In 1964, Guatemala was being run by a military junta, violence was a part of every day life, the economy was in shambles, and jobs were scare (Rock, 2011). It was in this setting that a young man, my future father-in-law, took a chance at a better life for he and his family. Enticed by rumors of prosperity in the United States, Alex and his brother Rene saved their money to journey to Chicago, leaving their families behind in a search for hope that was borne of desperation. Alex left his wife Ruth with 20 Guatemalan Quetzal, the equivalent of $20 dollars, and their three children, Vivien, 5, Ingrid, 3, and Marvin, a newborn baby. What experience lay in store for he and his family? How would they fare in an unknown country, without family, friends, assets, or even command of the language? Their experience, like so many immigrants, was one of lifetime poverty, sacrifice, and hard work, for the opportunity that living in the United States promised for their children.
Immigrant Work and Wage Experience in the United States
When Alex and Rene first came to Chicago, they were able to secure a job at a local Chicago candy factory, where they were responsible for cleaning the candy belts. While they made less than the minimum wage, they earned enough to bring their families to the United States. Alex stayed in Chicago for 7 years working the same job for the same low pay, never improving his situation because of constant fear of deportation. In fact, often immigrants without legal status face similar forms of subjugation, where the fear of deportation forces them to remain in low-wage jobs that don’t meet basic needs (Coutin, 2000)
During their years in Chicago, Alex and Ruth had two more children, Ruth and my wife, Orpha, both born U.S. citizens. Ruth and Orpha, so-called “anchor babies”, allowed Alex and Ruth to apply for and obtain Green Cards, allowing the family to remain in the United States permanently. Freed from the constant fear of deportation, Alex moved his family to Los Angeles, where his family would better fit, given the large Hispanic population. In Los Angeles, Alex obtained a job with Pan-American Underwriting Company as a file clerk, making roughly $1000 per month. Alex worked there for twenty years, without receiving a promotion or raise, before finally being laid off without receiving any retirement benefits. My wife cries as she recounts how she helped her father to get a job as a delivery driver where she worked, after he had been laid of at Pan-American; she cries in a mix of emotions that include anger, embarrassment, shame, and deep anguish for her father’s wounded pride (Rock, 2011). Alex’s experience is like so many immigrants in the United States, where uncertain legal status combined with other factors, like language barriers serves to lock them into low-wage jobs that often lack benefits (Massey, Durand, & Malone, 2002). While living in poverty in the United States was an improvement over the situation in Guatemala, Alex’s status as illegal immigrant and poor command of the English language all but assured a life of poverty in the United States.
My wife is quite capable of handling many basic health care needs all on her own. Growing up without access to health care due to Alex’s lack of benefits required the use homeopathic treatment techniques handed down from previous generations. Traditional health care was simply not an option given the high cost of treatment. Vaccines were provided by the local welfare office, while for dental work and medications, the family would drive down to Mexico where the care was affordable. My wife recalled that for years, her mother Ruth had severe undiagnosed chest pains and she and the family would regularly light a candle and pray for the pain to go away (Rock, 2011). Once my wife entered the work force, she paid for a doctor’s visit where her mother was diagnosed with Angina and given a prescription for nitroglycerin, which eased her suffering (Rock, 2011). Ruth is not alone in her silent suffering, as many immigrants lack access to health care and will not seek health care even when needed (Menjivar, 2002).
Home ownership is part of the American Dream and yet, for so many in poverty, home ownership can appear to be only a dream. Alex and Ruth lacked the income to be considered for a mortgage, particularly in such a heavily populated area such as Los Angeles, where average home prices often exceed the national average. Although, they eventually purchased an 848 square foot home in Tujunga, California, a low-rent suburb of Los Angeles, by combining their resources as a family. According to my wife, it is part of the Hispanic culture to have many kids so that they can take care of their parents. In order to purchase the home, Alex and Ruth, along with their oldest daughter Vivien, her husband Mike, and the other two working children, Ingrid and Marvin, all co-signed the bank loan, while Vivien and Mike came up with the down payment. Pooling resources was the only way the family could hope to own a home given their modest income, a fact that made secondary education a distant dream as well.
So many lower and working class families often hope for intergenerational class mobility as the way out of poverty, hoping that through education, their children can have a better life than they did (Hodson & Sullivan, 2008). Unfortunately, economic circumstances force young adults into the workforce at an early age, particularly when cultural forces have a strong influence, as was the case with my wife’s family. While all of the Cuevas children graduated from high school, most did not seek secondary education. When I asked my wife why she never considered college, she said that it was never really an option. Her parents never encouraged college; both because of the high-perceived costs and the need to have the children contribute to the economic well being of the family. Additionally, she felt that her parents lacked the needed language schools to work cooperatively with teachers on their children’s educational attainment and were ignorant of how to take advantage of financial aid, scholarships, or grants (Rock, 2011). The Cuevas family missed out on the best opportunity for intergenerational class mobility they had because of language, cultural, and economic barriers.
Cultural Significance of Growing up Guatemalan
When my wife Orpha was a small child, she used to pretend her name was Kim, that she lived in a two-story house, and her mother had blonde hair. She grew up trying to hide being Hispanic, instead choosing to blend in with her American friends, rejecting her cultural heritage, because of the shame of their poverty and her embarrassment of their social class (Rock, 2011). Her parents had also rejected Guatemala because of all it represented; the violence, extreme poverty, repressive regimes, all they had chosen to leave behind, often telling people they were Puerto Rican. In many ways, the shared experience as United States has forever marked the Cuevas family, making them both quintessential Americans and yet wholly unique.
The experiences of the Cuevas family are similar to the experiences of so many other Hispanic immigrants to the United States, whose act of immigration and ethnic background confer upon them a lower class than most Americans, due to the economic hardships associated with immigration, questionable legal status, language barriers and other factors. Many have difficulty improving their social class, lacking even intergenerational class mobility because of pervasive economic and cultural barriers that prevent that attainment of secondary education. In many ways, this paper has been harder for my wife that it has for me. She softly weeps as she tells me that not until adulthood, did she realize how proud she was of her parents, for their bravery at risking everything for a chance at a better life and for their years of sacrifice to make a better life reality for their family (Rock, 2011). I try to comfort her, but know that my words will be inadequate, when compared with the experiences of growing up Guatemalan in the United States.
Coutin, S. (2000). Legalizing moves: Salvadoran immigrant’s struggle for U.S. residency. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Hodson, R., & Sullivan, T. A. (2008). The social organization of work (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Massey, D. S., Durand, J., & Malone, N. J. (2002). Beyond smoke and mirrors: Mexican immigration in an era of economic integration. New York: Russel Sage Foundation.
Menjivar, C. (2002). The ties that heal: Guatemalan immigrant women’s networks and medical treatment. International Migration Review, 36(2), 437-466.
Rock, O. (2011, Juy 30, 2011). [Personal Communication].