Help Wanted: Is this the American dream?
At about the time that most people cram the highways to go to their desk jobs, I’m just hitting the halfway mark of a powersuiter’s 9 to 5. My feet are sweaty in my Xtra Tuffs, which are awkward brown rubber boots that look like the rejects from a clown’s closet. The plastic raingear I’m wearing has protected me only from the rain of fish blood this morning, and the old T-shirt I wear beneath is saturated with the smell of cooked crab. I look, smell and feel like hell, and the morning has just begun.
I’ve been awake since 4:30 a.m., and I’m tired, but not enough to look forward to my fifteen-minute break, if it can even be called that. Yanking off my boots to pull off my raingear takes at least three minutes, which means I’m down to 12 minutes to cram into a dirty break room that reeks of fish and offers only generic stale cookies, strong coffee with powder creamer, and a disarray of folding chairs. I’m not sure that I even want to sit with the throng of Mexicans that has taken over the room, simply because I can’t understand their conversation and get the strange feeling I may be the butt of their jokes.
As the minutes tick by, my wandering mind can’t help but notice how little the Mexicans seem to be discouraged by these conditions. I had been pre-warned about the difficulties of cannery work after living in a small rural island town in Southeast Alaska, but the day-to day monotony eventually wears on you. Dragging your ass out of bed at 4:30 a.m. knowing that you may work until 1:00 a.m. is not an easy task.
Yet somehow, looking around the room, I feel guilty to be the one to utter a complaint about the conditions. Knowing that I can elude the life of the cannery after the short summer months to return to a life of privilege and excess at college is enough to freeze a complaint before it can slide off my tongue. When I venture off to days of sleeping in until noon and working less than 20 hours a week, the Mexicans will stay behind to live the cannery lifestyle. Living this way year-round seems entirely unfair, yet many of the Mexicans I worked with can’t seek a higher quality of life, due to their varying degrees of legal status.
My favorite Mexican, a little old man with a mischievous smile, looks at me from across the table. I remember that his wife is not here today and ponder how working at a place like this in your 60s must be depressingly difficult. The old man does not speak a lick of English and the extent of my Spanish does not venture much further than “Me llamo es Jennifer,” but we communicate through a variety of facial expressions, usually with the purpose of him playfully teasing me. I wonder how he and his wife ended up working in the cannery? My ingrained American standards leave me blind to his optimism. I always feel sorry for him, especially when it is 11:00 at night and I can see the exhaustion painted on his face. Is this really better than the struggle of poverty in Mexico? Some Americans convince themselves that the opportunity to make more money in the U.S. is enough to provide, no questions asked- even if legality is compromised.
With the recent controversy swelling around the belly of immigration legislation in our country, it is hard to understand what the issues truly are. Some Americans feel hypocritical injustice over the notion that the Mexicans will take over “their” jobs. The Americans aren’t even working these dead-end jobs! Take the classic Alaskan seafood cannery and look at the demographics of its workers: a bevy of young high school and college-age students at the bottom tier, a few middle class men or women in management, the random assortment of down-and-outs…and the rest? All Mexicans, shipped up with cannery monies and provided cheap housing to work every moment that they can squeeze into a day.
While I have much to learn about immigration, green cards, visitor workers, etc., my experiences have shown me more than I could ever learn from the media, the government and anyone else instructing me in what to think. Sloshing around ice in a cannery, pushing 300-lb. carts of fish, cracking crabs over a cleaver to avoid getting pinched….all definitely not part of any dream for my future. I can’t imagine that escaping to America, or at least the far reaches of it on a secluded island, and working in these conditions, could be appealing relative to any other situation. I also can’t comprehend the poverty that pervades Mexico.
What I do understand, is that to treat these human beings as though we can sweep their legality under the rug and shove them into third class jobs is unfair. The proposed change in immigration legislation would at least allow the Mexicans living in the shanty shacks on my island to seek better living conditions, better opportunities, better anything, for themselves. But life can be unfair in the American legal system. So, in the dredges of a cold cannery on a small island in Southeast Alaska, the monotonous crab cracking will continue to be done, by those working in a system that they can’t question.
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