught thirteen of us. They were looking for the rest of us. I was hidden in the bushes less than four feet from two stocky guys who were speaking to us in Spanish through a megaphone, saying "Okay, amigos, come out, you're going to die out here, we've already caught your guides, there are a lot of snakes here. We've got water for you." They looked for all of us, but they didn't get me.

In Phoenix we had a few days to rest, take showers. We started to make calls to our families and friends to send money, and then we started to spread out. Those chapines in my group who were headed to the East Coast were taken to California, where we were given chafas, false driver's licenses, so we could get onto an airplane. None of us knew what to do, but the coyotes did all of it for us. They bought tickets, paid someone to take us to the airport, and soon we were all on our way to New Jersey.

On the plane, I was really nervous. I felt like my hands here tied. The stewardess passed by and asked if I wanted a soda, and I just shook my head, because I was too scared to say anything. Everything has a beginning, and that was mine. Leaving Guatemala for the US is like a change from night to day. The culture is advanced, civilized, and to come from a village to such a place is a pretty big shock. You have to adapt to this culture, not the other way around.

Don Werner Walks in the Strange Lands of Destiny
The first thing that grabs your attention in the US is how the apartments and houses are built. The construction of everything is prefabricated, and really orderly. They ask you to take off your shoes before you go into a house, and then you go in an the entire house is carpeted. In Guatemala, I would never ask a friend to take their shoes off. In my house, my friends do what they want to do, they come as they are.

When there are a bunch of single guys from Mexico and Guatemala all living together, they are all working for themselves. I might leave the house at six in the morning, and someone else leaves at seven, and when we get home we have enough time to shower, change our clothes, and go back to work again. No one has any free time to do much for one another, only for themselves. Here, after you're married, you eat what your wife serves you, but there is no one to serve you in the United States. If you want to eat, you have to cook, and no one will wash your clothes for you. Women wash clothing in the pila here, and in the US you use a machine. These are all pretty rough shocks for someone when they first arrive in the US.

When I started working in the US it was really hard, because I was used to working in a Guatemalan way. Here we get paid a set amount per day, or every two weeks, no matter how many hours we've worked. There it's by the hour, really regular.

During my first time working in the United States, I suffered a lot in order to build the house I have for my family here. Every day I woke up at four in the morning to deliver newspapers. I threw something like three hundred newspapers every morning, as fast as I could, because my second job started at seven. I would do roofing work on a crew until six in the evening. Then at seven I would start my last job, working as a janitor at a public school until ten-thirty. With all of these jobs together I was still only getting paychecks for six or seven hundred dollars a week. Someone like me, with an degree and a career, doesn't expect to work in construction or cutting grass. But I didn't speak English and I was illegal, so when I found work cleaning bathrooms I was glad to have it, even though it only paid seven dollars an hour.

My willingness to work for so little, back then, is a good example of what causes a lot of the friction between citizens and mojados*, regardless of whether they are white, Mexican, or Central American. If you have papers, or citizenship, you don't want a job that pays six or seven an hour. You want a job that pays at least twelve, and you aim to go up from there, right? When someone comes and takes a job for five dollars an hour, they are taking money away from a citizen who could expect make ten or eleven doing the same job. You start to see why someone who is in the US legally would try to make life impossible for illegal workers. This is a problem, that there is some really bad blood at times between Latin-Americans who are there with papers and those who are illegal. They've worked to find their jobs, to learn the language, and they lose their jobs to illegals who are desperate enough to work for lower wages. Sometimes they would mess with me, threaten to call the migra, the police. Here in Itzapa there are times when people who have been deported come to town looking for revenge against someone's family for something that happened up in the US, because those sorts of things shouldn't be happening there.
*Mojado literally means "wet," and is a common Guatemalan term for illegal immigrants in the United States.

At the roofing job I realized that I needed to learn English fast. Someone would ask me for a hammer and I would bring them a screwdriver, and they'd think I was an idiot. To talk to my boss I needed an interpreter, and if the interpreter didn't like me he could say anything he wanted to either one of us. My boss might be saying "Tell Jorge I'm going to give him a raise," and the guy interpreting could tell me "The boss isn't going to give you a raise and says you can leave if you don't like it." Because of the rivalry between me and my interpreter, everyone would get confused and my boss would get angry and start treating me like a bad employee.

To get past this, I had a little notebook, and I would write down every word I heard that was new to me. At night I would sit down with all of these words and ask my cousins what they meant. I didn't know how to spell, I'd just write it down like I heard it. I would write down "Fáchu" and go home, and my cousin would say "Look, they're insulting you." So the next day I would go to work and say "Hey, look, you can't say that to me." Every word I heard, I would file it away. That was how I learned to speak English. It was pretty tough.

