From my blog Soy/Somos, a real-life collage of Latinos in the USA. You can read the introductory post here. Soy/Somos: We are Many
The first thing that you notice about Louie is his apparent good health. He's trim. He's fit. He has dimples when he smiles, and he always smiles. The next thing that you notice--and I've known this from our brief acquaintance--is that he's an optimist. "Hey, Louie," I asked him last month, "would you talk to me about your experiences in the US?" Louie works at a quality carpet company where he's their estimator, their go-to-guy, can fix any issues of installation.
At my office at home Louie leans back against the sofa cushions. He's wearing soft-washed, grey jeans, black leather shoes, crisp white shirt. He looks comfortable and ready to start. He was born en las afueras of San Salvador, capital of El Salvador. He's 56.
"I'm kind of an A to B guy," he says. Do you want to start from the beginning?" And we begin.
"My mother was eighteen when she gave birth to me, no time to go to the hospital. I was born at home."
"Was it "Luis" in San Salvador?
"Yes, I took on Louie when I came to work in this country. Everyone here knew the name Louie.
"My mother was a singer on the radio. She would sing cumbias Salvadoreńas or she'd copy Mexican songs. Todo se lo copiamos a Mexico. I was raised by a great guy, my stepfather Aniceto, that was his stage name. My mother married him soon after I was born. Aniceto was the best comedian in El Salvador. He painted his teeth black, making fun of country people. This was typical. My sister was born and then my brother. My mother sang with orchestras in South America. Eventually they divorced, and after that I was raised by my grandmother.I was blessed to go to a Catholic school, Order of the Maristas."
Why do you say that, Louie?
"Not too many people get that chance. I got a proper education. If children don't have structure in their lives, it's a problem. That's my way of thinking...
"When I was fifteen my mother accepted a contract to sing at a nightclub in DC. It came with a work visa. There she met her new husband, Alfonso, another great father. I've been blessed with good people in my life.
"In El Salvador there were the beginnings of problems. The military and students were fighting on campus and students were getting killed. My mother got us permits to leave. 'Leave immediately!' This was just before I had finished high school. I was 18. My sister 15. My brother 13.
"From the moment I stepped off the plane, I fell in love with the United States. It was September, cold for a boy from the tropics. She and Alfonso took us to dinner at The Ground Round. There were baskets of peanuts that you cracked and threw the shells on the floor. We went to a supermarket at 11 at night because they needed juice and milk. You could go to the supermarket at 11!
"On Monday I accompanied my new father on his job as carpet installer. He was subcontractor for Lord & Taylor and Bamberger's. We would go to three or four houses every day. The carpet would be there. My father and I would install it and leave for the next one. A nice lady sat me down and gave me cookies and milk. People were good. I learned the trade. I liked that we saw different places every day, every room different. Houses of the rich and the poor. I was 18 and 19 and was earning my own money."
Here I am noticing that Louis has mentioned many times that people were good to him. He saw the world with rose-colored glasses--and made the world good.
"In the meantime I saw a sign in the neighborhood: ZETA: Free English classes. I went. Studied English and passed my GED. ZETA also helped immigrants find work in factories, helped them with letters of reference, teaching computers, alarm systems... Most people were legal, I think. I was legal so I didn't think about that. Pay then was $5 an hour. I wanted to go to college, but I was tied up with work. I knew I was an average student. In high school in El Salvador I studied and studied just to be average. I looked at all of this carefully.
"My father and I saw a sign for carpet installers at a carpet store and we moved to be closer to our apartment in New Jersey. They employed people of all races: Irish, Italians, Latinos, Asian, Jewish, African American. These people sat at separate tables on break. I liked to talk to all of them. I never saw color or culture. I saw friendship and stories. And I wanted to practice my English.
"After some years my father moved on. It was difficult to get into unions for other work. Union pay was higher, but even though I was sponsored, the Italians who said they needed workers, when it came time. didn't accept me. 'Yes, we need workers. No there is no work.'
"Some time later the business folded. The boss explained to me how I could become a subcontractor and work for him and others. So I went to set up a business. I had to choose a name, so I picked A&P Carpets. People will remember it, I thought, because they know the A&P. As a subcontractor I made a better living for myself. I hired one guy, then four then six. I told my employees: Get a haircut. Shave. No ripped pants. No tattoos. My grandmother used to tell me, 'You get a tattoo, I kill you. Tattoos are only for criminals and people in jail.'
"By now there was a war in El Salvador. If the government took you, you became a military; if guerillas took you, you became a guerilla. Families saw brothers killing brothers. I helped some friends who arrived here with nothing.
"At that time I found my wife. I love a woman with a strong character. I love women and I respect women. It's time to have a president who is a woman.
"My wife and I bought the apartment we were renting in Union City. There was a big Cuban community there in the 80's. Then there was an exodus. Cubans took pride in their properties. It was a cleaner city then.
"Now we live in a suburban town. Simple house. Split level. In ground pool. I used to play soccer on Sundays.
"My wife is my right hand. She's from Costa Rica. We went back once. Nice people. Educated. She said, if we have a daughter I want to be home. I worked harder to make this happen. She became a part-time minivan driver to take kids to school. Our daughter didn't want to take the bus and my wife saw this option and got her license.
"Why didn't your daughter want to take the bus," I ask Louie. Were there any issues or bad feelings about Hispanics where you lived?"
"Where we live being different is noticed. "Te mastico pero no te trago." We understand. It doesn't bother us. Everyone has a right to their opinion. They will say, 'You're not a Mexican, no? I'll tell you a joke about a Mexican.' So you stay away from them. I don't waste my time thinking about Trump."
I notice that when Louie speaks from feeling he reverts to Spanish, although the conversation has been in perfect (accented) English up to now.
"No me gusta como una persona blanca y alta feels hate and feels like this Hispanic pequeño is going to take your job. It's not professional. They hate this little guy asking for a chance--to clean your floors, clean your toilet, pick up your groceries. Why do you feel this way for this little guy that you call, 'Mexican.'?"
The last question I like to ask: "Louie, what is good about this country? What is bad?"
"The most important thing lacking in this country is an opportunity to learn a trade. Shop. How to fix things. Welding in high school. That kind of training. Some mentoring program available in high school.
"But the first priority for Latinos is to learn the language--to read and write. I tried not to speak in Spanish. In the US the opportunities are endless. If you have the mentality that you can work anywhere, you can make a living."
Louie phoned me from his car on the way home:
"I just remembered, Marlena. Two weeks ago I went to a funeral home for a man who used to work for me. There I met twenty to twenty-five guys who had worked for me, all making a living in the carpet business. Some said to me, 'Thanks to you, we are making a living.' This was very rewarding."