“Uno Calcetin” Says Vote for Pedro

In the summer of 1980, I got a job working for a landscaper. I was thirteen years old. I made $5.00 an hour.

The landscaper had five employees: me and four Mexican immigrants. Their English wasn’t good and my Spanish was worse.

I was a light-skinned, clean-cut Gringo with blond hair and green eyes. The Mexicans were dark-skinned, slightly unkempt and fierce-looking. They wondered what I was doing there. They suspected I was a spy for our boss, who was also a Gringo.

The heat wave that year was as bad as anyone could remember. It was over 110 degrees every day and there we were, sweating over mowers, edgers and weed-eaters. We also trimmed shrubs and spread mulch and got on our hands and knees and picked weeds in flower beds.

We draped t-shirts over our heads and placed bandannas on our necks; by lunch our jeans were soaked all the way through with sweat. The sun bore down us like an angry god.

Frequently, the edger or weed-eater I was operating would break down or run out of gas. I’d have to go find one of my co-workers. Sometimes I’d discover them huddled in the shade somewhere, sharing a watermelon or a big bottle of Gatorade. It took them awhile to figure out I was just trying to do my job, earn my keep and avoid a heat stroke. About a month into the summer, they were comfortable enough with me to tell me when they were taking a break, and we’d spend them together, sharing whatever we had.

There were no Port-O-Johns or ChemCans. If you needed to go to the bathroom, you had to improvise, sneak into a pool house restroom or walk to a convenience store. If you went to a convenience store, you had to buy something so no one pitch a fuss about your being there just to use the can.

On one occasion, I had a gastrointestinal emergency and couldn’t find a pool bathroom or a convenience store. I had to duck off behind a giant hedge and wipe with a sweaty sock. One of my co-workers saw me and laughed, but he understood. They all understood. It didn’t stop them from calling me uno calcetín for the rest of the day, but anything for a smile in the oppressive heat made the day go faster.

At one point that summer, I wore a bathing suit under my jeans and sneaked in a swim at an apartment pool. I tried to get my co-workers to join me, but they refused. I pressed them after the swim and the oldest one educated me. “You are like one of them,” he said, in broken English. “You look like el jefe … if other Gringos or el jefe de las casas catches me … or one like me swim in pool, we lose job.” I didn’t swim again.

The landscaper transported us on the back of his flatbed truck, crowded in with the mowers, edgers and weed-eaters. The best part of the day was heading home on the flatbed, sitting next to a mower and feeling the almost cool swoosh of open air rushing against our skin and drying our sweat-soaked shirts.

One afternoon, as we drove past Six Flags Over Texas on Interstate 30, it occurred to me that one of my classmates was probably on the “Shockwave” right then (or getting doused by a splash of cool water on the “Log Ride”) and I felt ashamed. My co-workers didn’t even know what Six Flags was, much less that their flag was one of the six, and I knew that they were simply looking forward to flipping on the window A/C in the four-walled shack that our boss picked them up and dropped them off at every day. I knew I would be going back to school soon and they would still be sitting on the flatbed, watching the heat waves glide across the freeway.

From then on, when a man or woman stared at my co-workers as they passed us, and then did a double-take when they saw me, I glared back accusingly, challenging them, judging them for judging. It was the closest the Mexicans and I ever came to solidarity. But it was enough.

I think about my landscaping co-workers a lot when I read about border walls, sting deportations and new immigration laws. If more Mexican immigrants were lighter-complected and had blond hair and green or blue eyes, I can’t help but think it would be tougher for us judge them, dismiss them or pretend they’re really that much different from us.

We sure like hearing ourselves referred to as the “Land of Opportunity” but, unfortunately, we’re trying real hard not to live up to this moniker. Bigotry prevails and we’ve got to find somebody (besides ourselves) to blame for our problems.

Mexican immigrants make an easy political pinata.

E.R. Bills of Fort Worth is the author of The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas and Letters from Texas, 2021-2023. Read other articles by E.R..