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The Rags to Riches Myth
For my dad, hard work wasn’t enough
Marco Salazar
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My father immigrated to New York from Ecuador in 1990. It was a myth in Ecuador that everyone who went to the U.S. returned to Ecuador a wealthy person. My dad knew it wasn’t exactly true, and that he would have to work hard to achieve financial stability. But he also knew that even menial jobs in the U.S. paid more than most professional jobs did in Ecuador, and that there were minimum wage laws here that would guarantee he earned a certain amount.

He arrived with reasonable hopes, yet when I look at him 20 years later, I see my dad still struggling financially. I wanted to know how that happened and what he had to say about the recession taking away any stability he had, so I interviewed him for this story.

From College to the Factory

In Ecuador, my dad studied architecture for three years. Before he’d completed his degree, my grandmother stopped paying his tuition, and he couldn’t afford to complete college on his own. So when he applied for and received a visa to the U.S., he thought, “What do I have to lose?”

Arriving in New York, he moved in with his cousins in Brooklyn. He had $3,000 that his mother had given him, but to his dismay it went quickly in this expensive city. After about three weeks he was almost broke after paying for food, rent, and other expenses.

He quickly understood that pay was higher here because prices were so much higher. In fact, the ratio of expenses to pay was about the same as in Ecuador. My dad began to wonder if he should have stayed in Ecuador, but he didn’t have enough money to travel back.

Although he’d studied architecture, he had to settle for a menial job here because his partially completed degree meant nothing in the U.S. He spent four months working at different factories, wishing he didn’t have to work so hard. His hands had blisters at the end of the day and the pay was poor.

Discrimination

Eventually, a friend found him a job at an electric company; my father was glad to be working at something he was at least interested in. For the next five years he worked as an electrician’s assistant, eventually gaining enough knowledge to become an electrician. He wired buildings during the hot summers and freezing winters. He wasn’t happy with the workload, but he did what he had to do.

After a year working there, my dad met my mom and two years after that, I was born and he met me. My mom already had two children who lived with us, but she was working too, so for a while we were fine financially.

Then one day my dad had an argument with a supervisor, who fired him. There was a lot of racism, he explained: His supervisor was Caucasian, as were his coworkers, and my dad felt discriminated against. “They would tell me to work harder, while the others weren’t told to work harder,” he said.

My mother didn’t make enough money at her factory job to support all of us. My dad had no choice but to work at a factory again. “I did it to support my family, not because I wanted to,” he told me. After three years of working at a quilt factory, he received a call from the electric company asking him to work for them again, and he accepted.

Round the Clock

image by Nelle McKay

When I was in 1st grade I barely saw my dad during the week, only at night when I watched movies with him. My father seemed happy, as was I, but that happiness soon faded. My mom died in 2000, when I was 6, and my dad was left with not only me to support, but also my half-brother and half-sister. He knew he couldn’t take care of the three of us alone, so he sent my brother and sister to the Dominican Republic to live with their father.

My mom had been the one to drop me off at my babysitter’s, but now I had to wake up at 4 a.m. every day to be dropped off because that’s when my dad went to work. I slept there until school, and after-school I went back to my babysitter’s house until 7 p.m. when my dad arrived home from work.

I was excited when my father came home. He spent as much time with me as he could. I knew my dad not working wasn’t an option, but I wished he didn’t have a job just so we could spend more time together.

Recession Strikes

In spite of all the hours he worked, my dad made just about enough money to support us. In 2001 my uncle moved in with us, since he was having financial problems and he and my dad figured that sharing expenses wouldn’t hurt either of them. But eventually my uncle moved out to start his own family, and soon after that the electrical company made cutbacks and laid off my father. He was unemployed and scared, living off odd jobs.

Luckily, a few months later he was hired by Hal’s Electrical Company and after that, my stepmother (whom he married on a trip to Ecuador) and her son moved in with us. With my stepmother working and taking care of us part of the time, we were OK for about five years.

Then came the recession. With the TV full of bad news, my parents prayed all the time, asking God to help them keep their jobs. But in May 2009, my dad was laid off again, and my step-mom joined him on unemployment two months later. Now, my parents worry all the time.

‘You’re My Hope’

Luckily there are benefits for laid-off workers, and with those benefits, we’ve been able to get by. My step-mom cleaned homes for a while; now she has a temporary job as a census worker on weekends, while my dad submits resumes to hundreds of employers. My parents put their faith in God, hoping he’ll help them.

“It’s hard to get a job nowadays; every job requires you to know English and have a college degree,” my dad tells me. He understands English but speaks very little, while my step-mom doesn’t speak or understand English.

“It saddens me when my children come home from school and there’s nothing to eat. That’s why I work hard so I can put food on the table; every little bit of money I make, I spend it on food and bills, not clothes or purses for myself,” my step-mom told me in Spanish.

My father has been working hard for the past two decades to become financially stable, but he’s not where he thought he would be. The recession has taken away most of what he worked for.

Even in good times, immigrants have it hard. They come to the U.S. alone and poor and often can’t speak or understand English. Most come with illusions of wealth but frequently they end up returning to their native countries. Those who stay usually do so knowing they may never have financial stability, but they hope that their children will be successful. (I know my parents feel that way about me; they’ve always told me so, and as I get older, I’m a little nervous because I know how great their expectations are.)

In a bad economy, immigrants often feel the worst effects. “Isn’t it ironic how greedy business owners are the cause of the recession, yet we’re the ones suffering?” my dad said to me. “I’ve done what I can to support your growth and education. You’re my hope, and I look forward to seeing you succeed.”

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(NYC-2010-04-10)

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