Juan Antonio Rangel was an “illegal” who came to Minnesota to work, and died on a warehouse floor. He was also a son, a husband, and a father. This is his story.
Guanajuato, Mexico, July 7, 2006
LEAVING THE MAIN ROAD on the outskirts of the city, we immediately begin to climb: past older stucco houses, a row of new town homes, a bullring, then a cluster of makeshift shacks built mostly of corrugated aluminum; one is barely larger than a queen-size bed. To our right, women and children trudge uphill, hunched forward against the steep slope. Many carry flowers.
The road charges straight up. It’s paved with round, fist-size stones; the car wobbles and rattles. My translator and guide, Laura Espinosa, drives in first gear, her small red Chevy laboring with the weight of five passengers. In the back seat, Maria Chagaka sits beside her daughter Janette, 13, and son Marco Aurelio, who is almost 9. Janette holds a small bouquet of artificial roses.
There is a cemetery atop the bare, windswept hill. Land is scarce in Guanajuato, a city of about 100,000 in central Mexico, 200 miles northwest of Mexico City. Guanajuatenses bury their dead above ground, in long rows of reinforced concrete tombs stacked six high, each just big enough to contain its coffin. A few tombs have engraved marble fronts. Some are decorated with ceramic tile, others with paint. Most are bare concrete.
Maria and her children walk slowly to grave number 27, in the second row, the 10th from the left. There someone has carved a mixture of upper- and lower-case letters in the concrete: J. ANTONIO RANGEL ChagaKA 3-11-05. A bouquet of red plastic carnations sits on a ledge, partially obscuring the name.
Juan Antonio Rangel died in a construction accident at the Supervalu warehouse in Hopkins, Minnesota, on November 3, 2005. According to the state’s workers’ compensation law, his family is entitled to reimbursement of up to $15,000 in burial expenses. Though Juan Antonio was working, directly and indirectly, for five separate companies—two of them giant Minnesota-based corporations—he is buried in a pauper’s grave.
Juan Antonio was Maria’s oldest child. A day short of her 39th birthday, she stands silently for a long time in front of her son’s tomb, staring. Making the sign of the cross, she prays. She alternately leans, first on Janette, then Marco Aurelio. Her shoulders tremble. Who is comforting whom?
A mother’s grief is excruciating to watch; a child’s death, I once heard a rabbi say, “is the world turned upside down.” Twenty minutes pass. Laura wanders off, studying the graves of strangers.
“I like visiting him,” Maria says in Spanish, as we leave. “But I worry that he is lonely. I hope he can take care of himself. He has no one to protect him.”
On the ride back to the Rangel home, Maria confides to us that she is pregnant, with twins due in November, near the anniversary of Juan Antonio’s death. After eight years without a pregnancy, she says, she had assumed her childbearing years were over. “An angel is watching over you,” Laura says.
Maria agrees. The twins are, she says, “a gift of God.”
Guanajuato is some 6,600 feet above sea level. The air is thin; on a summer morning, it’s as though someone has stripped a layer of gauze off the world.
In the United States, we argue about immigration in terms of economics—jobs lost and gained, taxes, the cost of living. In Mexico, it’s a matter of life and death. Immigration is like the river that divides us. Mexicans call it the Rio Bravo, the Brave River. We call it the Rio Grande, the Big River. The same river, even the same language, but very different ways of seeing the river—and the world.
The Star Tribune told the story of Juan Antonio Rangel’s death three days afterward, in 104 words. “His exact address,” the article said, “was not known, but he apparently lived outside the United States.” A second, unnamed coworker also “suffered head injuries.” Two men fell. One died. There seemed to be little more to say.
Meanwhile, debate about immigration swirled, and continues to swirl, in Minnesota and across the nation. Much of it focuses on economics, politics, and the law. In the process, flesh-and-bone human beings—the men who clear dishes after restaurant meals and cut lawns, the women who clean hotel rooms—become abstractions. My editor faxed me a copy of the Strib story and asked a few simple questions. Who was Juan Antonio Rangel? How did he get to Minnesota, to a warehouse nearly 2,000 miles from home? And what happened to the other man?
Guanajuato, Mexico, July 4, 2006 Guanajuato is San Francisco without the ocean—a city built on hills. A 300-year-old city with streets of stone, many of them callejones (alleys) so narrow that cars cannot pass. To accommodate modern traffic, a half-dozen roads run beneath the historic city center, through tunnels blasted in stone. UNESCO has designated the city, built with money from nearby silver mines, a “World Heritage” zone.
