Gracias, José Cuervo!

No, I am not thanking that smooth, golden consort of so many margaritas, but rather a placid little man wearing a smile, a pleasant Mexican “illegal” immigrant that I have recently met.

I first saw José just over a year ago, pushing a lawnmower at a brisk pace over a neighborhood lawn. What caught my attention and kept me at a gaze was part of his attire: a red headband with a big black feather attached to it. After a few seconds, his comrade-at-gardening who saw me stare, stopped his raking and, pointing his finger at the subject, made an informal introduction, looking at me and proclaiming… “That’s my ‘compadre,’ José”. I assented, and quickly resumed my jogging thinking not of tequila, or a dance but a person with a raven’s feather, José Cuervo.

A month ago, I saw José once again; a different lawn, a different color headband but the same crow’s feather. There was something attractive about this man; it was his calmness while performing work at double time, his weather-beaten brown face all covered with sweat. I knew then and there that I had to talk to him.

At my request, he turned off the mower a little bewildered… or perhaps confused. In Spanish, I greeted him and introduced myself, telling him in a reassuring way that I was not with the “migra.” I quickly added that I needed to get some things done around my house, asking him whether he would be interested in taking on this extra job, on his off-duty hours, and that I would pay him well. He took my business card and promised he would call.

Three days later, bright and early Sunday morning, I get this unexpected call from José. Yes, he could give me his services for the day but that he did not have a way to get to our place, which I remedied by picking him up at a location close to the boardinghouse where he was staying. Since that time, we have had three Sundays of get-togethers, with few tasks around the house accomplished, but non-stop conversation with incalculable enrichment for me.

José turned out to be humble and courteous, things that I expected from his culture and demeanor. However, he turned out to be much more: intelligent, proud and a totally sincere person. Once I told him that I was a writer, much interested in his experiences and views, he became for me an open book.

A widower pushing forty, José had been hustling work in California and the Pacific Northwest for almost eight years, except for a couple of what he calls “short vacation periods” when the “migra” had sent him back to Mexico, his “opportunity” to go home.

Home for José is an apartment in a modest barrio of Guadalajara , to him the greatest city not just in Jalisco, but in the entire North America . Although his parents own the apartment, it is José who maintains almost exclusively the household for his parents, two daughters who have just started college, and a younger unmarried sister with her 8-year old son. In absentia he is providing for six people, and meeting their needs quite well. José is very proud of that; also feels very lucky and extremely thankful to the United States .

Faithfully, José sends home $200 every other week, and a little more when he can get some extra work, or overtime. Barely netting $700 each biweekly payroll period, after paying for room and board, sending the $200 plus the tithing (what his friends call the usury fees charged by Western Union to send the remittance to Mexico ) there really is little left. Yet, his frugality allows him to set up a biweekly reserve of $20, what he calls “coyote money” in case he gets deported once again and has to pay to get back in the States. Last time, a couple of years ago, it cost him $800, “but it was a reliable coyote that smuggled him across, and he (José) had the money to pay”.

José does not have a car, and few personal possessions. He does not have health insurance, but twice has gone for a free checkup to one of the rural clinics set up for migrant farm workers. There are a million things that José does not have, but he doesn’t seem to miss any of them. He prefers to concentrate on the things, or rather the people, he has.

He is thankful for his wonderful parents, and for how helpful they have been to him since his wife passed away twelve years before, leaving him to raise two daughters. José’s pride in his daughters, 19 and 21, brings him to tears. “In five years,” José tells me, “I will have a lawyer and an architect calling me dad… who cares what happens to me after that?” Maybe it is that thought that gives him that inner peace and produces such serenity in his demeanor.

José takes little and gives much, claiming only the citizenship of the heart. He might be considered “illegal” but a more ethical man I know not. Gracias, José Cuervo.