Juan looked like just another maintenance man. But he had big dreams.
As I stumbled into work that morning as an intern at a real estate development company, I learned that I would be supervising a duo of Latino maintenance workers at one of the company’s properties, to make sure there was no wrongdoing. The maintenance workers would be installing 12 whiteboards in six different rooms.
At first, the men were extremely shy; I thought they might not speak English. But I was surprised when they talked freely, in good English, to their boss. Nevertheless, after 10 minutes, we still had very limited communication, and one of the men was clearly looking at me in a hostile way.
Their boss, John, said that the men worked “like machines,” swiftly completing the task in a few hours. This was good news for me, since my supervisor expected the job to take six hours.
John didn’t move inch while the men began opening up the boxes. As the workers began installing the first whiteboard, he jumped up and said it was a pleasure meeting me, but that he had to leave. Then he turned and reached out to the hostile looking man, and said:
“Here’s $20 for lunch; split it between the both of you.”
Suddenly, the hostile-looking man dropped his fierce look, and said with a smirk: “That’s the first time he’s paid for my lunch in 13 years while working for him.”
At that moment I knew there was something wrong with this picture.
The man who had been glaring at me left to go to the bathroom, leaving me with his co-worker. This man seemed friendlier. He was a slender, older looking man, probably in his late 50s. At first, I sat scrolling through my Twitter feed, reluctant to strike up a conversation. But he reminded me of a character in the documentary Cartel land, which showed the citizen uprising against the violent Knights Templar drug cartel in Mexico. I asked the man, whose name I didn’t know, about the cartels. He confirmed the documentary’s story.
“The cartel’s are scary. They kill people. It’s bad,” he said (Later, I found out he’d been in the Mexican Army; he showed me the multiple gunshot wounds covering his body).
I never learned the man’s name, but later I found out that the other man was named Juan.
The first hour passed, and as their boss said, they were moving at an alarmingly fast pace. Juan became more vocal. It was December 2016: Donald Trump had just been elected, and his inauguration was coming up. Juan was nervous.
“This guy is one crazy mother [expletive] man; he scares me. I got a ticket for the first time in 13 years a month ago. I’m scared to go to court, buddy. I have no license.”
Regina Marchi, a former journalist in Guatemala and a Rutgers professor of journalism, says such fears aren’t uncommon.
“Immigrants who had court dates before the Trump presidency would show up for their court date and pay a fine. But now they are scared that they will get deported. Juan is an example of someone who is living this reality,” she said.
Juan emigrated from Guatemala in 2003 to find a better life, as most immigrants do, and to reunite with his brother in New Jersey. He was 30 years old and in prime physical condition, and at an age when many American men would be working a 9-5 job, and have acquired a wife and a kid or two. But, like most Latin immigrants, his priority was freedom, and safety. Guatemala, he said, was full of danger.
“Man, the cartels, they come to your house and just kill you, no reason. They have a finger cutter, and they come and just cut off your fingers if you have a cell phone, or anything of value.” He shook his head.
Marchi described the journey north as arduous.
“By bus or on foot it can take about a week from Guatemala to Mexico,” she said. “People die in the deserts because it is so hot, and they cannot carry the amount of water that they need to stay hydrated.”
Juan installed another whiteboard. Then he turned to me, and said:
” I swam across the Rio Grande, man, dead bodies floating everywhere. I put my clothes in a plastic bag and used it to stay afloat. Once I crossed the border, I traveled north by freight train. I was 100 pounds,” he said pointing his pinky up in the air to show how skinny he was. “But when I arrived in New Jersey, the authorities caught me and deported me back to Guatemala. I stayed one night in Guatemala, and again, started north to America. And I made it safely.”
Marchi said Juan’s willingness to try again wasn’t uncommon.
“So many immigrants have these really big ideas, and they have the energy and the drive to want to make the journey,” she said.
I noticed that Juan and his older colleague had a special working relationship. The older man would cut open the boxes and distribute the pieces to Juan to build. I noticed that Juan had not used any measurement tools in the two hours he had been working.
“Juan, how are you installing whiteboards without using a measuring stick?”
He turned around, and chuckled.
“Man I’ve been doing this 30 years. This work is a piece of cake. I don’t need any measuring stick. I just look, and I get it right,” he said, smiling. “My father taught me as a boy in Guatemala how to do all of this. You see this?” he said pointing at finger nub. “A drill sawed my finger off when I was a young boy. This stuff is easy, man,” he said again laughing.
Guatemalans are very family oriented, and that they tend to all live in the same house, Marchi said. However, most families are broken up in their pursuit of emigration to America.
“Most immigrants believe they will go to the United States for a couple of years and then come back, but inevitably they never go back. Some start making enough money to bring family members. However, some start forming new families here with a new lady or man, and will sometimes have two or three families,” said Marchi.
“Consequently, there are communities in Guatemala with kids that don’t have mothers and fathers because they are in the United States, and grandparents watch over the kids.”
Juan says he loves his family, but has found himself in messy relationships on his journey.
“I’m having trouble finding a good woman. Lots of trouble. I have 10 children, buddy, with seven different women. Some of my kids are in Alabama. A few in Guatemala. And some here in New Jersey. I rent out a house to make some extra money for it all.”
Juan’s boss John has provided Juan with work for the last 13 years. But he has also taken advantage of Juan’s immigrant status.
“John finds me the work,” Juan said. “He finds us jobs often, but he takes all the money. We will work 10-12 hours in one day, and he will make $5,000 and give us $100 to $200 each. He just sleeps all day while we work.”
But Juan has bigger plans. He didn’t come to America to work for somebody else. He came here to realize his full potential and live the American dream.
“My brother is selling our house in Guatemala, and meeting me in Flint, Michigan. And then we will flip houses. He has the money, and I know how to build and fix it up. In four to five months I’m out of here,” he confided.
Immigrants who came from Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries had the same ambitions; it’s the kind of enthusiasm that’s made America so great. Because of people like Juan, our buildings are well constructed; without them, our restaurants would not be clean, and our economy would not be what is today.
In the meantime, Juan will continue to scrape by, and to enjoy the little things, so that one day he can live out his dream.
“Tonight man, I’m going buy myself a nice cold Budweiser — you know, one of the 40-ounce ones,” he said. “I deserve it.”