To work and to wear oneself down*

Ulises H. went to the United States in 1989, with his girlfriend C…, both from medium class and students at the University of Guadalajara.

Nature limits the art. Ulises, decided to leave, similarity doesn’t end, he also left for the adventure.

He spent 15 months in the North; nine of them lived with no employment. He dedicated himself to the library and to party. His stay was not nice at all. He remembers Los Angeles as a sad and foul-smelling place.

This is a very particular story, full of surprise stories. After a job search, there is no other option than to consider the black market for job. His labor experiences have some feeling, and represent the contradiction that a Sociology student faces while doing a manual job, monotonous and with a very precarious pay.

From there, it’s not surprising that the only nice memory of his stay there was his learning about the ethylic geography of Los Angeles. Upon his return to Guadalajara, he is waiting for better times to try once more and participate in the “great party to which we haven’t been invited.”

* Interview done by Hector Hernandez in Guadalajara, Jalisco during September 1992.

I left Guadalajara because I was tired of everything, of school, home, my country, and my city. I was just tired and wanted to do something different. I did that with a bit of romanticism because I thought that I could do it over there; of course, I didn’t think it would be an idyll period or a paradise. I always thought that one goes to the U.S. to a party to which we have never been invited. Unfortunately, once there, we fight for the stripped land, and not only Mexicans, but all Latinos. It’s sad that one fights for it.

When we left, we left with a Canadian visa of employment. It was until the mid-80s where you could go to the embassy and got a job there. However, there were problems in both the U.S. and Canada, and suddenly everyone was seeking job there; not only Latinos, but also Japanese. I went to Mexico to the embassy about 3 or 4 years, and there were no more visas. So, my idea of going to Canada was not possible, besides it was expensive and far away.

I don’t remember how I learned, it think it was through the newspaper. It was a known truth. Someone who worked in Canada in the fishing industry used to go to the Alaskan border and worked for 6 months. With that money, he could come and do not work. That’s why I tried to get a work permit; but once there, there was a sign saying, “To everyone soliciting for job, there are no jobs; it’s not possible, no more.”

Claudia went with me, because we wanted to continue our relationship; we wanted to be together. She worked as an auxiliary at the University and left the job. I used to work at a convenience store with an aunt for seven years. Before that, I had worked as a shoe-repairman with my father. Then, I worked at a factory as an aid. I worked cutting and rolling; I liked that job and stayed there until I started high school.

I got my visa in 1990. I put a suit on; I don’t remember if I had a shirt or a t-shirt. I didn’t have a tie. I had tennis or sandals, like always. Then, the American asked us: “aren’t you going to work?”

I got a bit upset, and said, “How can I go to work if I’m a student.”

- “Are you a student? What are you studying?” he asked.

- “Philosophy,” I replied.

He asked me about Philosophy, and my thoughts about Plato. Since, they think well about Plato, I talked good about him. So, he only requested my ID. I filled a lot of documented, and I showed that I was working with my aunt and that she would give me money for my trip. However, the visa for my girlfriend was a lot more difficult. They interviewed her and showed all her documents. At the end, we both got the visa.

My desire was to go to Canada. Somehow, we had information from readings and from people who have gone and tell you all about it. Since we couldn’t make it, I thought to go the U.S. instead, and once there, to go North. When we arrived, I learned the harsh reality. I arrived with my family, and it was very hard with them. I wanted to move somewhere else, but if I did that, I would have to pay rent, food, everything. In order to do that, I had to look for a job. So, I had to do that. Suddenly, I was working. What I wanted it to be a temporal job that would help me migrate to Canada, was not like that. I was there for 15 months, 9 of them with no employment. The first couple of months I searched for a job, but it was useless since there was a lot of unemployment. I lived reading, drinking, with drugs, partying. I couldn’t do anything else. I didn’t have Money to go out. Money is what makes you move over there. If you want to go to Hollywood, you need money for it; if you want to go to a concert, you need money as well. In addition, if you don’t have a job, it’s difficult to do things. That’s why I ended up at the library checking out books, since I didn’t have anything else to do.

