"Walking in Someone Else's Shoes"

April 20, 2010
It is true that “you cannot really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view, climb into their skin, and walk around in their shoes.” This is a story about a friend of mine who is misunderstood by many as someone who has no respect for our laws or our borders. People who do not understand stereotype him as being a no good criminal. I met my friend Osmar on the side of the street, waiting for a job along with many others just like him, in Freehold, NJ. How did he and the other workers end up here? Why are there so many of them and what do they want? I cannot myself comprehend what life is really like for Osmar for I have never experienced anything like it, but I can try to tell his experiences as he would if he knew English well enough. This is his story.

Osmar grew up in the country of Mexico. He lived far from the major cities and suburban sprawl of the huge country. He lived in the poverty-stricken rural villages of Mexico. He lived in the same village his entire life and never went so far as to the next village over. His life is nothing but hard work and no play. Life was a struggle to survive in the terrible heat of Mexican summers. Disease and food contamination, due to unsanitary conditions are a constant hazard to life, and clean water is scarce. Osmar is now a grown man in his 30s. He has a wife, two children, and a dog living at home in Mexico. The vast majority of Mexicans are living sub-standard lives, many without electricity or running water. There is practically no work where Osmar lives, and even when a job is available, the pay is minimal. Faced with the dilemma of feeding his family, Osmar had to look elsewhere to find a way of supporting those who he loves. Just like millions of others in the same situation, the opportunities of America seem to be the only chance for survival. In Mexico, the government offers no welfare or financial aid; you support yourself or perish. Mexico is the 15th largest country in the world and the 11th most populous. It is the 12th largest economy of all the countries and yet so many people are still poor…why do these people face such hardships? Since wages are so low, a substantial number of Mexicans are motivated to move to the United States to find venues to provide money for their family. Osmar is one of them.

Carrying a rucksack with only a couple hundred pesos, a few changes of clothes, and a water bottle, Osmar embarked on a journey that will lead him far from his home, his family, and his country. Finding the land of opportunity is not as difficult as it is getting into it, as dozens upon dozens of illegal immigrants are arrested every day trying to cross the border. He would walk as much as he can, as he does not want to waste his money with the public transportation system. The border between Mexico and the United States is surrounded by a vast desert, which takes many lives of those trying to cross during the brutal summer days. However, there are other ways to cross the desert besides walking. A massive illegal drug trade occurs over the border of Mexico and the US. Vans that carry drugs to secret spots along the border are willing to smuggle people hoping to get into the United States secretly, for a fee. Osmar was crowded with twelve other people into an eight-seat van without air conditioning and took a five-hour venture across a crimson sea of sand on rutted and unpaved roads to reach the border near the Rio Grande. Parts of the border are guarded by an impenetrable 10ft high brick wall, but the vast majority of it is barely fortified; either nothing or a thin wired fence that is easily hopped by any young man or woman separates Mexico from the land of opportunity. Another path is to cross the Rio at its many shallow spots to gain entrance to Texas. Osmar spent nearly all his money for the trip across the desert. Now he has made it into America by crossing the river. This is barely a triumph though, as he has merely enough money to eke his way through a few days of cheap meals and bus transportation. Osmar now must find the opportunities of the “Land of Opportunity.”

The southern Texan towns near the border are hardly worth the trouble of trying to find a job as so many illegal aliens from Mexico have overrun the towns and their economies. Some Mexicans bring along with them gang warfare, drugs, and crime to the vulnerable southern cities and towns. Being in need of a quick income, Osmar leaves Texas and seeks out California where the economy is more vivacious and in need of more migrant workers. He is able to make money by doing any job people will give him; planting, landscaping, digging, picking, building, cleaning up, painting, and every other low-paying job imaginable. Practically all the money he makes he sends back to his family. He keeps very little of it for himself and only spends on necessities like food, water, and a place to stay. Unfortunately, after about two years of being in California, the economy there begins to collapse and he must find work somewhere else. There is a town called Freehold on the opposite side of the country that is popular with illegal Mexicans as being a place with “good work.” He takes the cheapest transportations possible to get across the country and seeks out Freehold, NJ. His duty in Freehold is to get out as early as possible and wait at the corner. People know what he is waiting for, and if they need work, they will hire him. Some days work is aplenty, other day there is none. His family depends on the money he sends back to them. He can make 15 times as much money per hour here than he could have done in Mexico, even when doing the lowest paying jobs. His little boy and girl are now getting an education, but in Mexico you must pay for school once they graduate elementary school. He lived in Freehold for maybe two years when we met him…

“Dad! The dog got out again! I wish we could put up some sort of fence to keep them in!” I yelled as my dog Silk made her escape to the neighbors.

“Your father is way too old to start digging and putting up fences anymore!”

“Well, find help,” I told him.

This will not be our first time hiring an illegal immigrant to work for us. They are by default hard working people who do their best no matter what. They appreciate any work they can find as work means survival for themselves and for their entire family in Mexico. We drove to Freehold and saw a huddle of dozens of Mexicans waiting for work. They will be standing there all day long if they have to, and it is sad to see that so often they will have days without any profit. When you pull up to them, they swarm around your car, all of them eager for hire, so we try to avoid that. We saw a man sitting apart from the group so we went to him and told him to get in.

“Hola,” says the man when he gets in.

“Hi. What’s your name?” asked my dad.

“Me llamo Osmar.”

“You work?” my dad asked.

“Si- yes,” he responds.