Like Mexico itself, Guanajuato straddles three centuries. In the triangular JardÃn de la UniÃ³n, the throbbing heart of the city’s public life, a young woman sits with her laptop computer on a wooden bench, hijacking a restaurant’s wireless Internet access within earshot of several mariachi bands that play for outdoor diners. Across the street, at an ornate 19th-century theater, workmen remove three-foot-long stone slabs with mallets and chisels, struggling to carry them away in a wheelbarrow.
I know little about Juan Antonio Rangel, except that he lived here, in the capital of the state of Guanajuato, before he came to the United States. And that his father’s name is Nestor Rangel. I find Laura, who is in her late thirties, via the website of an American-born tour guide. She has lived in the United States, working as a nanny in Beverly Hills and Davenport, Iowa, and studied at Oxford. She has also worked for the state of Guanajuato; we figure the government must have some record of a corpse imported from the United States. Laura makes one call, to a former colleague. Fifteen minutes later, we have an address of sorts: Domicilo conocido San JosÃ© de la Luz. Known residence, San JosÃ© de la Luz.
San JosÃ© de la Luz is a neighborhood of about 500 families on the highway six miles southwest of the city center. The second person we meet, at a vegetable stand, knows the home of the Rangels, and gives us directions. It’s near the railroad tracks. A woman in a tiny convenience store nearby points out the family compound. The shiny black ribbon above a curtained doorway, a symbol of mourning, suggests we’ve found the people we seek.
Using her car keys, Laura raps on the iron gate. A small, bowlegged man wearing jeans and a cowboy hat responds. Greeting us, Juan Antonio’s paternal grandfather, Don Yeyo, surreptitiously slides a bolt sideways, locking the gate before we can enter. The woman I will come to know as Maria Chagaka joins him, leaning against a brick wall.
Depending on how you count, there are four or five buildings on this small plot of land, surrounding a dirt courtyard. Three families live here with Don Yeyo. There’s no running water; government trucks deliver water to five blue plastic drums, which hold about 50 gallons each, at the front gate. At the rear of the yard, a few dozen stalks of corn struggle for life. Chickens wander freely, hunting for food, sometimes pecking at kernels of the scraggly corn. Talking through the gate, Laura and I introduce ourselves.
We stay for 20 minutes, then return that evening, after Nestor Rangel has come home from his job collecting payments for furniture bought on credit. Both are awkward get-acquainted meetings. The Rangels are suspicious of me and my Mexican assistant, who speaks English fluently. They cannot conceive of a stranger, a gringo, traveling so far to inquire about their son. What do I really want? What do they have to gain?
The Rangels refer to San JosÃ© de la Luz as la ciudad, the city. They moved here eight years ago from a ranch in the mountains, where they owned about 150 acres of land. They made charcoal, which had to be sold in the city. There was no transportation, little water, no medical care. They came to the city for a better life.
Ironing clothes that she has washed by hand, Maria Chagaka says little. She did not want her son to go to the United States. “If we hadn’t left the mountains, he might still be alive,” she says, her voice barely audible.
Don Yeyo explains, “He left for the same reason everyone leaves. Here you can find work, but for very little pay. He wanted a better life.”
Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico, July 5 and 6, 2006; San Antonio, Texas, July 22, 2006
The young man who was injured in the accident that killed Juan Antonio is Jose Dolores ZÃºÃ±iga. Nestor and Jose’s father, Marcelo, are family, but Nestor can tell us only that his cousin lives in the city of Dolores Hidalgo, about 30 miles northeast of Guanajuato. So Laura and I set out to find the ZÃºÃ±igas much as we searched for the Rangels. Except it’s more complicated in Dolores Hidalgo, since some 50,000 or so people live here. We park on the central square, near a car with Mississippi plates whose owner struts the sidewalk, showing off the expensive clothes he bought in el norte. We spend hours crisscrossing Dolores Hidalgo on a hot summer morning, talking to dozens of people—in social services agencies, various branches of city government, the post office. We question a man selling newspapers on the main square and a woman in a pink T-shirt that says “Minnesota.” One stop is at a radio station that broadcasts community announcements. We put out a query, and Marcelo calls that evening, inviting us to return the next day.
