In light of the rampant xenophobia in this country, I reflect on the lessons that I learned as a tween day laborer many years ago. Working alongside Latino immigrant men during a hot summer in Malibu, I learned firsthand the trials and tribulations of manual labor. This grueling experience became the impetus for my academic trajectory, scholarship and lifelong commitment to social justice.
While most of my childhood friends played basketball at East L.A.’s Ramona Gardens housing project, my brother Salomon – now an acclaimed L.A.-based artist – and I performed landscaping duties as day laborers for the wealthy in the seaside city.
When it came down to manual labor, as a 13-year-old, I represented the typical U.S.-born kid who avoided physical work like the plague. I can still hear the voice of my late mother, Carmen, telling me to clean my room and make my bed. Miraculously, she kept our rooms tidy while toiling as a house cleaner on the Westside. A job she performed for over 40 years.
Despite the fact that I excelled in school, especially in mathematics, my mother – a Mexican immigrant – always encouraged my siblings and I to do well in school. Like most immigrant parents, she implored us to maximize our educational opportunities to avoid the pitfalls of immigrant jobs associated with meager wages, low status and dismal upward mobility options.
Given that she couldn’t help me with my algebra, my mother did what any rational woman in her situation would do: She told my late father, Salomon, to take my brother and me to work as day laborers. To borrow from President Obama’s lexicon, she created a “teachable moment” for us.
My father originally came to this country as an agricultural guest worker under the Bracero Program during the 1950s. For him, working as a day laborer represented a walk in the park. For my brother and me, however, it was a nightmare.
First, we had to wake up at 5 a.m. Then we took a two-hour bus from the Eastside to the Westside. Thereafter, we joined other day laborers to compete for scarce resources. Never in my life had I witnessed a group of grown men competing for the attention of wealthy whites in their BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes; the drivers sought men to do tasks from digging ditches and clearing brush to painting homes and loading trucks.
I was initially embarrassed to see my father – a proud Mexican immigrant –running toward the luxury cars, trying to convince the driver to select him and his two young sons. I always wondered how this impacted his manhood and self-esteem. This is an entirely different world from privileged children who see their parents go off to work as doctors, lawyers and CEOs.
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