Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
Subscribe and Save up to 45%
This is how I met Hugo:
I pick up strange men in my car, sometimes two or three at a time. I drive to the parts of town where they offer their bodies: on street corners, outside the paint store and Home Depot and U-Haul. When I slow down, they cluster around like — I was going to say, “like flies around a plate of fruit” or “like bees around a flower,” but the truth is, they swarm my car like men desperate for work. Hugo was so bold he just opened my passenger door and climbed right in.
The first few times I picked up men, I was a little scared. I’m female, after all, and only five feet tall, and I carried a wallet full of cash. But these men had paid thousands of dollars to human “coyotes,” then risked their lives trekking through the desert to get here and stand and wait and hope in parking lots. They weren’t about to blow all that on the temptations that trip up ordinary men and politicians. They are in service to a higher calling, enlistees in an economic army that is also their religion, the cult of seguir adelante. That is why they do this, they all tell me: para seguir adelante — to get ahead.
Once, I paid two paint-splattered men eighty dollars each for a full day’s work, then went out to dinner with a friend at a fancy restaurant where our tab for the evening came to just about what I’d paid the men. Now I invite that friend over instead of going out, and I pay Hugo fifteen dollars an hour instead of ten.
Hugo speaks no English, and my attempt to explain permaculture principles to him in Spanish is not going well.
“No, I don’t want you to just dig holes for the trees,” I tell him. “I want you to dig —” I falter, not knowing the word for trench. “Like a long . . . opening, so the water doesn’t just run down the hill.”
“You’re the boss,” he says, as always. But I can tell he thinks my idea is dumb.
“It’s a science,” I say. “There are books about it. I could show you the pictures.”
“Are the books by gringos or Latinos?”
“Gringos, I think.”
Hugo shrugs companionably, without ill will. “Probably they don’t know anything.”
“It’s to keep the water with the trees,” I say, trying again.
“Water won’t run down this slope,” Hugo tells me kindly, as if talking to a small child, “because you have so much garbage on it.” He means the decades’ worth of leaf litter from my giant oak. “There’s at least a foot of garbage.” He pokes it with his toe to show me.
Hugo has explained a lot of things to me. “Even though I can’t read,” he says, “I’m . . .” He points to his head, grinning and moving his finger around to indicate his brain power.
Like most Guatemalan men, Hugo is barely taller than I am. He is thin and wiry and as strong as a mule and an ox combined. The first time I hired Hugo, it was to move some heavy boxes of flooring into my newly purchased fixer-upper. At the end of the day he asked for my phone number, and, without thinking, I gave it to him. Then he called and called and called, determined to become my right-hand man. Eventually I let him.
My house is a funky cottage on a big lot that’s been neglected for decades. Over the years Hugo has put in terraces and a brick patio, built retaining walls and paths, cut down an invasive acacia forest, and planted flowers, vegetables, and fruit trees. Everywhere I look, I see his labor.
These days I spend Sundays with Hugo because he works Monday through Saturday at a Toyota dealership, detailing cars. It’s a shitty job, he tells me. The dealership subcontracts the cleaning operation to some morenos — that’s what Hugo calls black people — and the morenos hire Latinos with fake papers and then mistreat them, knowing they won’t complain. Hugo never knows exactly when or how much he’ll get paid. “Sometimes it’s only three hundred dollars for two weeks of work,” he tells me. They take a big chunk out of each paycheck for the uniform they require him to wear and, of course, for taxes. Still, since the economy tanked, he says, it’s better than waiting on the street corner day after day. Some laborers have actually given up and gone home, but Hugo’s not ready for that yet. He’s fifty-five; the next time he goes home, he won’t come back.
I usually cook Hugo lunch when he’s working for me. He has turned out to be fairly tolerant of vegetarian food, and even claims to prefer it, though when I go out to get him tacos, he always orders cabeza — cow brains.
While we eat, Hugo tells me about the rich women he used to garden for in New York City. “One, she was Italian. Her husband had died. She owned restaurants — two, three restaurants,” he says. “She wanted me to marry her, but . . .”
“No me llamaba la sangre” — the blood wasn’t calling to me. “I can only be with someone because I want them,” he explains. “I can’t be with someone just por interés” — to get something out of it. “You, for instance,” he tells me suddenly. “With you, the blood calls to me.” He sees me stiffen a bit and holds up his hand. It’s just talk, he says gently, assuring me he’s not coming on to me.
When I ask Hugo why he hasn’t gone home yet, he says it’s because his wife is too hard to get along with. He’s also supporting another, younger woman in Guatemala. He says he’s bought one house for his wife and a second house for this other woman, and he owns a third house, too. “Why can’t you go live in that one?” I ask. He equivocates. Clearly there are factors that are beyond my grasp. Oh, and he’s saving up for a truck. Not just any truck: a Toyota.
