WE THE INTERWOVEN
A STORY ABOUT WORK
LET ME TELL YOU about my relationship with work. ’Cause if you’re Mexican in America, you have a relationship with work. And it doesn’t matter if you’re first generation, third, undocumented, or anything in between, it’s a complicated relationship. If you’re Mexican in America, work isn’t just work. Work is how people look at you if you have an accent. Work is how dark you get when you work construction. Work is what happens when you are a bunch of Mexicans on the roof of a white person’s house. Paisas and coconuts—undocumented middle-aged men and college kids who can’t speak Spanish—all on one roof. But to the people driving along the road, we’re one and the same and hidden. Mexicans on a roof, doing a job the drivers would rather not do.
One of the first jobs I had was at the grocery store. Produce section. I applied and they responded the same day. The conversation started with technicalities, availability and contacts, but veered when the HR person on the phone asked if I was responding to their ad. I wasn’t. I just needed a job and applied. The ad was for individuals who could speak English and Spanish. I don’t remember if they asked for Mexican-Americans specifically, I don’t know if they can legally do that, but that was exactly what they were looking for. HR lady asked me point blank: “You can speak to our Spanish-speaking customers then, right?”
If we have a strained relationship with work, then first-generation Mexican-Americans feel that strain compounded due to Spanish. Here’s the thing: I can understand Spanish . . . for the most part . . . the percentage number I throw out is 80 percent understanding. My parents talk to me all in Spanish and I reply with this jilted, jagged Spanglish. It’s for the most part English with a few peros and comos peppered throughout. My wife even pointed out that my English changes when I talk to my parents, it becomes simpler, I have an accent. I didn’t realize this until she told me. A sample reply to my parents’ questions could be, “No, I worked long . . . pero, I didn’t know when. Cuando . . . eight . . . como a la ocho. Yeah . . . yeah. No se, I don’t know.”
My code switching is misfires. Buttons that stick and repeat themselves. But I can understand about 80 to 85 percent of what my parents actually say. It amazes white people when I point it out. “Yeah, my older brother speaks fluently. His oldest kid doesn’t want to speak Spanish but his youngest son does. My sister’s kids don’t speak at all, even though she’s the most Mexican out of us all.” That’s a thing we ask ourselves: How Mexican are you really?
That sentiment was racing through my mind when HR lady asked me her simple question, of whether I could speak Spanish. I stammered. “Well . . . yeah, yeah I can understand it. I don’t know how well I could speak on fruits and vegetables though.” I learned through Duolingo that the Spanish word for carrot is zanahoria. My tía used it in a sentence a week later and the serendipity blew my mind. I tried to break down the 80 percent understanding/not-so-good-at-speaking rubric to the HR lady. She spoke some HR talk that amounted to, “Good enough.”
After I got the job, my manager asked me if I wanted to pose for some photos for some advertisements, the weekly coupons the grocery store sends out on Sundays. “Sure, why not,” I told myself and posed by the oranges, cheesing for the camera. A couple of weeks later my friend Pepe told me the news.
“Hey, I saw you in the paper the other day for your work,” he said.
“Oh yeah, I forgot that they took those pictures, how did they turn out?” I asked.
“They’re alright. You look hilarious. Posing. Saying some things that you would never say.”
“What? About the produce?”
“Yeah, that too, but I mean, the fact that they got you speaking Spanish like you know it!”
I full-out sprinted to my house. Tore through the newspaper on the kitchen table. There I was. Orange in my hand. Thick blocks of Spanish text emanating from a speech bubble above my head. Words I had trouble reading, let alone speaking fluently. It was something like how quality the produce was. How if you ever needed help, come find someone who looks like me, wink wink. “Oh shit,” I thought to myself. My girlfriend’s mom, who was white, thought I looked great in the ad and put it up on the fridge. My mom did not.
I did actually have a few encounters with Spanish speakers in the grocery aisles, with varying levels of success. Once again, I can understand things pretty well, and the level of discourse on topics like trying to find the price of jalapeños is pretty basic. There was one Mexican lady that I fucked up with. She was asking about a discount on some canned food and my Spanglish came out hard. I couldn’t for the life of me remember the word for fifty. Cincuenta. Instead of saying “No, no. This is fifty cents off,” I was saying something close to “This is five and zero off. Five and zero . . . cinco y zero.” She got frustrated and left me in the aisle, not before asking where I was from and who my mother was. (How Mexican are you? How Mexican is your mom for having raised you?) I didn’t stay much longer at the grocery store.
After that I had a string of summer jobs. I was taking classes at Kirkwood and every summer came to the same conclusion that I was broke as a joke. Looking back now, the jobs I chose were interesting. I must’ve had this string of wanting to take on jobs that were stereotypically Mexican. I worked as a custodian, in a back dock for a clothes store, as a dishwasher. Deep down, I had a chip on my shoulder. Like I was the Mexican Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, mop in my hand. I got a weird kick out of white people coming up to me as I cleaned. I assumed that they assumed I didn’t speak English. I was unnecessarily verbose when giving replies, like a kid who recently discovered a thesaurus. I’m not even sure if people noticed my answers, or even me in general. Give a Mexican a mop in a store and watch them disappear before your eyes. Plus, when someone is asking for the bathroom, they usually tear off as soon as they see you point the way.