We took him to our house in Millstone. When he walked in- he notices several pairs of shoes sitting on the mat in the entrance hall. Then he sees a plethora of coats, jackets, and hats in the closet. In the kitchen, he sees a refrigerator filled to the brim with food and drinks, pantries filled with dog food, dog bones, and dog cookies. At home, his dog eats discarded taco shells and rice. His primary food is rice and beans, and meat is usually too expensive to have. In Osmar’s home, there is no fridge to keep the food cold and fresh. In each of our three bathrooms, there is a sink, a toilet, and a shower. At home, his toilet is a hole dug in the ground outside, and his shower and sink is an outside hose that gives no hot water. In each bedroom of our house, there is a big, cozy bed. Osmar’s family sleeps on mats on the floor like our dogs do. There was one TV in the community where he lived, in our house alone there are three TVs. Osmar now shares a house with numerous other illegal Mexicans and pays rent to sleep on a cold basement floor without even a mattress. He desperately misses his wife and children. It is apparent that our lives have conspicuous differences and I cannot yet understand how he lives they way he does. Despite his rough life, Osmar is the kindest and most respectful man you can meet. He always says thank you or “gracias” when we give him food or anything else, and takes his boots off when coming into the house. His first task we assigned him was to build a fence to protect our two dogs from getting out. Our house sits on 3.5 acres of hilly and woody landscape. The fence he will build will span almost 2,000 feet. He was the hardest and most efficient worker we have ever seen. He dug many four-foot deep holes where the fence is to be placed, and it only took him several weeks of work to assemble the fence: all by himself. He would not even accept help from my father or take breaks when he needed it. I could never have done such tedious or back breaking work that he does routinely and probably I will never have to. We realized we struck gold having Osmar to help us with everything- and he did. Blowing leaves, cleaning and painting the basement, putting tar on our colossal driveway, cleaning glass, and planting are just some of the jobs he has done for us. On many occasions we have taken him into Sam’s Club so he can help us with carrying big items like a 46” LCD TV, a luxury he does not have. Sam’s Club must have seemed like the biggest thing on Earth to Osmar.

“Nice store,” he tells my father as we leave with a TV.

The endless aisles of dog food, cat food, fruits, poultry, furniture, wines, beers, TVs, computers, sound systems, and DVD movies are not present at the outside markets of his home village. When there was not enough room for the three of us to fit into the car with the TV in it, he insisted that he would be the one to have to squeeze into the back of the SUV with the large TV box. It took much persuading to convince him that I should squeeze into the back since he is a big man and I am still a boy. When we go home, he took the giant TV on his back like an ox and carried it into the house, and assembled it all by himself onto the TV mount he had assembled. He never took an easy way out because he appreciates the work we give him and we appreciate having him.
Although our lives are so different, we have developed a friendship with Osmar. From giving him a cold water bottle or a sandwich everyday, we began to interact. His English is poor, and even though he is steadily becoming better at it, it is still difficult to communicate with him. We have to speak to him in broken English so he can understand us. Still, we laugh about things together and have fun. I have played basketball with him, showed him how to use the mouse on a computer, played a computer game with him, let him play my Xbox 360, and teach him some English. In turn, he helps me with my Spanish homework and tells me about his customs and traditions as well as he can. We have taken Osmar out to eat, to the movies, purchased him new clothing, and have given him tremendous amounts of used clothing for his friends aka amigos. My parents even took him to Atlantic City and let him stay in a hotel room and eat at a buffet just so he can experience some joy in life. The flashing casino lights, elevators, and escalators were all things new to him. He reluctantly stepped into an elevator, and then held on for dear life when it began moving suddenly. This was the first time he had ever been on an elevator. Osmar has not seen his wife or children for almost five years. He still struggles to find a job. Last winter he went almost six months without having any work at all, so he had no money to send to his family in Mexico. Osmar called my father for help and we offered to let him move in temporarily at no cost but he was too proud to accept our charity. He just wanted to work. We recommended him to our friends who hired him and all love having him work for them.
My friend Osmar is one of 27 million illegal immigrants from Mexico now living in the United States. Many of them are being forced to return to Mexico either because of our government or because there is little work to be had in America because of the faltering economy of today. He strives to find a way to bring his family to America safely and gain citizenship. What he did was out of desperation to survive, and cannot be blamed for it. People should have pity for the millions of illegal aliens trying to find a way to get out of the poverty-stricken countries where they were born. The Mexican Government is to blame for the burden we now face from all these illegal immigrants, as they should better control their border and make it so people living in their country aren’t so desperate that they must come to America to survive. The United States has to keep its borders safe because amongst the constant traffic of immigrants, there could be drugs, disease, and terrorists trying to find their way into America. We cannot allow illegal aliens to take jobs that Americans need. Nevertheless, if we do close our borders completely, what will become of all those desperate people whose only hope is to get to America? That shows how truly great our country is- so great that many people from around the world want to find a way here. The problem of illegal immigration is very complex. After getting to know Osmar I have become much more empathetic to the plight of those coming here illegally. US citizens cannot truly understand the reasons and motives of all these people who come here illegally, because most have not faced the misery that surrounds their lives. American citizens take for granted all that we have and can not begin to understand what real poverty and hopelessness is about until they travel to third world countries or meet a man like Osmar and get to hear their story. “You cannot really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view, climb into their skin, and walk around in their shoes.” You may have to walk many hundreds of miles in Osmar’s shoes to understand what his life is like. I really hope he becomes successful and prosperous and gains his citizenship, because everyone deserves an equal chance at life. Sadly, not everyone gets it.

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