My first idea was to get out of here; I didn’t go south because it’s more difficult. In U.S., even the minimum wage – around $150 dollars per week, at least you survive with that. Of course, it’s going to be with limited conditions. Besides, there are three or four families living in the same apartment, but at least with some food.

I’ve always liked to be an adventurer. However, that was the last time. Prior to that, I left for one or two months to Coahuila to work with some uncles in a ceramic factory. However, I didn’t pay for rent or food with my uncles. It’s curious, but now, after fifteen years, I’m working at a brick factory.

I’ve also gone to Michoacan, Oaxaca, to the Huichola Mountain Range, to Cuernavaca, but just to party. Whenever I went to the beach, I worked in a hotel just to have some food and lodging. I was also a dishwasher, a janitor, or a busboy. I always did that during vacations. The only time I did go for economic reasons was when I went to the U.S.

From my father’s family side, no one has gone to the North. There are only two families on my father’s side: my father’s and my uncle’s who live in Ahualulco. From my mother’s side, there are ten siblings, but everyone is in Mexico, living in Morelos, Chiapas, and Guadalajara. However, there are two of my cousins from my mother’s side who live in San Fernando and Lendenton in California. Both cities are close by, about 30 minutes apart. I did go with them; however, they live within limited means, as all the migrants who just arrived do. I have a cousin who has lived there for 15 years; he’s worked at a factory for the last five years. However, a few time ago he got fired because there are closing down a lot of factories. He was working in a chrome factory. Another cousin works at a gas station and he’s been working for years there. He also takes care of a small store within the gas station. Another cousin has done well because he’s worked in construction. Due to the fact that he’s part of the union, all have a minimum wage well above normal. My cousin was getting paid $18 per hour.

That last cousin is about my age, 29 years old. The other ones are older about 38 or 40. The last cousin had a good salary, but he had assimilated to the American life. For example, he doesn’t enjoy his money, because it’s usual that Americans deposit the money at the bank each week. It’s common that Mexican adapt to the American system. So, my cousin deposited all his money at the bank. Whenever I got paid $150 dollars, he asked me for money to buy beers. Sometimes, he invited me. However, he used to sell the material of his factory here in Mexico as cooper or lead.

By the way, in order to survive, both Mexicans and other Latinos make twisted business. My cousin did that kind of business.

The relationship with my family was good, but with this last cousin it was a lot better. I had a nice friendship with him. However, in U.S., he had family, spouse from the same town Ayutla, whom also assimilated to the American life.

When I went to the North, I didn’t plan anything. I don’t like to make plans, because they never work. I thought of going to the U.S., stay for a couple of months, and then immigrate to Canada. However, I stayed all the year and a half in the U.S. It was tiring to look for a job. My cousins could never get me a job. I didn’t have any more acquaintances. One of my cousins had worked as a gardener for many years, so he took me with his old boss, and we were told that there was no job available.

I also did go in a very difficult period. That’s when the recession started. Besides, the months between August and November are the hardest to get a job. I had arrived at the beginning of August. I recall my first day in Los Angeles; upon arriving to the bus station, a black man wanted to carry my luggage – just one bag. I said now, and he was there trying and trying because he wanted some money. I told him that I didn’t have money. When I arrived, it was about 7:30pm. I asked for the downtown area, and since it was very dark, I went to the phones right away. I was not thinking of arriving with my family, but once there, what else could I do. Some other blacks saw us and wanted to help with the luggage; then some other Americans. There are a lot of crazy people there. I called one of my cousins and he told me that he was working all night long, and that he couldn’t pick me up.

I called his brother, and he wasn’t there. I didn’t know how to use the public phones; and all the instructions were given to me in English, and my English is bad. I couldn’t understand the quantities; I could only understand the word “cents.”

