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A Portrait of the Artist as an Undocumented Immigrant

J.M. Servín | Unnamed Press | June 20, 2017 | 4,894 words
Posted inBooks, Current Events, Nonfiction, Story

A Portrait of the Artist as an Undocumented Immigrant

A Mexican writer recalls undocumented life at a restaurant in New York and as a nanny in Connecticut.
The U.S.-Mexico border at the Pacific Ocean. Via Wikimedia Commons.

J.M. Servín| For Love of the Dollar: A Portrait of the Artist as An Undocumented Immigrant | Unnamed Press | translated by Anthony Seidman | March 2017 | 18 minutes (4,894 words) 

The excerpt below is adapted from For Love of the Dollar, in which Mexican novelist and journalist J.M. Servín recalls the 10 years he spent living and working illegally in the United States (with a brief interlude in Ireland). This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

No one would investigate anyone else’s experience because they were all identical.

The average wage for undocumented workers was six dollars an hour. With a Social Security card, even if it was fake, nobody could avoid paying taxes, unless they paid you under the table. I asked questions of other day laborers, who were often hostile or suspicious, as to how they got hired. Almost all of them were recommended by a family member or someone from their hometown. Those with most experience said that after two years of work, things would improve. The trick was to grin and bear it. Bosses liked inexhaustible workers who kept their mouths shut. No one would investigate anyone else’s experience because they were all identical. And for each poor soul who had a tragedy to share, there was someone else with an even more gruesome Calvary. I lived surrounded by tough types, in a religious sense: Jesuit-like, ready for the most absurd sacrifices as long as they could get a pot to piss in.

I worked my ass off just like them and I never complained because they were the first ones to test me. Working alongside them, each task proved to be a lonely and tough affair, until I proved my mettle and that I wasn’t going to desert my job. They were bent on destroying anyone who threatened their jobs with scheming and other tricks.

Parrot had given me my fake papers, but with my birthdate making me seven years younger. The signatures on the work permit and Social Security card looked as if they had been scrawled by a second grader. All in all, though, the papers seemed passable.

That same Tuesday night, the chef stopped serving a couple of hours earlier than usual; it was around two in the morning on a rather slow shift. I had finished washing a battery of enormous aluminum pots and had hooked them above the stoves. It was the least they expected of me. Nobody complained, but everyone else seemed to work harder. They were oiled up with pride itself. All the while I worked there I barely had the opportunity to size up the dimensions of the kitchen. We were able to move about with ease, but nobody stepped over the boundaries of his workstation. Each to his own, ignoring what was going on elsewhere. Waiters and busboys came down for their orders, and they shouted some praise at us if only to hurry us on, as their tips were at risk.

I remembered when I worked as a butcher at an expensive restaurant in Mexico City, how the waiters would toss us a few bones gathered from their tips. Here, hell no. We should be grateful that they even spoke to us. There was a red-haired waiter of Greek origin who would rush down the stairs each night, get down on one knee, throw us kisses, extending his arms, as if he were on the Broadway stage, all while shouting: “Thank you!” He would respond to our catcalls by inviting us to go out with him. He was always in a good mood, and he called all of us Pepes. One of the cooks gave him the nickname Puputo. It was the only word in Spanish that he understood.

Upon finishing my job, I went to the changing area. The Puerto Rican was there asking if anyone wanted to wash the shelves in the refrigerator the size of a guestroom on the rooftop, in order to place the meat, vegetables, and rest of the food that they had used during the day. Afterward, the volunteer would have to gather all the work uniforms, separate them, and then bring them up to the truck for linen service. The guy in charge of this hadn’t shown up. He started his shift when Parrot did. No one answered. They continued to quickly change, ready to get home. I raised my hand, and without glancing around to see if anyone else would do it, I received the extra pay, and I went to the restaurant to get to work.

I had to go up the stairs. The kitchen was in the basement of a twenty-three-story building. I finished almost three hours later, drugged from exhaustion.

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