Don José in the Desert
Now, much of what my friend don José said I didn’t believe. His stories were too good to be true, starting with the tale of how his family had settled in a tiny town in Jalisco, Mexico, sometime in the late 19th Century. It goes as follows:
His grandfather, an army captain from Michoacán, landed a post on a Jaliscan hacienda at the foot of two snow-capped volcanoes. The captain’s post was meant to be temporary. He’d been roaming Mexico for years and fully expected to go back to Michoacán. But with time the temporary post became permanent, and he forgot about the wife left behind, married another woman, and had a second family.
The captain’s first wife, though, didn’t forget. She left Michoacán in search of her husband, trekked over the mountains, and appeared on the hacienda, climbing the hill in long, heavy skirts.
“I’m looking for Captain Silverio R—,” she said. “I’m his wife.”
A mounted soldier went off to summon the captain, who established a new home, right there, with his original and true family. He had to. Honor demanded it.
With a story like that, don José had a lot to live up to—his life would have to take on an epic cast. He made a go of it by telling me the origin of his name:
He was born not José, he said, but Ligoberto Pomázar. Naturally, he couldn’t bear the flourish of so much name, and his classmates teased him and rolled their eyes at the pomp of it. (Ligoberto!) So, when he was nine, he told his father that he wanted a change. Together they walked to the Civil Registry office, where the Registry director told him they were in luck: the book in which Ligoberto’s birth had been recorded had not yet been sent to the state capital. The transfer occurred every fifteen years.
“What names would you like?” the director asked Ligoberto.
“Just put down José,” the boy said. “I don’t want any more names than that.”
Afterward, he told the other boys that he was no longer Ligoberto Pomázar. They should call him José. As proof, he showed them his new birth certificate.
“Why José?” I asked him.
“Because it’s short.”
“What about Pedro or Carlos?”
“There were already a lot of Pedros,” he explained and then told me that the name Carlos was unusual back then, in the early 1940’s.
But his answers were too clean. I was suspicious, so I pushed. “C’mon, don José, why that name in particular? Why José?”
Well, he explained, his parents had had two previous sons named José. Both had died. So, by the time Ligoberto Pomázar was born, they didn’t dare use that other, unmentionable name again. It was cursed.
“You chose the name of your parents’ two dead sons?”
“I wanted to teach them a lesson about superstition.”
By choosing José and surviving, he’d show them that the name had nothing to do with the other children’s deaths. There was no curse.
And I really could imagine my curious and adventurous friend don José as this boy, one sufficiently certain of his logic—and brash enough—to tempt fate. But I can’t tell you if the story is true. We’d have to go back to that town beneath the snow-capped volcanoes in Jalisco, Mexico, and find the folio in the original book of records and look for evidence of a Ligoberto Pomázar. Maybe it would be there, and maybe not.
José grows up.
He turns into a good student and especially likes studying grammar. For a while, he attends a school run by priests in a nearby town, staying with a local family. Though he’s just a teenager now, grown men consult him on questions of civic management, such as how to maintain the town’s sewer system. They also ask him to expound on the positions of the candidates for mayor, and so, after the candidates’ speeches, he stands in the center of the town square and explains: candidate x stands for this, candidate y stands for that. As José matures, so does a rivalry with his irresolute and violent half-brother. (There is an incident during a rainy downpour, a race to bring a calf in from the storm, a door slammed shut, a brawl.)
José leaves his tiny town. He boxes in the army, leaves the army for a girl (who promptly disappears from the story), then works at Churubusco Azteca Studios in Mexico City and sees the classic film star María Félix up close. He buys trucks and starts a small transportation business but can’t imagine driving merchandise back and forth forever. Although the business makes good money, the boredom is too much, so he sells the trucks.
Next stop: Guadalajara. He helps build a big hospital there and then continues to travel, town to town and city to city, working and wandering. He crosses the desert into Arizona, lining his upturned pant cuffs with garlic to repel rattlesnakes, and keeping pebbles in his mouth for thirst. In all, he crosses back and forth more than forty times. In California, he’s detained by immigration officials and held on a bus, from which he subsequently leads the whole busload of detainees in their escape: “¡Ámonos, muchachos!” he says.
