Here and there, I hear murmurs about immigrant families.
“We all work hard,” someone recently told me, “they’re not the only ones. My family came here with nothing. They never took welfare, never collected unemployment. Nobody ever helped them.”
Nobody ever helped them. Some of the saddest words I ever heard, yet so much a part of the American myth. People should do everything on their own and never need help.
Here are some facts to bear in mind: In my state of Massachusetts, the law allows farmworkers (almost all immigrants, both documented and not) to earn $8.00 an hour; as of January 2022, minimum state wage will be $14.25, but not for farmworkers. Farmworkers have no mandated day of rest and don’t earn overtime pay, though many work an average of 60 or more hours a week. They are excluded from all federal/state wage and hour protections. Local folks aren’t ready to do such backbreaking work under these conditions, so this becomes a market for immigrant workers who lack opportunities for anything else.
During the farming season they work as hard as they can. They celebrate Thanksgiving along with the rest of us (local churches give out lots of turkey dinners at this time), and after that the farms close down till spring. I can’t speak for legal immigrants, but certainly if you’re undocumented you get no help during the winter to meet hefty rent and utility bills, no money for food and children’s clothes. Jimena, bless her heart, recently orchestrated a collection of winter jackets and coats for children and adults.
I started to raise money to help these families when covid began and the farms didn’t open. Since then I’ve seen how edgy their lives are even without the added uncertainty of covid, how the winter brings with it a dread of unpaid rent (that’s when families often double and even triple up after eviction) and utility bills, bringing threats to cut off electricity, heat, and phone use.
Nobody here gets coddled, believe me.
But there are golden seams to every story. On Wednesday evening I went to meet with Jimena, not at her home but rather, to my relief, in a social service office (her front porch gets really cold at this time of year). This is where Jimena works at her second job after putting in full-time hours for the schools during the day. Here is where she meets with immigrant children and coaches them with reading, homework and prep for tests, meets with parents to fill out forms, etc. She does this till 8:30 each evening; the next morning starts out very bright and early each day.
“When Friday night comes,” she tells me, “I sleep and don’t want to get up all weekend.”
I gave her cash for Julia’s rent and some food cards when the door opened and in walked an attractive 17 year-old young woman. Odalis (yes, her real name) is a senior in high school. She has four younger siblings at home; her parents are farmworkers. She’s a great student, Jimena proudly shows me a local newspaper listing Odalis in First Honors in her class.
“And she takes care of the kids,” Jimena exults, as Odalis smiles across the table at us. “She cooks for them, makes sure they do their homework. She has cousins nearby, and does the same for them, too!” On these occasions Jimena sounds like my mother.
“They can’t fool me,” Odalis laughs. “They can tell the parents they don’t have homework, but they can’t tell me that. It helps that I know about computers, how to get online, how to do Zoom, how to do classes online.”
“She’s the one who’s responsible for the younger four because the parents come home so late from the work (60 hours a week, remember?), so she is the one who has to get dinner ready. And she will go to college!” Jimena ends triumphantly.
“Where?” I ask her.
She mentions two local colleges she’s applying to, reasonably sure she could get in provided she doesn’t do badly on the SATs. They have good business schools and she plans to study accounting, earn a livelihood, help her family. Government assistance? Maybe college loans, nothing else, though given her grade-point average, she’s a good candidate for scholarships.
Her jeans are torn at the knee; she sprained an ankle playing soccer. She speaks modestly but with quiet confidence. She knows what she wants.
“Do you have fun?”
She smiles. “A little.”
“Do you have private time for yourself?”
“I think that in college I will have more time, but I’m not sure.” She’d like to live at the college, but also knows how much her parents rely on her to help out at home, and if so she may have to continue working at home while commuting to college. She’s not overly concerned about it.
The other kids studying with Jimena begin to filter in, talking and laughing aloud; time for me to leave. I want to help this young woman who sits quietly at the table. “If you need help with essays for your college applications, count on me.”
“She’s a writer,” Jimena says immediately. “She wrote a grant to fund our work here.”
I want to put my arm around her and say: You have a life ahead of you, you’re doing so much for yourself and others. You’re great. Are those words for me or for her? Instead I ask: “Are your parents proud of you?” Farmworkers making $8.00 an hour, with a girl going off to college.
A small smile. She nods.
You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.