Made in America

Long before “illegal” was a dirty, demagogued word, Vincente Martinez crossed over from Mexico to work my family’s ranch in Wimberley. A generation later, he and his family are still living happily and working productively in the Hill Country— and that’s a good thing, no matter what the TV screamers say.

May 2007By Comments

If for some reason you have occasion to be driving through the Hill Country on Farm-to-Market Road 3237, bound for Wimberley, you’re likely to pass a tall Hispanic man working alone on a sprawling quarter horse ranch known as Foothills Farm. He wears jeans and boots, and beneath his cotton snap-button shirt there are both broad shoulders and a slight paunch. His straw hat will be set evenly, revealing a face deepened less by age than by decades in the sun. More than likely, he will be leading a horse by its reins to a paddock or to graze along Lone Man Creek.

It’s as ordinary a sight as one can imagine. I wouldn’t even bother to look, except that I happen to know this man, and remember how he got to where he is today. His name is Vicente Martinez. For a quarter century, he worked directly across Lone Man Creek, on the ranch where I spent much of my youth. He had crossed the Rio Grande near Reynosa, wandering for years from one farm to another, until he found a rancher in Medina who offered him $3 a day and a ditch in which to sleep in return for working with the animals. Word of Vicente’s skill with horses eventually reached our ranch foreman, who arranged a discreet meeting one day in 1969. Vicente accepted our foreman’s offer: $125 a month, plus food and a small trailer, in exchange for being the caretaker of dozens of quarter horses. Three years later, Vicente’s pregnant wife and three young boys were smuggled across the border in a two-door Monte Carlo driven by our foreman. In this way did the Martinez family come to live and work at the ranch owned by my grandfather, the Houston attorney and former Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski.

All this took place at a time when, according to an official at the Center for Immigration Studies, there were at most 1 million illegal aliens in America. Today there may be as many as 20 million. The screamers on radio and TV describe this as a siege. They say that these lawbreakers offer America nothing, that they are sucking our economy dry, that we should round them up, jail or deport them, and then seal the border once and for all. In this yelling match, families like mine and the Martinezes have remained silent. Co-conspirators though we were in the first clandestine wave of Mexican laborers, we feel no connection whatsoever to the mess we started. Back in 1969, no one protested. No one demagogued. It was all very quiet. And so by force of habit we’ve kept our mouths shut, thereby allowing this sad excuse for an honest debate to be hijacked by clueless and petty brokers of a myth. The myth is that America has been invaded.

Instead, the story that must be told, even if it reflects poorly on some of us, is the story of how we invited the invaders, how this began as an underground guest-worker program: imperfect, demeaning, and obviously illegal. But unsuccessful?

That depends in large part on what you think of the Martinezes today.

I HAD NOT SEEN VICENTE SINCE OUR family sold Circle J Ranch more than a decade ago. Back then, he and his kin were still living in the trailer beside the barn. The moment I drove into his quiet, mostly Anglo neighborhood in the hills of Wimberley, it was evident that he had moved up in the world. A wrought-iron fence encompassed his modest home. There was a fountain in the yard, and at the entrance gate stood a sign in English advertising Vicente’s availability for landscaping. “Resident of Wimberley community for 35 years” it read.

He was 72 now and, other than his recently acquired affection for Mexican soap operas, thoroughly unchanged. He warned me of this right after we hugged. He still couldn’t converse in English. Couldn’t dial the telephone. “I can’t write my own name,” he said as he showed me inside. “I work with my hands. All I know how to do is work.”

I had brought along my cousin Joe Jaworski, a lawyer and former city councilman in Galveston whose father had been the point man in getting the Martinezes their green cards more than two decades ago. We sat under a ceiling fan, in a living room that was an obstacle course of framed family photographs. Vicente’s wife, Maria, listened in from the kitchen as she rolled flour tortillas. I was grateful for the offer to stay for dinner, particularly since most of the Mexican restaurants in Austin had been closed for lunch. They were closed as a practical matter: Their workers, largely Mexican, would be taking to the streets that day, in pro-immigration rallies staged all across America.

When I asked Vicente why he was not among the marchers, he squinted at me, as if I had asked him why he was not a practicing Muslim. “He was working,” cut in his 39-year-old son, Carlos, who served as our interpreter. He said that his dad couldn’t relate to the protests. Nor, really, could Carlos. Theirs had been an altogether different path, and they had long since completed it. Carlos now manages a grocery store just outside Austin and is married to a radiology technician named Kimberly, who had stayed long enough to introduce herself before leaving for work. “All four of us married whites,” Carlos volunteered just after Kimberly left. “And all three sons have been divorced. So, yeah,” he smirked, “we’re pretty Americanized.”