I have to be careful here about how I recall these jobs. These were tough jobs and I learned a lot from them. I argue to this day that there is honor in cleaning and doing the work that others will not do. There is catharsis and pride in manual labor that no desk job can match. There’s a section in Anna Karenina where it goes into hyper detail about a character working the field. I’ve heard people talk about how boring this section is. I was almost brought to tears. Like I said, we have a complicated relationship with work.
There is one good story from my time in the back dock of the clothing department store. That job was a family affair. My mom got the job first and pitched it to me and my brother, Johnny. Soon we got my cousin Gable to join in on the gig. The clothes would arrive in semitrucks in the back docks. We would unload them from the trucks, put them on Z racks, long yellow racks on wheels, then take them out to the various departments to slang. The wheels of the rack would screech as we wheeled them under the fluorescent lights. It was all pretty simple and carefree. For the most part people left us alone. Our manager was kind of a tool, an outcast from the rest of the department for sure, but the boss of us. He would later refer to this story I’m about to tell as the incident.
The incident goes like this. It was close to the end of the day and I was the last one left in the back dock. I was cleaning up some odds and ends, stuffing cardboard into a chute, when a sales associate came bursting through the doors.
“So what’s going on over here? I’ve been trying to call you guys for the last fifteen minutes and the phone has been busy this whole time?” she said. I looked over at the bright yellow phone on the dock wall. This is the phone that the sales associates would call us on when they wanted us to bring over some Z racks. I’m looking at the phone and I can see that it’s very slightly off its hook. I’m thinking about who was the last person to hang up the phone . . . was it Gable, maybe my mo—
“Hello!?” the associate cut off my train of thinking. “So you guys are back here and trying to get out of helping us out? What am I saying, do you even understand English?”
That was it. That was the question. I want to say that I said the following. I honestly do not remember, but I wish, I wish that I had said this: “Yes. I can understand English, I can probably speak it better than you.” My memory fails me. Rethinking on this memory, fantasizing on what I could have said clouds things. Clouds whether I actually said it or not. It’s one of the handful of shower memories I have. The memories that hit you all at once in the shower. To remember and reenact scenarios in the steam. “Even if I don’t understand English, I know enough not to be so fucking rude!” is another response I reenact. I know I did not say that one.
What I did say was, “Yeah, I do . . . sorry, I didn’t realize the phone—” as she snatched the Z rack and took it from the dock. I remember feeling helpless. As helpless as when I first went to elementary school and was too shy to speak. You know that game, two truths and a lie? My friend Ruben calls it a “parlor game.” You tell two truths and a lie to try to stumble people up. One of my go-to truths to trip people up is this: “When I first went to elementary school, I didn’t know any English and would only speak with my parents in Spanish.” I told this to my advanced university Spanish class. This was the class that I tried to CLEP out of but had to take for my language credit. I told them this factoid and they couldn’t believe it. They had experienced my Spanglish, my red-cheeked conjugation. There was no way this one was the lie. I still don’t know whether it’s true or not; my parents insist that it was. I think it had more to do with being shy, but either way I remember landing in the ESL class and crying.
Which brings me back to the incident. The incident wasn’t this exchange. The incident was the Steinbeckian letter that I wrote afterward. I took that helplessness, as she tore away the Z rack, and found the closest pad and pen. It was my Good Will Hunting moment, my Mexican “How ’bout dem apples?” I wrote out our exchange, including the “Do you even understand English?”, and talked about how we, the dock workers, put up with so much. I talked about going back to community college, I talked about equality. I let it fly. Signed it with my full name, walked over to the head manager of the entire store, and slipped it under her door. A week later HR reprimanded the associate and told her to take a couple days off to cope. My mom still talks about the incident. She and the rest of my family couldn’t stop talking about it.
“Good!” my mom would say. “They needed to hear that so they know that we’re actually people.” I wrote another letter a couple weeks later, this one to the dock manager. To let him know I was quitting for good.
These side jobs and incidents are insights into my relationship with work. Work means something different to us here. It’s complicated. It reveals things about how you look at yourself, about how you feel others look at you. There’s one job I had that encapsulates this feeling: roofing with my brother.
It was the summer after the department store gig. After another year of community college. I hated going to that college. I was an average high school student and did not have the grades to get into the university proper. My good friends went to the University of Iowa, one on a wrestling scholarship, the other through sheer scholastic achievement. I looked at community college as an albatross from not taking things as seriously as I could have in high school. Which is not to say I tried any harder at Kirkwood. It took me four and a half years to get my two-year associate’s degree. One time I caught my mom humblebragging to a neighbor that I had been going to college for X amount of years. To her, the more time you spent studying at college, the better. Doctors spend decades going to school, right? The neighbor and I didn’t have the heart to tell my mom that a physician’s course load wasn’t the same as me flunking out of algebra a second time.
