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