The ZÃºÃ±igas live in a small brick house about a mile from the church where Father Miguel Hidalgo ignited Mexico’s struggle for independence from Spain in September 1810. Their tale is very similar to the Rangels’: they left the mountains when Jose Dolores was an infant, “for the same reason people go north.” And so in turn, Marcelo ZÃºÃ±iga told me, his son went to the United States “out of necessity—we are very poor.”
The ZÃºÃ±igas call their son “Lole.” He crossed the border first, in November 2004. He was 17.
Traveling with a friend, Lole had taken a bus north to Nuevo Laredo, across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas. A coyote—a smuggler—paddled them and eight others across on a makeshift raft made of inner tubes. The river was only a hundred yards wide.
Together, they made their way north, walking at night through the vast, nearly roadless expanse of ranchland that stretches west from Interstate 35 to the river. They slept during the day, in the shelter of mesquite trees.
Several days into the trip, Lole’s friend began to struggle. He eventually fell behind. Lole stayed with him. On the fifth day, the coyote abandoned them. They had no idea where they were.
For days, Lole and his friend wandered past trees, blackbrush, and prickly pear. The nearest thing to a hill in that part of Texas is a freeway overpass. A hundred yards from a highway, the road is invisible.
Cows meant water. With luck, a rancher would be pumping it from the ground, cool and clean. More often, it was in a concrete trough or earthen pond, brackish and warm. “We had to drink whatever we could find,” Lole told me.
The young men ate canned beans and tortillas until their food ran out. Ten days after crossing the border, they reached a road. For six hours, they walked east along the two-lane, in broad daylight. “After all those days, he was lost and hungry, and thought he was going to die,” Lole’s mother tells me. “He was hoping to see the Border Patrol. He was begging God to see the Border Patrol.”
Finally, 39 miles north of Laredo, the pair stumbled into Encinal, Texas, a battered town of about 600 residents just off Interstate 35. They had enough American money to buy food at a gas station. Nearly everyone who lives in Encinal is Latino. For $1,300 apiece, they found shelter and another coyote, who several days later drove them 400 miles north to Dallas.
Lole’s mother, Guadalupe, calls him mi muchachito, my little boy. Lole’s cousins and friends, she tells us, had beguiled him with tales of how wonderful life is in the United States. “When he arrived,” she says, “he found out it was not as simple as they told him. It was very difficult to find a job.”
Guadalupe was seven months pregnant when Lole fell. “I was so worried I didn’t sleep for days and nights,” she tells Laura and me. “It was very difficult, and still is very difficult. We want him here.”
But they are also grateful. How could they not be? Their son was standing on a small platform alongside Juan Antonio when they fell. Juan died; Lole lived. “It’s a miracle that Lole’s alive,” Marcelo says.
“The people who leave, they’re not criminals,” he adds. “They want to work. My son is not a criminal. All he wanted to do was work. He wanted a better life.”
Guadalupe is proud of her son. “He really had to fight to get a job,” she says.
Juan Antonio Rangel and Mariana Mosqueda BarrÃ³n had been in love for about a year when she got pregnant, in the spring of 2003. She was 16 years old. In the colloquial language of Mexico, she “was stolen”; by custom, Juan Antonio went to visit her family to seek a blessing of sorts. Soon Mariana moved in with the Rangels in San JosÃ© de la Luz. At 17, Juan Antonio was working as a truck driver, delivering construction supplies. The pay was decent—he was making about 1,200 pesos a week (approximately $110), Mariana recalls—but he worked 70 hours a week.
Mariana gave birth to their daughter, Marianita, in February 2004. She and Juan Antonio were married the following January, in a small church down the hill from the Rangel compound. They held the reception in Don Yeyo’s courtyard.
Mariana remembers the exact date Juan Antonio left for the United States: March 4, 2005. Like his mother, she did not want him to go. “We all cried,” Mariana recalls.
Juan Antonio was setting out to cross the border for the first time. His father, on the other hand, had tried numerous times, with little success. In Mexico, Nestor Rangel says, people tell stories about mistreatment and abuse by Border Patrol agents, but in his experience they’ve always been professional and even courteous. On several occasions, he’s had cordial conversations with agents, asking them, “Why don’t you just let me through? All I want is to work.”
“This is our work,” they respond. “Not to let you across.” It’s an answer Nestor Rangel respects.
