A Wetback Job

At Le Petit Café on Court Street, I sat across from Nina with a smile on my face and a clenched stomach.  We chatted over lattes about the boys and the holidays, just as we always had.  What I had to say to her shouldn’t have been explosive, but it was.  In spite of the way our boys loved each other, and our own camaraderie, a chasm revealed itself, like one of those huge cracks in the earth created by drought.

Before I met Nina, I saw her.  It was during the first week of school on a day when I was feeling particularly frumpy.  I’ve been told that I’m pretty, but I’ve yet to believe it, and I’m at my worst in the mornings: stiff joints (I dream of having a dancer’s agility), oily skin (little consolation that “good black don’t crack”), puffy eyes (my father’s inheritance to me of Afro-Amerindian facial architecture interrupted by valises at the top of the cheekbones).  I threw on a t-shirt and black sweats to drive Miles to school.  On my way out of the cafeteria where the children assembled before class, I saw Nina wheeling a stroller that carried a toddler, her youngest son.

I’d never seen anyone look so fetching so early in the morning.  She was willowy and delicate, with large green eyes, a boyish haircut that accentuated her femininity, and tomato-red lips.

Perfectly made up at 8 AM.  I snarled inwardly as I made my way to the car and drove home to dress and make myself up for work.

Weeks later, I saw her again at a parent meeting.  As it turned out, our sons were in the same third-grade class.  As the parents made their introductions, I heard her name—Nina.  Days before, one of the fathers brought a boy who seemed small for his age into our classroom, confused, I thought, about where the first or second graders met.  Later I learned that this was Kyle, Nina’s husband, and their older son, Gavin, who was the same age as Miles.  In a few days, I opened an email titled “Playdate with Miles.”  It was a request from Nina to have the children get together: “Gavin is very fond of Miles and talks about him a lot.”  I called her and we arranged to meet that weekend.

They lived in a gently frayed, overpriced apartment in Carroll Gardens.  Until two years before, I hadn’t even known where Carroll Gardens was.  It was only when Miles’ former elementary school relocated there that I learned the winding, A-to-the-F train journey there and back, as well as this neighborhood that startled me in its similarity to Staten Island, where I’d grown up. Nothing unpleasant ever happened in our comings and goings, but I found myself flinching at the odd looks I’d catch in the eyes of some of the older residents, expecting to meet with the same suspicion and hostility I’d felt from so many of the Italians who’d fled Brooklyn for Staten Island. The few Black people I saw in that stretch of Carroll Gardens appeared to either be vagrants collecting bottles or laborers who probably didn’t live here.

Nina wasn’t Italian; she wasn’t even American.  She and her husband were Canadians, and they’d moved here because of Kyle’s job, finding comfort in the mix of old-time residents, young families, and the proximity of Manhattan.

So it was with an uneasy familiarity with the neighborhood that I walked over to Second Place with Miles.  Nina opened the door with a smile; the boys saw each other, giggled and disappeared into Gavin’s bedroom.  I sat down for what I thought would be ten minutes or so of polite chatter before dashing off.  Three and a half hours later, I was still there, and Nina and I had talked about everything under the sun.

This became a ritual for us—playdates for the boys, hours of talk over wine for us.  I enjoyed the way Nina’s mind worked, the intelligence she applied to things.  It was good to have a friend at this new school, another mother of boys who understood the feeling of being outnumbered in your own household.

Late that fall, Nina picked up a part-time job at an antique store, “Just something to keep me sane,” she joked.  But she’d also hinted of difficulties with the INS and work permits that might limit Kyle’s ability to keep his job at the record label.

One wintry Saturday I drove over to Second Place to pick up Miles from a sleepover.  Kyle cheerily let me in and we chatted as I hunted for Miles’s belongings.

When I asked for Nina, he told me, pleasant as ever, “Oh, she’s gone on to her wetback job.  She’ll be back in a couple of hours.”

My stomach lurched, but I quickly closed my face against the revulsion I felt washing over me.  Averting my eyes, I rushed to gather up Miles’s hat, mittens, and jacket, and called for him to put on his boots.  “But Mom,” he whined.  “Not now, Miles. Jacket on. Let’s go.”  I said goodbye to Kyle with a plastered smile and rushed out of the building.

What happened in there?  Kyle had always seemed like a perfectly reasonable man.  My insides lurched at the thought that he’d found it acceptable to make racist comments about Latinos to me. How could I have let my son spend so much time in his presence?

