I worked on a landscaping crew the summer after my sophomore year of college. It was 2006, Bush was president, gas was nearly $4 a gallon, and I had just had my heart broken. Like any self-respecting, idealistic, lovesick youth, I thought I’d find the cure for heartbreak in grueling “real” work — the kind that zapped the sad out of you because you’re too busy feeling physical pain to feel anything else. So I spoke to a good friend of mine, and he set me up for an interview with a landscaping company.
I got the job. It paid $8 an hour (which, at the time, I considered a windfall). On my first day of work, I rolled up in my dad’s 1980s stick shift Corolla, sporting a pair of work boots I’d bought at Target, Old Navy khakis, and a forest green polo with the name of the company emblazoned across the left pocket. I was green (in more ways than one), and the boss knew it, so I rode along with him and his right-hand man, a Colombian who went by the name of Tattoo. While the boss saw to picking up plants, watering installations, and coordinating his fleet of diesel trucks, Tattoo handled planting, mowing, trimming, and anything else that required brawn and finesse. He was only just over 5 feet tall, but Tattoo was a powerhouse. This left the weeding to me. I spent most of my summer with my nose hovering a foot above the dirt, yanking weeds from the ground.
Often, when Tattoo had finished his more important (and, frankly, more strenuous) work, he joined me in the weed-picking trenches. I got to know him well over the 2 and a half months I worked alongside him. He told me about his family. He had a wife and several children back in Colombia. They weren’t in the states, but he sent them the lion’s share of his paycheck. He lived in a small apartment with his nephew (who also worked at the same landscaping company). I told him about my love of poetry, and he told me about his love of writing poems (he called them “poetries”). Before he’d gotten the job at the landscaping company, he worked pouring concrete. He had to quit, though, because his boss often had him working over 100 hours a week. Compared to that, landscaping was easy! He also told me about how he’d kicked a nasty cocaine habit he’d developed as a teen in Colombia. We never talked about how he came to the United States, but it was an open secret that Tattoo and his nephew were not US citizens. At the time, this didn’t carry the stigma it has since acquired. Most importantly, however, Tattoo became my friend. I can still hear the way he pronounced my name and triumphantly announced the end of the workday: “Bean, vámonos!” I am ashamed, looking back, that I saw my landscaping job as a bracing antidote to heartbreak. For Tattoo, his job was the only way he could support his family.
I don’t know how we, as a nation, got here. 2006 doesn’t seem like that long ago. Every day, strident voices push the narrative of fear: we hear that we can’t trust these people because they are from nations harboring terrorists; we hear that we can’t trust these people because they are rapists, criminals, and gang members; we hear that we can’t trust these people because they’ll change our cultural identity as a nation. These appeals to fear have been used before, and they will be used again. They are as dangerous as they are effective. It strikes me as appalling that we seem to have forgotten, in such a short time, that we are literally a nation of immigrants. If you were born in the United States of America to a family of some means and with prospects of a bright future, you are lucky. You may have worked hard. You may have pulled yourself up by your bootstraps. But you are lucky, nonetheless. People born in poverty, in countries with war or gang violence, and living in fear are unlucky. It’s really as simple as that. You are lucky. They are unlucky. And the way we are treating the unlucky is unequivocally disgusting. Trump would have you believe that everyone seeking asylum in America is a member of ISIS or MS-13. He would have you believe that the enemy is outside your door and that you must lock the door and harden your hearts for the benefit of your family. He would have you believe that humans are animals. But believing in such a gospel of fear and scarcity is the way we become animals.
I really hope that we step back from the precipice of this descent into inhumanity. I am thinking of my friend, Tattoo.