Editor’s note: this is an excerpt from Ballagas’s autobiographical book, Newcomer: An American Adventure.
Every time I listen to someone whine about how difficult life is in America, I can’t help but smile. It’s not that I feel glad about it; it’s just that I remember how many times I whined about it myself. As a newcomer, I was so clueless, I had no idea how to find a job in this country.
My resume was a total disaster. To begin with, none of the information it provided about me was verifiable in the United States. Growing increasingly desperate, I turned to the patron saint of many recently arrived Latin Americans like myself: the government.
The state employment agency occupied a huge building, one of the many shrines of bureaucracy in the town where I lived at the time.
Since many flocked there to process their unemployment benefits, Latinos had coined a “Spanglish” term for it — the desemployment office. A job bank also operated there, where many hopefuls applied for dozens of positions in the state government.
A lady who was in charge of the office decided I might be qualified for a job as a driver’s license examiner. I explained I didn’t even have a license myself yet, but she insisted that this was unimportant. However, she warned me that I would have to pass several tests, including one to assess my typing skills.
Although I’ve always been a lousy typist, I passed the test on my third try. But the flood of junk mail and terse notifications I got in return for all my efforts only added to my disappointment. No decent lead developed from this search. After a while, I concluded that the government had pulled a fast one on me.
What a difficult life this is, I kept telling myself. I had arrived in the country several months before, and I was standing at a bus stop, with just a couple bucks in my pocket and wishing for lightning to strike me then and there, when someone suddenly spoke to me.
I turned around and saw him. He was a short man in some kind of funny uniform. He asked me if I was a newcomer looking for a job. When I told him I was, he offered to recommend me to the restaurant where he worked as a waiter. They were hiring dishwashers. “It pays $4 an hour,” he said. I didn’t think about it twice.
I was euphoric when I got back home that afternoon, but my wife only frowned. In our country, washing dishes is the epitome of failure. I felt, however, victorious. I was sure this could be the threshold to a top position in a large chain of five-star hotels.
Then, suddenly, the phone rang. A friend was calling to tell me there was an “opening” at the newspaper where his wife was working at the time. It wasn’t a newsroom position, of course, but at least I would be close to the paper and the ink I loved so much.
“And what would I be doing in this job exactly?,” I asked. “Paste-up,” my friend said.
I soon discovered this was one of the most boring and tedious tasks in the business back in the 1980s: basically pasting shiny strips of computer-generated matter on the paper’s empty templates. But at least I would have a job — and even health insurance.
Since then, I’ve held several jobs, each one a better paid one than the one before. I don’t whine so much either. On the contrary, I count myself as lucky to be living in America. I have reached impressive landmarks in my profession, too.
My skills and perseverance certainly helped, as well as my unshakeable faith in God and myself. But you know what? I have a good friend to thank for every job I’ve had in this country.
Manuel Ballagas is a Cuban-born author and journalist. He has published books of fiction and a memoir of his immigrant experience. He worked for years as an editor for the Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald, and the Tampa Tribune. Follow @manolito60.