My Mexican grandfather was a gardener. He was one of those men who pulled up to white men’s houses in an old aquamarine Chevy truck filled with three different kinds of lawn mowers, all sorts of clippers, bag to cart stuff away. He worked in threadbare button down shirts and old pants, not jeans. To see him hunched over working on a landscape he looked more Yaqui than Spanish, his skin leathered and reddened by the sun. But when he came inside his own house and took off his shirt and stood there old Mexican man style, his skin where the sun couldn’t reach was alabaster white. The space between the box spring and his mattress was stuffed with 20s and 100s dollar bills and he often grinned a wry smile at what he was able to pull off.
He had some of his clients for over 30 years by the time he retired. He didn’t speak much, which led them to think he couldn’t speak English—which wasn’t true at all. He was born on this side of the border after his family made the trek north from Juarez. The aquamarine truck was the only one he ever bought for his business and long after the paint job faded and a few rust spots formed, he still drove it steady, working on the engine on the weekends. The white people mistook the truck for poverty and wanted to help him out from time to time.
One sold him a Cadillac for cheap when his wife tired of it.
One gave him a bedroom set when his wife ran out.
He brought back in his truck all sorts of things that the rich men in Sierra Madre and Pasadena didn’t want. Sometimes it was as simple as stuff with the tags still on them, still wrapped in their plastics, items that were no longer fashionable and never needed in the first place. He let the broken things go to the dump. I always had the idea that they watched him from their windows and felt good about themselves giving their stuff to the needy, feeling like they did good deeds. He was probably illegal and you know how they have those huge families.
My Mexican grandfather was a gardener whose wife never worked a day in life; they had three children—one of which, my mother—hadn’t spoken much to them since 1978, married a white guy, didn’t speak Spanish anymore. It’s a thing that happens. One of his girls was a good one—she and her husband drove the two hours from the Inland Empire to do old neighborhood things like rosaries for old dead neighbors, and sit in waiting rooms for the dying the way Mexican families do. The third did her best to keep the white people smug in their stereotypes: seven kids, signs of the cross, unwed mothers, a stint in jail. But no one ever needed a hand out.
We run this funny line, my mother and I. We’re the workers that take work to heart. People employ us and we bust our asses to prove that we are worthy of respect. My mother keeps her world meticulous and orderly so she’ll never hear the words, “dirty Mexican” again like she heard them in elementary school and sometimes by hear teachers. My Mexican grandfather instilled work ethic and a sense that it is necessary to travel around with your own hot sauce because of American family restaurants. We are proud of this heritage, I think.
And then there’s the other part—the part of us that doesn’t want to admit peasant stock. The part that doesn’t want to admit that we’re not descendants of kings on the road to the kingdom but on the side of the road with dirt and dust in our faces incapable of reading the signs.
We’ve mired ourselves in this education we’ve opted for. This English language. This moving of 744 miles away. We are a Mexican gardener: a man used to being ignored and talked down to, a man who keeps his many lives private from anyone he works for. A man whose pride is always in check.