An exciting excerpt from Illegals

Chapters 8

Chapter 8

Their shoulders were brown and bare and beautiful, and when they smiled, their eyes sparkled with a modesty so sincere it was breathtaking. “Buenas noches. Welcome to Don Ramón’s Restaurant,” one of the hostesses said as she greeted a customer. It was Silvino, a worker from the Mersola factory, there to attend the union meeting. For a moment, he stood speechless, smiling nervously, doing his best to conceal his beer belly. And though Silvino prided himself on being a ladies’ man, he was bashful and confused, totally enamored by the black-haired woman in her bleached-white peasant blouse. “Habla español?” he asked. “Do you speak Spanish?”

“Sí, como no!” she assured him. “Le puedo ayudar en algo? Can I help you?”

“Pues . . .” Silvino wanted desperately to say something clever—something he could share with his friends later. But the hostess at Don Ramón’s Mexican Restaurant was simply too young and too beautiful. “I was told there is a meeting here tonight—a union meeting.”

“Oh, you must be here to meet with Antonio,” the hostess said, smiling mysteriously. “Come right this way.”

The hostess led Silvino through the restaurant, past a Spanish-style fountain where a veil of phosphorescent water danced. Young couples sat close together in plush booths. As they sipped frosty margaritas and gazed into each other’s eyes, they spoke enthusiastically about the future, conjuring up wonderful lies.

Meeting in the back room of the restaurant were a hundred people from the Mersola factory. Workers sat at a conference table usually reserved for business meetings, their animated discussions rising to a fever pitch. As the hostess opened the double doors for Silvino, everyone turned to see who had arrived. Silvino was greeted warmly, as were all the workers before him. But they were waiting for Antonio.

They did not have to wait long. Within a few minutes he bounded into the conference room through the back door, as confident as a first-rate boxer entering the ring.

Antonio was greeted by an enthusiastic ovation, and his eyes sparkled. He nodded his head in recognition and worked the room, shaking the hands of those he knew, making a point to introduce himself to those he did not.

Antonio stepped up to the podium at the head of the long table, and all conversations came to an abrupt end. Workers twisted napkins around their fingers, sat on the edge of their chairs and smiled at each other nervously.

“It’s great to see so many of you here tonight,” he began, speaking in Spanish. “It’s not easy to get away from the house and kids on a weeknight. This should show everyone that there is a lot of support for the union at Mersola’s.

“For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Antonio Rodriguez. I’m the organizer for the Shoeworkers Union, Local 305. I know you don’t have much time, so I’ll get right down to business. But first I want to thank the owner of Don Ramón’s Mexican Restaurant for letting us use this room tonight. He’s not charging us anything. Usually, a room like this costs at least a hundred dollars to rent. So, if any of you are hungry, there will be a waitress coming in soon. The food is very good and reasonably priced—so if you can afford it, I’d encourage you to buy something so we can use this room again.”

“Bueno, Antonio,” Javier said from across the room, holding a beer bottle by its neck at his side. “I hope they serve beans and tortillas. That’s all I can afford.”

The workers laughed, and Javier enjoyed the attention.

“I can see that,” Antonio replied, eyeing Javier’s beer. Javier smiled impishly, attempting to hide it under the table.

“Seriously, we all know that with what Mersola pays you, it is hard to eat much more than beans and tortillas. We all grew up on that and there’s nothing wrong with it. It is good food. But sometimes we want to have something more. When the weekend comes, we all want to be able to have carne asada and guacamole. And we want our children to have things we didn’t have.”

As Antonio spoke, he established a rhythm, his sentences tied together and punctuated by the movement of his hands. Watching him, many of the workers were mesmerized by his movements, as though they revealed more than his words.

“There is a man here who has worked at Mersola’s for twelve years. For twelve years he has worked hard, never missing a day, never late. And what does he get for all his effort?” Snapping his wrist sharply, he answered, “Nada! He’s still getting the minimum. Mersola has two time cards for him. Two cards with two names and two social security numbers. When he works overtime, he punches out on one card and in on the other. Why? So Mersola won’t have to pay him overtime pay. Last year, his wife got sick and had to go to the hospital. She was there three days and had to have surgery. It cost nine thousand dollars. If he had been covered by union benefits, he would have only had to pay a few hundred dollars. But he wasn’t. Mersola has no health plan. He has no retirement plan. No vacation plan, either. The only plan Mersola has is how to make himself richer. Now, the old man who has worked hard for Mersola for twelve years has to pay nine thousand dollars. Why? Because if his wife went to the county hospital, she might get deported. Because they are what the newspapers and television call ‘illegal aliens.’ Legally, they do not qualify for Medi-Cal. This is the thanks the old man gets for working hard, for paying taxes and trying to make a living for his family.”

