The way we were 

I lost a good friend to God a while back. Pedro Saldivar* was a Mexican national, an undocumented worker who lived and worked on my family’s South Texas ranch. How he got there, why he stayed (never once returning to his homeland), and why he remained an “illegal” for the rest of his life is a story of love, betrayal, loyalty, and the focus of a national debate as old as Texas.

Pedro was brought out to the small ranch (bought and operated by my grandfather and great-grandfather for nearly a hundred years) by a couple who were acquaintances of mine. They wanted to know if I might be needing a hired hand (Pedro was in his mid-50s at the time) for a few weeks’ pay. I had built a casita on the property decades earlier, and I was pretty much used to overseeing the place on a part-time basis myself.  The ranch consisted then of 40 to 50 head of cattle, a horse or two, a windmill, an abandoned travel trailer, and some rustic cypress lumber pens that my Dad built. We were never exactly the King Ranch.  Still, the thought of some extra help on a trial basis seemed appealing.  Pedro was hired for the summer. He ended up staying for the next 18 years.

As a progeny of Texas ranching stock (five generations in one county alone), I grew up taking the cowboy modus operandi for granted. It’s what we did. Some families have hardware stores, some bury people — we pushed and hauled cattle around.  Spending summers and holidays on the largest of my grandfather’s ranches in the 1950s was like experiencing the tail end of a J. Frank Dobie novel. Granddad had a bunkhouse and a cook shack where he housed and fed vaqueros straight out of Viva Zapata! (Not to get overly Proustian, but if you’ve never experienced a real lard tortilla hot off the top of a mesquite-burning pot-bellied stove you’ve missed one of earth’s more delectable ruinations.) Most of these tough, grizzled hombres were American citizens by birthright.  Though rarely exemplars of high civic and moral rectitude, they could be patience personified when assisting a green kid struggling to saddle a fractious mare or throw a rope. Occasionally, some of the men were “wets” — Mexican illegals who crossed over the frontera looking for work. Once upon a time undocumented Mexican nationals were as common a sight on south and west Texas ranches as horned toads. Now both seem to have gone the way of roll-your-own cigarettes, swamp coolers, and Grapette soda.

Housing, feeding, sometimes clothing, and sometimes doctoring Mexican men (and they were always men back then) looking for a new start in the U.S. was pretty much standard rural procedure. There’s always something in need of fixing, repairing, cleaning-up, rounding-up, or storing-up on a ranch. If you could get a few days’ work out of a passerby (a week, a month? Quien sabes, depende) for room, board, and a few dollars, it was all good. You used each other as a means to separate ends.

It’s true, there were the occasional “outlaws,” as my grandfather would say, prone to stealing, violence, and/or indolence, but they never stayed around long enough to tilt the equation. And to no one’s surprise, both Anglo and Mexican-American ranchers were known to take wholesale advantage of these vulnerable laborers as well. Outright malevolence, when discovered, was dealt with swiftly and lawfully. No one wanted to upset the ongoing, mutually favorable arrangement.

I illustrate the above laissez-faire enterprise to explain how I came to provide food, shelter, utilities, medicine, clothing, and employment to (what is a partial misnomer at the very least) an “illegal alien.” (Illegal?  Hell, it was theirs before it was ours. Alien? A Mexican in Texas —
really?) Like many, many others, this is what my family did for generations. Finding anyone — Anglo, Hispanic, Black, or Polynesian — who was willing to live and work out on a lonely, hardscrabble Texas ranch doing repetitive, menial chores, in all kinds of unspeakable weather for not much pay is, to put it mildly, a considerable challenge to one’s marketing skills. That Pedro showed up ready, willing, and wholly competent for the job was the answer to a prayer.

Repairing fences, building pens, fixing water troughs, herding goats, doctoring horses and burros, chopping brush, burning prickly pear, trapping feral hogs, repairing caliche roads, feeding cattle, herding cattle, moving cattle, cutting cattle, branding cattle and de-horning cattle — Pedro did it all. I never in 18 years heard the man complain, say a bad word, or lose his temper. Time appeared to be just a matter of opinion to Pedro, and he always seemed to have time enough for everyone and everything.

Born on a ranch far off in the interior of Mexico, Pedro never finished school, never learned English, never learned to drive a car; couldn’t read, couldn’t write, never voted in an election, and despite spending more than a quarter century in this country laboring nonstop within our system, he was never allowed to become a U.S. citizen. I attempted a very expensive legal procedure about 12 years ago to finally help him get a Green Card. When I handed a local immigration attorney a check for more than $8,000, he advised me that I’d be hearing back from him in a month or so. I waited more than half a year. Finally, he informed me over the telephone that Pedro “didn’t qualify” since he wasn’t residing in the country before such and such a date. Mouth open, I asked, dumbstruck, “And you’re saying you had no idea of when that date was when I handed you my check six months ago?” Silence; followed by paper-shuffling, throat-clearing, and a rush of incoming calls. Thus ended the interval of “desperately seeking citizenship” for Pedro. My finances wouldn’t permit further legal recourse. Pedro wanted to stay here, I wanted him here, end of story. He could stay forever as far as I was concerned.

