Finding the American Dream, and then some

(This is the last in a four-part series of columns about Catarino Escobar Chavez, a Carson City resident who came to this country illegally from Mexico 23 years ago. Catarino is 40 today and an American citizen. He works as a correctional officer at Nevada State Prison. This column is dedicated to Catarino's journey to a New World and will hopefully knock down some of the walls and myths that keep us from constructive dialogue.)

A buddy of mine called last week wondering what the point was.

"What point is that?" I asked my buddy.

"You know," he replied. "The point of this series of columns you're writing on the Mexican guy who snuck across the border. What's your point?"

"Oh," I said. "That point."

My pal has a way of getting to the point.

Let's see ... the point. What was the point?

I suppose it depends on your point of view, I concluded.

Let's say, for example, you thought all Mexicans were low riders. In that case, I suppose the point of my columns was to show you were wrong.

Or, there's a chance you thought this country would be a whole lot better off if we kicked all of the illegals back into Mexico.

In that case I suppose my point was to show you that without the illegal labor force a whole bunch of jobs that no self-respecting gringo welfare recipient would get out of bed for would go unfilled. Especially in an employment market where the only ones not working either can't or won't.

Take a look around some day. That landscape job you just had done? How much would that have cost you without illegals? That hotel room you just left in a mess? How much would that have cost you without the illegal maids to clean up after you? Those plates that were just taken from your restaurant table? How much would the bill have been if the dishwashers had green cards? And that head of lettuce you just brought home from the supermarket? Salad would cost a whole bunch more if the California farmers had to pay "gringo wages."

I guess the point of my columns was those "damned Mexicans" we hear so much about every time there's a shooting, or a spray painting, or a car that passes with its stereo on full blast.

"Damned Mexicans," we mutter, wondering where the Immigration folks are when we need them.

And maybe the point was to simply tell a story of a Mexican man who came to America 23 years ago to see if money really does flow through our streets.

Catarino Escobar Chavez is his name. His friends know him as Catarino Escobar, but in Mexico they allow you to keep your mother's name as well. That's why those "damned Mexicans" have so many names. Catarino's mother was Esther Chavez and his father was Santos Escobar. Hence, Catarino Escobar Chavez.

In the U.S. the mother's name doesn't account for much after marriage. Maybe the point was to point out that in Mexico all family members matter. Even mothers.

Last week I told you about Catarino being deported back to Mexico three times in a week. That's the way it is today on the border. A game of Pac Man with real people. Thousands lining the border looking for holes in the fence that separates them from the American Dream. And to them the Dream isn't a college degree, two cars in the garage and a VCR in every room.

"Most of us coming across are just coming to work," said Catarino. "We are farmers and we are the working class. We'll do those jobs nobody else wants to do because it's still a whole lot better than where we came from."

When Catarino finally dragged his brown skin back to Carson City he got a job at a local manufacturing company. At the time it was difficult for employers to separate the legals from the illegals. They all look alike and a fake green card or other identification can be had for a song.

It's tougher today, but employers still get duped from time to time. Besides, the jobs need to get done and there aren't enough legals willing to do them.

Catarino worked for that manufacturing company for eight years; long enough to marry an American citizen and long enough to learn there are easier ways to make a living in this Land of Opportunity.

A friend told him they were hiring correctional officers at the prison, but Catarino felt insulted. "I was a peasant and this woman was talking about something that I could never imagine in a million years," he told me.

The friend persisted and before he knew it Catarino was taking a written test. By that time he was officially "legal" by virtue of his U.S. citizen wife.

"I passed the test and the next thing I knew they were sending me to the academy," he said. "I was scared. I really hadn't come to America to succeed, just for a better way of life."

His final obstacle came on the firing range. "Everyone thought I was an expert with guns because they'd assumed I'd done a few drive-by shootings," Catarino laughed. "But I had never fired a gun before. On our farm I was a pretty good shot with a slingshot and I could handle a machete pretty well."

When finally offered the job, Catarino was stunned. "I got my uniform on and looked at myself in the mirror and said this can't be happening," he remembered. "I was like a baby who got his first present. I wanted to sleep with it on."

That was more than 12 years ago. Catarino still works at Nevada State Prison today. And every day he looks in the mirror and sees the American flag on his arm and wonders how it all happened.

"I guess the gods were on my side," he said. "I love my job and I love the people I work with. They've accepted me for what I am."

And maybe that's the point.

Jeff Ackerman is publisher and editor of the Nevada Appeal.


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