An escape? I imagine this. I hope it really happened.
Don José is a real person, that much I can tell you. I met him when he was in his mid-sixties, still fit and working, at a meeting I’d arranged in a town in Central Washington, on the far side of the Cascades from Seattle. I was a new lawyer, working for a non-profit organization and trying to help people get better access to health care. At the meeting, we talked about hospitals’ legal obligations to provide care for free or at a reduced cost for people with limited incomes. Most people didn’t know about this law, even if they’d been to the hospital recently.
Don José loved meetings and justice, and he went on to attend all the gatherings I arranged. He showed up in baseball cap, denim jacket, and blue jeans and, after the meetings ended, he slipped away while everyone else wound down with friendly gossip. But don José and I did have conversations over the phone, and, when my job ended and I stopped driving over the mountains, we kept in touch.
Then I decided to write about don José and the other people I’d met in Central Washington. Mainly, they worked in the state’s huge apple industry, as don José had, and whenever I saw apples in the store I’d think, “There’s a lot more to that fruit than meets the eye. A lot of people suffer to get those apples to market.” People fell off ladders in the orchards and worked with pesticides and ruined their hands packing and sorting the fruit. I believed that don José’s life and the lives of others in Central Washington merited some recognition and that, in their suffering, the people I knew there could illuminate larger problems in our society. In other words, I thought don José’s life should stand for something. So, I started writing drafts of an essay, joined a group of writers who critiqued those drafts, and wrote and rewrote his story.
After I turned don José into a writing project, we began to drive all over together. He had become sick with diabetes and gone on kidney dialysis—he was bent and crooked now, like a crumpled cigar—and he couldn’t get around as easily as he used to. Together, we went down to the small town, a half an hour away, where he’d volunteered at the community radio station. We visited the orchards where he’d worked; we drove to get tacos at the taco bus, or at a restaurant he’d helped build. While I manned the wheel, he recounted his stories into two recorders, one for me and one for him.
I’d bought him the second recorder with the idea that his grandchildren might someday wonder who he’d been, but in truth his family was in a bit of disarray: a high-pitched wife with a walker who asked me for things against don José’s wishes, unruly grandchildren, a daughter who wound up in immigration detention, which could happen to anyone for any number of reasons, but in her case had something to do with marriage misfortune; I was told her husband had called the police on her.
After don José’s daughter was detained, his wife asked me for money for the bond, which made don José wince. Outside, in the parking lot of his apartment complex, I told him, “Let me know what you want me to do.”
He shook his head, in an annoyed and proud way, and said, “I don’t know what those women are thinking.” He’d found his wife in the same place he’d found Jesus: at an evangelical church in a desert town in northern Mexico, the church where her father had preached. Now, he didn’t want me to give her money for their daughter’s bail, not even a cent.
Originally I thought don José could stand for the hardships endured by immigrants without papers. Despite all his years in the United States, he didn’t have his green card, even though he’d come to the U.S. twice with a temporary work visa and a good Social Security Number. He got the visas and the Social Security Number through the Bracero Program, a mid-century scheme for importing cut-rate farm laborers that even its own director called “legalized slavery.” After his time as a bracero, don José returned to Mexico but he didn’t stay. Like thousands of other former braceros, he came back to the United States.
Don José had seen his paycheck reduced by federal payroll deductions all the years he worked in the U.S., because he worked with his good Social Security Number. But, since he didn’t have his green card, he didn’t qualify for Medicare. He was uninsured. And that’s why, when he fell off a roof he’d been fixing and went to the emergency room–
Stop, said the members of my writing group, after reading what I’d written about don José, Medicare, and the accident: Why didn’t don José ever get a green card? Why didn’t he just get his paperwork in order? That way he could have enrolled in Medicare.
At first, I’d been planning on explaining all that, using don José’s story to show how hard it is for many people to get green cards, which they desperately want. The immigration system isn’t a supermarket deli, where you can take a number and just wait your turn. It’s much more complicated and restrictive than that. But it turns out that don José’s life was complicated, too. It had wrinkles I hadn’t anticipated and that weren’t the norm for the undocumented people I knew.
