In 1964, Guatemala was being run by a military junta, violence was a part of every day life, the economy was in shambles, and jobs were scare (Cuevas, 2011). It was in this setting that a young man, my future father-in-law, took a chance at a better life for he and his family. Enticed by rumors of prosperity in the United States, Alex and his brother Rene saved their money to journey to Chicago, leaving their families behind in a search for hope that was borne of desperation. Alex left his wife Ruth with 20 Guatemalan Quetzal, the equivalent of $20 dollars, and their three children, Vivien, 5, Ingrid, 3, and Marvin, a newborn baby. What experience lay in store for he and his family? How would they fare in an unknown country, without family, friends, assets, or even command of the language? Their experience, like so many immigrants, was one of lifetime poverty, sacrifice, and hard work, for the opportunity that living in the United States promised for their children.
Immigrant Work and Wage Experience in the United States
When Alex and Rene first came to Chicago, they were able to secure a job at a local Chicago candy factory, where they were responsible for cleaning the candy belts. While they made less than the minimum wage, they earned enough to bring their families to the United States. Alex stayed in Chicago for 7 years working the same job for the same low pay, never improving his situation because of constant fear of deportation. In fact, often immigrants without legal status face similar forms of subjugation, where the fear of deportation forces them to remain in low-wage jobs that don’t meet basic needs (Coutin, 2000)
During their years in Chicago, Alex and Ruth had two more children, Ruth and my wife, Orpha, both born U.S. citizens. Ruth and Orpha, so-called “anchor babies”, allowed Alex and Ruth to apply for and obtain Green Cards, allowing the family to remain in the United States permanently. Freed from the constant fear of deportation, Alex moved his family to Los Angeles, where his family would better fit, given the large Hispanic population. In Los Angeles, Alex obtained a job with Pan-American Underwriting Company as a file clerk, making roughly $1000 per month. Alex worked there for twenty years, without receiving a promotion or raise, before finally being laid off without receiving any retirement benefits. My wife cries as she recounts how she helped her father to get a job as a delivery driver where she worked, after he had been laid of at Pan-American; she cries in a mix of emotions that include anger, embarrassment, shame, and deep anguish for her father’s wounded pride (Rock, 2011). Alex’s experience is like so many immigrants in the United States, where uncertain legal status combined with other factors, like language barriers serves to lock them into low-wage jobs that often lack benefits (Massey, Durand, & Malone, 2002). While living in poverty in the United States was an improvement over the...