So it was always good to finish up in the spring and get back to the hobbies and openness of summer. Close to the end of the semester, Charlie, one of Kirkwood’s advisement staff, found me in the commons area. Charlie was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Tall guy with glasses, who looked to always be on the precipice of a genuine smile. All you had to do was give him a reason. Tell him about your day, or what career you wanted to work in, and he would pat your shoulder and break out into that smile. Charlie, in suit jackets with shoulder pads, would spend his lunch breaks in the commons area. He’d catch up with every student he could in that hour. He always remembered my name, even recently, after not seeing me for the better part of a decade. Turns out he used to call my high school track meets. He said, “How could I forget a name like Hey-zeus?”
Anyway, Charlie checked in with me at the commons. Asked how I was doing and if I had any plans for the summer. I told him that I’d be chilling, but I usually tried to find a summer job for some extra cash. “Of course, gotta make some extra dough, right? Well, let me know how it goes? What adventures you get yourself into!” Charlie said with a laugh as he slapped my shoulder.
Charlie’s inquiry into my summer plans was on my mind while I found a job listing online. All signs pointed to it being a sales associate position. I walked into the offices and realized too late that it was one of those weird pyramid schemes where they try to get you to sell knives to your friends and family. The first “training” meeting was them trying to convince us why we needed to buy the knife set ourselves to understand the product. We’d have to pay for the knives and training to use them. Of course.
I told my mom about this, and she laughed and told me what a crock it was. Their receptionist called every weekday for three weeks after the first “interview.” They were calling me, so you know it was a scheme. After finishing laughing, my mom got out that I should work roofing with my brother, Johnny. He was back in town from Texas and had a gig lined up. I should talk to him. The next morning Johnny woke me up at six in the morning for my first day roofing.
I still had sleep in my eyes as he drove his huge Ford F-150 down the highway. The house we were going to was about forty-five minutes from our hometown of West Liberty. My brother is ten years older than me, so at the time he was hitting thirty, about the same age I am now.
Man, I used to worship Johnny as a kid. He would drive me to school in his black Firebird. Blast Rage Against the Machine as he pulled up to my middle school. I thought it was the coolest shit in the world. Zach de la Rocha is another Mexican like us, caught in the middle. I never got the full story, but either Johnny or one of his friends crashed that Firebird, wasted.
Johnny got caught with too many drugs in his apartment a couple years before our summer roofing together. He drove off to Odessa, Texas, to work in the oil fields with my tíos and keep a low profile. The high school football show Friday Night Lights takes place in a fictionalized Odessa, though my tíos told us that all the Mexicans go to the poorer high school with a shitty football team.
Anyway, Johnny came back for Christmas that year. The police pulled him over for having an out-of-state license plate. Then they saw he had a warrant for an arrest and threw him in the city jail for a couple months. I remember him walking through our door the evening he got out, glassy eyed, with a scraggly beard he’d never had before or since. He was out now and stuck in Iowa, court case pending, looking for work. Him and I would find it together. That’s not to say that he talked to me about any of this. Our family coexists between the cracks of discourse. Pregnant pauses as we think of things less personal to say.
Usually the less personal discussion is about the work ahead. As we drove along the highway, the conversation turned to that. Johnny said, “Alright, so here’s the deal. I met this guy, right? Big old white guy. He manages a couple of teams, does roofing, siding, all that shit, right? His name is Joe. This guy used to be the real deal. Now he’s lost in the sauce. Too much drink. You’ll see him, watch. He walks around like a chicken with his head cut off.” I remember this phrase. I remember how it was the perfect encapsulation of Joe’s being.
“So here’s our plan,” Johnny continued. “While this guy is dicking around with his various crews, we go in and do work. This guy Joe doesn’t get how fast we can get this shit done. There’s money here and we can work it right and get it.”
My brother was laying out his game plan as if it was this nefarious scheme. I didn’t get why doing the work better than Joe anticipated could be this underhanded thing. But I had never seen my brother work. When you work faster, harder, and smarter than anyone expects, there are ways to push past your superiors. When this work is something as unregulated as roofing and construction jobs, then you find ways to get paid that your drunken superior doesn’t see. “Get in with the homeowners, let Joe’s old connections open the door for us, leave drunken Joe outside.”
Roofing, like most real tough jobs, is pretty simple. You can learn the gist of the entire process in a day. You can grab a person off the street and have them tear down old shingles with a thirty-second demonstration, which is what Johnny taught me that first morning. Tear down is like this: you grab a pitchfork or a roofing shovel/shingle remover, you get on the roof, and you rip off the shingles from the bottom up. You got to push and scrape under the shingles. To get underneath the nails. Then you leverage your shovel and pry the shingles off. When you get good at it, you can pry big chunks of shingles from the roof. You start at the bottom of the roof and work your way up. It’s grunt work. Necessary and taxing. After tearing off, you heave the chunks of debris onto a tarp or dumpster below. Finesse comes into play when you deal with the felt underneath the shingles. The layers of a roof, from the most superficial to the deepest, goes shingles, felt, then plywood. The felt is there to waterproof the house. If you rip into the old felt before you roll new felt on, this could be a problem. Especially if you don’t have any new rolls of felt at hand and there’s a chance of rain that day. There’s many a scolded grunt for being too careless when tearing down and ripping the felt up to shit.