In fact, one of them had always been American: 34-year-old Christina, who had been born here three months after her brothers and mother were smuggled across the border. She arrived at her father’s house a few minutes after Joe and I did, a tall and sharp-eyed bank executive who oversees three branches in San Antonio.

“Happy anniversary!” she called out as she walked in the door with her husband, Nick, and a bouquet of flowers. Her mother laughed bashfully and accepted the flowers while Christina said, “It’s their fortieth wedding anniversary. Daddy forgot.”

Vicente shrugged. “Too many years,” he mumbled after hugging his daughter and then taking his seat at the dinner table.

Joe and I sat with the Martinezes. Unspoken was the fact that the two families had never dined together. It was a complicated kinship we shared. Vicente and Maria were roughly my parents’ age. Their children were only a few years younger than Joe and I. (The eldest, 40-year-old Raudel, lives in Ohio as a salesman, while 37-year-old Rene works at a road construction business outside Des Moines.) We had grown up in one another’s periphery. And now we were on the same playing field—though also miles apart, and for at least another generation it would remain that way.

For the next hour we talked about kids, marriages, divorces, horses, the ranch, the town of Wimberley, and El Patrón, my grandfather. Only when I prodded Vicente to talk about himself did the dialogue falter.

“So now you’ve lived here longer than you lived in Mexico,” I said. “Do you feel American? Or Mexican?”

He and his children threw Spanish words back and forth, but he maintained his squint. I realized I had asked the wrong question. Vicente didn’t think in terms of citizenship. He had a single allegiance. “I’m proud that I provided for my family,” he finally said. “And seeing my kids now grown up providing for their own.”

But, he added, “I’m a taxpayer. I pay six or seven thousand dollars a year in taxes, because I’m self-employed.” It would be easy to cheat, he said. He knew other Mexican nationals who did. “I subcontract to them sometimes. I’ll drive into town and see them sitting around, and I’ll say, ‘I need a couple of guys to build a fence.’ And they say, ‘I’ll do it for a hundred dollars a day, and I want lunch, and what time is quitting time?’ These are Mexican laborers. They set the terms now. It upsets me.”

Why did this upset him? Our ranch foreman, a fat country boy named Royce, had not exactly allowed Vicente to set the terms. Often, Royce reminded Vicente that only a man with Leon Jaworski’s clout would be able to get Vicente his immigration papers. My grandfather eventually fired Royce, though only after Vicente had weathered a decade’s worth of racist abuse, at a salary that in 1979 peaked at $350 a month. Wouldn’t he have liked to have been able to have some leverage over Royce?

Vicente insisted that this had never been an issue for him. “I feel content,” he said. “Even though I could’ve made more, I’m satisfied with the outcome. Look, where I came from, in Matehuala? When you’re poor, you’re really poor. We didn’t have electricity or running water. I did mining work for two years as a boy. I made seven to fifteen dollars a week. I’d stay underground for sometimes sixteen hours a day.”

Recently, Vicente said, he had bought a second home at his and Maria’s birthplace. Now they drove to Matehuala at least once a year. Vicente Martinez would show up to town in his shiny pickup truck, wearing a fancy suit. He would give money to old friends and slip a $50 bill to the padrino who had baptized his four children.

“They see me as a man who’s done well,” he said with satisfaction.

I have seen men who have done better, and so has Vicente. They were my grandfather’s friends: lawyers, judges, newspaper publishers, oilmen. During hunting season, they would roll up to Circle J Ranch in their Cadillacs and Lincolns, driving on smoothly paved private country roads, past rows of immaculately carved heart-cedar-post fences—all the handiwork of Mexican migrant workers. A member of the Texas Rangers often showed up to my grandfather’s ranch and casually observed the laborers at work. It’s fair to say that the Ranger did nothing to discourage the activity, just as friendly immigration authorities had done Royce the favor of turning the other way when he drove Vicente’s family into America in 1972. The civic titans of Texas who visited my grandfather’s ranch were aware of what was going on. Men like these saw to it that the border, and the laws governing it, would remain a joke.

These men would shoot their hunting rifles all day long and then sit under the stars and drink while Vicente plucked the turkeys or skinned the deer. The men admired Vicente’s old-world comportment. The keenness in his stare, the sureness of his grip. They comforted themselves with the belief that the Mexican seemed to find even lowly work ennobling, and they would tip him well. And the next morning they would go home to their mansions, whose lawns were tended by other uncomplaining Hispanic gentlemen, each of whom would probably be doing this type of work forever so that his children would not have to.