Nestor and Juan Antonio took a bus to Ciudad Camargo, Mexico, Nestor says, across the river from Rio Grande City, Texas, where they stayed in a hotel, waiting for an opportunity to cross. On their first attempt, the Border Patrol came, and their coyote fled. They turned back without reaching the United States.
The second time, Nestor and Juan Antonio tried to cross near McAllen, Texas, 60 miles northwest of Brownsville. Once across the border, Nestor tells me, they walked for a couple of days, then hitchhiked to Houston. From there, they took a bus to Florida.
Mariana waited two weeks before hearing from her husband. When he called, Juan Antonio told her that he fell in the river while crossing; the coyote, she says, locked them in a room for three days without food and water. “He used to tell me he thought it was the end,” Mariana says. “He told me that it was very bad. He almost died.”
Nestor and Juan Antonio spent several months in Florida, working construction. By the time they paid for rent, food, and long-distance phone calls, there wasn’t much to send home. In Dallas, Lole, too, struggled. Then all three heard through relatives about work in Denver, installing warehouse shelves. When that job was nearly finished, the company said there was more work at a warehouse in Hopkins.
Supervalu’s distribution center in Hopkins is a sprawling complex that straddles Highway 169 just south of Excelsior Boulevard near downtown. The facility contains 1.67 million square feet of warehouse space—about 38 acres. It has about 200 loading docks.
With some 2,500 retail stores, including the Cub Foods chain, the Eden Prairie-based company is the third-largest food retailer in the United States. It reported net earnings of $206.2 million in fiscal 2006, on sales of $19.9 billion, a narrow 1.04 percent profit margin. With a profit margin like that, efficiency is crucial. That requires ample storage space and automated access. When Lole and the Rangels came to Minnesota in September 2005, Supervalu was in the process of expanding and upgrading 580,000 square feet of warehouse space, with plans to automate many functions. (A company spokesperson declined a request to tour the warehouse, citing company policy, safety, and competitive reasons.) but lole and the Rangels weren’t working for Supervalu. The grocer had hired Kraus-Anderson, the Minneapolis-based construction giant, as general contractor for the warehouse project. Kraus-Anderson had hired Witron, based in Arlington Heights, Illinois, to handle the remodeling. Witron hired Nedcon, a Dutch company with offices in Ohio, to design and supply a shelving system. Nedcon hired Carolina Installers, which is based in Raleigh, North Carolina, to install the shelves.
Founded in 1992, Carolina Installers inhabits an odd corner of American industry: it does nothing but install warehouse shelves for companies like Supervalu and Ikea. To owner Larry Hicks, though, “It’s like any other business. You need people to build houses. You need people to build roads. We just happen to build warehouse shelves.”
In 14 years of business, Hicks figures, the company has installed about 650 shelving systems in 30 states. He runs three to five crews at a time, with as many as 90 workers.
The Supervalu project was huge—the largest Carolina Installers had ever done. Hicks’s crew of about 30 men worked 60 hours a week for six months. Carolina built the “mini-load” part of the system, for smaller items rather than full-size pallets.
The work requires a certain amount of precision. But, Hicks says, “We’re not talking rocket science. We’re talking nuts and bolts.” Workers are, in essence, assembling giant erector sets.
Most of the crew came from Mexico and Costa Rica. It’s common for employees to move from job to job, city to city, Hicks says. They are a new type of migrant laborer, following the schedules of industry rather than the rhythm of harvests.
“I can’t find Americans to do the work,” claims Hicks. “The workforce in America—the labor workforce—is awful. It’s almost impossible to find people to do the work you need to do. We survive as a country because of the work immigrants do. It’s not a matter of pay. It’s a matter of doing the work.”
When he does hire Americans, Hicks says, they work for a short time and quit. Without immigrant labor, he figures he’d have to cut back to a 10-man operation, instead of hiring 40 or 50 at a time.
Hicks’s experience contradicts some familiar arguments in the immigration debate. His employees aren’t doing backbreaking labor, like digging ditches or picking crops in 100-degree heat. Lole showed me a weekly pay stub dated September 19, 2005, documenting his $10-an-hour pay—$666.50—significantly higher than minimum wage, and good money by Mexican standards.
The work, Hicks says, “is not very physical, and it’s not very complicated. It’s a matter of working eight or 10 hours a day, continuously. It’s a matter of discipline—of being at work and working.”