While home, Werner is managing the construction
of a house for his cousin, who has worked for five ye-
ars in the United States as a janitor and dishwasher
at a hotel in Boston. He is unmarried, and soon he
will return to Itzapa to live in a three-story luxury
house. However, with low wages and scarce opport-
unities in Itzapa, it is quite likely that after a short
stay the cousin will return to his work in Boston.

Accumulation Strategies
The second time I went to the US, I went straight to my old job and found my boss, and I could talk directly to him. He said "You've worked for me before, come back tomorrow and you've got a job." After a week, he came to me and said "Okay Jorge, we're all glad to have you back in the US, but how much should we pay you? I want to give you the wage you had when you left last time to go home." I didn't really care what they paid, I was just happy to have a job. I could tell them whatever! But I think it was a test, because in the US everyone is really cabron, and I knew they'd have my old wage written down somewhere, so I decided to tell the truth. They started me at my old wage, fourteen and hour, and they started giving me raises from there. They gave me lots of responsibility right away, and then eventually they started me with my own work crew, a truck and a trailer. They would tell me where a job was, and what needed to be done, and we'd go over and get the job done. We did siding, paint, roofing, shingles, drywall, landscaping, whatever. In the summers I was eventually making twenty dollars an hour on al of our construction jobs. In the winters, when work was slower, my boss helped me find temporary work driving a snowplow for twenty-five an hour.

It isn't illegal to send remittances. If I save a thousand dollars, I can pay fifteen dollars and send the whole amount to Guatemala. I sent my money really often, because in the position I was in I never knew when I might be deported. When the migra grabs you, they don't give you time to go to the bank and send some money home. They throw you in jail for a few months, and then they ship you home with the clothes on your back. I was keeping money in cash at my home, thousands of dollars, because I didn't want to lose it if I got caught. But my housemates were freaked out, because I'd have five thousand dollars in the house, and they didn't want that much money around. I managed to get a bank account, and I was keeping money there as well. At first they didn't give me one, because I had no social security number, but eventually, with my Guatemalan ID, my passport, and my US tax receipts I managed to get an account open. It's still open, with a couple hundred dollars in it, for when I go back to work again in the US.

Local albañiles at work on the house Werner's cousin is building.
So, during my second stay I was earning more, but working much less than before. When I had time off, I liked to go deer hunting with my friend Jim. I couldn't have a gun, because I didn't have papers, but Jim was a citizen so he'd let me shoot one of his guns, and we'd put all of the deer on his hunting license. I hunt in Guatemala, too, up in the Petén on the border with Mexico. My friend has a little piece of land, and a group of us will go up there to hunt together. We stay in a cabin, and go out at night with really bright lights that stun the deer so we can shoot them. They hunt deer the same way in the US, but up there the animals are much bigger. I sent Jim a picture of a really nice catch down here, maybe the size of a goat, and he just laughed. Down here the animals are all endangered, and it's illegal to hunt them, so we have a system of sending our meat home with the help of some friends from the army. They carry it in in their supply convoys from the Petén to the capital, and then I go pick it up there. That way we don't get thrown in jail for poaching.

I like soccer, too. The only things I like to do are hunt and to play soccer, or watch soccer. I don't drink. If you ask me to go hiking I will, but I'd rather go hunting. In the US, on the weekends I would play soccer in a city league with teams of Mexicans, Hondureños, Salvadoreños, and chapines. The league had sixteen teams, and some teams were single'nationality teams. I lived with a bunch of Mexicans, and they convinced me to play on their team. We lived together, and ate together, so I thought I should help them out. Sometimes Americans would come and play on our teams, if we invited them, but mostly it was just a bunch of guys from Mexico and Central America. We were always in trouble with the police, or the people who cared for the fields, because when you get a bunch of us together we have a really big impact on a playing field. The fields there are really well maintained, with planting and watering and mowing.* Even though we aren't stupid, sometimes we are unfair to others, and when we played on the field we'd leave a lot of garbage behind. If you go to a football field here you throw your trash everywhere, but Americans like to keep their garbage in one place, and not all of us would imitate Americans when we were living there. When the police or the city hall got called after we'd been using a field, we couldn't go back to the same field. Sometimes our different way of seeing things was an obstacle, but we never gave up. We were saying "Well, even if we are in the US, we're going to play. We'll make teams and leagues, because we want to keep playing soccer."
*In Itzapa there are three municipal football fields. All are made of packed-dirt, which is more economical during the dry season. Jorge told me that one of Itzapa's fields was once covered with grass, but so many farmers used the field for pasture that the field became bare earth again. See photos below

When I was ready to leave, after my second stay, my boss tried to keep me in the US. He said "You're going to be really hard to replace," and offered me three thousand dollars extra, and a two dollar hourly raise, to stay on for another six months. This second trip had been really good. The first time I went, I saved enough to build a house for my family. But the second time I saved enough to buy three trucks, a piece of land south of Itzapa, and to support my family. I wanted to stay, but I told my boss I'd promised my family I would be home in time for my daughter's birthday, two days before Christmas. He really liked me. He'd given me work in his own house, fixing the floors, and he'd just given me the keys to his house and said "Jorge, I trust you. Just come and go as you need to." When I left my boss hugged me and we both cried a little, because I think I'd really started to look at him as if he were my father. He had two sons, one named Bobby Johnny and the other named Brian.

