Notes From The Undocumented 'Underground'

'Underground America'
Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives
Compiled and edited by Peter Orner
Hardcover, 379 pages
McSweeney's Publishing
List Price: $24.00
Peter Orner i i

hide captionPeter Orner's previous books are The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, and the story collection, Esther Stories.

Kristin Hepburn
Peter Orner

Peter Orner's previous books are The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, and the story collection, Esther Stories.

Kristin Hepburn

Underground America, the engrossing new book in the Voice of Witness series from McSweeney's — oral histories of people who have had their human and civil rights violated — makes one thing clear: The United States is, to the peril of its soul, doing a bad job of dealing with the 12 million to 15 million undocumented immigrants toiling in its fields and factories, farms and offices.

Novelist Peter Orner (The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo) and a group of volunteers interviewed a wide array of workers for this project. Their stories — some lengthy, others only a page — were compiled into 24 first-person accounts. The poor and politically oppressed, and those from Mexico and Central America, are represented, as one would expect. But so are immigrants from Iran, Pakistan, China and Cameroon, along with men and women holding university degrees and claiming middle-class backgrounds. Some spent years solely defined by grueling workplaces and bare-bones homes. Many have comfortable, and even prosperous, lives.

What they all have in common, though, is a sense of constant anxiety. With their families so far away, they are afflicted by loneliness. And because they fear deportation, they exile themselves to varying degrees of solitude. "You don't want to talk to other people. You're always quiet," says Liso, a 38-year-old teacher from South Africa who, like almost all of the interviewees, is identified only by her first name. "If you're illegal here, you're not free at all."

What Underground America argues is that this marginalization invites brutality and exploitation, which then festers into corruption that affects all Americans. Free from worker complaints, slaughterhouses, for example, can skirt sanitation and safety laws, compromising the food we eat. This is but one of many consequences of what is an ongoing social disaster, and Orner and company have produced an invaluable primer for understanding it.

Excerpt: 'Underground America'

Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives
Compiled and edited by Peter Orner
Hardcover, 379 pages
McSweeney's Publishing
List Price: $24.00

Polo, 23
Gulfport, Mississippi

Polo comes from a small town in the state of Oaxaca in Mexico, and speaks both Spanish and Zapotecan. He worked for a subcontractor to a subcontractor to a subcontractor to Kellogg Brown and Root—which until recently was owned by Halliburton—cleaning up the Seabees Naval Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport, Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.

We went down to Mississippi to the Naval base at Gulfport, and started to work. Our job was to clean all the mess—the houses, the trees, everything—all that the wind had damaged, had destroyed. We collected all the trash from the streets. We cut up the fallen trees, piling them in one spot. This is the type of work we were doing. It was a big, serious disaster, and there was so much cleaning up to do.

The bolillos, the white people, drove the machines. We were more like the helpers. There were other people living on the base, black people. They were people who had lost their houses. They were like refugees. I imagine that the black people went to work, but with their own people, with people of their same race. We were pretty separate in our work.

We returned to our cots at about seven at night. We slept there, in an airplane hangar on the base. We weren't allowed to leave the base at all because the poyeros—human smugglers—guarded us strictly. They would charge us if we wanted to go out. Once all our debts were paid, then they said we could leave.

Our boss kept a notebook with our names and all the records of our hours. We'd been promised eleven dollars per hour. We worked every day—Monday to Monday—and the first three weeks we weren't paid at all. When we complained about this, the bosses would say, "it's fine, don't worry. I'm going to the bank right now." Then they would come back and tell us that the bank wouldn't give them the money, that we would have to wait. That's the excuse they gave us.

After two weeks, they started to take away some of the cots. We were totally taken aback. Some of us had to sleep outside. We didn't know what to do. We worked it out according to who needed the cots most. The people on the floor had some blankets, but that was it. There was intense heat during the day and intense cold at night.

Well, then the boss disappeared. We tried to find her so we could get our checks, but she was gone. After three days, the military men came. They spoke to us in English. As they were soldiers, they had their guns. They came up to our cots—the few cots that we had—and took them. Then they shut off the bathrooms. And they took us out, like they were cleaning out the base.

After that the group of us stayed next to the cemetery, under plastic tarps. I felt so sad. I hadn't been paid. I had nowhere to go. I didn't know where they wanted me to go, what they wanted me to do. That's what I was thinking: What am I supposed to do now? I thought about my family because they were thinking that I was earning money, and there I was, without work, and without any payment for the work I had done. I really wanted to go back at that point. My idea was to get to Mississippi, to start working, and to earn money to send to my family. I thought that here it would be easy to earn money. I couldn't imagine this kind of humiliation. Yes, humiliation. They humiliated us.

[Editor's Note: After a complaint from an activist group to the U.S. Department of Labor, the direct subcontractor to KBR paid the workers a total of $100,000. Another payment of $144,000 is forthcoming. Polo is currently working in a furniture factory in Mississippi, trying to save up money to build a house for himself in his hometown.]

Rose, 43
Galesburg, Illinois

Rose was born in Beijing, China in 1965 to working-class parents. She married a laborer and graduated from nursing school in 1989. She remembers attending many of the student lectures in Tiananmen Square. In 1990, she gave birth to a son and named him "Sunrise." After divorcing her husband, Rose found an opportunity to come to the United States and make a better life for her child, then nine years old. By way of San Francisco, she went to Chicago to stay with a friend who got her a job waiting tables at a Chinese restaurant. There she met her boyfriend, a cook, whom she would later follow downstate. Surrounded by corn and soy, Galesburg, Illinois lies between the Mississippi and Spoon Rivers.

When I arrived in Chicago, I wandered the streets of Chinatown, which didn't seem strange to me. It was clean and prosperous, just like Beijing. Lots of merchandise in the windows. I thought I would learn English and then apply for nursing school, but I had debts to repay. So I changed my mind and went to work at a restaurant in Chicago. Working in a restaurant is simple physical labor. Although the restaurant was owned by Chinese, these Chinese were from a different region, with different customs and dialect, which made things hard. I missed my family and friends and often wanted to cry, but didn't dare in public. One time a cook found me crying during a break. When he saw me, he tried to console me. He took care of me and we became close. We started to date and have been together for eight years. Before, we laughed together more. Now, we are silent more.

Now that we live in Galesburg, I work in a different restaurant but it is all the same. The pressures and monotonies of work and lack of social activities in this town make me feel like I will go stir-crazy. I love to watch television when I'm not working. I cry with the people on TV and sometimes my eyes swell up from the crying. The tears on my cheeks feel warm and I think it's relaxing. It doesn't seem normal.

I wonder what I will be like eight years from now. Will I be insane? I worry. Did I do the right thing? I left my son and everything I love back in China. My parents are more than seventy years old and every day they hope for my return. Whenever I think about them, I think I couldn't face them. When I was little they went to work every day, came home, cooked, and did laundry. My mother did physical labor, loading and unloading crates. Every day she came home stressed and tired and still tended to our needs. During the New Year, she bought cloth and made clothes for us under a single light bulb. She sewed one stitch at a time and it took her a month. I didn't understand and complained that the clothes were ugly. When I think of this, I feel embarrassed and full of regret.

My son is growing older and getting more and more distant with me. On the morning he was born in 1990, the sun rose bright in the east so we named him "Sunrise." I had great ambitions for him. I wanted him to be like a dragon! I wanted him to be outstanding. I tried to teach him to be virtuous, like my father. He was bright and remembered all the stories and fairy tales that I read to him. But before he was big enough to understand, I had already gone.

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Underground America
Underground America

Narratives of Undocumented Lives

by Peter Orner and Luis Alberto

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