Crews often work six or more days a week. Immigrants prefer that, Hicks says; they’d rather he pay them for 65 hours a week than hire more men to work only 40 or 50 hours each. Technically, they’re self-employed, responsible for paying their own taxes; Carolina doesn’t withhold money.
On bigger jobs, Carolina Installers rents apartments with kitchens, rather than motel rooms. “The guys like it better,” Hicks says. “It’s more like being at home.” He takes pride in treating workers well. That’s not empty rhetoric; three former employees, including Nestor Rangel, said Carolina was a good employer.
“I have a lot of respect for [immigrants], and what they do, what they do for their families,” Hicks says. “I feel for these people. They’re not asking for anything. They’re just asking for an opportunity to work. They’re not coming here and taking something. They’re improving.”
For the Carolina Installers crew, life in Hopkins was consumed by work: up at 6:30, at work by 7, home at 6:30, a simple dinner, television, bed. Most lived at Hopkins Park Plaza, a five-building apartment complex downtown, a quarter of a mile from the warehouse. The company paid the rent—$225 a week for each apartment, which two men shared.
With the rent paid, no car, and no free time, a man could send a significant amount of money home—$500 a week was not unreasonable. Juan Antonio sent less, but he was also saving money in Minnesota, Mariana told me. The plan was for him to stay less than two years; he was going to return by January 2007 for Marianita’s third birthday, a special one in Guanajuato.
Before leaving San JosÃ© de la Luz, Juan Antonio had paid for a private phone line so he could call Mariana whenever he wanted. They spoke almost every night, for two or even three hours at a time. Sometimes he spoke to Marianita, although at a year old she didn’t fully grasp the concept of a telephone. “He liked [the United States], but sometimes he felt very sad,” Mariana recalled the first time we spoke, in a park across from the boutique hotel where she worked as maid. “He even cried sometimes.”
“In truth, it was lonely,” Nestor confided.
Juan Antonio’s coworkers called him ToÃ±o, short for Antonio. And on November 3, 2005, they had a planned a small celebration. It was ToÃ±o’s 20th birthday.
At Supervalu, the men put the steel shelf system together in sections, assembling each vertical element on the ground, then lifting it intact. As each new piece was lifted by a machine, workers attached it to the existing structure with horizontal crosspieces. They added diagonal bracing at regular intervals, to provide structural integrity. According to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules, structural stability was supposed to be “maintained at all times throughout the erection process.” For safety, the first vertical piece was attached to a ceiling joist with two straps, which were to remain in place until the entire shelf was finished.
On the afternoon of November 3, 2005, Lole, Juan Antonio, and two other men were assembling a section of shelf that was designed to be 37 feet high and 150 feet long. According to the OSHA accident report, 64 of 102 vertical sections were in place. Lole and ToÃ±o were at the south end of the system, where the safety straps were attached to the ceiling, standing in a fully extended scissors lift, the floor of which was 32 feet off the ground—high enough for the men to touch the ceiling. Two other employees were in another lift about 50 feet away. Together, the four men were trying to install a piece of diagonal bracing.
What happened next is unclear. According to both a police report and the OSHA investigation, the shelves were leaning slightly. Hoping either to push or pull the system into place, Lole and Juan Antonio loosened or disconnected the safety straps.
The 15,000-pound unit collapsed with a deafening clatter, like a long line of dominoes. The last domino was the scissors lift.
Juan Antonio landed beneath the lift, with his feet elevated and his head on a pallet of sheet steel. When the police arrived minutes later, blood was flowing copiously from his ears and mouth. He had no pulse. He was not breathing.
According to an eyewitness, Lole was thrown from the platform and hit the concrete floor face first. He was bleeding heavily and screaming, the police report said.
Juan Antonio died at the scene. An ambulance rushed Jose to Hennepin County Medical Center, where he spent a month recovering from broken bones and other injuries to his head, ribs, clavicle, and forearms.
Nestor Rangel was at the warehouse that day, but did not see his son fall.
After he was released from HCMC, Lole stayed for another month or so in Hopkins with the Carolina Installers crew, who were still working at Supervalu. It was awkward, since he couldn’t work and the company was paying the rent. But he didn’t want to return to Mexico and lose access to doctors and any benefits due him because of the accident.
