My roots are an immigrant’s struggle, specifically that of my parents. My roots grow from bloody hands, from sweat-drenched clothing, aching muscles, pinched nerves, sunburnt skin, and relentless hearts. The following words are deeply rooted in mi papa and mi mama. All of my knowledge, I owe to them
My dad pulls the bill of his cap down over his eyes, leans his head back on the edge of the couch, and tells me, “no es justo mija” (it is not fair, my daughter).
I know he’s on the verge of crying; his voice is shaking and he won’t make eye contact. It’s a Sunday evening and he can’t enjoy his only day off. The word “debt’ is too heavy, too scary, too debilitating.
My aunt and I are sitting on the couch with him trying to reassure him that it’ll be okay. But he’s $10,000 dollars in debt. I tell him that it’s not so bad, that there are people who owe way more, and for stupid reasons. He tells me that it’s not about the amount, that it’s about the injustice. And I understand, or I think I do.
My dad hates America, and I do too. He’s always been able to put it into words, way long before I started getting into social justice. He would tell me “in this country, the poor and uneducated have to work like mules for the rich and privileged. I’m sick of it, I’m a human, I’m not a farm animal.”
He came to the US when he was a young teenage boy; he labored in California’s farmland for about ten years, living in Chicago briefly, and returning to Mexico a few times a year to visit us. He was gone for the first few years of my life, until my mom demanded that he take my older brothers and I back to the United States with him.
His 15 hour shifts picking artichoke, strawberries, broccoli, spinach, etc. paid for the rent of our home - a tiny blue trailer home a few miles from Salinas - and kept our stomachs full. Coming from our previous home in rural Mexico, where we wouldn’t have much to eat if we couldn’t sell a cow, pig, chicken, etc. for money, our first few months in the US were a dramatic improvement.
We stayed in California for about half a year, until I was six. But then my older brother Ezequiel started hanging out with gang members in Castroville. My parents feared he would become a criminal and end up in jail, so we moved to rural Illinois. My father traded in his connection to the land to work in a meat-packing factory, where he would insert rectal cleansers inside of dead pigs. My mother, who had previously not worked, had to join him in order to make ends meet. She worked third shift, dipping her gloved hands into the hot blood gathered inside of pig skulls in order to scoop out every pig brain that passed by her on the assembly line. They worked like this for 10 years, succumbing to long hours, strict rules, strong punishments and discrimination at Farmland Foods.
Looking back, I’m not sure what kept my parents going. I can’t imagine what would drive 12 hour shifts, 6 days a week, inside of such an awful workplace. Perhaps it was putting my brothers and I through school that kept them going. Ultimately, I think it was all part of the American Dream; the false belief that if you work yourself almost to death, you will one day be economically stable and happy. I think they worked for a day in the future where they wouldn’t have to use credit cards or borrowed money to pay for all of our food, our health expenses, our books for school, our clothing, our basic needs.
When the opportunity to break free from Farmland came, it was because my dad got fired for taking a dollar bill that he found sticking out of a vending machine, even though he had planned to turn it in. Luckily, my brother Ezequiel had moved to Houston where he worked as a logistics agent at an international logistics company and managed to get my dad a job there.
Houston was supposed to be a breakthrough for my parents; life in the suburbs, a new job where my cousin’s husband was the manager, where the workers were treated well, given monthly lunches, no pig carcasses in sight, just some boxes and forklifts.
But we are here, four years later.
After talking to my aunt and I for a while, I can tell my dad can’t keep the tears in any longer. He has to be up at 4am the next morning so he says goodnight and goes into his bedroom. As I sit on the couch listening to the sniffles coming from his bedroom, I think about our conversation, about my family’s constant struggle to just make ends meet, to be “successful”, to live the “American Dream”, and I am suddenly overwhelmed by the fact that shame is what is making my father so sad. He feels defeated by the system, and he feels like he’s failed his family.
I sit and wonder what he’s thinking; I’m sure his past is on his mind, or rather, his proximity to the past he’s tried to leave so long ago. His intelligence and awareness of injustices are far greater than mine, because he’s lived them his entire life. Though he might not have the social justice language for it, he is falling asleep in tears because he feels the weight and pain and abuse of living in a racist, sexist, capitalist society that tells men that if they can’t provide for their families, they’re worthless.
All of this rushes through me as my dad’s sniffles get louder, so I go into his bedroom and hug him, I tell him that I love him. He tells me, “I’m not a bad person. I’m going to pay. I just need time. But they (debt collectors/third party groups/the legal system) won’t give me time.” I tell him that we’re in this as a family, and that I understand. I understand that they don’t care. Bank of America doesn’t give a shit about me or my family, or anyone’s family, they just plaster children’s faces on their advertisements to appeal to good ol’ Americans who are wealthy and privileged enough to believe in corporations, or in this country really.
As I hug my dad, I realize that more than anything, he is starting to understand that no matter how many steps you take in the right direction, no matter how much you play by the rules, you are most likely going to end up losing. I think that he is, or maybe I am, or perhaps both of us are simultaneously understanding that you can go to jail for trying to live the American dream. You can run away from bad decisions, have good morals, a family, but you still run the risk of being criminalized, for being poor and racking up too much debt to keep your family well fed and well educated; for being Mexican immigrants who are doing everything in their power to get ahead given their limited circumstances. No matter what, it is not enough for American banks, for the law, for corporations. No matter what good my family has done, it still falls short in the eyes of this corrupt system.