I put a coin in, then another one, but I couldn’t make a phone call. After 45 minutes, I was getting nervous, because I wasn’t able to get through my cousins. I asked, but no one knew where they lived. So, we ended up going with my girlfriend’s family in Southgate. From there, we made a phone call. Fortunately, we reached my girlfriend’s family, who didn’t receive us quite well. She was very catholic and her cousin was arriving with a guy whom she wasn’t married to yet. The good thing is that the next day, my cousin picked us up and we moved to Glendale. We stayed with him for a couple of days, and then we moved with another cousin whom I hadn’t seen for ten years. He lived in San Fernando, and my time there was quite nice. I didn’t work and I was treated as a visitor. My cousin was nice, but I also wanted to live by my own with my girlfriend, and I couldn’t do it.

When I lived with my cousin, I didn’t search for job. Besides, my cousin and his wife were very nice. My girlfriend and I got fat, because we didn’t do anything, just eat and drink wine. From there, I went to San Fernando to look for job, but it wasn’t easy. I went from factory to factory, and there were a lot of people with their application in hand. We were a lot, and people were coming from all the industrial areas. One of my friends just called me and told me that he’s been unemployed for a year and four months.

I also lived with two persons from Mexico City. By the way, my idea about people from Mexico City changed. The truth is that my time with them was good. One of them had been a farmer all his life; then, he became a manufacturer in Mexico City, and then a delegate. Then, he got into trouble both at work and then with his fiancée, so he left.

The other one says that he won’t come back. One is quite young and went just for adventure when he was 14 years old; he’s now 19. So, we spent quite a time together. Sometimes, we had quite a harsh time that our only food was soups and beans, because we all were unemployed. We searched for jobs and nothing. I think for a woman is less difficult, because women don’t get into trouble at work. Women are more responsible, and less drunk. My girlfriend didn’t have as much trouble as I did when searching for jobs. I also was taking English classes, and all the women there were employed, while the men were unemployed. I didn’t like going to school because instead of teaching you English, they were teaching you to love their country. They were infusing cultural and historical ideas. They taught us who were Franklin Roosevelt and all their history heroes. Besides, they don’t critique any. For example, it may sound dumb, but they don’t even know who Christopher Columbus was. It may not matter, but they didn’t know, and supposedly they were people with studies, many of them in Business. I met a lot of Americans with that career, but with no culture at all.

One day, one American saw me with a bunch of books and asked if I knew how to read. I said that of course, so he asked me what I was reading. The book was written by an American author and this person hadn’t heard about him. I thought that this guy was not interested in literature, but after several talks with him, he didn’t know anything about literature. He wasn’t ignorant because he had a degree in Business, but he didn’t know anything about anything. He may have his big house, his car, his vacations in Germany, but he didn’t know absolutely anything.

On the other hand, my girlfriend’s boss had problems because he didn’t know where to take his vacations. He didn’t know if he wanted to go to Germany, Brazil, or Greece. He worried about that; he was empty on the inside.

Another time, I was looking for a job at the factories. A sign at one of the factories at Lanhaywood said: “All solicitants will be shot.”

When I looked for a job, I looked by areas. When I lived in San Fernando, I looked there. Since I didn’t find anything, I looked in Hollywood, Glendale, and Los Angeles. One time while in Hollywood, I found people from San Fernando o Los Angeles. I hadn’t seen them, but talking with them I knew they were looking for jobs. All of the people were from Guadalajara, Michoacan, Sonora, and Mexico City.

The worse is that all the receptionists – American or Chicanas, all treat you the same way. They get upset of us looking for a job. For them is obvious that there are no jobs, but we do have to ask and they get upset of us asking. Our situation is different than theirs. There are lots of people looking for jobs. I got to see entire families gathering and selling aluminum cans and bottles.

One time, I was talking with a guy from Michoacan. I found him on a bridge. I was taking a drink and I had just a bit left, so I invited him some. He told me that he sold his land in Mexico to pay the smuggler and come to work. He had five months and had found no job at all. So, he didn’t have anything to send his family. In addition, he didn’t have any land left. I heard stories like that. On the other hand, some Mexicans have created a subculture. For example, in Los Angeles, people from Guanatos and Mexico City, found several jobs on the black market. It’s a job source very important; there are a lot of people selling drugs. It’s bad.