The workers nodded their heads. “Claro,” they agreed. Javier stood back and watched Antonio in awe.

“If you form a union at Mersola—if you get organized—you won’t have to suffer as you do now. You can win the dignity and self-respect you all deserve. But, again, to do that, you have only one weapon. Only one . . . and that is organization.”

An older man stood up. “Antonio, I’m all for the union. But what about la migra?” A nervous murmur arose. “There’s already been one immigration raid at Mersola’s, about a year ago. It’s been pretty quiet since then. You know, my brother—he goes downtown every morning at six a.m. He waits around on Mariposa Street with around sixty other guys, waiting for a contractor to come. The contractor gets there and asks,‘Who wants to work?’ And everyone shouts, ‘I do!’ Then the contractor says, ‘Well, I need someone for the whole day, and I’ll pay twenty dollars.’ He gets them bidding. Someone says, ‘I’ll work for fifteen!’ and then someone else shouts, ‘I’ll do it for twelve!’ So they end up working from six in the morning until five at night for twelve dollars. Then, some of the contractors take away four dollars for lunch! Well, it’s bad at Mersola’s, Iknow. But at least I’ve got a steady job. If we try to bring in the union, maybe he is going to call in the immigration. Then we’ll have nothing.” Several other workers agreed, turning to each other and shaking their heads.

Antonio listened, then he raised his hands to quiet the crowd. “You know, the kind of thing you are talking about, with bidding and so on, used to be true for almost everyone in this country. ¿Saben qué? People came here from Europe, from all around the world. They didn’t have rights, either. Neither did the workers who had families here for generations. They worked themselves to death, working twelve, fourteen, sixteen hours a day, six or seven days a week, with no overtime pay, no benefits, nothing. If they got hurt on the job, it was their tough luck. The company or the government didn’t do a damn thing to help them or their families. That’s when they started to organize. The first unions in this country were organized by immigrants! Irish, Russian, Italian, Polish, German—most of them didn’t even speak English. And they didn’t have papers or any rights. They were a lot like you. Miren . . . I’m not going to tell you it is going to be easy. Nothing changes without effort. It took years for the unions to grow strong, and even today, a lot of them are in trouble. They are still under attack. But look, the main thing to remember is that together we are strong!

“You all have rights, the same as anyone else in this country—or any other country, for that matter. These are God-given rights—human rights. Just because right now they are not on paper does not mean they are not due to you. And, as far as that goes, you should always remember—this all used to be part of México.

“You have the God-given right to be here and to work here. If you run and hide from la migra—if you let Mersola frighten you with the immigration—you are always going to be behind in the rent, you are always going to make the minimum. Or, you can stand up and fight for your rights!”

There was a loud, passionate ovation. Even the old man who had brought up the specter of la migra was applauding enthusiastically.

As the applause died down, another worker stood up to be heard. Young and well dressed, he glanced around the room and waited for everyone to quiet down before starting to speak. But before he said a word, Antonio wondered: Who is this guy? He knows something. It’s the way he’s waiting for everyone to quiet down. He knows what he’s doing.

The young man began to speak to the people, though his remarks were aimed at Antonio.

“It is a beautiful idea, having a union,” he began, gesturing smoothly. “Antonio—I admire you for coming here and talking to us about our problems. You’re an effective speaker and you’ve obviously gone to college, or had some education. I, too, went to the university. In México. But almost everyone else here can’t read or write that well in Spanish, much less in English. And most of us, unlike you, don’t have our papers.

“You know, I was one of the first in the factory to talk about people getting together, to support the union…”

That’s who it is, Antonio thought. David. He was one of the people who came to the union about starting an organizing drive. But what is he doing?

“I lost my job because of it. I got fired for going to the union. Just a week before you filed the petition for an election. After having seen how things work, now I think differently. You all are taking a big chance of losing what little you have!”

Turning to Antonio, David asked, “Who will take care of our families if we are fired or deported? What good would the union be then?”

Many of the workers were troubled by David’s question.

“What’s protecting you from being fired or deported now?” Antonio said.