Leaving the United States is easy. They're practically shoving you out of the country. Both times, I flew home in an airplane, and I never had any trouble. They check your bags and say "Okay, all aboard!" If you have any little problem they'll help you solve it, because they all want Hispanics out of the country. When we're ready to leave, we stroll out nice and easy.

A Brief Interlude on the Volcano

A few months ago my entire extended family climbed the Volcan de Agua . About halfway to the top we passed two Americans who were looking really exhausted, red in the face, sweaty, sick. They started trying to talk with one of my coursins, but he couldn't speak any English and they couldn't speak Spanish. My cousin laughed a little because he didn't understand, but the Americans were asking him if he could give them some water to drink, because they were sick from the heat. I was sitting down, but when I heard what they were asking I went over and introduced myself, and told them I could speak a little English. "We are really tired," they said, "And we need water." I gave them my canteen to drink from, and we talked about how much further they would need to go if they wanted to reach the top of the volcano. They thanked me, and we kept going.

See, different languages can be a real barrier. Those tourists ran into the barrier when they needed help from my cousins, and the little English I speak was suddenly really valuable to them. If someone walks up to a Guatemalan living in the US, and he doesn't have a job, and he's hungry, then to speak English to him is like pulling on his feet while he's hanging by his neck. If they say "¿Oye, amigo, estas cansado?" then you can only imagine how happy he will feel. When you ask him a question he'll give you a real answer, because he trusts you.

Alla, Todos Somos Mojados:The Question of Neoliberal Citizenship

Werner's new house, complete with a dalmatian on the roof.

Before I left, I was a schoolteacher. Everyone knew I was on my way north, and my students really looked up to me. When I came back to build my house, they all came to visit. "Profe, How was it, living up there?" They asked.

"You need a little push," I said, "And away you go. Just believe it can be done, and you'll do it. Put your faith in God and he'll come through for you. If I can do it, so can all of you. If you speak a little bit more English, if you have a little more ambition, or a little more experience than me, there you will be my boss, regardless of how much you've studied. It doesn't matter if you are a doctor, a lawyer or a priest, no one there matters any more than anyone else. There, we are all mojados."

One by one, those students of mine have gone north, and they're building their houses here in town. I say, if out of four friends one goes north, the others will go too, one by one. I can take you to villages around Itzapa where one person immigrating has pulled the entire town to go north, so that now there is hardly a house in town that hasn't been built with money from the United States.

Lots of people here talk bad about the United States, like the other week when George Bush came to Tecpan, and there were protests everywhere. I don't think the protesters were thinking very hard, because the tiny improvements Guatemala has made are all thanks to the United States. People only know of the US from the papers, and from the television, but I believe that I can make a comparison because I have lived in both places. I believe that everything really depends on the experiences one has while working in the US. If you get arrested for driving without a license, or the migra finds you and treats you really badly, then you'll come away hating the United States. Or, by extension, if you live in Guatemala and even a really distant aquaintance gets deported to Guatemala, then you'll start to have a bad impression of the US. Now that they are deporting so many immigrants, breaking up families and sending mothers home without their children, you can see the resentment growing in Guatemala. But if you show up, find work, and the Americans you meet and work with are good to you, then you'll feel like you are part of the culture. I have family in the US, and friends in the US, and everything I have in my life in Guatemala I have thanks to the United States. When I hear about a lot of the problems people encounter there, I think it is mostly just a question of getting used to things, and preserving your ambition. The US is like a huge gateway--all of us can go in, but that doesn't mean we will all have the same good fortune. Even good workers have bad luck when they are looking for a job. If they can't find a job they might go to the bar, and then they're screwing themselves up. Once you're drinking in the US, you won't get anything done.

Once, in the US, I was watching a soccer game on the fourth of July, and everyone was singing the national anthem. I sang too, and I really felt something in my heart, like I was part of the US, and part of this big group of people. I didn't know what had happened, but after being in a country that was giving me work, and giving me a life, I know that what I was feeling was real. But you never stop thinking about your own culture. When you are on a roof at work you don't think about anything, for fear that you might fall off. But when I got home at night my mind would float back to Itzapa. I would look at pictures, read letters, watch videos of my children as they grew up. All of this is normal. Life is long, and it's good that things change, and change again. Now that we are talking, my mind is racing through happy memories, thinking about when I will return to the US, and see my friends there. I'm repeating myself, but it is thanks to God and the United States that I have my life here in Itzapa, and my home.