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.