The Other Side
The Other Side (WC 1487) Hector Joseph Silva Anyone traveling past the Westhampton Beach 7-11 can’t help notice the crowd of men by the side of the road. They are there every day looking for work, whether it’s hot or cold, wet or dry. There are no women in this labor pool, any health benefits, or minimum wage. Like Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” the men exist out of the mainstream, in a world where only work matters and labor laws are bent. In September 2002 I rented a small U-Haul and went to the site for the first time. I needed two men to help me load furniture and deliver it to my daughter’s apartment. I had no idea of what to expect or what laws I was breaking. When I pulled into the rear of the 7-11 parking lot, a wave of men approached the truck. Surrounded on all sides, I rolled down the side window and held up two fingers. As soon as I released the door lock two young men pushed their way in. Manuel who spoke passable English introduced himself and his cousin Pascual. I learned that Pascual had come to the US from Guatemala in August 2002 and spoke no English. Manuel lives in Westhampton Beach and made “arrangements” for Pascual to get a job washing dishes at a nearby restaurant. Pascual’s bowl of shiny black hair and high cheek bones gives him an unmistakable “mestizo” look; typical of Amerido Indian blood. He sat quietly staring out the window at the houses, the Hampton Jitneys in the HOV lane, and the business of life in Long Island. It took three hours to load the truck and surprisingly nothing was broken on the way down the rickety staircase. Pint-size Pascual, who I thought might buckle under the weight of the heavier pieces held up well. On the way back, I asked Pascual about himself, “Tienes famila?” (“Do you have a family?”) “Si, yo soy casado, tengo un barón y dos niñas.” (“Yes, I am married, and have a boy and two girls.”) I was surprised that someone so boyish looking had a wife and three children. Fully expecting a vague answer, I asked him how he entered the U.S. “I walked from Guatemala to Mexico. A man took us to the border. We crossed the border at night. It cost $6000 dollars and took us five days to get to New York in a van.” Crossing to “the other side” (“el otro lado”) is a dangerous trip that takes several days and covers more than 2000 miles described passively described in 36 words. At the end of the day I watched Pascual as he mounted his bike and waved to me, oblivious that In the next four years we would become close. Pascual grew up in the Guatemala countryside, about 20 miles from the city of Quiche, and went to school only two or three years. As a boy he worked in his father’s small farm and never left it, except to shop at the nearby village of Cantachulo. He recalls farm work as hard and difficult. “”La tierra no es fertil, es muy dura,” (“The soil is not fertile and very hard.”) Once he told me he wanted to learn English, so for the next few months I tried teaching him the sounds of the letters, syllabication, and basic vocabulary. To my frustration he does not have an ear for language and after a few months I gave up trying. We were getting nowhere in forming a simple sentences or the pronunciation of words like “friend,” “house,” “yellow,” “work.” A look outside Pascual’s house explains why the U.S. is a leader in bicycle sales. At night when the men are home, the front yards looks like a bicycle junk yard. Pascual and his bunch do not wear helmets, carry a water bottle, or sport bright Team Italia jerseys. Deep down Pascual would have liked to own a car, in particular my SAAB. Several times he asked how much it cost. After I told him, he calculated the number of work days it would take to buy it. One day he noticed the SAAB was not in the driveway. “Donde esta el SAAB?” (Where’s the SAAB?) he asked. I sold it to my daughter’s fiancé,” I said. “Ahhhhh,” he grumbled and walked away. “Todos tienen caros en los Estados Unidos.” (“Everyone has a car in the U.S.” “No tengo nada.” (“I have nothing,”) he complained. Pascual has a simple outlook about those who cross the border illegally. According to him, “los mojados,” (the wet ones”) need the money and Americans need people to work. Anyone can cross the border, he says, the “good ones,” and the “bad “ones.” In the four years Pascual lived in Westhampton Beach he rode his bike to our house weather permitting on Monday, his day off. The routine was always the same, I would teach him English, take him to Riverhead to shop for clothes, groceries, pre-paid telephone cards, and an occasional visit to a dentist or chiropractor. This was followed by an Italian hero from the Hero Shop in Westhampton Beach, accompanied by a Corona or two. While drinking our Coronas I got to know him well. The first time he met my wife I told him, “Esta es mi esposa, la numero uno.” (“This is my wife “the number one.”) He laughed, and thereafter always called her “la numero uno.” Over time she became Pascual’s ombudsman. If not working the holyday shift, she invited Pascual to the house for a home cooked meal, and when in need of dental or medical care made arrangements for treatment. Once Pascual said he had to go to the Guatemalan Consulate in New York City to obtain a Consulate ID Card. When he returned, he told me saw people everywhere, coming and going in all directions, buildings as tall as the eye could see, and taxicabs speeding in and out of traffic. “Yo estava nerviso y con miedo,” he confessed (“I was nervous and scared.”) In late 2005 I received a call that Pascual had come to the house looking for me. When told I was working, he sat immobile in the garage and waited for me. Sensing that there was something wrong, my wife called our friend Dulce who speaks Spanish. When Dulce approached, he took a letter from his pocket and gave it to her. In poorly written Spanish replete with sexual connotations the note carried a striking message, “I am leaving you.” He took Dulce’s hand and would not let go. When Dulce’s daughter in-law arrived, Pascual let go of her and wrapped his arm around Teresa, “Mi esposa, mi esposa, esta es mi esposa.” (My wife, my wife, this is my wife.”) Dulce made her way inside the house and called the Quogue police. In less than 5 minutes Sergeant Ed arrived. As he came closer, Pascual let go of Teresa and stared at Sergeant Ed. “I am going to cuff him,” he said. He walked behind Pascual and handcuffed him. “La numeo uno,” Dulce, and Teresa wept as he was escorted to the police car. He looked back at them his eyes conveying the penitence of someone who had done wrong, then slouched deep into the back seat. Pascual spent the next few weeks at the SUNY Stony Brook Psychiatric Ward undergoing an evaluation, then was transferred to Southside Hospital for observation, and eventually released. He was referred to F.E.G.S. a mental health agency for counseling. Without medical coverage, we paid for his transportation and therapy but after a few sessions, he refused to attend: “She asks me the same questions,” How are you? “How is your wife? Your Children?” “Do you sometimes hear voices?” On two consecutive Mondays, in April 2006 Pascual did not come to the house. Concerned, I went to the restaurant and was told he had not been seen in days. I called Manuel, who told me Pascual had gone back to Guatemala, “He was acting strange again,” he said. Unlike his perilous illegal entry into the U.S., Pascual only needed a Consulate ID card, birth certificate, and a plane ticket to fly home. Things had not gone well for Manuel. He had begun to drink heavily and was not working. There is no work for landscapers during the winter months. “All I do is watch TV and drink,” he told me. Manuel had not seen his wife and kids in years. The children had grown up and the weekly phone calls had become strained. After I hung up, I could not help think that for Manuel and Pascual life on “the other side,” had not gone well. They are both good men that failed as absentee fathers. I have since been told that their plight is not unique. It is a frequent occurrence that has been repeated a thousand times.