Working among the West's newcomers

by Dustin Solberg

It's well past midnight on the first night of my new job, and I'm looking out the window of a Ford van heading north on I-25, radio tuned to Radio Romantica, the undisputed slicked-back pompadour of Denver radio stations. We speed through the city and sprawl of the Front Range in these wee hours, just finished with a catering gig in one of the tallest hotels around. We're moonlighting, most of us - we are the temp caterers who serve the platters of alder-smoked salmon and penne pasta at Denver's banquet halls.

Our night is over now, and our clip-on black bowties hang loose around the collars of our second-hand tuxedo shirts. It's as if we're the worn-out visiting team on the way home from the game, but I can't tell whether we've won or lost.

We showed up and worked hard and came out 50 dollars closer to the American Dream. Some will wire a significant part of their earnings, via Western Union (envios dinero en minutos), south of the border, where such remittances comprise a significant piece of Latin American economies. This I know, for I've just returned from a year in Guatemala.

When I look at this crew, I can't tell who crossed the border a mojado - a wetback - and who came with the blessing of the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service. But no matter how these mothers and brothers and sons got here, they have all the papers they need. Some have real U.S. government visas and green cards, and the rest bought fake ones on the street. One 30-year-old budding entrepreneur was recently deported to Mexico when the cops caught him in the Denver suburbs with a stack of 400 fake Social Security cards. It's a seller's market, because when there's work to be done, it doesn't matter where your papers come from. You'll get the job.

One night, I meet an immigrant I'll call Roberto. He was once an accountant in Peru, where he lived a routine middle-class life with his wife and three children, until a Spanish multinational bought out the telephone company he worked for. Out of work in a dismal economy, Roberto bought a carefully written letter that identified him as a Protestant minister who'd been invited to a church in the U.S. That letter cost $3,000 on the black market, but it was convincing: It got him a six-month visa from the U.S. embassy.

That was four years ago. Now, Roberto lives in the suburbs, drives a car, and carries a wallet with a Colorado driver's license and a Sam's Club membership card. His exile is a temporary one, and if conditions in Peru improve, he'll return. But until that happens, he will continue to work for American dollars and send money home every month, where it pays his daughter's university tuition. When he's lonely, Roberto writes poetry, and plays ballads on his mandolin that remind him of home.

Roberto tells me this over a late-night dinner of leftovers in the fluorescent-lit employee cafeteria in the basement. He shows me his Social Security card, and when I carefully inspect it for signs of its pirated origins, I find none. It's perfect.

"Cuanto cuesta?" I ask. How much did it cost?

"Trescientos dolares," he says, matter-of-factly, as if we're discussing the price of something ordinary, like the new television in his living room.

Later, over burritos and Cokes, I tell my friend Miguel, who's also from South America, about Roberto and his incredible story of slipping past the anti-immigration radar.

Miguel politely waits for me to finish my story and then says, very plainly, "To me, that is not incredible." Miguel already knows the story. You see, he, too, carries a Social Security card that cost him $300.

Even on my first night, I can see that this squad of caterers works as a team. The veterans graciously look out for rookies. They tell me how to keep the boss off my back: Never put your hands in your pockets, and even if there's nothing to do, look busy.

Still, the joking never lets up for long. They ask me - the only gringo - about where I got my papers. They tell me where the prettiest girls in Mexico come from. I learn new street Spanish, too: guero, chingado, cabron, la migra.

When you're on the job in this business, you wear a nametag. Even if you don't have a nametag of your own, you pull one from the company's bag of cast-offs. So the first day, I pick one that reads "Victor." On another day, when I'm "Esteban," a guy points at my new name and tells me, "I was Esteban yesterday."

"And today," I say, looking at his nametag, "you are Yanni?"

"That's my real name," Yanni says. He's from Bulgaria, and he's stuck around long enough to earn his own nametag.

One particularly busy night, when the pool of names is down to one, I become "Mahmoud," from Turkey.

My catering job doesn't last long after that, and I never get a nametag of my own. I end up teaching English to immigrant kids in public schools, out in Denver's first ring of old decaying suburbs, where most of my catering crewmates live and where their children go to school. I teach in schools where almost half of the students come from Spanish-speaking homes, and one where students speak 19 different languages.

The local markets sell fresh tortillas for the table. A mom-and-pop taqueria has sprung up in the shell of an old Taco Bell restaurant. A once-floundering shopping mall now has a thriving Latino supermarket, selling spices and chorizo, huge pots for the stove and Styrofoam tortilla warmers.

It's not the suburban life I usually picture, but it is not inconsistent with the trends. The number of immigrants in Colorado has doubled in the last 10 years, and new communities are sprouting, bringing grit and vida, life, to places once thought to have little of either.

These are neighborhoods of landscapers and street sweepers, dishwashers and fry cooks, and though they arrive poor and lonely in a new land, they will not remain nameless for long. They will pin nametags to their shirts and work hard, and these nametags can only begin to tell their stories.

The author, originally from North Dakota, is a former editor at High Country News.

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