After tear down, you have to get the new shingles onto the roof. Other people use mechanical lifts to plop dozens of shingle bundles on a roof. We had to hoist the eighty-pound bundles over our shoulders and climb the ladder ourselves. We made games of it—see who could ascend the ladder the smoothest or who could carry the most bundles in a day.
My brother taught me the basics on the roofs of cookie-cutter condos in North Liberty. After a couple weeks we started to amass a squad of misfits to lay out Johnny’s plan. I talked my cousins Tony and Mark into joining us. Tony and Mark were both a year younger than me and dancers in my breaking crew. We three were inseparable that summer, so it made sense to get them to join us and make some money. Tony and Mark were cousins of mine like almost everyone in West Liberty is your cousin. In other words, we weren’t actually cousins. Hear me out. Somewhere in the family trees, one of my mom’s tías is the half sister to one of their dad’s cousins. But by the white definition of the word, we were best friends who said we were cousins. It was easier to say so than to trace the mangled roots of our family trees. Tony and Mark were out of high school, always arguing or goofing off, and as clueless as I was to the real world. We were the bottom-of-the-barrel grunts and too young to realize how much that actually sucked.
One morning, on the caravan to pick everyone up, Johnny said that he was grabbing Malcolm, one of his old friends. When our F-150 pulled up to the condo in Iowa City to pick Malcolm up, Mark was the first to notice the familiar face.
“Oh hey, that’s James Truth!” Mark said as he got out to meet Malcolm/James.
“Is that what he’s going by nowadays?” Johnny asked as Tony followed Mark to give James some dap. James Truth was the rapper stage name of Malcolm, Johnny’s old friend from his Iowa City days before the arrest. We knew James Truth from the hip-hop circuit. We were all part of a monthly hip-hop showcase. James would rap and our crew would break during intermissions. James was dark, handsome, smooth talking, and a pretty good performer. He fashioned himself after the the rapper/singers of the time. 50 Cent. The Game.
“Doesn’t matter what he goes by as long as he can still hold it down with a nail gun,” Johnny said before the trio piled into the truck.
Turned out Malcolm could still work a nail gun and lay shingles down. Not as good as Johnny, but good enough to be an asset to the team. What separates the grunts from the skilled roofers is what happens after you’re done tearing off and placing felt down. It’s when you actually have to lay down new shingles. The skilled guys can place shingles down and secure them in place fast with a nail gun. You could tell how good a person was with a nail gun by the rhythm and pacing of the nails firing each shingle in place. Malcolm was good: his nail gun would be at a steady pop . . . pop . . . pop before he took a beat to slap on the next shingle and repeat the process. Johnny was a master. He would line up all his shingles in a row and smoothly shift to each one on his knees.
Poppoppop-poppoppop-poppoppop—All along the roof. Johnny and Malcolm carried old foam couch cushions to rest their knees on while nail gunning. If you were fancy you would get some knee pads, but we made do with what we had.
Johnny and Malcolm would reminisce about old days between nail-gun shots. Tony, Mark, and I would wipe away sweat and dirt from our faces and talk about what new trouble we could get into during the weekends. We would all have calluses and bruises from lifting bundles up ladders. Cuts and scrapes from bumping into nail and debris. The smell of tar and dust filled our nostrils as we worked in stifling heat. We would crack jokes at each other’s expense and get paid on a semi-regular basis. It was getting close to Johnny’s original plan. Drunken Joe would give us a new roofing job to do, we would get it finished close to or better than the estimated time. And repeat.
We would get paid in cash, of course. There were no W2s, no insurance, and no taxes for the type of roofing we were doing. Paychecks were rolls of cash transferred from Joe’s bank account to Johnny’s hand. Johnny would then divvy up the sum to his team. I remember getting paid for the first time. I mean paid. It wasn’t like the paychecks at the grocery store; checks for seven dollars an hour for fifteen-hour work weeks. The first time I got paid roofing, Johnny handed me the most money I had ever held in my hand. Tony, Mark, and I spent it like kids working summer jobs living at home do, on games, clothes, movies, and other things we didn’t need but felt good spending money on.
My brother was saving his money up. I didn’t think much about it at the time but had to have known the reason for Johnny’s plan in the first place. My cousins and I enjoyed the extra spending money to burn, but my brother needed this money. For bills. For lawyer fees. To get the fuck out of Iowa and on with his life. I think back on the rhythm of his nail gun and hear his desperation in trying to get ahead of his past. Poppoppop-poppoppop.
And we were getting ahead at first, getting ahead of schedule, finishing jobs faster than Joe could find them. We were getting paid. Joe even gave us bigger cuts ’cause he was happy with us.
“You guys are fast, not like the other teams I got,” Joe would say to us each time he got our money out of the bank. Joe would usually have me drive him for these bank runs since he started cracking open Busch Lights around eight in the morning. I didn’t mind being his chauffeur, because that meant getting away from manual labor and closer to cash in my pocket.
Those first couple of weeks were simple and as fun as you could get doing manual labor. We worked fast and got paid. Joe mainly stayed out of our way besides sometimes wobbling up a ladder to inspect our work. We all got darker. We started to notice that girls started to notice that we were getting fitter. I hated eating heavy during lunch breaks ’cause that would make the last stretch of the day a slog. So I stuck to salad, chicken, and water. My diet and work load put me in one of the best shapes of my life.
