In the summer of 1980, I got a job working for a landscaper for $5 an hour. I was 13 years old. The landscaper had five employees – me and four Mexican immigrants.
Their English wasn’t good, and my Spanish was worse. I was a light-skinned, clean-cut gringo with blond hair and green eyes. The Mexicans were dark-skinned, slightly unkempt, and (to me, at least) fierce-looking. They wondered what I was doing there. They suspected I was a spy for our boss, who was also a gringo. The heat wave that year was as bad as anyone could remember. The thermometer topped 110 degrees every day, and there we were, sweating over mowers, edgers, and weed-whackers. We also trimmed shrubs, spread mulch, and got on hands and knees to weed flower beds. We draped t-shirts over our heads and placed bandanas on our necks; by lunch our jeans were soaked all the way through with sweat. The sun bore down on us like an angry god.
Frequently, the edger or trimmer I was operating would break down or run out of gas, and I’d have to go find one of my co-workers. Sometimes I’d discover them huddled in the shade, sharing a watermelon or a big bottle of Gatorade. It took them a while to figure out I was just trying to do my job, earn my keep, and avoid a heat stroke. About a month into the summer, they were comfortable enough with me to tell me when they were taking a break, and we’d spend it together, sharing whatever we had. There were no Port-O-Johns or ChemCans on that job. If you needed to go to the bathroom, you had to sneak into a pool house or walk to a convenience store. If you went to a convenience store, you had to buy something to avoid a fuss. Once, caught short by intestinal distress, I had to duck behind a giant hedge to answer the call, with only a sock to substitute for the Charmin. One of my co-workers saw me and laughed, but he understood.
They called me “uno calcetín” (one sock) for the rest of the day, but hey, anything for a smile to make the day go faster. At one point that summer, I wore a bathing suit under my jeans and snuck a swim at an apartment pool. I tried to get my co-workers to join me, but they refused. Afterward, the oldest one educated me. “You are like one of them,” he said, in broken English. “You look like el jefe … if other gringos or el jefe de las casas catches me … or one like me swim in pool, we lose job.” I didn’t swim on the job again. We rode to and from jobs on the back of the landscaper’s flatbed truck, crowded in with the equipment. The best part of the day was heading home on the flatbed, sitting next to a mower and feeling the almost cool swoosh of open air rushing against our skin and drying our sweat-soaked shirts. One afternoon, as we drove past Six Flags Over Texas on I-30, it occurred to me that one of my classmates was probably enjoying the Shockwave right then (or getting doused by a splash of cool water on the log ride), and I felt ashamed.
My co-workers didn’t even know what Six Flags was, and I knew that they were simply looking forward to flipping on the window AC in the shack where our boss picked them up and dropped them off every day. I knew I would be going back to school soon, and they would still be sitting on the flatbed, watching the heat waves glide across the freeway. From then on, when passing motorists stared at my co-workers and then did a double-take when they saw me, I glared back accusingly, challenging them, judging them for judging. It was the closest the Mexicans and I ever came to solidarity. But it was enough. I think about my landscaping co-workers a lot when I read about border walls, deportations, and new immigration laws.
We sure like hearing our country referred to as the “Land of Opportunity,” but lately we haven’t been doing much to live up to the moniker. And I can’t help but think that if more Hispanics had blond hair and green or blue eyes, we’d find it a lot tougher to pretend they’re so different from us. But instead, bigotry prevails. Apparently we feel required to blame someone besides ourselves for our problems. Mexican immigrants make an easy piñata.
E.R. Bills is a Fort Worth writer.