THREE ISSUES | From the bottom of the economic ladder, not much hope


I see a man sitting near a fountain filled with pigeons in the middle of a park downtown St. Paul, and ask him if I can interview him about the upcoming elections.  He’s not sure. “I don’t speak English very well,” he says. “¿Habla Español? I ask. His face immediately brightens up. “Yes, of course! What about you?” He agrees to an interview, but asks that I not use his name, so I’ll call him Luis.

Luis tells me that he is a middle-aged day laborer from Cuba who has lived in Minnesota for the past 17 years. His wife and two grown daughters are still in Cuba and he hasn’t seen them at all since he arrived here. He is a resident of the United States, here with a work permit, currently living alone in East St. Paul. Currently, he is unemployed. He checks every day to see if there is any available work. He works for a day or two at a time, then can wait days, even weeks until something else comes up. His jobs vary—most often involving factory work or heavy manual labor. His last job was assembling tractors.

Luis doesn’t have much hope in politics—either here or in his native country. He believes that power is a corrupting force, “it’s dirty,” he says. Even though he doesn’t believe in the upcoming elections, there are many issues he’d like to see change.

The economy is Luis’s primary concern, followed by immigration. When he arrived here in 1994, jobs were plentiful in the day labor market. Now he’s never sure. He links the poor economy directly to the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. When the war started and jobs became scarcer, Luis saw racism increase. He remembers one day immigration officials came to the meat-packing plant in West St. Paul where he was working. They divided up the legal from the illegal workers. They took all undocumented workers away. Most of the workers were Latino, and he remembers everyone being treated with callous disrespect. “I know immigration has to do its job,” he says, “but sometimes it is how you do the job that matters.” Many of his co-workers have been deported, and, if their children are citizens, they often wind up in foster care. He’s sad to see families split up and children raised by strangers. “There’s way too many deportations,” he says. He continues, “It’s different for a white person. They see your skin—they give you a job. To me, no.”

Finally, Luis would like to see changes in the education system. He wants to learn more English, but doesn’t have the opportunity. He’s only been able to teach himself enough to get by. Also, he wants to be able to use the training he received in Cuba as a heating and refrigeration technician, but the training isn’t recognized as valid here.

Luis hopes to save up enough in the next four years to be able to return and live out the rest of his life in Cuba. He’s hopeful things will work out, “if that’s the way God wants it.”