David glanced down at the table, smiled and shook his head as though Antonio had asked a silly question.

“Antonio, Antonio, you have papers. You were born here, have an education, speak English. You have a car and probably own your own home. I think you are well intentioned. But you don’t understand theproblems we face.” He turned away from Antonio and faced the crowd. “We have got to do something about the way things are for us. But we have got to be realistic. We should make a petition to Mersola asking for a raise. I can take it to him since I’ve already been fired and have nothing to lose.”

David watched the expressions of the people, prepared to shape his words to their response. When many of them nodded in agreement, he turned back to Antonio. “We have to be realistic. We all know you would look really good if you won the union election. And there is nothing wrong with wanting to move up in the world. That’s what we all want. But we have to be realistic. We have to do what is best for us. Mersola would probably give us all fifty cents an hour more just to keep the union out. That would be a lot of money in our pockets.

“We can handle things ourselves,” David said, turning again toward the workers. “Some of us have an education and know what to do. I went to the labor board when I got fired and I have an appeal there now. But we shouldn’t antagonize Mersola by trying to bring in the union. It just might make him call in la migra. Like I said, we have to be realistic. We have to think about how we’re going to get by today. Tomorrow never comes.”

Many of even the staunchest supporters of the union were stunned by David’s words. But Javier did not trust him. He flitted about like a bird leaping from perch to perch—he wanted to say something, but he just could not come up with the words.

As David sat down, there was a great commotion. Antonio knew he had lost control. There was nothing he could say—David had cast doubt upon his intentions. Antonio scanned the room and noticed Javier pacing about nervously. Say something! Antonio thought. Say something or all is lost!

An old man stood up and braced himself against the table. As he glanced around the room, he appeared to be weary. He shook his head in resignation as the drone of a dozen conversations continued around him.

“Let him speak!” Javier cried. “Don José has something to say!” The room grew silent. The old man cleared his throat and took a moment to gather his thoughts. Then, slowly, he began. “I don’t have any education. I went to school for three years and that is all. I’m embarrassed to admit that I cannot read or write very well. I’m not much of a speaker, either. I hope you will forgive me.

“I grew up in Chihuahua—in México—working on my father’s ranch. Life was good for a while. Then my father died, and it was not long before we lost our land. I went to work when I was nine years old. My life has been difficult, just like it has for most of us in this room. Only working and working. And still, I have nothing. But I think I learned one thing after working all these years. And that is, if you don’t have hope—if you don’t plant the seeds for harvest—then, it is true: Tomorrow never comes.

“You must turn the soil and plant the seeds. Then you must water and nurture the seeds until they sprout, and care for them until they are tall and strong. Isn’t that the way life is?

“But what happens if you don’t tend the crops? What will you have for your children when it is time for the harvest? You will have nothing!” José took a deep, troubled breath. He cleared his throat and arched his eyebrows as if he were exhausted.

“There is one other thing I have learned. Don’t ever beg.” He shook his head slowly. “No, my friends,  only then have you lost everything. And let me tell you something from my heart: I would go hungry first, and I would let my children go hungry. It sounds hard, but it is true. I would never get down on my knees. Why? Because I love my family, and there are some things that are more important than food. Would you want your family to see you on your knees?

“I am an old man. And I am tired. But I can tell you something. I would rather go to my grave like a man than live like a beggar. It is time for us to stand up and be men!” José clutched his fist and pounded it against his chest. “We have nothing to lose! We have got to think of our children! We must have our dignity!”

José paused again and gazed down at the table. “It will not be easy fighting a rich man. He has money and power and just about everything is on his side. Except one thing. And that is justice. Justice is on our side. We must fight for what is right. We must do it for our children. Otherwise, what will they learn? What hope will they have? What kind of a world will we leave for them?

“Antonio. This is a difficult thing you ask us to do. It will not be easy. But—win or lose—I can assure you—you can count me in!”

The meeting erupted into wild applause, workers standing on their chairs and shouting, “Viva la unión! Huelga! Long live the union! Strike!”

Javier clapped his hands, danced and carried on, savoring the moment, thrilled by the chanting. Men shook hands and slapped each other on the back, and women embraced.

David watched and took it all in. Like an actor at an audition, he slipped into character, his face undergoing a transformation as radical as any accomplished by trick photography. A sly grin took form and as the workers hooted and clapped their hands, David thrust his fist into the air and cried, “Viva la unión!”