My friend Rafael is an entrepreneur, although he is not looked upon as one by most people. And as an entrepreneur, he is a sad example of what has happened to immigrant entrepreneurship in the last decade.
I met Rafael through word of mouth in 2004, and he has been maintaining my yard ever since. In fact, when I bought my house in Half Moon Bay, I invited him up there to fix up that yard as well. When I had my hip replaced, he came over every day while I recovered, bringing me things from the Guatemalan grocery store that he knew promoted healing. I have given gifts to his children, and helped him write letters to the immigration authorities to allow his brother to come to the US for surgery.
An emigrant from Guatemala over twenty-five years ago, he is married to an American woman and has three children, one of whom is in college. The youngest is seven. He came to Guatemala for a better life for his family, and he goes back and forth twice a year to visit the family who is still there. He supports his mother, and employs his brother, who supports a family in Guatemala that can't get permission to come to the US.
His business is called Christian Lawn Service, which says a lot right there. Rafael spends all day Sunday, the only day he doesn't work, in church.
This morning he didn't show up to mow my lawn as he said he would. Irritated, I called him. Half hour later, he was outside my front door in his dress pants.
He told me he was sorry and he would come first thing Monday. He said his brother's only son had been gunned down in Guatemala and died five days earlier after unsuccessful surgery on his wounds in a Guatemalan hospital. "They said he would be all right, and then he died," Rafael said.
This happened five days ago. Rafael, the only member of the family with a credit card, tried to buy his brother a ticket to Guatemala to go home for the funeral. Rafael's English is not good, although it's good enough for his business. When he took his brother to the airport, they found out he couldn't get on the plane because the name on the ticket and his name didn't match perfectly. So the brother missed the flight and Rafael lost his money for the ticket.
Rafael tried again, and this time he had one of his sons buy the ticket over the Internet. But when they got to the airport this morning, the ticket didn't show up in the system. Because the death occurred five days ago and it's hot in Guatemala, the body must be buried soon or it will decompose. Rafael had to take out cash and re-purchase the ticket. This was the third time he had to buy a ticket for the same trip.
Rafael had been at the airport since 5:30 AM to make sure his brother got on the flight. He was exhausted, and he was grieving. It was now over 100 degrees, he's a middle-aged man, and it's simply too hot for him to mow my lawn today. I wouldn't ask him to do that.
The larger context of this incident has made me furious. Rafael and his brother came here from Guatemala where it isn't safe and there isn't much opportunity. Twenty-five years ago, that was possible. He started a business, bought a home, works like a dog, but supports a large and geographically disconnected family.
Today , that's not possible. Even people who share the social values of the Christian conservatives, as I know Rafael does, who come here to start businesses and pay taxes, are not welcome. They are lumped into the same heap as drug dealers and entitlement scammers. And thus Rafael's brother sees his only son randomly gunned down in Guatemala because he's not allowed to come here. The only son in a Hispanic family is a big deal. Rafael has lost a beloved nephew, too. Rafael's wife, Maria, has been crying for three days. And Rafael will never get the money back for the other two tickets. He's depressed and dejected. He thinks the world is messed up, and because he is a man of faith, this unsettles him more.
I didn't know what to say, so I hugged him. I said, " the world does seem to suck right now. But I don't suck and you don't suck." I gave him a thumbs up, and I made him smile.
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