I knew my father was undocumented by the time I was 5 or 6, and my father's arduous journey from Michoacán, Mexico, to California had already become part of our family lore. I heard how exhausting it was for him, as a young boy, to work every day picking cotton, strawberries and grapes in 100-degree heat. His stories captured my imagination when I considered how hard he worked and how far he had come to make a better life for himself.
My father's story is similar to those who still come to the U.S. for a better life — a life of working in the fields, of sleeping outside or in a rundown shack; of always being afraid of being hunted down and captured, and of never being certain of getting enough work to live. He told me stories of the kind of exploitation an undocumented workforce faces — use of the dreaded short-handled hoe, which damaged your back and shoulders; being sprayed with chemicals and pesticides in the fields without any protection; bosses who called immigration enforcement on their own farmworkers after the job was finished and before workers were paid.
My father told about one particular Immigration and Naturalization Service officer who marched him and his co-workers up to the boss' house before deporting them and told the farmer, “I'm taking these guys but not until you pay them the wages they worked for.” My father said the farmer hemmed and hawed, but they got their wages. Exploitation: the daily reality of an undocumented workforce.
When my father, who eventually became a legal resident and a citizen, met my mother and joined the Laborers Local 339 and then the Teamsters Local 216, his life — and the lives of everyone in our family — really improved. Because of the union, we got health care for the first time. My brother and I got our Kaiser Permanente cards and had our first physicals. My father worked construction, made decent wages with benefits and had a modest retirement. With his union job and my mom's union salary as a kindergarten teacher, our family moved into the middle class. My parents bought a house, paid their taxes, voted in every election and sent my brother and me to college. They saved enough money to have a dignified but modest retirement. We were raised with blue-collar values that included a strong support of unions, of which my dad was a stalwart member.