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As the United States’ closest neighbor, Mexicans have had more access to immigrate than other nationalities. In fact borders shifted to incorporate California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, as well as parts of Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas, all previously Mexican territory. Since the Mexican Revolution in 1910, Mexican men, women and children have come both on their own and through temporary worker programs, such as the Bracero program (1942-1964). At times the border was nearly open, but over the last several decades the US government has increased border enforcement. Even as the border crossings have become more dangerous, immigrants continue to come.
For Gabino Fernandez, like many others, the push to migrate was in search of better wages. Although he had stable work in Mexico, he and his family struggled to make ends meet. He heard from his brother and other friends that work was available and pay was higher in the US – in fact, word of mouth and the encouragement of others played a large role into his decision to leave.
Gabino was born and raised in Chignahuapan, Mexico, a small town about an hour and a half north of the city of Puebla and two and a half hours east of Mexico City. He is from a family who never had much and always struggled to make ends meet. Gabino is one of seven children; his mother worked very hard to take care of the family but couldn’t manage alone. Gabino and his older siblings began working at a young age to bring in extra financial support. Gabino remembers his first paid job at seven years old. He was paid 250 pesos a month–less than a dollar a day– to take care of up to 300 goats. As he got older Gabino didn’t want to continue goat herding, so when a friend told him about a job in ‘El D.F.’ (Mexico City) he jumped at the opportunity. They moved to Mexico City to work for a construction company, although he was under the legal working age he convinced the supervisor to employ him. He worked hard and learned all he could. A couple of years later, returning to Chignahuapan he found casual construction jobs with his newly acquired skills and also gained employment in a ‘madereria’ (lumberyard).
Working from such a young age Gabino was never able to attend school. He didn’t know how to read or write, yet became convinced that education was necessary for his advancement. He found ‘un escuela nocturna’ (night school) where he could learn. He was determined and endured long days of work, followed by class each evening. His hard work paid off with the completion of a ‘Certificado de Primaria’, a primary school diploma (grades 1-6).
Mexicans migrating without documents have to pay high prices to “coyotes” and often put their lives at risk, but they believe the possible benefits outweigh the risks. Gabino paid $1,500 to cross the border, which is a lot of money. He was packed into the back of a pickup truck with 30 other people. They all risked being caught or injured as they raced right over the border, traveling at high speeds to evade the police.
In 1990, at the age of 18 he came to the U.S. for the first time. He met his brother who was already living here and hoped to find employment. He had heard many say, “it’s easy to find work” or “there’s lots of jobs and opportunities in the U.S.” However, this isn’t what he found. After 4-5 months without finding stable work, he grew frustrated and returned home where he had a job; although lower paying than U.S. wages, it was stable and paid weekly.
Back in Chignahuapan he worked two jobs, construction during the day and in the lumberyard at night, building pallets. He began to save money to buy property and build a house for his mother. This was difficult, taking him years to save up enough to begin the project.
In 2002, a friend who had connections with a Bay Area construction company tempted Gabino to consider migrating to the U.S. again. Gabino’s mother was resistant to the idea; concerned for his safety she asked him not to leave. However, the hope of earning higher wages and completing his mother’s home justified his decision.
His second journey to the U.S. began early September 2002. Gabino and his friend bused to Mexico City then flew to Tijuana. In Tijuana they found a “coyote” who crossed them over the border for $1500. Nine days after leaving his home, he was in a new country. He didn’t walk through the desert, but his crossing was by no means comfortable. He was squished into the back of a (camper-shell covered, extra-long) pickup truck with thirty other individuals. He told me, “Sentía como un aventura. No sabía uno que nos esperaba. Todo podía pasar.” Translated: “It felt like an adventure. None of us knew what to expect. Anything could happen.” He was optimistic and hopeful in a situation that for many could provoke a sense of fear.
Since his second immigration to California, Gabino has worked almost continuously. Immediately after arriving to San Leandro, he and his friend began working construction. He worked with other men who spoke Spanish only. The ‘Encargado’ (man in charge) was in between the workers and supervisor, translating and delegating tasks. Gabino’s lack of English became apparent when the ‘Encargado’ wasn’t around. Realizing that it was hindering his job opportunities he decided to attend ESL classes. He was interested and excited to learn, taking class very seriously, trying to get as much out of it as possible. He rushed home from work to change; sometimes without enough time to eat because he didn’t want to be late or miss out on learning. However, he had only attended for about four months when he was offered a job with better pay in another state. He was earning $80 a day, but in Arizona he could earn $120.
In 2005 he moved to Bullhead City in Arizona, following a friend who had a connection with another construction company. He worked for that company for the next three years. He worked alongside his friends for the first year, then the other men found the work too difficult and returned home. The work was intense –the day began at 4 a.m. and ended around 8 p.m. He worked long hours because he was paid by the unit or completed job, not by the hour. So, the quicker he completed a job the sooner he could begin a new one.
Gabino left the company when he connected with another employer, whom he worked with for the next three years. His employer had him do odd jobs, personal maintenance of his house, as well as contracted jobs – remodeling and fixing houses that his boss bought and sold. Gabino says he would still be working for this man, but unfortunately he injured himself falling from a roof. Luckily no bones were broken, but he suffered severe headaches. He needed to see a doctor but didn’t have the right paperwork to easily access medical care in Arizona. Knowing that he could be seen at Highland Hospital in Oakland, he returned to the Bay Area (Hayward)–which is where he continues to reside.
Leaving Arizona, Gabino’s boss told him if he ever returned he would have a job. He stayed in Hayward because his health issues took a couple months to deal with. Eventually he found employment here, with a small construction company. Gabino remodels houses and does maintenance on the personal property of his employer. As he reestablished himself in the Bay Area, he was able to return to ESL night school. He has attended for the last three years and plans to continue. As his English skills have improved, he is now better at reading construction plans and communicating at work. His current plan is to continue working and studying. He has no expressed goal to return to Mexico, though he still remains close to his family and sends money to his mother.
Gabino has overcome many limiting circumstances; every experience has contributed to the modest, humble and strong individual that he is today. His skills, personality, work ethic, and passion for a craft (building) have afforded him long-term employment in positions of high responsibility and trust. His dedication to his education and learning as the means of advancement give him great pride. He has seen how his hard work pays off, and with improved English, he has gained the ability to hold his own (not depend on others) and allow better communication with his employers and clients. Also he has been able to complete the building of his mother’s house, which is a huge accomplishment and something he is very proud of.
Adler Hellman, Judith. (2008). The World of Mexican Migrants: The Rock and The Hard Place. New York: The New Press. Mexican Migration Project. (2011, October). Border Crossing Costs, adjusted to the CPI-2013(Avg. Jan to June). Retrieved from https://mmp.opr.princeton.edu/results/results-en.aspx
Pew Research Center. (2013, September 23). U.S. Unauthorized Immigration PopulationTrends, 1990-2012. Retrieved from https://www.pewhispanic.org/2013/09/23/unauthorized-trends/#Mexico
Takaki, Ronald. (2008). A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. New York: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown, and Co.
Rampell, Catherine. (2009, May 18). Why Are Mexican Smugglers’ Fees Still Rising?.The New York Times. Retrieved from https://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/18/ the-rise-in-mexican-smugglers-fees/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0
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