by Pedro Arroyo
As federal immigration agents creep up California to probe into long-established communities for families without documents, my memory rolls back to that hot August day 20 years ago as though it were yesterday. My father and mother came home from work with terror scrawled on their faces. They looked as though they’d had a run-in with the devil.
Wordless at first, they gradually related how that afternoon the Immigration and Naturalization Service raided the garment factory where they worked. In the mid-1980s the INS routinely invaded factories in the Los Angeles garment district, rounding up and deporting hundreds of Mexican workers like them. They lived in fear of the INS.
-The old factory has special meaning to me. It offered my father and mother their first jobs in the United States. It was where they fell in love. It was also the first place where my brother and I worked. It gave us our first real jobs when we were in high school. We labored there for a summer and got to see the sacrifices that our parents were making to provide for us.
The factory’s spinning and weaving machinery looked like the pictures in my history book that discussed the industrial revolution. The machines dated back to the early 1920s. They were dirty and always breaking down. When operating, they created so much noise that it was impossible to be heard.
My mother worked on a spinning machine. My father’s job was keeping the old machinery running. During his 15 years there, he brought many ancient machines back to life again. My dad would tell us, “Despite the low pay, I will always have work here.”
The place was filled with dust from the various fabrics and garments that were spun and wove, and they often caused respiratory problems for employees, including my mother. The building lacked proper ventilation. It was terribly cold in the winter and a steam bath in the summer.
But that factory offered my folks a place to work, no question asked.
There was a sense of family there. My mother developed her closest friends to this day. Some coworkers came from Michoacán, the same Mexican state where my mom and dad had grown up.
A unique support network developed between people in the factory, mainly with the women. My mother sold tamales to fellow workers to supplement her income. Her comadre sold jewelry on lay-away to anyone who wanted to buy.
The factory even had its own curandera – folk healer – who performed spiritual cleansing and prescribed remedios on the spot.
Despite the familiar environment, my folks worked and lived in dread for our safety. Rumors were constant from friends and neighbors about the various INS raids taking place throughout Los Angeles. They feared the INS like nothing else in this world.
But nothing could prepare my parents and us for what took place that afternoon.
They were in their work areas when the raid began. My mother worked on the third floor and my dad on the fifth. The INS agents entered the old building unannounced and began to ask people for documentation, gradually moving up the six-story building.
Workers on the first floor didn’t have a chance to escape.
My mother told how some of her friends tried to get away through the freight elevators, only to discover that they had been shut off. People hid inside boxes full of garments, behind machines and in large garbage cans. Some covered themselves with garments of all colors and styles. Some used the fire escape to avoid capture.
My dad, mom and a few of their friends somehow managed to get to the factory’s old attic and hide inside large boxes full of garments. “We covered ourselves with every thing we could find,” my dad remembers to this day. “It was hot and sticky and difficult to breathe, but we did it anyway.”
The INS entered the dark attic, flashing their lights. They made a few comments and left in a minute or so. “But it seemed like the longest time in my life,” my father recalls.
Out of the 100 people who worked at the factory, only a handful managed to escape. The owner sent those who came out of hiding after the raid home. He said there were not enough people to do the work. I doubt if they were in the mood to work, anyway.
Had my parents been caught, it would have meant economic and emotional disaster for us. I was 12 years old at that time, with two younger brothers and a few extended family members in Los Angeles, but not much else. Who would have cared for us had my folks been deported? The thought of it still frightens me 20 years later.
After the raid, my parents became much more cautious about the places they traveled. It was already a struggle to get my father to take us places. Those outings to unfamiliar locations became even more rare.
My folks warned my brother and me to watch out for the avocado-green vans with tinted windows. They instructed us to run and hide if one drove by. We knew our surroundings well, we spoke perfect English, and shared the innocent bravado of youth. Our fear wasn’t nearly as great as that of our parents.
By custom, the men who worked in the factory met every Friday afternoon to play baseball in Chávez Ravine. The week of the raid, there was no game. The whole team, with the exception of the shortstop – my father – and the catcher had been deported.
By the middle of the following week, most of the men had returned to Los Angeles and back at work. The baseball games resumed. The men joked about the raid, but their exaggerated laughter told me they were still afraid.
Those workers who made their way back to Los Angeles a few days after being deported became my heroes. I saw in them an incredible determination to survive, to give their children security, to overcome any obstacles no matter how imposing.
In 1986 my parents applied for permanent residency status under the Immigration Reform and Control Act, known as the amnesty program. In 1988 we became legal residents of the United States. Ten years of living in the shadows were over.
We no longer had to fear the raids or the avocado-green vans that took so many people away. A green card gave my parents the opportunity to look for better-paying jobs. After almost 15 years at the factory, my dad and mom felt free to search for better opportunities and a better life for their children.
(Pedro Arroyo is a writer and producer for KCBX Public Radio in San Luis Obispo, Calif. He may be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. This commentary was first published in Hispanic Link Weekly Report in July 2004.) © 2004