One particularly sunny day, Johnny busted out some sunblock. He handed it to Malcolm.
“Come on now. I’ve never known any black man to use that stuff once in his life,” Malcolm said as he tossed it over to me. I looked at the way the tattoos on his arm hid in the tone of his skin, then over to the blue bottle in my hand.
“I’ve never used this stuff before either,” I said as I tossed it back to Johnny.
“You sure, man? You’re not trying to look cool in front of Malcolm, are you?” Johnny replied. It was true though. I remember being in awe at how much sunblock my white friends had to put on at the Kimberly Park pool. They in turn would marvel at how dark I got while the spots they missed turned pink and cracked. Tony, Mark, and I took off our shirts and worked in the sun all day for maximum tanning results.
The next day my back felt itchy as I sat in the back seat of the truck. We would start working early enough in the day that it was still cold out. By nine or ten in the morning it was warm enough to take off our hoodies. By half past eleven it was hot and we took off our shirts again.
“Holy. Shit. Man, your back’s all burnt up!” Mark said to me while getting Tony’s attention. Noticing Mark’s back, I immediately realized how mine must have looked.
“Aw man, do I look as dumb as you two?” Tony asked before I could. We had managed to completely sunburn our entire backs. But since we were working on the roof with our backs toward the sun the whole day, the fronts of our bodies were pale. We looked like three miserable lobsters, red backs and white bellies. Johnny and Malcolm cracked up from their spots on the roof.
We kept our pace through June and into July. We did roofs in Iowa City, North Liberty, Cedar Rapids, and tons of little towns in southeast Iowa. I dealt with my fear of heights on this three-story monstrosity of a roof. We had to nail pieces of two-by-fours onto the roof to walk along ’cause the angle was so steep.
Everything was going good until Joe started noticing the money that we were making. That’s how it works. I mean Joe noticing in the way someone notices that they can make more money off someone. Things started to get crunchy when Joe started to hoist new members into our crew. The first new person Joe introduced was this guy named Darren. The entire summer that I roofed, Darren was the only white guy who was there as our equal, meaning he didn’t consider himself to be over us in any way and was actually proud to work with us. He was middle aged and sinewy with a stutter. He was a grunt but worked hard. Darren liked to show how hip he was by using Mexican slang and talking about all the different types of woman he was into. “It don’t matter guey I’ll t-talk to any mami,” Darren would say during breaks, our legs dangling off the side of the roof.
On a cloudy day in Mt. Vernon, Joe came up to us to talk about the last member he wanted to join our team. Cloudy days were tricky ’cause Johnny would be on edge that it might start raining. Then we would have to tarp over any unshingled areas of the roof and call it a day. A day off was fine for most of us, but to Johnny it meant another day slowed down from finishing a project. Joe walked over to Johnny, smelling of cheap beer.
“Alright, so there’s this guy that I got coming onto our team, Johnny,” Joe said as he walked up. Johnny hid a smirk as he reacted to the “our team” part of that statement.
“Oh yeah? We gonna get someone that can actually handle a nail gun this time?” Johnny replied.
“Of course, of course. Let me tell you, Johnny. This guy is an illegal, right? And you know me, I don’t give two shits whether you’re illegal or legal or from fuckin’ Mars as long as you can work.” Johnny put down his nail gun and sat on his foam pad to look over at Joe. “And this guy Arturo, he used to work for me, and I tell ya, he was the best damn worker I’ve ever had. Could finish a whole roof off on his own if you gave him a day.”
Johnny laughed. “Alright then. I’m not gonna argue with that. When’s he start?”
“Well, here’s the thing, Arturo got tied up in some shit back in Mexico. I don’t know what it is with you people, but he got himself into a mess and can’t get here. Damn shame too, ’cause I told him there’s money to be made. So Arturo is sending his brother to work in his place.”
“And he’s good?” Johnny asked.
“If he’s half the worker Arturo was, then he’ll be good enough for our team.” Joe said as he ran his hand through his messy graying hair and blew a snot rocket off the roof.
A week later Arturo’s brother, Ignacio, showed up at our house at seven in the morning ready to work.
“Alright, let’s see what this Mexican can do,” Johnny said to me as he filled his thermos with coffee before we piled into his truck. At this point Johnny relegated Tony and Mark to the bed of the truck, among the piles of shingles and tools. They cracked jokes to each other in the passing wind.
Turned out Ignacio wasn’t quite half the worker Arturo was. He fell somewhere between Malcolm and Johnny in competency with a nail gun. He wasn’t the master gunslinger that my brother hoped for. Ignacio was the adequate sheriff’s deputy to Johnny’s Cisco Kid. But he equaled out our ratio of gunners to grunts. There was Malcolm, Johnny, and Ignacio nailing the sections of roofs that Tony, Mark, Darren, and I would tear off.