Most of my friends who had no papers just didn’t qualify, because they didn’t have a parent or a spouse with a green card who could petition for them. But it turned out to be different with don José. His wife had acquired a green card, and she could have applied for him. When I asked don José why they hadn’t done this, his explanations got vague and complicated and a touch bitter. Years earlier, there had been an argument between his wife and him, he said, words over the cost of the application; the application wound up in pieces, tossed in the trash. Don José thought: To hell with it. He didn’t need to depend on his wife for papers. He had his own valid Social Security Number anyway, so there was no problem with working, and he had his own green-card application in the works through the 1986 amnesty for agricultural workers. This application, which came with employment authorization, was still pending—it hadn’t been denied as it would be later, but of course he didn’t know that when he tossed his wife’s petition for him in the trash.
At any rate, even if don José wanted his wife to apply for him now, it wasn’t guaranteed to work. The wait would take years, and still there was the possibility of another, final hoop: the affidavit of support, in which the petitioner (don José’s wife) would have to pledge to financially support him. She didn’t make enough money to meet the income test, so maybe they’d go through the whole, costly rigmarole only to be denied in the end.
But perhaps there was one more chance for don José: his son, a United States citizen, who could submit an application on his behalf. His son wouldn’t petition for him, though.
“Why not?” I asked don José, because I could press him on anything, and he never got offended or annoyed.
“You’d have to ask him,” he said.
I never did ask, but once when I called from Seattle, don José’s son answered and, unsolicited, told me he had his own family now and that’s why he couldn’t apply for his father.
His son’s petition might not have worked anyway, because of another complication in immigration law called the reentry bar. But in some ways it had come down to relationships, and don José didn’t have the right ones—relationships with, for instance, a wife or son with the money and inclination to petition for him. And, yes, that is a problem with the immigration system, because it makes people dependent on each other in ways that warps relationships and can even become abusive, but I can’t say that it didn’t also have something to do with don José. Because he wasn’t a perfect husband or a perfect father. He was too individualistic; he strayed too much, in both mind and body. That’s part of what I admired in him, but this characteristic must have infuriated his wife and children, who’d reasonably expect more.
So, although don José had been one of the last braceros, sucked into a great transnational mill of exploited labor—and should have received a green card for at least that reason—he couldn’t symbolize anything about our immigration system because he was also just a man with plenty of imperfections.
After accepting don José’s inutility for a story about the immigration system, I moved him into another spot in my mind. This spot was concerned with the uneasy relations between the health care system and poor people, citizens and non-citizens alike.
His health struggles went as follows:
He was doing some construction work on a roof. He fell off the roof and went to the hospital and underwent tests, and the doctors told him that he was diabetic. In fact, not only was he diabetic, but his kidney function had plummeted. The doctors made an appointment for him with a nephrologist, but don José skipped the appointment. He went about his day-to-day life, yet everything he smelled started to turn his stomach, and he began vomiting frequently. Finally, he went to the community clinic, and the nurse packed him right off to the hospital, telling him it was a matter of life and death.
“Oh, well, if it’s a matter of life and death, I’ll go,” he said. He wound up on dialysis—covered now by emergency Medicaid because he’d die without it—and he had to go in three times a week for hours-long treatment, during which he mostly just slept.
While he told me the story of how all this had happened, we were eating tacos in a restaurant where he’d put down the floors, and I had the tape recorders on the table.
“You fell off the roof,” I said, “and went to the hospital, and they made an appointment for you—”
“Yes, but I didn’t go,” he said. He sipped an orange Jarritos through a straw.
As we talked, I was plotting this new version of the essay out in my head. I knew I’d need to insert an explanation here if I wanted to make don José comprehensible to middle-class people who might fret a little over copayments but otherwise had good insurance. A lot of them might figure that don José was just irresponsible, that a man who’d sold a trucking business out of boredom, and who’d maybe passed on a chance for a green card out of what could arguably be called pride—well, maybe that man was just careless and was suffering the consequences.
