Time to prune my oleanders. I hate this job. Oleanders grow like weeds. They are poisonous. It takes me the whole weekend. When I’m done, the trees look great, but my backyard is filled with mountains of huge branches and foliage.
So, I complain to a friend. I have no way of getting this debris to the dump. Last time I did this, I ended up paying $350 to rent one of those huge construction dumpsters. Without missing a beat, my friend said, “You need to get you a Mexican.”
Now, this is not the first time I’ve heard this rhetoric. But every time I hear it, it nails my feet to the floor. You need to get you a Mexican. Sorta like, “You need to get you a Cuisinart.” As if Mexicans, in certain situations, were a thing you needed to acquire for a job well done.
Do football coaches with undersized offensive lineman say, “I need to get me a Samoan”? Or, if you wanted to learn to brew beer at home, would you say, “I need to get me a German”? Or, perhaps you wanted to become a skillful ping-pong player, so you’d say, “I need to get me a Chinaman.” Where’s a Sudanese when you need one! And, under what circumstances would you ever say, “We need to get us a white guy!”
Truth is, I have talked like this before. Several years back I was in the studio making music for our new CD. The song was called Fail Forward, the one and only time I’ve ever written a reggae song. The band sat around listening, exchanging ideas for the background vocals. Suddenly it hit me: “We need black guys!” The response from the band and the producer was unanimous enthusiasm. Not one person missed my point. And, sure enough, we found this black vocal trio playing at a local resort, and paid them to come sing for us. They were magical, and exactly what the song needed.
On the crass (but very funny) show Family Guy, Peter spoofs exactly this point. He’s having money troubles. The family budget is in shambles. So that night, before retiring to sleep, he stands at his bedroom window looking out at the stars, and sings this cheesy song whose verses end in, “I think I need a Jewww ….” The next morning a Mr. Feldstein knocks on the door, asking to use the phone because his car has broken down. Peter looks to the heavens and reprises the song, “At last I’ve found a Jewww ….”
The odd part is, you can “get you a Mexican.” Every day at Lowe’s, Home Depot and landscape nurseries there gathers pods of Mexicans. (Don’t hold me to this. Some of them might be Peruvians. Or Guatemalans.) They raise their hands as you drive in and out of the property, saying, “I’m available! Pick me!” Homeowners, business owners, and contractors can and do pull over, negotiate a wage, and take the one or more Mexicans they just “got” to a work site.
Which brings me to the rub. I admire hard work and initiative. A lot. And if you should find yourself having sojourned from Mexico, Central or South America into the United States without polished English skills or formal education, well, I admire the initiative to try to turn a buck with honest work. Ad hoc work, for sure. But work, nonetheless. Let’s say I admire it more than folks standing at a street corner with a cardboard sign saying, “Will work for food.”
Come to think of it, I’ve never seen a Mexican holding that sign.
But, on the other hand … “get a Mexican.” The rhetoric sits uneasily in my heart. I’m stuck with admiring these laborers and wanting to wince and apologize. The truth is, at various places and times in various cultural settings, certain ethnic groups do tend to fill certain job niches. Certain ethnic groups do become well-known, generally speaking, for certain skills, interests, expertise. Or at least availability and willingness born of economic necessity.
But there simply must be a less objectifying way of talking about it. Did you ever see A Day Without A Mexican, directed by Sergio Arau, 2004? Simply brilliant satire.
I’m eating pizza and wings, watching football with my friend Pete. I begin to lick the hot sauce off my fingers. Pete rolls his eyes and hands me a napkin. Yikes. I’ve forgotten my manners. Bad form. The English would say I had breached decorum.
That’s it! I need to get me an Englishman!
I’ve got one, actually. Pete’s mother was born in England. Probably why he handed me the napkin.
(Steven Kalas is a Nevada author and therapist. He writes a weekly column for the Sparks Tribune. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)