Johnny translated for Ignacio to the rest of us. Johnny was fluent in Spanish and let Ignacio in on our plans for the summer. At this point we were pulling way ahead of scheduled projects. One day I watched as Johnny made his move below with the owner of a house. Johnny talked to him about the project we finished and said, “Hey, if you know of anyone else that needs work done, give them my number.” At this point the homeowner knew that Johnny was the one actually calling the shots.
“Yeah, you know Joe used to be a respectable guy,” the owner confided to Johnny. “Now he’s gotten too deep into the drink. Deep down that guy is still in there . . . but what was your number again?” Johnny gave it to him and they shook hands.
Pretty soon we were adding side projects that Joe wasn’t privy to. Johnny would split us up, three of us working here, four of us working there for a day. We were making bank. Even though Ignacio was not his fabled brother Arturo, he was enough for us to ramp up our speed. Our group started to hit our groove.
Until we hit this house in West Liberty. It was a new house under construction, which should have made it easier. Johnny actually went to high school with the owner of the house.
“Oh wow. Never thought you’d be one of the guys working on my new house!” the guy jovially said to Johnny the first day our ragtag group walked on his property.
There was something about this house that brought the worst luck. Tony and Mark started throwing around the word cursed. The House on the Hill. It rained on and off the first week we started. A pallet of shingles Joe got for us were all rotted and unusable. There was a high amount of accidents on the site. We started to fall behind on schedule.
The House on the Hill was shaping up to be American wholesomeness on the outside. It was the inside of the house that was causing our bad luck. The cutting of corners on the construction caused our misfortune. Johnny pointed out some of the shoddy workmanship that went into the house.
“I’m shaking my damn head at some of the things I’m seeing. Look at this. Dude is trying to cut all these corners and be cheap but still look nice. Why not get the work done right the first time?” Johnny said.
To be honest, I didn’t really notice some of the things my brother was pointing out. Over the summer I came to learn one of the fundamental differences between us. When it came to roofing, Johnny had an intense pride in his work and the finished output. He would comment on botched roof jobs we passed by. Or divulge how he would’ve gotten construction jobs done in simpler and more cost-effective ways. Or make us redo the chalk lines we snapped onto the felt of a roof. Over and over again. Until it was right. At times it felt like being on the set of a Stanley Kubrick movie with the same notorious attention to detail. I’m imagining the reshoots on the set of 2001 as Stanley makes the apes carry shingles up the ladder just right.
The only time Johnny handed the three cousins a nail gun, one of us had misaligned a shingle and added an extra nail. This was on a random part of a roof that no owner would have seen. Johnny made us tear down the entire row of shingles and lay down a perfect new row.
“We have to prove that we can do this shit right. Have pride in your work,” he would say to us. To himself.
The day I shocked my arm on an exposed wire, we had to cut the work early. Not because of the accident, but because we were getting well into July and it was getting hot. Waves-of-heat-dancing-in-the-sky hot. So hot that as we walked on the roof, our boots left tar footprints on the shingles. At first Johnny told us to walk with our whole feet on the roof and be careful. But after Darren and I left a particularly noticeable trail, Johnny had us quit.
“This is fucked. We’re going to have to redo this entire roof,” Johnny said. I tried to hide my eye roll as I made my way down the ladder.
A difference in new-construction homes is there are lots of little teams working beside each other. There was the group of guys doing the siding of the house, the legitimate crew pouring the concrete for the driveway, electricians, and so on. As my brother and I traded passive-aggressive barbs over the tracks on the roof, we passed by one of these other crews. They were a group of white high school kids plastering the inside of the home’s garage. The kids ignored my brother and I, and our cousins walking beside us. Getting ignored by the other groups on a site—hell, from everyone—was common. It was like my janitorial days—you sort of vanish when you’re working.
But it was different when the high school kids saw Malcolm. I looked on as one of the kids nudged another to get his attention. They attempted to brush off some of the plaster caked on their clothes as they made there way over to James Truth.
“Ay yo, man you got a cigarette?” one of them asked. I suspected they already knew that he indeed did. The two kids ended up talking to Malcolm for the better part of fifteen minutes. It ended with one of the kids showcasing some of his raps as Malcolm looked on and laughed.
As we walked to the truck, finished for the day as the temperature was still rising, Johnny asked Malcolm, “What was that all about?”
“Gotta give them what they want. They said they’d be at my next show,” James replied.
After a couple more mishaps, we finished that cursed house way behind schedule. We were happy to finish and move on, especially since not having done any other jobs meant we were that much further from getting paid. We started a new house in Iowa City and picked up the pace. Joe usually paid us on Fridays, even if we got jobs done earlier. It was his way of trying to keep things official feeling. The Friday on the new Iowa City job came and went. Then another Friday. We were well into July without a cent to show for the cursed house. Joe kept giving Johnny excuses. Talking about how this other crew he had was asking for money too and how Joe had some plans lined up to get all us paid.
Tony and Mark started talking to Ignacio, teaching him English words like they taught Darren Spanish. Ignacio asked them how to say “Pay me” in English.
Mark replied, “Nah, nah, for now with Joe it should go: Fuck you. Pay me.”
Ignacio repeated the line with a heavy accent, his hands outstretched on the roof. “Ay pinche Joe. Fuck you. Pay me!”
