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.

5 thoughts on “Making ends meet in Nogales on $1 an hour

  1. 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. 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. 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

Leave a Reply