My narrative for this assignment flows from an interview I conducted with my barber Luis De Leon, a 28-year-old immigrant from the Dominican Republic who emigrated to the United States in 2013 and immediately settled in Jersey City, New Jersey where he lives with his wife Manuela and two children; Pedro, his three year old son and Juanita, his 6 month old daughter. Luis has been my barber for the last five years, working from the same barber shop in downtown Jersey City where I gradually became friends with him over the period. He always struck me as an amiable extrovert eager to please his clients and hold an intelligent conversation. Therefore, when the opportunity to conduct a study involving interactions with immigrants my first impulse was to request his participation or referral because he has openly shared his origins with me in the past.
Leon came to the US in 2013 to escape the poverty of the inner city in the country's capital Santa Domingo. An uncle who had also immigrated to the US after winning a green card in the early 2000s placed a request to have him make the move after his mother who was funding his college education died from breast cancer. His father had died when he was only seven years old and being the only child, he had no other close relations apart from his uncle's family in the US. The process of getting the clearance to move to the US took almost two years, a period when he dropped out of college and started working as a barber in the slums of Santo Domingo. A year before he moved to the US when it became evident that he would be emigrating soon, he searched the internet for self-taught free English lessons and learned the language himself. By the time he went for his interview at the American embassy, the officials were so impressed, they expedited the process, leading to his move in 2013.
When he arrived here, Luis breathed a great sigh of relief and immediately immersed himself in chasing the American dream. His first move was to get a job as a barber, a trade he had grown to love despite the meager earnings he got back in Santo Domingo. What impressed him most about America in those first days was that his earnings could cover his bills, fund his studies at a hairstyling school and still leave him with enough to save and probably invest in a business in future. He has big dreams for himself and his family and readily shares them whenever the opportunity presents itself. He speaks fluent English with a slight Spanish accent and works with the radio on at low volume, listening to American music while savoring what the country has to offer. "Over here, if you are willing to work, you will never starve my friend. You will never starve!" he says to me zestfully, "If you haven't been to college, there's a job for you. If you've been to college, there's also a job for you. America has a job for everyone, amigo!" he once told me with a twinkle in his eye.
The Dominican Republic is currently undergoing a great economic expansion, and Luis agrees that it is probably the reason the country has not been having a flood of immigrants seeking to enter the United States. However, this was not always the case. He explained to me that the country has had a rather rocky past since its independence from Spain in the early 19th century. Political and economic turmoil characterized every step the country took until almost 20 years ago when the current political dispensation took root, bringing a measure of stability that was rare in that beautiful country. For every era of political turmoil, immigrants would flood the shores of the US to flee either tyranny or tough economic conditions. Luis admits that he already had extended family and other relations in the US before his uncle moved in the 2000s but he never personally knew or interacted with them. However, he considers it a solemn responsibility for everyone to uphold the laws of whichever country they reside in and to improve it through hard work and ingenuity.
Social factors that Luis lives with
This is reflected in his attitude towards work. Jobs are an important part of Luis' and the community he lives in outlook. He once confided in me that within the Spanish quarter of Jersey City where he lives among Dominican immigrants, there are all sorts of associations and peer groups aimed at networking in search for jobs. There are also informal social systems ranging from peer pressure groups that keep an eye on members to ensure they work and avoid crime and simple encouragements or coercion such as derisive proverbs and metaphors for lazy and idle individuals who do not work hard. In fact, his job as a barber came from interactions with his peer group which he joined within a week of arriving in the US. Within two weeks of living in Jersey City, he already had a source of income thanks to the support he got from his new friends. "Even the bible says those who do not work, should not eat, amigo!" he explained to me the philosophy behind the mindset. Luis also holds a second job as a chef in a Spanish restaurant, checking-in at 5 pm immediately he leaves his barber station and helping serve diners till 10 pm when they close business. In total Luis works for 15 hours every day and earns enough to maintain a decent living for his family, "The barber job is for my bills, the restaurant is for my savings, hombre", he explains. "But why work so hard six days a week?" I wondered aloud. He looked at me keenly and said that investment bankers, stock brokers, athletes, actors, music stars, etc and anyone who earns a lot in the US, clocks more than 100 hours at work every week, yet he only does 90. I was a little stupefied. For a long time, I have grown accustomed to thinking that immigrants in America are overworking but the fact is that some of the highest earning jobs in this country also have the craziest work hours. Furthermore, the 'work hard and work long work ethic' is present even among second and third generation Dominicans living in the US, something Luis was keen to express during the interview.