One evening, Lole says, Larry Hicks’s brother Jerry came to his apartment and offered him a check for $4,000. According to Lole, Hicks said, “I want you out of here tomorrow or I’m calling the police.” Jerry Hicks emphatically denies that this took place. “I did not do that,” he says. “I can’t speak Spanish. He can’t speak English. That did not happen.”
Lole took a Greyhound to Texas the next morning. In late August, a doctor there cleared him to return to work. It’s an assessment that his attorney questions. She is particularly concerned about neurological damage; brain injuries heal slowly, and he left Minnesota without being officially released from care by his doctors.
Lole’s parents worry about his emotional health. “Right now, he’s very bored, and very tired,” Marcelo ZÃºÃ±iga told me. “He is suffering after the accident.”
Guanajuato, Mexico, July 8, 2006
We are climbing, again. Laura and I have picked Mariana up at the hotel where she works, earning about 700 pesos (roughly $64) for a six-day week. Since Juan Antonio’s death, she has left the Rangels and returned to live at her family’s land on the outskirts of Guanajuato. As we crest a hill, she points to a distant turquoise house.
It’s a harrowing ride. Mostly, the road is dirt, deeply rutted by rain. The road twists and turns. We are a mile from smooth terrain, with nary a house or streetlight in sight.
There are two buildings on the family’s land, plus the skeleton of a third. The turquoise house, which is made of adobe, has two rooms, a kitchen and bedroom. Across the yard is a larger brick building, with a metal door and cinder-block roof. It’s unfinished—the floors are dirt—but Mariana’s mother, Merceda, has already moved into one of the two rooms. The uninhabited skeleton belongs to Leticia, the oldest of Mariana’s five sisters, and her husband, Victor; it has walls, but no roof. You see buildings like this all over Guanajuato—additions to homes and freestanding rooms awaiting completion. They strike me as the very opposite of an American ghost town: habitations in the process of forming, ruins hoping to become houses.
Merceda BarrÃ³n serves a bountiful dinner of chicken mole and rice, with mountains of corn tortillas and Coke to drink. We will eat outside, at a small table. The view is a breathtaking vista, stretching for miles.
Four of Mariana’s sisters live at home. Their father is in el norte, near Tampa. He hasn’t been home for five or six years. An older brother is in the United States, too; he’s been in trouble, and his legal costs are draining resources that might otherwise have been sent to Mexico. The young women are worried about a second brother, who, at 17, is waiting to cross the river. He left Guanajuato with two cousins five days earlier. “There’s a lot of surveillance on the border,” explains Leticia, who has promised to loan him $2,100 for the coyote, if he makes it safely. Waiting to cross, the brother is running low on money. He might have to return home.
The daughters also worry about their father, who works as a construction laborer. At 47, he has diabetes, and little access to doctors. His only source of medicine is the black market. “Since our father left, we all are lonely,” Leticia says. “You don’t have a father, who you will look up to, who will guide you and protect you.”
The youngest, Rosario, swears she remembers him, but surely more as an idea than a reality. “I miss him a lot,” she says. So it is with Marianita, who points to her parents’ wedding photo and says, “PapÃ¡.”
Leticia and Victor have come to visit from the city. Both have high school degrees and good jobs; she hopes to go to college. Poised and articulate, she does much of the talking: in her father’s absence, with a deaf mother, she has taken a leadership role in the family. She is five months pregnant. They plan to move here, too, most likely after the baby is born and their small house is completed.
Poverty is relative, but in Mexico it’s measured on a different scale than in the United States. Water is one yardstick. At the Rangels’ home, it’s delivered three times a week. They worry about Marianita, living “in the middle of nowhere.”
Eight months after Juan Antonio’s death, Mariana had heard nothing from either Carolina Installers or its insurer, Massachusetts-based Liberty Mutual. A cousin in the United States is said to be arranging things, but Mariana is skeptical. She does not have a lawyer.
In fact, Mariana is entitled by law to file a workers’ compensation claim in either Minnesota or North Carolina. Both states stipulate the amount of money to be awarded to dependents when someone dies on the job, based on how much the person was earning. Under North Carolina law, the insurance company would owe something like $270,000, payable in installments until Marianita turns 18. In Minnesota, that figure would be around $500,000—more if Marianita continues her education beyond high school.
In the United States, that’s a lot of money. In Mexico, it’s a fortune.