Pedro got to work adding on to his trailer. He put in an enormous garden, planted trees and raised chickens, guineas, ducks, and goats. He bottle-fed an orphaned fawn and built an adobe dog house for the endless stray mutts that always seemed to find him. He hauled in an old washing machine, later adding a second fridge, an AC, TV, microwave,  and toaster oven. He became quite the selective consumer. A hammock was strung between the peach and olive trees he grew from saplings and many evenings at dusk I’d see him out relaxing with a hand-rolled Buglar cigarro, his ever-present battery radio softly playing corridas beside him. He had a life. 

His weekly paycheck was wired back to Mexico every weekend for his wife and their five adult children, their spouses, and their children, and their children’s children. Pedro never once returned to Mexico after leaving so long ago. I never asked why. Bad marriage? Problems with the law? It wasn’t my business and he never volunteered. Pedro and I could ride for hours in the truck, driving from ranch to ranch, and never say a word. Didn’t matter much. The two of us were not so philosophically inclined with each other. My Spanish is decent, but sometimes I would get lost as Pedro tried telling me a story about some snake he killed or how a coyote tried to get one of the baby goats and then a buzzard nearly flew off with another and ... well, his stories could get very involved.

For years, he would ride his bicycle the 10 miles into town to visit friends and the 10 miles back every weekend. I’ve often wondered what went through his head as the cars and trucks whizzed past him, honking horns and yelling out the window — startled to see a small man on a bicycle in the middle of nowhere, patiently peddling, peddling to reach some far off appointment. Sometimes I think it’s a good thing he never learned English.  About five years ago I put a stop to the bicycle journeys. He was getting too old, the cars too fast, the Border Patrol too common — an era was over. I started giving his couple friend in town a little gas money to drive out to the ranch and pick him up every weekend.  

Pedro was diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer a little more than two months ago. He did not have medical insurance. To be honest, as his self-employed employer I barely have medical insurance. What he did have was coverage from my ranch insurance policy if a calamity befell him on the job. (Apparently cancer never happens when you’re working.)  Social Security, Medicare? Undocumented immigrants contribute more than $6 billion in Social Security taxes each year using fraudulent Social Security numbers, according to the National Immigration Law Center. That money gets channeled into the Earnings Suspense File (ESF), a repository for all the Social Security taxes paid by people using false identities or wrong Social Security numbers, reports Consumer Affairs. Unlike people who legally pay into Social Security, however, undocumented immigrants don’t get any money back. In addition, as the Congressional Research Service points out in a 2007 report, undocumented immigrants, who make up nearly one-third of all immigrants in the country, are not eligible to receive public “welfare” benefits — ever. After Pedro’s first trip to the county ER (lasting exactly 30 minutes and consisting of one X-ray and a pain-medication prescription) we received a bill in the mail for more than $5,000, and the jig was up.  I spent a harrowing two days on the phone calling every official, friend, and blind lead I could conjure. Finally a worker at the hospital told me there was a county indigent health program I could try applying for. Not only that, the county also had a meager “undocumented worker” health service system that just might have some funding still available. I later discovered all county residents are taxed an infinitesimal amount to fund these programs. As a taxpayer in three Texas counties, I was gratified to learn that as a childless adult who has readily fed the public-school system for decades I was now getting a much needed personal bone thrown my way.

Rather than making the long, difficult journey back to Mexico to be with family, Pedro decided to stay in town with his friends. Hospice San Antonio provided him final nursing care, a hospital bed, an oxygen tank, and all the pain medicine he required. He did not suffer greatly, and his mind was clear and lucid as he fell asleep on his last night. And then he was gone, departed as unobtrusively as he had arrived.

We live in an era of boundary walls, virtual fences, citizen militias, terrorist alerts, and anarchic border towns. We dwell in fear of foreigners and, most tellingly, in fear of what we ourselves are capable of. The world’s an unhappy, dangerous place, and fear sometimes seems the most logical reaction. But unlike most of the cable news commentators who spew out nonstop disparaging homilies, I am unable to squeeze Pedro’s life into a “one-size-fits-all” précis. He was simply a man. Just like me. More like me than perhaps I’ll ever truly understand. I don’t have any vast, sweeping solutions for our current national dance with xenophobia but perhaps to recall one noteworthy detail: It wasn’t always thus. That, and of course the one truism you can regularly take to the bank — even this too shall pass.  

Pedro was buried in a family plot in a nearby country cemetery the second week of May, 2009.

* Not his real name.


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