Making ends meet in Nogales on $1 an hour


RIO RICO, Ariz. — When I returned to my Rio Rico, Arizona home from a second visit to my dentist who works twenty minutes away in Nogales, Sonora, I reflected on what a fine dentist Dr. Emilia Sáenz is.

But her assistant, José, a gracious young man, is even finer.

My spoken Spanish is decent, but my level of understanding sometimes lags – especially with Dr. Sáenz, an immigrant from Colombia, whose rapid Spanish confused me, which made José even more crucial as I endured another root canal.

I marveled at José’s skill at anticipating Dr. Sáenz’s demanding needs and at anticipating any discomfort I might feel.

José is nearly fluent in English, having lived and worked in Detroit, Michigan five years before he was discovered “sin papeles,” and deported by Immigration.

When his ever-demanding boss left the room, I asked José’s permission to ask a personal question.

The permission was granted, of course, which is a great quality of Mexicans: They do enjoy “heart-to-heart” conversations.

Our conversation went something like this:

Me: “I’m curious: how much does Dr. Sáenz pay you?”

He: “One thousand pesos a week.” (About $80US a week at current
exchange rates.)

Me: “For how many hours?”
He: “Sixty.”
Me: “You’re earning only a little over a dollar an hour? How can you live on that?”

He: “It’s hard. We sometimes are a little low on food. I rarely can afford to buy milk for my daughter.”

Me: “Where do you live?”

He: “In a small windowless room attached to my brother-in-law’s house, so there’s no rent to pay. It has a dirt floor and the roof sometimes leaks, but we manage.”

Me: “You’re excellent with your work. Seems to me, you may have been ‘born” to it.

He: “Thank you.”

Me: “I think you’re underpaid.”

He: “Well, I just feel lucky to have a job. A thousand pesos a week is more than most workers here in Nogales earn. When they can find work. Jobs are scarce here.”

Me: “What about your future?”

He: “I’d like to emigrate to Canada. I can never go to the States, because I was caught by the Border Patrol.”

Me: “Canada might be a good idea. Canada needs skilled workers like you. Besides, you can fly there and enter without a visa.”

He: “That’s true. But first I need to save thirteen-thousand pesos for the fare and for my wife’s passport.”

Me: “That will be very hard to do?”

He: “Almost impossible. Because saving thirteen-thousand pesos is like saving thirteen-thousand-US dollars.”

I momentarily felt “sympathy” for José. But “sympathy” is a patronizing word. But my “sympathy” morphed into “empathy.”

When I left, I gave José a tip that almost equaled his weekly salary. I did that, I suppose, because I’d also been poor. And I was also ambitious just like José.

I also had some help along the way.

On my way back home, I stopped to do my weekly shopping on my side of the border.

Within an hour, I’d spent 1 and 1/2 times what José earns working his 60-hour week. When I arrived home, I was wildly welcomed by my two golden retrievers whose daily sustenance almost equals José’s daily income.





  1. George Thomson

    Jack, It’s clear we see the ambitious economic nature of Mexicans in this. Economic self-reliance is obvious throughout Mexican culture. This trait is especially epitomized by the fluid free-market and underground economy that is essential to Mexican society.
    I respect highly they private economic force of the Mexicans.

  2. Jack,

    Thank you for writing the story. I hope that many people get a chance to read it. You are a good writer and a great human being.


  3. Jack McGarvey

    Dear George Thompson: I must write that your comment caused me to scratch my ever-balding head.

    Because, nowhere in my piece did I write anything about “the economic nature of Mexicans.”

    Or, about “the fluid free-market and underground economy that is essential to Mexican society.”

    If I had a purpose in posting that piece on Borderzine, it was quite the opposite of the “message’ you seem to have discerned.

    Maybe I was humbly hoping, somehow, to illustrate the huge disparity in income that exists between “us” and “them?”

    And that any Mexican who can possibly survive on a dollar an hour in wages is impossible.

    Meanwhile, like you, George, I also respect the “private economic force of the Mexicans.” They are, in general, some of the world’s most persistent and inventive entrepreneurs.

    Like the kid I met down in Santa Ana, Sonora’s newly renovated Central Plaza.

    Luis was selling his mom’s homemade, delicious empañadas at only seventy cents (US) a dozen, while the bland, factory-made empañadas you and I can buy at our local Safeway Supermarket will cost us at least 5 times as much.

    Dear Michael Tooke,

    Thanks much for your unearned compliment.

    The truth is that I am and always have been a mediocre writer, despite the fact some of my scribblings have been widely published, including 9 pieces in the New York Times.

    As for my being ‘a great human being?”

    Don’t kid yourself!

    Everything I do to help others less fortunate than I, arises from a selfish motivation. I do that, because it makes me feel good.

    Anyway, I’m giving a challenge to both George Thompson and Michael Tooke.

    Please contact me should either of you decide to take a trip into Mexico.

    Do stop by my home here in Rio Rico before you cross the border.

    If you do, I’ll give each of you a bag of 100-pesos coins, which is $7.80US at current exchange rates, even as I write.

    But you must promise me to use only those 100 pesos to support yourselves 24-hours anywhere in Mexico you choose.

    I’m betting you can’t.

  4. George Thomson

    Jack, I interpreted your article as a report on a hard working person, who will work for little to better himself. To me, that is economic self-reliance at it’s best and I respect that. I see that self reliance as an aspect of the fluid free underground economy in Mexico, and I respect that too.

  5. Hope you are well though far from the madding crowd. Was in Fla and wondered if you had a brother in the construction of new homes.? Keep writing. Best wishes Always lux veritas

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