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Despite the losses, labor remains at the center of the story of who we are as a country


When I was 9, my mother declared it was time for me to work. At that age she had picked cotton in south Texas as an undocumented child. Child labor was common among Mexican migrants during most of the 20th century, and sadly persists today in factories and slaughterhouses. I ended up dragging a rusty lawn mower around the neighborhood to cut lawns for 25 cents. We lived in a poor Mexican community in the San Gabriel Valley with dirt roads, no sidewalks, chickens and goats in backyards. There weren’t “lawns”—there were dirt yards with patches of grass and weeds.

My parents were highly educated in Mexico—my father was a school principal and my mother his secretary—but they were never recognized for their credentials in the United States. Instead, my dad worked in factories, construction, selling Bibles and pots and pans, and eventually retiring as a janitor. My mother served the super-exploitative garment industry, including doing piecework at home. I resented the industrial sewing machine that devoured so much of her time. In a poem I would write years later, in the eyes of a child narrator, the sewing machine became “The Monster.”


As a teenager I worked in a car wash, a discount store, a warehouse; as a busboy in a Mexican restaurant or driving a school bus and a bobtail truck…

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