Tony, Mark, and Ignacio all laughed as they took turns demanding money from an invisible Joe on the roof. Johnny’s nail gun cut through the air in even rhythms.
As we finished our last job in July with no payout in sight, things started to get tense. Tony and Mark even caught dour moods as they stopped goofing around on the job. We had a couple days where we all worked in relative silence, the ambient noise of cars passing and birds chirping mixed with the clanking of our tools.
Finally one Saturday Ignacio had enough. He came knocking at our house in the afternoon. As I opened the front door he immediately starting speaking rapid-fire Spanish. I couldn’t catch everything but could tell he was angry. I tried to slow him down as he continued to rant until finally Ignacio slowed down and pointed past me, indicating that he was talking about my brother.
“Fuck you. Pay me,” he said before walking off in disgust.
I mentioned this to Johnny later that night. “I keep on telling him that Joe keeps on ducking me,” Johnny said. “We’re all hurting here, not just him.” I looked over at the video games I had bought the month earlier and changed the subject.
It wasn’t too long after this incident that Ignacio left the group permanently. Turned out he was sending most of his cash to help get his brother out of trouble in Mexico. With the little cash left over, he rented an apartment behind a laundromat downtown. It was a utility closet that someone converted into a “studio apartment.” Ignacio sent too much money back home and couldn’t cover the rent for August. They kicked him out and kept the deposit. If Kurt Vonnegut were Mexican, would he still say “So it goes,” or maybe “Así pasa”?
If our output stalled after the cursed house, it crawled even more now that Ignacio was gone. Finally Johnny had had enough. Joe had given us too many excuses and runarounds. Johnny called in Sergio to replace Ignacio. Sergio, or Serg, pronounced like “surge,” was a tough guy. Scratch that. Sergio was one of the toughest guys in West Liberty’s storied history of tough guys. If life were a movie, when Serg walked into a room, there would be a Quentin Tarantino sting and credit accompanying him. Inglorious Cabrones.
Johnny and Serg used to deal with the West Liberty of the late ’80s and early ’90s, where the tensions and racism manifested themselves in more violent ways. By the time their younger brothers went through school, it was a different time. There was still strife and bullshit on the playground, I remember a kid continually referring to my friends and I as “darkies.” But it was nothing compared to the stuff that Johnny and Serg used to face. Serg dealt with it head on. The stories of him fighting racist kids towns over were famous in the little-brother circuits. Serg was around less for the roofing and more for the inevitable time Johnny confronted Joe about our wages.
Johnny talked one of the homeowners he was now close with to find the spot where Joe was working with one of his other teams. It was in a run-down neighborhood in Cedar Rapids. We pulled up early in the morning, to catch Joe not too far down in the drink. Our whole squad pulled up minus Darren. However down for the cause Darren was on the rooftops, he confided to us that this wasn’t his fight. Johnny’s plan was to confront Joe heavy, with Serg and Malcolm behind him as the muscle. Tony, Mark, and I were a little too small, but we could fit the profile in certain people’s eyes.
As we walked toward the house, we saw Joe and his unkempt hair on the roof, watching all the other workers.
Malcolm was the first to say it. “Would you look at that. He got himself a team of brothers down here?” I looked over at the workers Joe was overseeing and saw that they were all black. Looking closer I saw they had the same configuration we had on our team, two guys on nail guns, three to four grunts to tear down. Johnny yelled at Joe to come down the ladder. The workers on the roof stopped and watched as Joe came down the ladder. His boots clanked on the metal of the ladder as he made his way down.
“This is the other team you keep blaming for not paying us?” Johnny asked.
“Look, Johnny, I told you what happened. I tried to get supplies for that big project that we could all work on and things got caught up. It happens all the—”
“Don’t say anything about how things happened before, old man,” Serg said, cutting Joe off. His words were level and short. A warning. “We’re here to tell you how things are going to happen. You’re going to pay us. Now.”
Joe started to reply before stopping himself. He looked small then. Defeated. He ran his hands through his hair, a nervous tic that caused his hair to stand on end like a blue-collar Einstein.
“Fine. Will you take me to the bank then?” Joe asked in a small voice. Johnny nodded for me to do my duty and chauffeur Joe like old times.
I entered the driver’s side of Joe’s truck and immediately rolled down the window, as was the tradition. Joe fumbled with the passenger-side door as the empty beer cans rattled around the floor.
“Jesus,” I muttered to myself.
We drove to the bank in silence, which was fine by me but must have rubbed Joe the wrong way. “You know I wasn’t meaning you all any harm, right?” Joe asked.
“I don’t care, man. As long as it’s behind us.”
“You know what the funny thing is, though? I did spend your money on supplies for a bigger project. That part’s true.”
“Yeah, but how long ago was that?” I asked.
“Hold up, don’t get ahead of me,” Joe said before taking a deep breath. “But you know that other team, right? Here’s the thing with those black folks. They are always bitching about their money. They came up to me with puffed-up chests weeks before you guys did. What’s that say about you?”
My jaw clenched as I stared ahead.
