Editor’s note: This is the 3rd 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.
After arriving to the States as an international music sensation (well… maybe I’m exaggerating a bit), Billy entered the reality of working without papers. Two months commuting six hours daily for minimum wage, and he took a new job with an underground drilling company. He began work as a laborer, digging trenches along the streets of Los Angeles.
This season was a turning point for Billy. He went from being a middle-class, bilingual Guatemalan musician to “just another Mexican” on the side of the road wearing a hard hat. It’s difficult for me to explain how shocking this experience was for Billy, so he’s helped me co-write this post.
I never thought I would end up working in construction. That was never my life plan. I had once dreamed of being an architect, but never a laborer.
It was a cultural shock even to work with many of the guys I was working with in the field because of social class differences. Growing up, my family was middle class, but I suddenly realized I didn’t have any privileges in the States. It meant nothing that I had a last name with a good reputation in Guatemala or even that I spoke English. Those things weren’t opening doors anymore.
And I sucked at manual labor. I didn’t have the physical strength to do the job, and I had to develop it. I didn’t know exactly how to do the work, uncovering underground utilities. I had to learn to use jack hammers, bobcats, and other machines where I had no experience and there was no training.
Ultimately, I had to humble myself and ask for help from guys that, had we met back at home, we would probably have never even spoken. Here in the States, they became my best friends. I learned a lot about humility.
This experience caused me to question my own identity and to question God’s purpose for my life. I had always seen myself as a ministry teacher, and in Guatemala I had been working as a pastor in a very large church. I also had hopes that the ministry of the band would grow and be successful.
Now, here I was, working in construction. That was not part of my plan.
This post was challenging for me to write, partly because I am very aware that we are so familiar with the stereotype of Latinos working construction. It makes me wonder if I or other Americans can truly recognize how many men may “end up” in this field because it is open for undocumented workers, but it does not mean they are trained for it, interested in it, or even good at it.
After a month in construction, Billy realized several workers were living at the company rent-free. He inquired and soon moved into a room filled with bunk beds and twenty other construction workers.
Many of his new roommates had arrived in the States via coyotes. Coyotes are paid guides who smuggle migrants across international borders. Hiring a coyote is a monumental risk. Some are decent and will help you arrive safely at your destination. Others may exploit you for profit or personal gain or may be mixed up in drug smuggling, and they are incredibly dangerous.
Of course, choosing to cross the border on your own is often a higher risk, so many migrants rely on coyotes. Many travelers, though, cannot afford the fee (sometimes $3,000) for the coyote on their own.
Enter the construction company… offering to pay it in exchange for a promise to work for them until the debt is cleared. They deducted smugglers’ fees from the workers’ paychecks. Somehow, though, the guys were never able to pay it off. Instead, they lived in “Coyote Inn” as it was called and continued working for the company.
It wasn’t long (although this is so bizarre to me) before Billy was promoted to general manager at this construction company. The work days got longer. He was now at the office by 5am and leaving at midnight… often seven days a week.
Even still, since he lived on the premises, the owner would sometimes wake him at 2am to open the gate for arriving trucks. Billy recounts that these vehicles were often filled with electronics. Shady? Um… yeah.
Billy worked long days and came back to sleep in a room filled with guys drinking, doing drugs, and watching porn. Everyone deals with hopeless situations in their own way. Billy’s desperation led him to seek out a closet in the warehouse. He pulled everything out, pushed his mattress into it, and basically jumped onto his bed from the doorway.
He lived in that closet for one year.
Though his non-work hours were few, Billy began partying and drinking heavily. Sometimes he would pass out drunk in the parking lot, and the guys would bring him into the building.
I’ve heard it said life is like a game of Dominoes. We spend time carefully balancing our game pieces and creating our own world. And immigration… is someone slamming their hand down on the table. Everything falls.
But even in that messy pile of Dominoes, God does not let His children go. Billy was still attending church every now and then, and we are so grateful for Faith Community Church. A sweet group of Christians there loved Billy through these crazy times and helped him stay connected to his true identity.
Billy eventually left that construction company and worked briefly for another one. When their paychecks weren’t clearing, he moved on to work as an independent contractor installing satellite TV.
By now, a couple family members had also come to live in the States, and Billy was setting up new Dominoes. He was still hanging out with friends from church, but no longer partying or living in a closet. Soon, he again decided to visit a pastor friend of his at a church in South Los Angeles.
There he would meet me for the third time… but the first one that I remembered.
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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