Opening the gate to our apartment, I shook snow from our jackets and walked back into the kitchen where my husband tinkered with the hinges of the hallway door.  As I told him what happened, he looked at me with a mild amusement.  Having grown up in Selma, Alabama, these kinds of racist lapses by decent white people were as predictable as taxes or the seasons, and certainly no cause for surprise.  He put his tools down, though, when he saw my distress, ran some water in the kettle for tea, and said, “You could talk to her, you know.  And you don’t have to be shitty.  You could just be straight with her.”  His advice didn’t feel like a solution; Kyle was the problem, not Nina.  Bringing it to my friend’s attention might have an effect similar to telling her that I’d seen her man running around with another woman.

But weeks later, when it was Nina who mentioned her “wetback job,” I knew I’d have to say something.

Tossing and turning that night in my bed, the words “anger trumps hurt” drifted back to me from some long-ago, probably alcohol-fueled, late-night conversation.  But it made sense:  the way anger can eclipse other emotions, blinding us to something else that warrants our attention.

When I dove beneath the surface of the heat I felt toward Nina and Kyle, there was hurt and sorrow.

Hurt at the hatefulness, stupidity, and ugliness of the words.  Sorrow that Nina’s mistake, if it was a mistake, might cost us our friendship.  Sorrow, too, that the delicacy of our friendship had to bear the weight of something like this, though a true friendship required it.

I had taken Nina at her word.  She’d often mentioned her troubles with Kyle’s father, an old, bigoted Scotsman, and her determination that her sons would not grow up to be like that.  So, lying next to my husband as he gently snored, I focused on this as I talked myself into the conversation I knew I’d have to have with her.  Truth be told, the conversation was just as much for me.  Why let the taste of bitterness stick to the inside of my mouth?

When we met at the café, we talked about the boys until I gently touched her hand and said, “Nina, I have to talk to you about something you said.  You’ve called your job a wetback job, but I don’t know if you know what that word means here.”

And as I told her about how the word came from derogatory references to Mexicans crossing the Rio Grande into the United States, her eyes became wide O’s of shame and embarrassment.  She sat for a moment in stunned silence and whispered, “I didn’t know…I didn’t know.”

I felt relieved, unburdened, annoyed at her ignorance, but protective of her feelings, and hopeful that nothing would change between us all at once.  Sunlight filtered through the plate glass of the café window and our cups came to rest on the table as the conversation drew to a close.  We hugged.  I drove home.

We didn’t speak for weeks.

Miles and Gavin continued to play together at school, but our phone calls to each other gradually slowed and then faded.  In a slow drag, June arrived, and with it, the end of the school year.  At the annual children’s fair where school projects were showed off in the play yard, Nina and I tentatively approached each other.  She told me the move back to Toronto was definite.  Kyle had gone ahead over a month ago and she and the boys would be on a plane in two days.  In a breathless attempt to catch up, she told me of the boys’ back-to-back illnesses that spring, her exhaustion in Kyle’s absence, how much she missed her mother.  She asked about the new home we’d purchased and moved into three months back and asked for our new address so she could write from Canada.  Our sons whirled around us pleading for one last playdate; there was no good time that worked for both families.

Without ever mentioning what had happened, we emailed each other a few times that summer, and then a frantic, frightened exchange after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center that September.  Like the phone calls, they trailed off.  I heard from one of the mothers in Miles’ class that Nina had come to town one weekend to take care of some business.  I didn’t hear any more from her.

Sometimes I wonder if it had made sense to say anything, knowing, of course, that it did, if only to me. Beautiful, Canadian Nina, who perhaps really didn’t know a thing about the ugly American context of the word. When I mentioned the incident to a mutual friend of ours, she snorted, “She knew.” What I knew for certain was that for all the inconveniences and sadness of her immigrant life, there would be no experiences for Nina of ever being smuggled by border coyotes, no squalor, no permanent indignities, no stomach-clenching fear.

“Wetback” was a word worth its weight in a bitterness that didn’t belong to her.

I think about her every so often, remembering our talks over glasses of wine, wondering what it would have taken for our friendship to survive a word like that.

Deborah Edwards-Anderson
Deborah Edwards-Anderson is a writer, historian, wife, mother of sons, daughter, sister, spiritual worker, gardener, dancer, storyteller, and veteran staff member of City College’s Center for Worker Education. City College runs through her blood; she earned her M.A. and B.A. at City College, and her father and brother are also alumni.
Snowy Table (c) Josè Almonte
Author photo courtesy of the author

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