“But that’s just the way it works. See, the black guys, they’ll always demand payment first. That’s just how it works. But you—” Joe pointed at me for emphasis. “You guys. The Mexicans. You’ll work and work and rarely ask for the money. Not until way past the point of any other group, that’s for damn sure. And that’s why I’ll always sing your praises. To the Mexicans. To the workers,” he said and looked at me, in his smelly truck with no AC. Until I finally looked over and saw he had his hand outstretched for a handshake. I looked at his hand, then at his ruddy face. I listened to his labored breathing as he sat. Waiting. I shook his hand and pulled up to the bank as he got our money from the bank teller.
I hated myself for a long time for that handshake. When I delivered the money, I told Serg about it.
“And you shook his fucking hand?” he said.
“I didn’t know what else to do.”
“I would’ve knocked him out.”
I couldn’t stop thinking about it. About the whole situation. The vileness and inherent racism of pitting the two groups against each other. Of my complacency in shaking his hand to get my money. My cosigning of the operation. After that handshake I couldn’t look at our roofing the same. I started skipping days, letting the group work on without me. People called me lazy.
Johnny kept his rhythm. He didn’t have time to think about the nuances of the discrimination at hand. He needed to work. After about a week of skipping days, he stopped trying to get me up in the morning. He kept at it. Even when Joe kept trying to shortchange him on projects. Even when the other guys followed suit and quit. He kept on working. Until one day he rushed into our kitchen clutching his arm. My mom screamed at the rivulets of blood formed on Johnny’s arm. He had broken it falling off a ladder. He winced at the pain of rolling up his shirt and running water over the wound.
“That’s not gonna help. You have to go to the hospital!” my mom said. Over and over. Johnny stood over the sink for a long time. The water ran from the faucet as the three of us stood in the kitchen.
“Fine,” he said with his eyes closed. My mom sprang to action, fumbled with her keys.
There were only a couple weeks left of the summer by then. The next morning I woke up early to go to an advising session at Kirkwood. I bumped into my brother on my way to make breakfast. He cursed under his breath in the living room, his nondominant hand clawing at the buttons on his shirt. His right hand hung limp by his side in a cast. His footfalls reverberated off our living room walls in an even beat as he passed by me. Off to work another roof. Alone.
There was a knot in my throat walking to the advising session at Kirkwood. Charlie, the jovial Kirkwood adviser, caught me before the entrance.
“Jesus, it is so good to see you again!” He reached out for a handshake. I looked down at the palm before me. A beat. Ignored.
“Jesus, how are you doing? Did you end up getting any cool jobs over the summer?” he asked with a smile.
His hand stood outstretched. Another beat.
“No. I didn’t end up working, actually.” I fought back tears and walked past him into the advising session.
I transferred to the University of Iowa after Kirkwood, without the summer jobs. I graduated from the U of I two years later. With big plans and an impending knee injury that dashed said plans. While recovering from this injury, I ended up working at a day center for individuals with special needs. This was hard work. Physically and emotionally. You don’t know hard work until you have to account for the basic daily needs of another person. Where someone actually depends on you to live. It changed me. Gave me a whole different perspective on privilege and life. There are stories there, big and small, for another time.
But that is to say that I worked at the day center for almost a decade. I used the skills I learned there to come back full circle to the University of Iowa. To Hancher Auditorium, its grandiose performance hall. I jumped for joy when I got the job. A career. Marrying my love for art with the community skills I acquired at the day center. After orientation, my supervisor gave me my keys to the entire building. Same as the other full-time staff, as equals.
Johnny came to visit with his two boys while I was working one of Hancher’s first open-house events. At my time at the day center he parted ways with Joe but continued to work real tough construction and factory jobs. But he also had three kids with a woman who’s not around anymore. Now he’s a single dad working for his kids. Third shift. Side jobs. Whatever he can work for those kids to get ahead.
He walked up to me at a booth in the auditorium. It was the first I had seen him in a long time. He was studying the lobby as he walked on the bright white tile toward me.
“Finally, man. Finally one of us made it,” he said after we hugged, the smell of his cologne reminded me of riding in his car as a kid.
A couple of weeks after that my parents came to visit. Only they got lost and ended up in a random university building. Hancher was a newly constructed building at the time, not accurately reflected on their GPS map. My parents called me from the other building’s reception area while I walked from the auditorium. I was trying to orient myself to where they said they were. The sun was warm on my face as I tried to find the building they described. Then I heard another voice on the line. My mom had handed her cell to the receptionist of the other building.
“Hi. I’m here with your parents and I think they said you work here?” the voice asked.
“No, no, they’re at the wro—” I started to reply.
“So I called over to the custodial staff and couldn’t get a hold of anyone. Are you there, or with food services? Or should I direct her to the back dock?”
No joke. I stopped in my tracks. Work is what happens when you honor the jobs that made you who you are, but know that those jobs aren’t the only ones that define us. Work is what happens when I hung up on the receptionist and set out to defy her preconceived notions. Work is the sound of a nail gun, cutting through the air. It’s even rhythm, a story unto itself. Like I said, it’s complicated.
Jesus “Chuy” Renteria is an artist, writer, dancer, and teacher, but above all, he is a storyteller. Born in Iowa City and raised in West Liberty, both sides of his family are from border towns in Mexico that transplanted to meatpacking towns in the Midwest.