One day Hugo arrives looking more tired than usual. When I offer him tea, he asks if I have something to help wake him up. I tell him about yerba maté, how people in the mountains of South America use it to keep going all day. I describe how they drink it from carved gourds. It occurs to me to do a Google image search for Peruvians drinking maté, and I show Hugo the pictures. He seems to get a kick out of it. But when I drive him to his place to pick up a saw, he asks me to stop at the convenience store so he can get a Red Bull.
Hugo tells me more about the younger woman. He likes the fact that she stays home every day. He doesn’t like women who spend their time out in the streets, he tells me. Also she cooks breakfast for him. She makes him eggs.
“I thought you didn’t like eggs,” I say, remembering a time when I offered him some.
“This was different. They were huevos del pais.” Everything tastes better when it’s from your own country, it seems.
I think I must be an odd creature to Hugo. I’m only a few years younger than him, yet I live alone, wear unfeminine clothes, and often work alongside him. But Hugo isn’t a judgmental guy. For instance, he doesn’t appear to have a problem with the fact that his son, who is in his late twenties, shares a home and a bed with a Mexican woman who looks older than Hugo. Hugo lives in their garage, so I’ve seen the woman a few times when I’ve dropped him off. She’s always cradling a small, fluffy, rheumy-eyed white dog, cooing and smothering its little forehead with kisses. “How old is she?” I asked Hugo once, and he looked at me aghast. “You don’t ask a woman her age!”
“Do you think your son really loves her,” I asked, “or is it ‘por interés’?”
“I don’t know. We don’t talk.”
A Salvadoran named Juan also shares the garage, and Hugo sometimes brings him along to work, even though Juan isn’t nearly as strong as Hugo is and can’t work as long or as hard. “He says he used to be the supervisor in a factory,” Hugo tells me, by way of explanation. “He says.” He shrugs.
Although Hugo very much wants the things his hard-earned money can buy him — a truck, and solar panels for his younger woman, whose house has no electricity — he doesn’t believe in asking for an hourly wage; he wants me to pay him whatever I think is right. “It’s up to you,” he always says. When I’ve taken him with me to look for another helper, he’s been outraged by some of the younger men, who want to know what kind of work they’ll be doing and how much they’ll be paid before they even get in the car. To Hugo that’s just plain wrong. Yet he does want me to pay him more than I pay Juan, who gets less done. Hugo is taciturn yet insistent; he has a courtly disposition, but also a well-developed sense of fair play. He has accepted the fact that he works twice as hard as any gringo for less money, but he still bristles when he tells me about the woman in Berkeley who fished an empty bottle out of the garbage to fill with water for him when he asked for a drink. He walked off that job.
“How was your New Year’s Eve?” Hugo asks me today.
“Oh, it was fine. Quiet. How about yours?”
He shrugs. “I just slept. It’s not like being in your own country.”
“What would you do in your own country?”
“We’d roast a giant pig and dance.” He seems wistful.
“So, when are you going home, anyway?”
“Maybe soon. Maybe this year.”
“You’ve said that every year since I met you.”
I often urge Hugo to go back to Guatemala and enjoy some of the money he’s earned. His existence here in the U.S. seems to me like a ghost of a life: no women, no dancing, no respect, just a garage to sleep in and a crappy job. But sometimes I think he’s gotten so used to being here that it would be hard for him to leave. He tells me that he doesn’t even make enough at the car dealership to save any money. He pays his son and the Mexican woman four hundred dollars a month for room and board. Then he sends some money home, buys phone cards and vitamins for himself and his younger woman, goes out to eat a few times, and it’s all gone. “So I’m just working for the pleasure of it,” he says. Is he philosophical? Bitter? Both at once? I can’t read him.
I don’t understand what keeps Hugo going day after day, washing all those shiny cars, digging holes in the too-hard ground, hefting bricks. Maybe he’s sustained by the myth of seguir adelante rather than the reality of it. Or maybe he’s become a kind of hybrid creature, no longer quite Guatemalan but not American either. Although he longs for his own country, this is where he lives.
“What’s the name of that saint again?” Hugo asks now, as I move my ceramic garden Buddha out of the way of his shovel.
“What’s he for?”
“He’s very . . . peaceful.” My rusty Spanish isn’t quite up to the task of explaining equanimity. “No matter what happens, nothing makes him angry.”
“Oh, he’s patient.” Hugo sums up Buddhism in a word.
“Como tú,” I tell him. “Like you.”
Ruth L. Schwartz