There’s another source of employment by using public telephones. The public telephones are used with some cards and pins. You go by downtown and then you hear “where do you want to call?” Each call costs you about 10 dollars. Since they don’t pay, they don’t care how long you talk on the phone. Many Latinos take advantage of this, because there’s no money to pay a dollar per minute. That’s why I went to Los Angeles to talk to my family. I got to see people talking for 3 or 4 hours. One of my friends had his 24 beers there while talking on the phone: “hey, let me talk with someone else,” he said. He talked for four to five hours only for $10 dollars.

No one got charged for the call. So, whomever got the bill, he could prove that he hadn’t made the phone call with the company. That’s why I say that was a good job.

For example, all the bus tickets called transfers; they cost about $2 dollars. There are people who sell transfer for 25 cents, and most of the sellers are Mexicans.

Or, cigarettes. You pay $2 dollars over there. Mexicans go to Tijuana, bring cigarettes and then sell them at 25 cents. All of that is evident. You go to Los Angeles and you see all that. Anyone can see that; the government, the population, tourists, everyone can see that. Then, you see people smoking crack, like black people.

One time, I went to the library on a Friday. I saw a black person in front of a store getting drugs with a mirror. He was all high, like if he was watching TV. The next day, I found him at the same place and at the same position. This guy stayed there at least 36 hours. I saw a lot of crazy people like that. Los Angeles smells bad; the entire city smells like urine.

The U.S. is a crazy country, a sad one and an unmoral one. For example, you see prostitutes, mainly black ones; they tell you that they do the job for $2 dollars. That’s only to get some money. That happened to me once. Women were offering to do the job for only $2 dollars; Young girls of 14 or 15 years, that was really sad.

My job experience… well, I worked as a gardener, in various factories, as a carpenter, in a sewing factory, which by the way, it was one of the most terrible experiences. I had several months in San Francisco without a job. Then, in a sewing factory there were some job openings and I started to work there. I worked one and a half days for $16 dollars. The first day I worked about 8 hours and the second day only five hours. It was a total of 13 hours and I only got paid 16 hours. I put the belt on the short at the wait level, and they paid me a penny the piece. I started there because I hadn’t worked in a while. However, I never asked how much I was going to get paid. At the end of my first 8 hours, they asked me if I wanted to continue working and I said no. It’s overwhelming at the factory because you see piles and piles of clothing; you don’t even see your friend in front of you. Everything is filled with clothing and your material. The noise is very high and everyone is working so hard. The only thing I saw the whole day was a red wall. So, the next day, after I worked for four hours, I asked about the salary. When they told me how much I was getting paid, I left the job. $16 dollars for 12 or 13 hours of work, I didn’t want to continue that way. There are people with more experience who get paid $100 to $120 weekly. They are happy because they consider it a good salary. They don’t work 8 hours, but 12 instead. I met a girl of 14 years of age; she told me, “You can get paid so so; you just need practice.”

She had 16 months working there; she was from Guerrero and she got paid $110 to $120 weekly. She got hired with no papers. Now, since unemployment got really bad last year, most likely, that place got a lot of deportations. The border patrol arrived to factories and detained a lot of people. The sewing factories are the ones that pay the least, and they hire a lot of undocumented. They don’t treat them well, but as long as their job is productive, they leave them there. When they don’t want them, that when they get the border patrol to deport them.

That’s upsetting. There is no equity. They treat you bad, like if we were at the beginning of the century. They say that if you don’t work, they fire you; that if you don’t do your job well, there are plenty of people outside waiting for an opportunity. I didn’t have the need of the people working there, but I didn’t want to be treated like that.

I got a job at the “corner”. Some people waited there to be picked up, and they invited me to do that. After three months with no job, I was with them demolishing some walls. After having demolished two or three walls, I saw one wall dividing the living room from the dining room, so I hit it. The wall came crumbling down at me. My hand started bleeding, and I told my friend, “Hey, I need a Band-Aid.”

- “What Band-Aid?” he said.

They took me to the clinic, and saw my hand. They charged $270 for the service. Since I didn’t have any money, one of the guys got my passport out and gave it as an ID. The clinic wrote down my data on the passport because they didn’t let me out until not paying. I only paid $50 dollars, and no more.