“Well, because I didn’t want to acknowledge it,” he said. “I was working at the time. Just that consultation was going to cost fifty dollars.” He raised his crooked fingers to start ticking off the fees. “I thought that’s where they’re going to trap me. It’s going to be fifty dollars each time, then the medicine, and the hospital costs.”
This explanation, with its mix of money concerns and denial, made sense to me, and I wrote it into my new draft of don José. But it didn’t work with my writing group, which said, “Yes, but you can’t live without your kidneys. They have to be worth more than fifty dollars. And besides why doesn’t this man have Medicare? Didn’t you say he was seventy?” I’d been trying to avoid the immigration issue, but I’d have to get into it. Everything about don José would need to be explained.
Really, though, there was an even a bigger issue. Because why should someone like don José, who’d done his best to live an epic life, show up as nothing more than a disadvantaged patient slumbering through dialysis in an essay with sociopolitical aims? Especially in an essay intended to place him among the deserving poor, a piece of writing in which by anticipating my readers’ judgment I really was revealing my own?
Justifying his existence to others wasn’t really don José’s game. He wasn’t worried about proving himself deserving or even acceptable, which was nothing compared to being larger-than-life.
Across the parking lot from the dialysis unit where don José received his treatment was a movie theater that featured airbrushed movie art on its wall: cartoonish Moses hoisting his tablets, Superman bursting through the clouds, ET’s finger touching child’s.
With the Moses depiction, I thought there was some neat symbolism, since don José was both an ardent Christian and had spent a lot of time crossing through the desert, but don José never talked about Moses. He talked about Jesus. I knew, for example, that during his kidney treatments he prayed, had his one-on-one conversations with God. I knew because he’d told me, but I’m sure he mentioned it only once I’d asked. Once I opened the tap of religious reflection with my prying, he could talk endlessly about Jesus and salvation, but since that wasn’t my interest—I’d been raised atheist in a Jewish home—I learned to keep quiet about it.
But there was the essay to consider. After looking at multiple drafts of don José’s story, my writing group didn’t quite understand why I’d chosen to make him, of all people, the center of the piece. An essay is supposed to have a point, they reminded me, and with all my pinballing back and forth between the immigration and the health care questions—to say nothing of my confused rendering of don José’s childhood and youth—there was no point to my writing. The group advised me to identify a single takeaway and organize the entire essay around it.
I didn’t have a takeaway, and I tried to think one up.
Maybe there was something to say about God.
Following this thread, I thought perhaps I should open the essay with the image of Moses, because then I could elaborate the religious differences between don José and me and discuss how I came to know what Jesus meant to him. Although, to be truthful, I still don’t know. This isn’t for lack of trying. Despite my qualms, I really would like to understand the power of Jesus to his adherents; the closest I’ve come is reading Marmeladov’s speech in Crime and Punishment, which put me in that St. Petersburg tavern, awash in that sinner’s despair. But that’s just one character from one book.
And, at any rate, I worried that, if I talked about the religious differences between don José and me, the essay would become less about him and more about me—it would track my own incomprehension as someone raised in a godless home, followed by my gradual discovery of what Jesus could mean to a man otherwise so solitary and curious and even skeptical. That essay would no longer be don José’s story.
But I at least had to give it a try. I could still retain many of the story elements I already had: kidneys, don José wandering through the desert, falling off the roof, working and traveling throughout Mexico and gazing at María Félix from afar at the Churubusco Azteca studios, thinking, “Oh well, she’s more beautiful in the movies than in person.” I had these pieces of his life, and somehow I’d have to string Jesus through them all, because it was to Jesus that don José always returned. It was Jesus that made him feel like all the disjunctions and hardships of his life made sense and had their purpose.
I got to work on the opening scene.
I started with the airbrush painting of Moses, tablets hoisted, and then panned to the image of me sitting next to don José, both of us observing a woman in the row across from him in the dialysis unit. The woman had a puff of brown hair, I remember that, and there was that dialysis technician, the one who would later complain to me about the doctors not spending enough time with the patients; he had big muscles from all his time at the gym.
With this latest draft, I figured that pretty much from the very start I had to establish the central tension,