An Homage to ‘Wetbacks’:  Marla’s Story

by on September 3, 2019 · 0 comments

in California, San Diego

Rio Grande River in Texas. Photo credit: Pixaby

By Joni Halpern

Dear Ohio,

Today Americans are asked to support government conduct that imperils adults and children who have the temerity to ask for asylum from the raging violence or desperate poverty ravaging  them in their home countries.

Our country now wants to broadcast far and wide that we are no longer in the market for the “poor and huddled masses yearning to be free.”  We are not interested in their sad stories of abuse, deprivation, or torture. Look us up, however, if you are among the well-educated, well-trained, healthy, affluent, select few who want to take advantage of new opportunities in an American venue.

Americans have been told this change of focus is necessary, because immigrants of a lesser god are sucking us dry, committing serious crimes, and even — though we do not speak of it — bearing children at a rate sure to swallow our dominant culture.  Before we accept this tale as truth, perhaps we should compare it to a story based in reality, one that happened to real human beings. One little speck of reality might encourage us to question what we hear.

Remember the term “wetback,” which once referred to Mexican nationals who crossed illegally into Texas by swimming or fording the Rio Grande River, a portion of the border between the U.S. and Mexico?

For decades, American businesses profited from a porous border that supplied them with cheap labor they could exploit without consequences. For example, “wetbacks” could be caught and deported immediately, even, say, after a harvest or work project was completed but before it was time to pay them their final earnings for whatever back-breaking job they had done.

They had no leverage to negotiate, since they could be deported and replaced with other job-seekers.  They could be paid starvation wages and worked to exhaustion, suffering exposure to chemicals, oppressive heat, and injury. Immigrant workers often lived in overcrowded quarters, or outdoors under tarps and cardboard, sending home whatever money they could save for their families.

Meantime, we enjoyed lower prices in produce, restaurants, hotels and entertainment because these “criminals” worked for less than citizen workers could legally be paid.

I knew a woman named Marla who described herself as a “wetback.”  She came to the U.S. from a rural area of Latin America. She was the 18-year-old wife of an up-and-coming young man who saw no future in their homeland.  There, the only people who could support a family were part of the drug trade, and this was something Marla and her husband had desperately wanted to avoid.

After the couple crossed the Rio Grande, they immediately sought work.  Meanwhile, relatives already legally present in California told them plenty of work was available in the Golden State, so Marla and her husband saved their money and headed to California.

Here, the work was plentiful.  There were punishing jobs with low pay and no benefits in a shadow economy that bypassed the troublesome costs of legally present workers.  You could be a nanny for 12 hours a day with no days off. You could work as a landscape worker in the daytime and a dishwasher at night. You could do as Marla’s husband did – work for cash as a laborer on small non-union construction or fix-it jobs.

You could work two or three jobs, adjusting your hours as a cash employee in warehouses, restaurants, hotels, landscape businesses, senior care facilities, hospitals and hundreds of other places where the work was hazardous, the hours were long, and the pay was sub-minimum-wage.  Both Marla and her husband often worked two jobs.

The couple had a son about a year after coming to California.  Marla paid her friend a small sum to care for the baby while she worked as a housekeeper for elderly people in a high-end senior apartment building.  Each night, after Marla made dinner for her family and sang her son to sleep, she worked four more hours cleaning office buildings.

There were a few times when the family had to rely on government-subsidized health care and food stamps.  Once when her husband was injured on the job, he had to seek emergency care. Under government rules, he was only allowed to receive enough care to stabilize his condition.  No after-care was provided. When he faltered in his recovery, he lost his job and took a couple of months finding another one.

Another time, their son became so ill he had to be hospitalized, and both Marla and her husband missed work.  Each incident caused a precipitous drop in income, forcing them to apply for food stamps, which they were allowed to receive only for their citizen son. They themselves could not qualify for government benefits due to their undocumented status.  Even when they were granted legal status, Marla and her husband each preferred to work two jobs rather than rely on public assistance.

As time went on, the couple continued to work, raised three more children, watched them finish high school, vocational school, or college, and proudly saw them take their places as responsible, hardworking contributors to their own families and to the American economy.

When it came time for Marla to retire, she found that even though she had worked more than 10 years as a permanent legal resident, some of her former employers had not recorded her wages for several of those years. When she applied for Social Security benefits, she was told she was ineligible because she had not worked enough quarters. Something similar happened to her husband.

By the time Marla reached her late 50’s, her body was ruined.  She had worked through bone breaks, muscle injuries, exhaustion and illness, and now she was worn out.  She used a cane and walked very slowly. She could not hold her grandchildren. She could no longer clean or cook.  She lived with her children after her husband was gone.

How many construction projects did immigrants like Marla and her husband render affordable by their unrecorded labor?  How many golf fees did they keep from being raised by performing the landscaping chores for a substandard wage?

How much did they save employers who did not pay for sick leave, overtime, health insurance, social security, disability insurance and other costs, many of which are attached by law to the employment of legally present workers?  How many elderly people increased their discretionary spending using cheap labor from people like Marla, who washed clothes, did dishes, vacuumed, changed sheets, dusted and mopped for a wage that could only be tolerated by persons who had no other choice? How many children were fed, cradled, rocked, and comforted by the tender hands of immigrants like Marla?

In a special scrap book with an embroidered cover, Marla keeps a certificate tucked under a clear plastic sheet.  It signifies that she is included in our national family; she is an American citizen with all the rights and privileges still remaining to all of us.

A wetback who made good.  A wetback who made the lives of other Americans more profitable, affordable, and comfortable.

Do the math, Dear Ohio, even though it’s a word problem for which Americans have never developed an equation.  How much would we have lost if the immigrants who came here to build their dreams had never invested in us?

My Mom’s Story, by Diane, age 15

(Art courtesy of “Journey to Our Dreams: Art & Stories of Low-Income Children in San Diego © 2012)

My Mom’s Story
One job.  Two jobs. Three jobs.
Endless bus rides to and from.
Home in time to catch a ride, give instructions, wave goodbye.
Lonely mom and lonely kids.
Cleans businesses at night, homes in the day.
Once a week, she cleans the big house for the white lady who says,
“Good morning.  I hope you’re ready to work.”

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