I received five letters to pay the fee and letting me know that the Sheriff would arrest me. I didn’t care about it. The clinic made some other studies that day and I was there for 3 hours, and charged $500, of course I was not going to pay.

At the beginning I was afraid of not paying. After I talked with migrants and told them about the problem, and one of them told me, “don’t pay. My wife gave birth to two babies, and I paid nothing.” It’s usual that people do not pay the hospital or tickets.

I knew that I would last at that job at least four months. However on the first day, after three hours, I had the accident and I couldn’t continue. I don’t know what was worse, the feeling of unemployment or when I was working, because the job was very hard. I held another job working with balloons for gifts. You inflate the balloon, and get the gift inside. So, I took some straw-type-material, put it into a machine, then another, and another, and so on. I spent 12 hours doing the same thing. That was absurd. I felt horrible doing job like that. I only lasted 10 days there. They hired me for a 12 hours shift and paid the shift like 8 hour-shift. The owners were Jew-American.

The first job I held was installing carpets. That was a good job, but my boss didn’t pay me until 10 or 15 days later. He said that he couldn’t pay until he got paid. So, I installed carpets for $50 dollars. No matter if you worked 10 or 6 hours; it was $50 per day. Then, they didn’t hire anymore. After that job, I started as a carpenter with an English man. He paid me $160 per week, but after six weeks, there was no more employment. At the beginning, we were 7 people, and ended up the English men and me. He got me as his helper, since he knew I was the cheapest one. However, he didn’t treat me that well. He didn’t hire me every day, and when working, it was a 12-hour shift: from 6am until 6pm. The job was quite hard, so I left him. Then, I was a gardener. Then, I started another job doing mobile homes. That was quite a job because the first belli t was at 6:45am, which meant you needed to be there. The second bell was at 6:50am, which meant that you needed to be in your place. The third bell was at 6:55am, so you could have all your tools read. Then, the last bell was at 7am, so you could start the job, without wasting a second. There employees were all undocumented. There were no bells to take the break, it was impossible because there were machines that couldn’t be left alone. I worked there for four months and got paid $170 per week, which included tax-deduction and $10 for my ride. That was a total of $450,000 pesos – that was a misery. We started 600 people and ended 10 persons until they fired us all.

My cousin and I only lasted 4 months there. There were a lot of problems there. People materialize everything. My cousin got paid $18 per hour, and he charged me $150 for the rent, and I lived in the living room. His wife was not nice because she counted everything you ate. So, when I got a job, I left him. I paid him everything. Sometimes, the pride makes you dumb. I shouldn’t have paid him anything, but I did pay him all and was left with $20 dollars.

One friend took us to look for an apartment. We were paying $200 dollars for a room. We took it, but we didn’t have a job. One week later, my girlfriend got a job, and lasted a while. Then, she started at a pizzeria and worked there for 6 weeks. She returned to the factory and was back a forth from the pizzeria to the factory. She never lasted more than six weeks in one job. She helped me a lot, because most of the time I didn’t work. Literally, she supported me for 9 months.

From all the people I met, I met a smuggler from Guadalajara. I met him through some friends. His name is Jose de Jesus and has gone to the North several times. One time, he called me up and visited me. That day, we got drunk and I didn’t go to work. We stayed for three days in the room filled with beer cans. It was a nice time.

My relationship with my cousin was nice. Through him, I got to know all the bars in the Los Angeles are and San Fernando. We had a lot of fun together. We had some friends there, and sometimes, they killed their pigs, and made a big feast. I don’t like pig meat much, but over there was quite something. We ate a lot and spent a nice time together.

Sometimes, when I think about the U.S., I’d like to go again, but I’m not sure for how long. In many ways, it was a good experience. If I would have job secured, I would be interested for a couple of months. Then, I’d like to be without a job for another 3 or 6 months in order to do the things I like. If you work and work alone, that’s bad. Most of the people I met, mostly Mexican, they work and work, return very tired, then, they don’t like to think about the North. I prefer to wait for another opportunity and return.