That was the catch in Vicente’s voice I was picking up on at his dinner table. He was not an idiot. A horse trainer, attuned to the elemental, he knew condescension when he saw it. And he knew that, though the opportunity here was far superior to the choices he faced in Mexico, he was not getting paid what a white man might. Both sides understood that this inequality—made possible by the transaction’s unlawfulness—was key to the deal. Because of the cheap labor offered by migrants of modest yet unsinkable ambition like Vicente Martinez, men of means but not of obscene wealth could afford fine lawns, fine ranches, loyal domestic help. And a man like my grandfather could buy thirty broodmares and a stud, churn out foals, and then rely on a Mexican horse whisperer to transform each unruly baby into a poised nine-month-old commodity. Hay, tack, barn equipment—the horse operation would ripple through the economy in a variety of ways, and no one would be hurt by it.

Men like Vicente were the straws stirring the drink. Yet men are what they were—bored and lonely, with families down south. They had but one chip to play: I will accept my lot if you will help me give my children a better one. And so the titans would make arrangements. And a two-door Monte Carlo driven by a fat white man with seemingly no passengers would roll across the border, undeterred, at 30 miles an hour, while on the floorboards a pregnant woman and three little boys crouched with heads down, chewing on cheese crackers and wondering about the ranch that would be their new home.

TO STATE THE OBVIOUS: They were different from us, these three dusty brown-skinned boys and their ominously pregnant mother who simply materialized one day at our family refuge. Now that they had arrived, none of us were sure what would happen next. What exactly would they be doing here? How long would they stay? Yet over time the Martinezes proved themselves to be virtuosos of unobtrusiveness. Somehow the three boys—Carlos, Raudel, and Rene—all learned English on the fly, within a year of being smuggled here. They served as preteen interpreters for Vicente when his supple gestures failed to convey the nuance of this horse’s sickliness or that fence’s state of disrepair. We caught glimpses of the boys at the barn—where they slept in the tack room—and of Christina wandering with Maria to gather cactuses to boil for their dinner. In my state of adolescent self-absorption, it didn’t occur to me that they had been instructed by their parents to stay out of sight, to keep their mouths shut and their noses clean or otherwise the entire Martinez family would be shipped back to Mexico, where they would live in poverty forever. Though my uncle had obtained an H1B visa for the Martinezes a few years after their arrival, they continued to believe that the illegal circumstances of their arrival made deportation an imminent possibility—and wanting to keep Vicente in line, our caretaker Royce did nothing to discourage their fear.

The unintended effect of my grandfather’s guest-worker program was that the Martinez children could not behave like brats, the way his own grandchildren did. On their four-hundred-acre buffer from the outside world, the Martinezes learned about horses and droughts and scorpions, but not about the TV shows their classmates watched. They never went to a movie theater. They didn’t hang out at malls. They didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving. Their Christmas gifts came courtesy of the Blue Santa charity truck. Their parents, being illiterate in English, never helped them with their homework or attended parent-teacher conferences. Whenever any of them voiced complaint, Vicente or Maria got in their face: We are sacrificing our lives for you.

Over time, they became gangly adolescents themselves. Though each of them had gained popularity through the universal currency of school athletics, the Martinez kids were becoming discrete individuals before our eyes. Of the boys, one was emerging as a ladies’ man. Another was affable and unaffected, while the third was the opposite, occasionally seen brooding by the lake amid a pile of beer cans, seemingly haunted by his family’s ghostly status here.

Christina was the quintessential good girl, bright and unflappable. Her success seemed preordained. But even as the family’s sole American, Christina’s fate rested on the rickety imperatives of the “arrangement.” One night she heard her mother telling a Mexican friend, “If we get deported, I’m not leaving her behind. We’re not going to separate the family.”

YEAR AFTER YEAR, the immigration attorneys hired by our family slowly worked the process. My grandfather had to prove to the government that Vicente Martinez’s value to the horse operation was unique, that his talents could not be replicated by the average American. His job had to be offered to applicants in area newspapers. A day finally came in 1981 when the Martinezes were informed that their papers awaited them in Monterrey, Mexico. After almost a decade of waiting, they weren’t sure whether to believe it. They packed for a week-long trip, wondering all the same if they would ever see the ranch and the rest of their belongings again. From Wimberley, they drove more than three hundred miles to Monterrey. The six of them waited for hours in a crowded, cold office. On the second day they were there, their name was called.

