La Mariposa en la Pared

The everyday experiences of latino immigrants through the eyes of an outsider. Las vidas típicas de unos inmigrantes latinos a través de los ojos de una forastera.

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Location: Upstate NY, United States

"To me it’s always interesting when you get accepted somewhere you don’t really belong. It’s interesting when people open up and let you in their world." - Gilles Mingasson

Friday, February 01, 2008

El Patrón

Victor is a proud Mexican, un mexicano orgulloso. When we're dancing, and I comment on his skills, his explanation is always, "Of course I dance well - ¡I'm Mexican!" Back in September when we danced in celebration of Mexico and Guatemala's Independence Days, his pride overflowed in the form of gritos, throwing back his head and howling his delight in being puro mexicano. While some may be offended that anyone living in this country would be so proud to be born of another, I see the beauty in his national pride, and the sadness in the fact that living in the country he loves is not feasible if that life is to include having plenty to eat.

His pride isn't always pretty, though, especially when it sheds a glaring light on the class division that exists between Mexicans and the Guatemalans. Even among good friends, this hierarchy is accepted as a part of life.

These long cold evenings spent huddled inside, so unlike the warm nights they grew up enjoying outdoors in their pueblos' central plazas, are made much more bearable with cerveza and amigos. Still wearing their black pants, black shoes, and stained white shirts - the unmistakable garb of the kitchen worker - the Guatemalans lean back in the kitchen chairs or recline on the couch. I smile at Jaime's tired eyes and tell him I love it when he comes home smelling like lettuce and fried tortillas. We sit in a big circle, with the 12-packs of beer stacked in the center of the room. Drinking in a bar would be more fun for some of the men, perhaps, but they know it's far safer to drink at home.

I raise my eyebrows at Rudi sitting across the room, the only one without a beer in his hand, and mouth the word ¿café? His face lights up, and he nods. He and I smile over our hot mugs, preferring warm java over cold cerveza. He shrugs off the jabs from the guys with good humor. Having grown up his mother's favorite child, sipping coffee with her at the kitchen table from the time he was about 7, his love of coffee is tied to warm memories of home.

Victor is also wearing black pants and shoes, but with the colorful, specially-embroidered restaurant logo shirt, because he works in the dining room, interacting with the customers. He understands far more English than he lets on, but speaks less of it than one would expect of someone who's been here for 10 years. His outward lack of English skills has less to do with intelligence than with his work environment - surrounded by all fellow Spanish-speakers - and is also a way of refusing to let go of his dream of returning to Mexico, soon, to begin his real life. This life here, working hard and living lean, is only temporary; it's just a way to achieve the financial means to live a good life in Mexico.

Victor can, and does, talk all night long. He tells fantastic stories of his previous life in Mexico, like the time he married the daughter of a wealthy land owner, just after her quinceañera, only to tell her at the wedding reception (just like in a Vicente Fernandez movie) that he wasn't really in love with her, and disappearing into the sunset with her angry, powerful, dangerous father hot on his heels.

To my musclecar-loving delight, he also reminisced about the '77 Maverick that he bought with 6,000 in cash when he was 16. It was the envy of all his friends, a wicked machine with 3 speeds on the floor and enough power to rip the rubber right off the wheels.

He also offered advice to the Guatemalans sitting around him. He often prefaces his lessons with, "I'm Mexican, and you're from Guatemala..," which is apparently the only credential he needs, and then proceeds to apply his wisdom to their problems with their bosses or girlfriends. At first, I braced myself for what I figured was an inevitable fight. To my shock and surprise, even the proudest of the chapínes sat back and nodded in agreement, only interrupting occasionally, and only then in a soft, reasoned voice. They accepted the patronizing lectures from Victor with tremendous respect for his age (he is an ancient 29 years old, compared to their ages of 17-26 years), and for his broader life experiences from which he drew his instruction.

Even if his advice is well intentioned, his ridicule carries an edge of disdain that makes me cringe. College-educated Victor also teases the Guatemalans about their lack of formal eduction. When Rudi crossed the room to get a pen, he asked incredulously, "¿Sabes escribir?" Departing from my typical participant-observer role, I chided him in English, "That's not very nice," while at the same time remembering Rudi's Guatemalan ID card which states, among many other odd personal facts, that he doesn't know how to read or write. The municipal ID card, which he said allowed him to travel to Honduras and El Salvador, but not to Mexico or the U. S., also describes his skin color as "morena clara" and his occupation as agricultor, or farmer.

It's hard to know why the ID marks him as illiterate, when I know he can read, and does write, albeit with the vernacular spelling common among these guys who eschewed school well before adolescence to go to work for the good of their families. Was it somehow safer for him to be identified as just another illiterate paisano in his home country?

Victor's infectious laughter followed Rudi into the next room, and even Rudi's uneducated primos tittered, as if their shared amusement allowed them to indulge in a bit of Victor's orgullo.