For Newcomers to America, Better a Good Friend than a CV

Latin Americans newly arrived in the United States often turn to the government for help in vain.
Latin Americans newly arrived in the United States often turn to the government for help in vain. (Kate Hiscock)

By Manuel Ballagas

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.

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