President Trump’s recent executive order on immigration reminds me of Andrew Lam’s article “Give Me the Gun”, which reflects on how refugees from war-torn countries take different paths to achieve the American Dream. Some refugees, like Lam, take a path of success, but others like the Tsarnaev and Nguyen brothers stumble onto a path of destruction and crime. While refugees from war-torn countries take different paths to reach their American Dream, there are also some immigrants who flee to the U.S. because of drug wars and these immigrants also face the same issues that Lam describes in “Give Me the Gun.”
My late father had a small business in Chicago, and he worked to empower his immigrant employees, as well as their children, to create a better life after leaving their homeland. At the height of father’s business success, his construction company employed more than 67 people, and they were all minorities. He hired Spanish-speaking people from Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, and African-Americans from the Caribbean.
When I close my eyes to remember the Second City’s beautiful skyline, I see my father’s imprint on this friendly town. The skyboxes at Cellular Field, the John Hancock Building, Orleans Court, and many more high rises were all construction projects which my father resurrected in the Windy City.
On Fridays, one of my favorite things to do was to drop off his employees’ payroll checks during the lunch hour. Lunch hour 20-40 stories above the city featured Tejano or Caribbean music from a battery-powered radio with a broken antenna attached by a piece of black electrical tape.
The dusty construction site would temporarily be filled with the smells of cinnamon, chocolate, and chili powders. A few employees would make a buffet table pieced together with a sheet of drywall and a pair of sawhorses. The Latin-Hispaniola buffet featured different colored salsas with varying degrees of spice, home-made tortillas, capirotada, horchata, picadillo, cochin ita pi bill, tamales, barbacoa, and chicken mole. These foods were the cultural currencies of his employee’s distant lands, and everyone “talked story” about their children’s academic accomplishments while devouring lunch.
My father paid his workers construction scale wages which were more than 6-10 times above minimum wage. Many of his employees had large families, and their children would be the first generation to graduate from high school, as well as college.
But, along with a big city paycheck comes big city problems and “on a few occasions…[a few]…found their way toward tragedy”.1
When a man is adrift in a complex world, he has two choices. He can helplessly grab the raft of easy money or the raft of acceptable choices. For immigrants, easy money is usually a life of crime, while hard money requires hours of laborious work with your hands. Those who chose to make quick money by selling drugs were always sent up the river to Joliet, as well as those who decided to rob others at gunpoint because they felt entitled to the American Dream, and they were going to take it, even if it cost them their life or shamed their family.
I’d estimate that more than 95 percent of my dad’s employees’ children went to college or a trade school, but the remainders were adrift. My father’s business indirectly allowed many minority children the opportunity to afford a life beyond the barrio.