Published from Nailed Magazine December 19th, 2016
We argue about Sangria. Red wine mixed with fruit juice. Ramone drinks it on Friday afternoons straight from a 2 liter bottle he buys at a liquor discount store near his home in Hillsboro. He lives with his two grown American sons. One attending a police academy. The other learning carpentry.
“Diana, Diana, Diana why you no drink Sangria conmigo?”
“Because Ramone, I’m a grown woman and we drink tequila. Haven’t you heard? It puts hair on our chests!”
Ramone laughs. Out loud. A lot. His eyes are weathered from a lifetime working outside. Deeply creased crow’s feet frame his mossy green eyes. His hair has begun to turn grey at the ears and his fingers are thick with muscle as they grab at 2x4s like they’re toothpicks. His fence almost done.
Ramone is an undocumented worker in the United States. He is an illegal. I know this because for two years the IRS has sent me a letter saying Ramone’s social security number is invalid. As it probably has been for the twenty-four years he’s lived in our country.
He is also my favorite worker amongst many I hire to flip houses in the Pacific Northwest. Plumbers, Electricians, Roofers, Sheet rockers, Landscapers. Ramone is a master carpenter meaning he is at the top of his field. He can do everything and anything. Frame a house, build artisan cabinets or a fence for your yard. If it involves wood, Ramone’s the guy you call.
And he makes $45/hour.
Which is the same wage as a “documented” worker at a master carpenter level. Such as Justin, whom I’ve hired on more than a few occasions when Ramone is not available. Justin was born in this town. His brother is a contractor, his father was too. Justin shows up for work on Tuesday from 12pm-3pm and then maybe Thursday from 10am-2pm. If we’re lucky. The supplies ordered for Justin’s walls or deck or fence…sit in everyone’s way and I re-schedule sheet rockers and painters around Justin’s spotty schedule.
And I wish I could say Justin is an anomaly. But he is not. There are others like Tim, Josh and Eric. They are independent contractors too and for my small business, it’s the only way I can afford to run it. Justin’s hours are his own. As are Ramone’s. Both can work whatever hours they see fit. Ramone has worked for me on and off for five years. He shows up at 8am. He leaves at 5pm. On the dot, except on Fridays when we sometimes stay late and share Sangria on the job site.
“Ramone, how did you learn carpentry?”
“I watched This Old House. You know that show?”
“I do. I loved that show as a kid. Watched it with my Dad.”
Ramone grew up in Chiapas in southern Mexico on a ranch with his parents and siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. He said it was packed with people so when he turned eighteen, he walked to San Diego. Yes, he walked all 2200 miles. He arrived with nothing in his pockets and slept in parks for the first few months eating food he found in dumpsters. It was there he met another Mexican who mentioned there was a truck leaving that week for blueberry season in Oregon. Ramone got on that truck and worked in the fields for years picking zucchini, corn, strawberries, salal and mushrooms. Until he learned carpentry from “Bob Vila.”
“There were commercials on TV for classes with Bob. I saved my money that season and bought a skill saw. Then I signed up for the classes.”
In fact, he took several carpentry classes from the traveling Bob Vila This Old House tour. He learned to frame windows, build a fence and a deck. And he took this newfound knowledge and repaired the field houses on the farms around Portland.
It was sometime in there he met his wife. She worked the fields as well. They married, had two children and Ramone began saving to buy a house. Which he did. Fifteen years ago. Right before his wife was deported back to Mexico. Where she still lives.
“Ramone, how’s your wife’s Boers doing?”
“Diana, I worry she loves the Boers more than me. She talks about them all the time.”
“Maybe the goats remind her of you. You are kind of hard-headed, Ramone.”
Ramone’s wife lives on his ranch in Oaxaca and takes care of Ramone’s elderly parents. He bought the ranch when his wife was deported and every winter, he returns and builds another room or deck or out building for his wife’s growing goat herd as well as a cousin or two in need of housing. His children spent their summers on the ranch growing up while Ramone stayed in Portland working forty hours a week.
“When will you retire, Ramone?”
“When both my sons are ready. When my oldest becomes a cop and my youngest can master carpentry.”
His children were born in the US and therefore are American citizens paying American taxes. “Documented” workers. His oldest, a future bi-lingual cop who smiles and laughs as much as his father, will be out of the Academy this year. His youngest, the future carpenter, is shy and still unsure of himself. Not quite ready for the world on his own. But soon he will be.
“When you retire to Oaxaca with your wife, do you think your sons will be OK here?”
“I don’t know Diana. I hope so. I will worry from so far away. But they’re good boys. They can do this.”