OUR STORIES | Martín: A hidden voice


I first met Martín while tending my garden in the summer of 2012.  He is perhaps the single most humble recipient of fresh produce from my small garden, and has been for at least two summers.  My earliest recollection noticing him takes place sometime in the spring.  I was looking out my window and he was walking by my house to the park.  It was cold and rainy, and he and his three sons were going to the park to play soccer.  They were all wearing plastic ponchos with hoods, the kind acquired from Target or sometimes the Dollar Store.  I thought to myself why would anyone play soccer in this weather?  

Since then, there have been numerous other occasions when we saw each other from across the street, usually when I was preparing my garden space, and he was walking to the park across the street from my house.  We would exchange smiles and a wave of the hand.  This happened several times, with no other form of communication.  From my living room window I have seen Martín kick, chase, and run the ball a few times, all while he was wearing cowboy boots.  But most of the time, he stands guard over his children, and watches his surroundings.  I wondered if he felt safe, secure, and respected.   What was he thinking?

On the day we first exchanged words he was, again, on his way with his children to the park, a family ritual that occurs at least three times a week.  The encounter was one of mutual understanding.  This time he was walking on my side of the street and I noticed he saw my garden and how quickly it was growing.  He gave me a friendly smile and an upward nod of the head as if to say hello.  I nodded back and waved him down, “¿Quiere habaneros y tomates?” I asked.

I had too many habanero peppers and tomatoes, and he seemed like the kind of guy that wouldn’t mind if I unloaded a bunch of hot peppers and tomatoes on him.

“Pues, sí,” he replied.  And thus began an acquaintance that has slowly progressed until the present.  Recently I asked if I could interview him.  He wanted to know more about the interview process.  I explained that I was trying to tell the stories of fathers who, despite their daily struggles, manage to spend time with their children.   He agreed to an interview.  

Martín was born and raised in Northern Mexico, and has resided in Minneapolis for about 13 years.  He is a slightly stout man, and he dresses like a cowboy minus the hat.  His looks are those of one caught somewhere between looking like an older-looking, young man, or a younger-looking, older man.  He could be 40 and worn, or 60 and looking 50.  At first he gives the impression of a man of very little words.

“What are your qualifications or preferred profession?”

I’m an electrician by trade,” he said.  “But I have been working in fábricas, assembly line factories for 12 years.  In those 12 years I have only had three different jobs.  At my last job I was fired.”

“Do they treat you well?” I asked.

“You know, I have found more racism and discrimination from my own people more than the white people.   For every 100 people—there are three that discriminate badly.  The reason I was fired was because another guy had it out for me.  I had trained him, and he climbed through the ranks and became a manager because he was bilingual.  And for no reason at all he let me go.  Then when it came to finding another job, others like me, Hispanics, would purposely hide any knowledge that there were job openings at their place of employment.  I think they only save those jobs for their close friends, relatives, and other people they know well.  Luckily for me, someone knew me, and put in a good word.  I would rather work in what I was trained in.  Not speaking English is my disadvantage.   At least my kids know both.”

Martín has three boys who are bilingual.

“My children are all bilingual. The older one still has an accent, but the two youngest speak it without an accent.  The oldest is 12 years old, the middle one is 9 years old, and the youngest is 6 years old.  They love soccer.  They do well at school.  They don’t get in trouble.  They’re well mannered. If for any reason we were ever forced to leave the country or return to Mexico, I would feel very secure in the fact that my sons will be better educated than I ever was.   I can barely say twenty words in English.  It’s too hard to learn, and I’m too busy working.  But they will be able to find work in Mexico if they speak English.  In fact they are also US citizens.”

For a split second I thought, what’s his status?  I quickly decided against it and dismissed the idea.  One, it was none of my business.  Two, I was standing in the presence of another hard working man like myself, why did I have to care at that moment whether he was legal or not?  Finally, because I did not want to offend him, or put him in a place of unease, or suspicion, I changed the subject to something else—the weather and the coming seasons.

As you can see, Martín is not a man of very few words.  He loves his family.  He works, but would rather work as an electrician.  It is his trade.  He feels he can’t acquire a license because he cannot speak English.  If this is true, then he is in a rough place, but if this is not true, will someone help this man?

Reporting for this article supported in part by Bush Foundation.