The Meaning of Work
Had you been born during my day, you would have known the meaning of work, my father says in Spanish. He looks at my hands and arms. "Had you not gone to college," Papi says, "you would be working." Perhaps I would have never boxed my books and said goodbye in the pursuit of academic success. More-over, I would not spend so much time in libraries, universities, and museums. Instead, I would think of the more familiar life: marriage, family, a steady salary.
To Papi, after all, this was the dream that founded the United States, a country with immeasurable opportunity-the opportunities he rarely had, since he worked and lived in the shadows, speaking Spanish and following the cotton circuit. For Papi, doing work means doing physical labor, not sitting before a computer screen or curled up on the foldout La-Z-Boy with a book. It means using arm and muscle, putting your hands to everyday use.
Late in the evening, after we finished our homework and had our dinner, Papi would arrive from the refinery with dusty hair and an aching body. His lunchbox often held a treat for the first child who'd greet him as he entered the house. Work, work, work. He did not want his children to lead such a life. "If you study hard, you won't have to work like me," he'd warn us in Spanish. "Use this," he'd say, while pointing to his head. Then, he'd offer his hands and arms.
The only life he knew was that of a pipe fitter at the refinery in Pasadena, Texas. Before a holiday, a bonus from the refinery's payroll office usually awaited him. On such occasions, I looked forward to a father-and-son stroll. Once, while waiting in line, one of Papi's coworkers commented that I'd be a good worker when I grew older. "He'll work in air conditioning," my father retorted in English. "That's what you should have said," he later told me. At the age of eight, what did I know; what did I know?
Now that I am pursuing graduate study, I reflect on this academically privileged life, a life that has taken me throughout the United States and to other countries. Who would have thought? I wasn't always a bright student in high school. Every grading period, the Cs and Ds told me otherwise. I remember those who hardly believed in me.
It was an interior voice, a haunting voice that led me to the world of books. As a diligent student of letters, I read until my eyes squinted; I wrote until my arms ached. While still in high school, I remember sit-ting, looking out the windows of Houston's MTA buses, and wondering if I would ever receive my diploma to begin my university studies. I was not sure I could do it, but I did. This is not to say everything happened all at once, but I knew what I wanted: University Avenue-a foreign space. Maybe Papi's voice and Mami's hopes swirled in the back room of my brain. I like to think that everything was leading to this moment now.
In May 1997, my father attended my commencement in the rural quiet of Ohio, far away from our native Texas. I earned a bachelor's degree in English from Kenyon. And, here I am, as Abraham once said in the Bible, far from that time and place, yet so close. Soon, I will lead discussion in a class entitled "Masterworks of American Literature." I will ask my students, "What is American literature?" For the sake of hearing our nation's voices, I shall speak of American literatures. I shall raise my voice against the muffled noises of the air conditioner.
Unlike family members who entered through the back doors of public institutions in Texas, performing manual labor, I enter academic institutions through the front door. I am reminded of their spirit and physical labor, how they paved the way for me, one day, to open the pages of books they rarely had the time and, much less, the leisure to read.
Like the journeys of my forefathers and foremothers, who forged paths across borders, I must shape my space in the pursuit of academic success.
This essay, originally entitled " `Here I Am': On Labor and the Everyday," was first published in Hispanic Magazine, October 1999. Joseph Rodríguez, who earned a master's degree in English from the University of Texas, is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction at the University of Connecticut.
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