Disposable Bodies or: How to Deal with a Manhood Made of Styrofoam
             I will never forget the day my father decided to take me to work with him one Saturday morning. He was working as a plumber then, but he already had years of experience as a painter and in construction. My mother had noticed that his job as a plumber was beginning to take a toll on his body. My father was in his 50s back then, and being a plumber required for him to be on his knees for long periods of time or to dig ditches whenever he had to look for a damaged pipe. For this reason, my mother thought it would be a good idea if I were to go with my father to help him out as I could and at the same time learn a thing or two about the value of money and the physical demands of manual labor—real work.
             The job sounded simple. We had to replace the old copper pipe-lines of a house with new PVC lines. I was wrong, of course. That day’s job turned out to be one of the toughest ones I would do along with my father. Just like every other day for him, our day began at 6:00am; we had to be at the house by 7:00am if we wanted to get close to finishing the job in two days. The Lady who owned the house had agreed to give my father all the old copper pipes that needed to be replaced after we finished the job. My father told me that this did not usually happened. Those who were well-informed about such things, knew that the local scrap-metal houses paid good money for a pound of copper. People in Brownsville, Texas, are always looking for a way to take trash and turn it into something valuable. It is not uncommon to find people scavenging around the dumpsters of McDonald’s or the local mall for cardboard, or for families to collect aluminum cans in one corner of their properties to be sold later—anything one can use to make a buck is always good here.
             Anyway, my father told me that the bounty for the copper would probably amount to a couple hundred pounds, which in turn would amount to a couple hundred dollars. He didn’t have to tell me any of this, he didn’t even have to pay me for helping him that day; but he did anyway. He told me he would pay me $40 for the day and that he would give me a cut out of the copper bounty, only if I promised to share it with my older sister and my younger brother. That’s who my father was.
             The idea of having to share part of the bounty with my brother and sister did not sit well with me. Why did I have to work to earn my money but they didn’t? Unable to understand the fairness behind his logic, I said nothing. I thought that there might be another way around this scheme; some way for me to get my fair share if only I showed my father how hard I could work. After all, I had heard about similar schemes before. In America, the real value of the immigrant worker is based in part by the amount of time he can work without making any comment about his paycheck. Weeks can go by and the immigrant will not dare to insult his boss by asking him when he will get paid. This is one of the best ways for his boss to find out how “reliable” his worker really is. It is also one of the few ways people can exert their power here without having to resort to denigrate someone else’s livelihood—in this case, their manhood and their ability to work with their bodies. And since Mexicans are obsessed with manliness, they will not complain. They will wait patiently for the chance to show that they can provide to their families as long as their bodies can allow them to. I was sure someone had done this to my father before; it was only fair for him to do it to me.
             There was nothing new about this worker-boss relationship; it had accompanied me all my life. It had been present with me back in Mexico and it was now with me here in America. This was the same kind of relationship that had accompanied my father when he was growing up; it had waited for him to graduate from college; it had caused him to lose his job and had made him come to America. This was something that followed you through generations. It was waiting for me after graduating high school—after my body was ready—and my father and mother were only trying to warn me about it.
             When we finally got to the house, I didn’t say much to my father because I was still upset about having to share part of the bounty with my brother and sister. The house was old; not too old, but it probably dated back to the 80s. It was a typical house, very American: green lawn, small front porch, two bedrooms, one bathroom, a kitchen, and a garage.
             We entered through the garage. I remember being surprised not to find an American flag. I don’t even know why I was looking for one, but it wasn’t there. We decided to get to work immediately, and when my father gave me directions as to where to go whenever he gave a call and specific instructions as to what to do after he climbed up in the attic, it occurred to me that it would have been fine had I said no when he asked me to come with him. But it was after he started to cut a hole on one of the walls that I realized it was too late for me to think this. My father showed me the places where the main water pipes ran through in the house. Because this was a small house, he would only need to cut about three or four similar holes, from which I would later learn we would cut and then pull the old pipe-lines through.
             My job was relatively simple. I had to trace the pieces taken from the holes and make replicas by tracing the pieces we had taken from the walls and cutting new ones from clean piece of sheetrock. I know what you’re thinking: why not simply reuse the same pieces we had cut from the walls? Well, part of the reason was because the lady had given him money to buy new pieces of sheetrock. Another reason was that when you cut a hole on a wall, it is easier to repair it with a clean piece of sheetrock because it has no paint on it, not to mention that the pieces tend to break when you pull them off from the walls. Anyway, this was a relatively easy task for me to handle, and after a few hours I began to feel I could do more. My father then showed me how to cut the copper lines with a pipe cutter, a small utensil with a sharp blade similar to the ones used to cut pizzas. The amount of time it took to cut a standard copper pipe depended on the amount of pressure one could exert on the cutter and roll it around the pipe until it broke. Since my grip was not as strong as my father’s, it took me a good portion of the day until I finally got the hang of it.  
