So, I’ve finally progressed to having more of a desk job.
I know that sounds weird to say, as if there’s something desirable about sitting at your work computer and wracking your brain as you attempt to shift through corporate bureaucracy and decipher human error sprinkled into inventory management databases. Thrilling, no?
But, the reason I say “progressed” is because I asked for this.
For those unaware, I started working officially when I was 13-years-old. I worked a summer at a construction company where my dad held the title of Superintendent. My official title was “Laborer.” I swept, loaded up field vehicles with tools and heavy boxes of framing nails, fixed broken air hoses, washed cars, painted fences, and took out the trash.
At the time, all I cared about was the fact that I was making money. My own money. Granted, I gave half to my parents, but the money I was able to put into my freshly-opened checking account provided me with a sense of independence and freedom.
When my summer there was up, I spent my last day going around to people I’d never spoken to, waited for them to finish their meetings, and told them it was my last day there and I simply wanted to say goodbye. Looking back, it was probably a very strange occurrence for those other employees. To me, it meant something to finally have a job, so it was a big deal to leave it behind, even though I was legally compelled to do so for the duration of the school year .
I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was probably my first experience with having coworkers who didn’t exactly see me, because, in their eyes, I was just another brown kid who emptied their trash. That’s not to say that I didn’t experience active teasing from the other workers, especially the Mexican ones (because I didn’t speak Spanish). So, I was always in this nebulous space where I didn’t belong amongst the people in the office because they looked at me for the strength of my back instead of the power if my mind, while I could also never take a place amongst the workers because of the cultural divide of my naturalized, suburban upbringing.
After I left that job, through the years, I went to help my father on his various side jobs he performed as a home remodeling handyman. My skills grew, but my patience with the position thinned over time. I graduated, got my degrees, and still couldn’t find a place of work where I was seen as anything more than a pair of skilled, strong hands. I went back to work with my dad eventually, and, even though I was quickly promoted to foreman, the lack of weight to the input I offered and ideas I put forth for how to evolve the company grew too much to bear. This time, I quit, but not before I sent my boss’s boss a letter of resignation detailing everything I had come to realize was poisoning the culture of the company. Even though my father was friends with this man who received my letter, when I pressed him for any kind of acknowledgement of my words, all I received was one word in reply: “Accepted.”
It was painful to think that, after all the time, all the actual blood, sweat, and tears I poured into making myself a model employee, my thoughts and expressions accounted for nothing.
Growing up as Latino in Phoenix, especially when you’re out in public, clothes lightly dusted from a job, sun-darkened skin, with a sweat-stained baseball cap, you get a lot of looks that aren’t really looks. Because, for them to qualify as looks, that would mean sight. And there’s a different between perception and sight, let me tell you.
No, I wasn’t seen by those people. Instead, they looked through me.
I occupied a space and cast a shadow and even was capable of sound, but I could tell I wasn’t real to them. They looked and saw what they expected: a dirty Mexican.
Growing up, I’ve been called a beaner, a wetback, and beyond. For whatever reason, though, those words never got to me the way I was imperceptible to those others. At least the words involved some kind of interaction. But, being a shadow of a person was so much worse. It was as if they only perceived me as part of the necessary evil of the world. They didn’t want me around unless they needed their trees trimmed, their garbage bins emptied, their dishes washed, or their roof repaired. And, even then, the interactions were minimal.
I could feel eyes on me while I did the jobs they were unwilling to do, always being watched for signs of carelessness, laziness, and thievery. They spoke at me instead of with me, and always over explaining, often unsure if I could speak English to begin with.
It didn’t matter that I had my degrees. It didn’t matter that I often dreamed and planned of ways of improving the world around me with science and technology. I was still just another brown man who was good with a hammer.
Now, though, I get to sit at my desk and put my ideas to work. I wrap my head around how the many antiquated applications and processes are viewed through the eyes of our computers because no one else can.
Now, I get to show them how much of a mistake it was to let me go home with blackened hands and an aching back for all those years, when a tap of a few keys and the right words in open ears save hours of labor and thousands of dollars.
There’s honor in taking you skills and using them to take something that exists only in your head and bring it into physical reality. There really is. And I’ve met so many people who’ve been stranded in physical labor fields with dreams and abilities that far exceed their job descriptions. Some are perfectly happy to stay where they are, and that’s fine for them.
But, after watching for decades as my father would gingerly walk into our front door on weekend afternoons, calloused hands creaking and dusty but still filled with candy he stopped to pick up for us on his drive home, back aching but still willing to support the weight of the four of us climbing up to him simultaneously, feet falling off but able to carry him to all of us for his welcome home embrace, I decided that I had to get out of that life. After all, isn’t that the American Dream, to reach beyond the hopes of our parents?
I wouldn’t say I’m there yet, not even close, but it feels good to make a little progress.
It’s the little things, like getting to wear a nicer shirt to work. Like still smelling like my deodorant instead of sawdust when I get home. Like having people not just listen to you, but finally seeing you as a real person.
Now that I’m visible, I can’t look back.