Money is a source of tension between Mariana and the Rangels. Nestor told me he wanted nothing from his son’s death, but hoped Marianita would be taken care of. Seeing the television and stereo Mariana has already bought, which the Rangels consider extravagances, they worry that a settlement will not help their granddaughter. For her part, Mariana says, “If we received any money, I would give it to my mother. We are very poor.” Her in-laws, she adds, “don’t want to fight for anything because it would be the equivalent of buying their son’s life.”
But money is only one source of tension. Though Mariana’s sadness is palpable, she is 19, and beautiful. She has started dating. For Maria Chagaka, moving on is more difficult. She criticizes Mariana.
Juan Antonio was the Rangels’ son for 20 years, Mariana’s husband for eight months. Yet by law, the parents are entitled to nothing. And they miss their granddaughter.
Though insurance did not pay for Juan Antonio’s burial expenses, Carolina Installers paid for his casket and embalming in the United States, Larry Hicks told me, at a cost of nearly $8,000. A spokesman for the insurance company declined to comment. After I returned from Mexico and made inquiries, however, the company contacted Mariana and made a settlement offer.
What happened at the Supervalu facility, Larry Hicks claimed, was “strictly, 100 percent an accident. It was just human error, period.” But the shelves’ collapse was essentially proof of a serious error, since OSHA rules require them to be kept stable throughout the construction process. OSHA also cited the company for failing to adequately train workers. The agency’s report, however, says nothing about what caused the collapse, other than the removal of the safety straps.
Meanwhile, Latinos and especially Mexicans are, as an Associated Press series put it, “dying to work” in the United States. Minnesota’s rough numbers—a death rate for Hispanic workers double the non-Hispanic rate—might be a statistical aberration, but the national figures (4.9 deaths per 100,000 workers for Hispanics, compared with 4.1 deaths per 100,000 workers for the general population) are harder to dismiss.
Lole and Juan Antonio were young and eager to please, poorly educated, working in a country where they did not speak the language. They were unaccustomed to the risks they faced here, to American manners and mores, to our expectations and our ways of expressing them. People who work long hours, no matter how willingly, tend to be accident-prone. Legal-immigration policies—like President Bush’s guest-worker program—might help give immigrant workers more of a voice, or at least make it easier to regulate their working conditions.
As the debate goes on, the Mexican government escapes scrutiny, at least in the United States. In Mexico, though, jobs and immigration are huge, pressing issues.
Larry Hicks says his business would shrink dramatically without immigrant labor. But his statement takes for granted the social and economic conditions under which he competes for business. Those conditions include an increasingly complex pattern of subcontracting to subcontractors who hire more subcontractors. As each company takes its profit, less remains for those who do the actual work. And as the economy is divided ever more finely, labor becomes more specialized, resulting in a rootless, mobile, perpetually off-balance workforce that many native-born Americans are reluctant to join. Dividing and subdividing our economy in this manner might be good for business (it might also be efficient), but it makes immigrant labor—hungry, even desperate labor—a necessity.
Supervalu and Kraus-Anderson didn’t ask how much Hicks was going to pay workers, whether those workers lived in Minnesota, or if they had legal permission to work here. (Neither Lole nor the Rangels did.) Meanwhile, competition drives prices relentlessly down, and wages with them. The work done by the Carolina Installers crew was no more difficult than, say, the assembly work done at the Ford plant in St. Paul. When employees work in the city where they live, for 40 hours a week and a living wage, businesses don’t have such a difficult time finding employees.
Not long ago, farm workers were, for all intents and purposes, the only migrant laborers in the United States—the terms were all but synonymous. Today’s immigrants are doing all kinds of work in all kinds of places, at the mercy of an economy that is as unpredictable as it is dynamic, in a labor market in which the owners and managers call most, if not all, the shots.
Consider the toll immigration has taken on the one isolated hill where Mariana Mosqueda BarrÃ³n lives: an absent father, one brother lost and a second trying to leave; a dead husband; a fatherless child. And still, Mariana told me, she too might cross the border someday. Porque quiero ayudar mi mamÃ¡. Because I want to help my mother.
I asked Nestor Rangel, too, if he would ever return to the United States. “Not soon, but sometime,” he said. “For us, it is always the same. Immigration will always be there. It is a necessity.”
And if the United States builds a wall to keep immigrants out?
“De cualquier manera, vamos a pasar.”
Somehow, we’re going to cross.
Frank Clancy, a Minneapolis writer, has written for many national publications.