Cultural realities of an immigrant
Did he ever experience a cultural shock when settling in the US? "No! Never! Not me!" he explained to me with confidence. Before he came to the US Luis would surf the internet to learn everything about the country and especially Jersey City where his uncle lived. He went to the extent of studying street maps and using Google Earth to understand his environment. How about the people, did he find them different, strange or even hostile? Once again he denies having any negative cultural experiences with Americans. From his discussions, I quickly deduce that Luis' main contact with non-Dominicans and non-Hispanics is his work environment. When he landed in the US he quickly settled within a community that sheltered him from the rest of America and Americans, gradually exposing him as he got comfortable. I can also deduce that the neighborhood where he lives in is full of tight-knit families and clans who provide a social safety net for those they consider their own. When Luis arrived in the US he was able to stay with his Uncle for more than a year as he studied hairdressing and saved money for whatever future endeavors he wanted to pursue. When he moved out, his first bachelor pad was adjoining the house of his uncle's friend where he got concessionary rent rates. When he eventually moved to a bigger house after marrying Manuela, another friend of his uncle rented it out to him, again at concessionary rates. Throughout this period when he has been in the US he always spends his Sunday afternoons either at his uncle's house where his cousins also gather for lunch or with his wife's family where his in-laws also gather for lunch. The cultural and social ties remain strong in his community and Sunday provides a special occasion to network and share opportunities among relatives. On Sunday evening his peer group also gathers to discuss opportunities that members can share to advance their careers, businesses or savings.
As a consequence, Luis and his wife are in a unique position that many young Americans do not find themselves in as they approach their 30s. He has no student loan to pay, he manages to save a decent amount of money every month, he has health, education and life insurance, he lives in a reasonably safe and clean neighborhood and he is dreaming of opening his own barbershop within the next five years if all things remain constant. He is now planning to earn credentials in business management through online courses which do not interfere with his work schedule so that when he ready to open his business, he will have the requisite skills to manage it. In addition, he has a strong social and cultural support group that has provided him with the kind of safety nets he never had even back at home in the Dominican Republic. Through his explanations, I realize Luis belongs to about three very important groups that define his lifestyle. His peer-group supports his professional life, providing an informal investment and opportunity advice hub in which all members contribute while drawing ideas; second, his family and clan support group provide a network of relations who create an environment of emotional and social support through good and bad times. Third, his sports and recreation group where he plays baseball, the Dominican Republic's favorite sport, provides a leisure and recreation hub that supports socialization and teamwork. All of these activities and groups have spontaneously formed around him, according him a lifestyle that even wealthy Americans do not enjoy.
Luis is therefore economically optimistic, with all indications being that he will continue to be a productive contributor to the US economy. Indeed, after almost an hour interviewing him, I came to realize that the economic problems immigrants are solving in this country are more than we can imagine. I asked him where most of the new Dominican immigrants find jobs considering the pressure he admits their community places on them to work and he revealed that they almost always find placement in the factories along Jersey City's industrial quarter. I asked him why and he said he does not understand economics but he knows that American industry needs Hispanic muscle. He did not know it but that statement hit me like a bombshell. Amidst all the political rhetoric about immigration, there is a fact that no amount of noise can hide: the American economy desperately needs immigrants to man its industry because we are no longer working the factories. Why?
Thoughts on immigration
"Hombre, let's be honest, your factory owners love Hispanic workers and we love the pay they give us. When two people love each other you cannot separate them!" he declared with a chuckle. Luis is definitely left of center when it comes to immigration issues. He is liberal and believes in both free trade and free movement of labor. He believes that even assembly line workers give a unique contribution to the economy that every citizen should appreciate. He further confounded me with his economic views about immigration and how they relate to the US dealings with China as well as the ongoing trade war. "Listen, Amigo, the only reason the US has a problem with China is because of their cheap stuff that comes here. And the only reason that cheap stuff comes here is that they have cheap labor over there. That's why all the big American companies are closing factories here and going there. What you need to do as a country is to allow the Hispanics to come to work in your factories here!" he proclaimed with a big smile. "Let your brothers help you in this competition and you'll win. America is great!" he concluded. I never paid much attention to the economics behind the US tussle with China, immigration and bu...
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