Vicente stared at the papers for a while. Of course, he could make no sense of them. Since they were already in Mexico, Maria wanted to visit her mother in Matehuala for the first time in a decade. Not yet, said Vicente. He told the family to climb into the truck. Then he drove north, toward the borderline.

At the checkpoint, Vicente held out the papers for the border guard to inspect. The Martinezes, long experts in the art of silence, barely breathed as the government official studied the papers they themselves could not understand.

The man handed the papers back to Vicente and waved them through.

Vicente drove into America. Turned around after a couple of blocks. Then headed south again. That day in Matehuala, there would be a fiesta.

THE NEXT YEAR, in December 1982, while chainsawing cedar brush at the ranch, my grandfather dropped dead of a heart attack. The funeral in Houston was a montage of grief and power. President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff, James Baker, was there. So was U.S. Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell. So was Vice President George Bush.

When Vicente’s Ford Lariat pickup truck pulled up to First Presbyterian Church just before the funeral service, a swarm of Secret Service agents descended upon its six brown-skinned inhabitants. The Martinezes were told that they could not go inside. Then someone—I believe it was my aunt Joanie—interceded. “They’re sitting up front with us,” she told the agents.

“I shook the vice president’s hand,” Carlos recalled with a grin as he chewed on a steak in a restaurant halfway between Austin and Wimberley. “He asked me if I knew Leon. He said, ‘He was a great man.’”

Carlos couldn’t ascertain if George Herbert Walker Bush was wondering how this Mexican kid knew Leon Jaworski. Nor did he care. The vice president’s hand! It was a clean thrill, untainted by any fear. Now Vicente’s son found himself imagining that a life of some distinction might be his one day as well. Or if not, it might come to his eldest daughter, who today is in college and on track to become the first in the Martinez family tree to accrue a degree. Meanwhile, Carlos has had a good job in the Austin bedroom community of Dripping Springs for the past fourteen years. His charitable work resulted in a photo op with Governor Rick Perry. People told me that he was highly respected in Wimberley.

Of course, turning Vicente’s children into productive Americans wasn’t why my grandfather had hatched his guest-worker scheme. Then again, those of us who watched their path to legitimacy unfold aren’t shocked by the outcome. Market forces and the fear of legal retribution made honest brokers out of everyone involved despite the laws on the books. The least savory aspect—the demeaning nature of invisibility—could have been overcome if Congress had stepped in and ratified our crude construct with an aboveboard guest-worker program.

We’re still waiting. Today, a meanness has overtaken the language of the immigration debate. The illegals in our midst are viewed as pests and leeches whose arrival on this side of the border was no more solicited than the presence of a cockroach in our soup.

My family can’t account for this hatred. We can only account for the Martinezes. They are all legal. They all work and pay taxes. They own homes and go to church. They have committed no felonies. They wish for their children—who speak English and attend public schools—a life that much better than the life their own parents sacrificed fiercely to provide for them. If the Martinezes are in any way distinguishable from anyone else in the American middle class, it is because they are somewhat less entitled, less ungrateful. Somewhat, may I venture to suggest, better.

I SHOWED UP TO CARLOS’S GROCERY store the day after we had dined at his parents’ place. He wore a tie and a dress shirt and was patiently explaining to a distressed elderly woman—obviously a frequent customer—that the product she had ordered would be arriving soon. Carlos threw a quick wave when he saw me, a polite way of saying that he was busy for the moment. Then he returned to his conversation with the customer. He must have spent ten minutes with her. I thought of Vicente’s attention to the grooming of our horses. He still kept pictures of some of them at his house in Wimberley, even though they had long been out of his care.

Carlos eventually broke free and told his assistants that he was taking a lunch break. For the next hour, I sat across the table from this big, round-faced fellow with his father’s expressive hands. He talked about the great pride he felt running a grocery store. The steady profits, the loyal customer base, the employees. A few of the latter were from down south—all legal, of course. Carlos had the same question about them that the rest of us do: Do they want to do right by America?

“I tell the Hispanic guys we hire, ‘You’ve got the same opportunity I do.’ They look at me in my shirt and tie like I’m white. I write letters for ’em. I help ’em send their money back to Mexico by Western Union.”

Carlos let those facts and all they implied settle in for a moment. Then he said, “I’ve got this one guy, Raul. He told me he wanted to go to the immigrant rally in Austin. I warned him. I said, ‘You know, Raul, at the march, you could get arrested and get hurt.’

“But I could tell he really wanted to. So I told him, ‘Go ahead. Don’t worry about your work.’”

Carlos Martinez said these words as my grandfather might have. He was El Patrón now.

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