On Diversity

This was a college application essay that I didn’t end up submitting, for some reason. Knowing what I now know about liberal art schools, I probably should have submitted it. Probably would have got me into Grinnell, or whatever. But this is interesting to go back and read especially because of what I’ve been spending my time doing the last couple years… Much less landscaping, much more sailing. More time with the haves, than the have nots. 

What is it to be a gringo among Mexicans, or Puerto Ricans, and a Spaniard? It can be the worker that has more in common with his jefe than his fellow workers, in spite of the fact that you and your boss will nunca ser iguales. It is to hear the opinion that these immigrants, campesinos some of them, readily acquire the same belief that we Americans have; that we are the best country, the best people… It is to work for a Spanish Don, like the campesinos have done for time immemorial, but you, you only work for the day, or the summer, or the year, part of your life, while these farmers, who remember growing crops with the assistance of a burro, nada mas, con las mala yerbas más alto que el maíz, are working for all time, like their fathers, brothers, before them. It is to work with your friends apart, while they work for their daughter’s educacíon, to perhaps spring her from el gran patrón that is all that these men seem to know.

I don’t know the lives of that these men know; the days that my great-grandparents were brand new Lebanese immigrants living in the then-Arab neighborhood of West Roxbury, Mass are long gone. I had grown up as an American with Lebanese heritage, never doubting or reflecting on the privileges granted to me by my birth. But my family had not made it solidly middle class when my father was born, so the impetus to work remained. As a result, I had my first job after the school year ended in eighth grade. And there I was introduced to the oft-talked element in Southern Arizona; Mexicans working in the United States. At first, there was a language barrier between the quiet, black haired light skinned Arturo and me. But, as I learned more Spanish in school, and he learned more English from work, we began to teach each other our languages. I learned how he worked two jobs, adding up to sixteen or eighteen hour days, and would send money home to his mother. I told him how I was still in school, and wanted to go to college. We became friends, I became fluent in Spanish (or fluent enough anyway). As my vocabulary grew more sophisticated, we talked about more sophisticated things. He told me about how he dropped out of school when he was 15, and moved to Hermosillo and started working and living with his aunt there. I learned about the history of Mexico in Academic Decathlon; he was surprised but pleased to learn of my knowledge of the events he thought had been left in Mexico, and did not cross the border with him. I learned about the lack of work in his country. I learned about the low pay. I learned that for him, it was safer to cross the street and walk with the “cholos” (gangsters) then to walk with the police. He told me the police were corrupt, or powerless and the gangsters were bad people. But the gangsters, they were his neighbors. The police would leave. He put an end to any romanticism of life “on the street”. He hated the fact that he couldn’t walk after sundown without two or three friends. There was no glamour to the danger that he could be kidnapped while heading back to his apartment.

He loved America. It is safe here, he said. I can go to work, and then go home in peace. That made me stop. I had never known anything but going to work, or school and going home in peace. This earnest, young, Mexican man was grateful, very grateful for something I though most people had. He talked about how he wished he could have stayed in school, but he had to work for his family. He told me that education was the way to rise up in the world. The United States, he said, provided some of the best. As much as he loved America, though, he still loved Mexico. His family, his culture, and people were there. He said he would make enough money to open a cervezería, buy a house for his mother and family. Before I talked to Arturo regularly, I was ambivalent about my country. Sure, it’s the “leader of the free world”. Sure, it’s one of the wealthiest nations in the world. But look at all the problems! I would complain about politicians, I would complain about the war, I would complain about the PATRIOT Act. But when Arturo talked about Mexico, I realized that I too, loved my country. I loved being able to work, to trust the authorities, to know that our elected officials were actually elected, to be guaranteed school through high school, and to be fairly certain of getting a college education. I loved to be in a country that offered me some of finest quality of life in the world. I realized America still had problems; not everyone is as lucky as I am to be born in the supportive situation I was. But I no longer had an excuse to feel bad for myself, or ignore the advantages my country and birth had given me. Arturo taught me a new language and a new culture, unveiling my eyes to what I had always had in my hands.

My experiences didn’t end when I quit my dishwashing job. My grandfather and uncle have a landscaping company that was started by my father, and I was going to work there. I would also be there to help my grandfather who is starting to suffer from dementia and spend time with him. I would work with the loud, joyous, Puerto Ricans, quiet restrained Mexicans, and the lone Guatemalan that made up their crews. I would become the “Guero Mexicano” for my recognizably Mexican accent. My Spanish learned in a tiled kitchen worked fairly well in green, verdant lawns once it had been updated with key vocabulary like “rake” “dirt” and “grass”. Most of my time was spent raking up green trimmings from newly cut bushes and pulling weeds out of cracked asphalt driveways, on my knees. But there was one customer who was special. Jorgé was a wine importer/exporter, a truly Spanish Spaniard, who spoke in a clipped, precise Spanish that we would all have to bend closer to hear, his brown, glowing oxfords and Brooks Brothers shirt (French cuffs undone, and worn un-tucked) providing a sharp contrast with our varied, muddy, boots and filthy MHK Lawncare T-shirts. Among the tasks we performed for this Don was moving some of his belongings from his first house on the Cape to the one he had newly bought. I was in awe. The other workers were in awe. I had never seen the phrase “money is not a concern” in action. Money was not a concern for Jorge. He wanted us there all day, waiting for a wine shipment to come in? He would pay. He wanted to tear out the bushes because they weren’t planted right by another company? He would pay. He wanted us to work Saturday? He would pay. In cash.

These “vacation homes” were furnished more beautifully than any house I had been into. As we took the labels off shiny ceramic knives and graters, I heard Danilo, the Guatemalan, mutter in amazement. He had never seen this many things, that cost this much money in his entire life. I had gone back to colonial Mexico, to colonial Latin America. I was now working for a man who had many men working for him. Not as a company (he had that too). But for him. And I was one of them. I was overwhelmed by the strange limbo I was caught between. I was the relative of a boss, like him, albeit on a smaller scale. We could talk in correct English. But I was a worker. I carried the charcoal grill, grunting and sweating like the rest of the men, down from the second story porch. I scrubbed the basement floor until the dried paint spatters came off, like the rest of them. With whom did I belong?

The way that diversity is addressed today is often a good thing; effort is being made to explore other cultures and other people. However, for awhile, I worked among “diverse” men. I lived the great “American melting pot”. And to say, I’ve experienced diversity, I now know is laughable. The infinite gradations that separated the workers in the MHK crew from Jorge stretched the same as the differences between my coworkers and me. My horizons were widened by laboring for the richest man I’ve known with some of the poorest men I’ve known.