Editor’s note: This is the 2nd part of a 5 part series written by Sarah Quezada from her blog A Life With Subtitles. In this series Sarah is chronicling her relationship with and eventual marriage to her husband Billy, who came to the U.S. as an immigrant from Guatemala. By hearing their story, we hope that you can better understand the lives of immigrants, their loved ones, and the challenges they face.
Oh, and I’m often asking, “Yeah, why did you come to the States?” with a too eager voice and barely contained glee.
He usually tries to ignore my foolishness and turns his attention to whoever asked the question. “I came to California to participate in a world singing competition.”
Surprised? Well, it’s not really the stereotype of the Guatemalan immigrant. I like to take it a step further and shout out, “He was the lead singer in a hardcore Christian Spanish rock band!”
It might help you to know that my husband has no piercings or tattoos, very short hair and a boyish face that keeps people from thinking he’s in his 30s. Every time we’re at a drive thru speaker, they call him “ma’am” and in general, he’s just not your go-to image for a hardcore lead singer.
However, it’s true. And in our house, you will find a DVD that coaches you on how to scream properly without damaging your vocal chords. Yep.
Billy holds no fantasies of being a rock star. However, every year at Halloween, when I try to pitch family-themed costumes, “Rockers” (or some variation thereof) seems to be the only one that is approved.
Still, he and his friends had a band, and they made a bunch of good memories traveling around Guatemala and performing at churches and youth meetings. Their most popular song is called “No More Suffer.”
I waited several dates before I casually mentioned that the grammar was questionable in the English chorus. (I should probably be a better girlfriend and not mention these things, but I was already worried about our grammatical compatibility.)
Billy laughed non-stop at this discovery. Apparently, no one had ever said a word. Not the radio station that played the song repeatedly. Not the Mexican band that made a cover of the hit. Not any of the fans who sang along loudly during their shows.
But no matter how many times we jokingly sang it, “No More Suffer-ing” just didn’t fit into the rhythm of the screaming. Ah well, sometimes grammar must stand aside for poetry.
You may be thinking, didn’t you say Billy was undocumented? This is not the story I expected to read.
Approximately forty percent of undocumented immigrants actually entered the US legally and overstay their allotted time. Similarly, Billy came to the US with a tourist visa, but when his allowed six months ended, he didn’t go home.
One main reason he stayed was that he found higher-paying job opportunities here than his business in Guatemala. So what kind of job does a Christian Spanish hardcore rock star get in the US?
When you walk through MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, it’s nearly impossible to miss the whisper of “ID? Need ID?” buzzing in the air. Nearly every corner hosts a guy rubbing his fingers together as a quiet sign that fake IDs are for sale.
Naturally, Billy’s friend took him there to begin his journey as a US employee. (It’s possible this experience explains why it wasn’t his top choice for a first date locale.) There, on the street, he handed over a photo and within an hour was issued the full package: green card, social security card, and a California driver’s license… for the low, low price of $99.
These illegitimate documents made it possible for Billy to visit a hiring agency. However, during that process, they informed him there was a problem with his social security number. “Okay,” Billy told them. “I’ll look into it.” He left.
Within four hours, they called him with a job. “But I thought there was a problem with my social?” he asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” they replied.
Right away, he began working at a warehouse, preparing cardboard displays for department stores. He also packaged gloves in clear boxes, ready for retail shelves. The job wasn’t difficult, but the conditions were grueling.
First of all, having recently arrived in the States, Billy was without a car and relying on LA’s public transportation system. He was required to take three trains and two buses one way to arrive at work. Since his job started at 6am, he left his house every day at 3:15 in the morning… or as I like to call it, the middle of the night! Being even five minutes late meant no work and no pay.
To help ease some of the commute, Billy used his first check to buy a bicycle. This allowed him the freedom to cut out one of the bus routes if the wait seemed long. Sadly, one month later, while he was talking with someone in Guatemala from a pay phone, someone stole his bicycle. Welcome to America!
The job was also day-to-day work. Each afternoon, a list was posted letting workers know who was hired for the next day. If your name was not there, days or weeks may go by before you were called in again. The insecurity, pressure, and intense competition of the workplace made it highly stressful employment.
When Billy tells me about his first job in the States, it just sounds crazy. I can’t fathom commuting nearly six hours a day. (Oh yeah, he had to come home on another three trains and two buses). Nor can I truly comprehend the stresses he experienced. As it turns out, this job would be the first of several gigs as an undocumented worker. And it would prove to be the least sketchy of them all.
Sarah Quezada works with Mission Year, a year-long urban service program for young adults. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband Billy and daughter Gabriella. Stories and reflections on their cross-cultural life and ministry together can be found at her blog, A Life with Subtitles.
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