I first met Jose Naranjero* in a dusty little Mexican town called Naco, which lies just across the border wall from Bisbee, Arizona. I’d been working nearby as a volunteer for No More Deaths, a Tucson-based group that tries to help immigrants passing through the dangerous Sonoran desert. I was part of a team that left supplies of food and water out for them, in places where many previous border crossers have gotten lost and then perished from hunger, thirst, dehydration, or other hazards.
In Naco, I retraced the steps of many such job-seekers to the door of an immigrant resource center run by folks from Bisbee. This center provides temporary assistance to people dumped backed in Mexico, after being collared by the U.S. Border Patrol. On my second day working in this tiny, crowded facility, two friends of Jose Naranjero showed up looking for him. All three men had tried to enter the U.S. but had the bad luck to run into “la migra.”
As Jose’s fellow travelers sipped the black coffee that the center offers, they spoke shyly, in a slow, stilted kind of Spanish. Coming from the distant Yucatan, their first language is Maya. They had last seen Jose while they were all still in custody at the Border Patrol detention center in Bisbee. They feared that their friend might be in more than the usual amount of trouble; he had been issued a black wristband, usually a sign that the wearer is suspected of being a convicted criminal or a documented repeat violator of US immigration laws.
Within 24 hours the missing man had been located and Jose himself came into the center accompanied by his two friends. He had been released by the Border Patrol at midnight and, immediately, all three compañeros tried to slip back into the U.S., with no more success than before. With a wide brown face and a big smile, Jose told me he was headed for my own adopted city of San Francisco, where he had work waiting for him as a line cook at an Italian restaurant. He had decided to leave that job briefly and return to Mexico to see his family. Like many others who visited the center, he had assumed, mistakenly, that it would be as easy to get back into the US now it was several years ago.
On each subsequent night that I spent in Naco, Jose and his friends tried again to enter Arizona. And each time, they were caught, returned to Mexico, and showed up back at the resource center in time for coffee and a hot cup of noodles the next morning, saying “Hola, Alexandra!” “Otra vez?” I would ask, and they would nod and we would all laugh at the absurdity of this daily cycle of activity. Jose taught me a few words in Maya and we made a pact that if he did succeed in getting back to San Francisco, we would meet up again to exchange English lessons for continued tutoring in Maya. When I left Naco a few days later to catch a flight back to California, I seriously doubted I would ever see Jose again.
Yet, two days after I arrived back home, I got a call on my cell phone and heard a familiar “Hola, Alexandra.” It was Jose. He was back in the Bay Area, but not without the scars and debts accumulated during his latest passage. He had fractured his foot, but nevertheless returned immediately to his chamba (Mexican slang for work) at the same Italian restaurant where he had cooked before. Only now, he owed five thousand dollars to the coyotes who had finally smuggled him across the border successfully and he was desperate to find a second full-time job so he could pay them off faster.
We met for his first English lesson, the focus of which was “vocabulary for the job seeker.” Jose had me write down what “Help Wanted” looked like in English. He asked me how to say, ” Are you hiring?” and, to assert with confidence: “I can cook pizza and salad, and clean.” We also reviewed key words that would help him better understand the barked commands and impatient questions of his current jefe — like “sweep the floor” and “are you done yet?” Jose attended ESL classes at S.F. City College at my suggestion, but he soon stopped so he could devote more time to finding a second job and the extra money he and so many others need to send back home. As he explained that mission: “We are here for a short time, just to work. We want to get back to our families.” Jose often asked about my own family in Massachusetts. He was baffled that I willingly chose to live so far away from them, when there was apparently no economic need for us to be separated.
One day on his way to work, a few months after his difficult return to San Francisco, Jose had an experience that truly spooked him. As he recounted it to me, he saw a woman walking toward him on a downtown street who was as one of the Border Patrol agents that nabbed him and his friends prior to his successful return to the U.S. The woman stopped and said, “Hey, don’t I know you from somewhere?” Jose replied with a mumbled, “No,” and tried to walk away quickly. But the woman persisted: “I do know you. I caught you in Arizona. . . . Well, I am happy to see you here. How are you doing? Are you working?”
Already scared and shaken by this bizarre encounter, Jose didn’t tell her that he was working illegally in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant nearby. If this woman was so “happy” to see him in San Francisco, why did she and her co-workers make it so hard for him to get back there?
Jose’s run-in with this off-duty member of la migra reminded him of all the other times he had felt afraid in our country, like when he was riding a city bus and San Francisco police officers came aboard to check bus passes or remove rowdy passengers. We both had met a man in Naco who had lived in the Bay Area with his family for 20 years; one day, on his way to work, he was pulled over for a routine traffic violation, detained, and then deported. For Jose and many other undocumented workers, San Francisco is not always the “sanctuary city” it claims to be.
After months of searching, Jose called one day to report that he had finally found additional employment at a “restaurante de sushi.” A friend of a friend was already working there so Jose was happy to join a kitchen crew of “puros Mexicanos.” Now, he prepares pizza and salad six evenings a week in his original job and sushi rice and chicken teriyaki, five days a week, on a morning shift at his second job. He has very little time to sleep between jobs and only one day a week to do his laundry and other chores. But he is grateful to be earning two paychecks. He now has no time to improve his English or have any kind of fun, and his experience of this great city is so different from the young people I know who have the time and resources to enjoy themselves, whether employed or unemployed.
I try to regard my current unemployment as a chance to use my free time to help people like Jose, even if I can’t get hired to do it. No More Deaths, ESL tutoring programs, and all the rest of the “non-profit” world are not exactly flush with “stimulus” money these days. Since leaving Arizona last summer and walking the streets of San Francisco many days since then, with my resume in hand, I’ve come to believe there is something fundamentally wrong with an economic system where so many people, whether native- or foreign-born, can’t find a job. In my own quest for employment, I’ve endured scrutiny and then rejection by potential employers many times, whether face-to-face, over the phone, or via the internet. I know I’m not alone in feeling this but the experience of joblessness makes me anxious and doubtful about my own worth.
But at least I don’t have to watch my back every moment like Jose does. For Jose, the pursuit of “Help Wanted” ads in California has already taken him across a very hazardous stretch of an increasingly militarized international border, on multiple occasions. He has left his family, risked his life and health, and willingly accepted the difficult and precarious job conditions that go with being undocumented. We do have one thing in common, though. The deeply flawed “labor markets” of the U.S. and Mexico have stranded me and Jose, along with millions of others, in a place we don’t want to be — either unemployed or working illegally far from home.
* Not his real name.
Alexandra Early is a 2007 graduate of Wesleyan University and a former local union representative for SEIU/United Healthcare Workers West. She can be reached at <email@example.com>.