             In the meantime, my father was busy replacing part of the ceiling from a small room immediately in front of the garage, where the lady had her washing machine and where one could go through to get to the back yard. I had to help my father carry an entire piece of sheetrock to this room. It was heavy even for two people, and I began to think about the fact that my father had done this before—alone. He had carried hundreds of these things on his back and would continue to do so until his body allowed him to. “A su edad yo corria diez kilometros diarios,” he would brag to my brother and I whenever we told him we were too tired to do something. I was beginning to believe him now. The man was in his mid-50s, and there he was balancing an entire piece of sheetrock with one hand and nailing it to the ceiling with the other, all while standing on a clunky-old ladder. His body had gotten used to this years ago—it had to.
             My father’s body went through a lot over the years. It had been beaten so many times in Mexico that by the time he came to America he wouldn’t even complain about it anymore; it had been numb with pain. It was as if he understood that as an immigrant the only two things you can rely on are your family and your body. But since our family depended on our father to make it in America, it meant that it also depended on his body. One time my father suffered an injury that almost left him without a leg. He was working in construction at the time; he worked as a painter for a contractor who used to live by the Country Club when we first moved to Brownsville; he probably still lives there. His brother was a pastor who owned a church, or he was the pastor a church, on the other side of town (in the Southmost area, by the H.E.B.). My parents rented a small room next to the pastor’s house; it was a beautiful house with Roman columns that always reminded me of the White House. The man was an eccentric fellow; I remember how at one of his sermons he was preaching about how important it was to be ready to expect Jesus to come to our home anytime in the immediate future. I was not surprised when he compared the coming of Jesus with having an important figure, like the president of the United States, visiting your house. He told the congregation that if he knew the president was coming to his house, he would go to the bank and ask for a loan to refurnish his entire living room and kitchen in order to make the right accommodations for the visit.
             I always thought this to be too much even for a rich person, even for a preacher. I mean, the way I saw it was that if either Jesus or the President were coming to your house to begin with, there was no point in trying to make any kind of special “accommodations” for them. They would probably expect your house to be at the very least a little untidy. I remember that at that time I was still looking for something to hang on to. But religion in America seemed, to me, drastically different from what I experienced in my small hometown. Here, it was more about the individual than about the congregation; here, since everything was so large and much comfortable it was very hard not feel more distant from the experience of God. But what the sermon also revealed, not then but years later, was one characteristic that even preachers had learned to proclaim as being Christian-like and therefore American: the religious-like obsession with the ideas of virtue and frugality. His sermon revealed much more about this man and his family than it did about myself at the time.
             Anyway, my father was painting the ceiling of his boss’s house. There was nothing special about this, I’m pretty sure he had done something similar hundreds of times before. What was different was that since the ceiling of this house was so high, my father had to stand on a ladder. Again, there was nothing different here, only that the ladder was itself on top of one of those construction platforms; the ones with the orange tubes that are placed around buildings. I have no idea who this man was expecting to come to his house, but what I later learned was that this was not legal in this country. However, since my father’s body also fitted this definition, it made no difference for him to do a work that was both dangerous and illegal as long as he got paid. My father fell from a height of more than thirty feet. On his way down his left leg was caught between the sharp edge of the aluminum ladder; the weight of my father combined with the force of gravity to make sure that the hard, metallic edge of the ladder sliced through his sheen like a knife through a Styrofoam cup when he landed on the floor.
             I was in Mexico visiting family when all this happed; at that time we could still cross the border. I was able to recreate the whole event in my head only because my father refused to remain in the hospital. I remember that I went to church before he arrived; I remember praying for my father. When I closed my eyes I could imagine him falling, but I thought that it was probably nothing serious. Before this event, it never crossed my mind that he was capable of being hurt. My father had fallen before and I knew that he was a strong man; this was the same man that could carry both my brother and me with one arm. After just two days of intensive care, he had ignored his doctor’s orders and crossed over to Mexico; he drove for over two hours to get to our hometown. When he finally arrived he showed everyone his new scar; it had taken about four surgical staples and sixteen stiches just to keep the wound closed; it was still fresh with blood when he got there; somehow, (miraculously perhaps) the bone had not shattered.
             It was very hard for me to see my father this way. Admiring my father work so diligently in that stranger’s house that Saturday morning had almost erased from my memory what had once happened to his body. It was then that I realized how vulnerable our bodies really were, and how this vulnerability was the only thing keeping us from reaching the American Dream—whatever that was. I had forgotten that he had been in crutches for a few months before he could begin to walk again; that he had to wrap a plastic bag around his leg to take a shower; that he wouldn’t wear shorts whenever we went out because he didn’t want people to see his scar. I had forgotten how part of the weight of our father’s personal and financial burdens had passed over to my mother’s shoulders. I had forgotten all this because I had failed to remember that unlike other Americans, our bodies were not dispensable. We depended on our bodies. I guess this is why my father never wanted for me to get a job when I was in high school, he didn’t want any of his children to have to depend on their bodies to make a living. This was something that had been part of his history, and, although he never failed to remind us about it, he saw no reason why it had to be part of ours.
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