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A trip to a Nogales dentist reminds me how fortunate I am

Recently, I returned from a second visit to my dentist, who works "en el otro lado"—the other side. I live in Arizona, so that means across the border, in Mexico.

Emilia Saenz is a fine dentist, but her assistant, José, a gracious young man, is even finer, as far as I'm concerned. That's because he's fluent in English, having lived and worked in Detroit for five years before he was discovered "sin papeles," and deported by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. I learned those details about José on my first visit, along with other details—that he's married, and has a 3-year-old daughter and another baby on the way.

My spoken Spanish is decent, but my level of understanding what is said sometimes lags, especially with Dr. Saenz, an immigrant from Colombia whose rapid Spanish sounded different to me. That made José's presence in the room even more crucial as I suffered through a root canal.

Anyway, I liked José at once and marveled at his skill in anticipating Dr. Saenz's demanding needs and at anticipating any discomfort I might feel. When his boss left the room, I asked José's permission to pose some personal questions.

Our conversation went something like this:

Me: I'm curious: how much does Dr. Saenz pay you?

He: One thousand pesos a week. That's about $80 a week in American money at current exchange rates.

Me: For how many hours?

He: Sixty.

Me: You're earning only a little more than a dollar an hour? How can you live on that?

He: It's hard. We can get a little low on food.

Me: Where do you live?

He: In a small room with no windows that's attached to my wife's brother's house, so there's no rent to pay. The room has no heat. But we manage.

Me: You're excellent with your work here. Seems to me you may have been "born" to it.

He: Thanks.

Me: I think you're underpaid.

He: Well, I just feel lucky to have a job. And a thousand pesos a week is more than most workers here in Nogales earn, and that's when they can find work. Jobs are scarce here.

Me: What about your future?

He: I want to immigrate to Canada. I can't go to the States, because I tried and was caught by the Border Patrol.

Me: That might be a good idea. Canada needs skilled workers like you. Besides, you can fly there and enter without a visa.

He: That's true. But first I need to save 13,000 pesos for the fare and for my wife's passport.

Me: And that will be very hard to do?

He: Almost impossible. Because saving 13,000 pesos is just like you saving $13,000.

I also learned that José walks two miles to and from work, six days a week, because he can't afford to spend 48 pesos—about $3.50 in the United States—for bus fare every week. At first, I felt sympathy for José as he described his life. But sympathy seems such a patronizing word. As I thought about walking back across the border to drive to my home in Arizona, I realized that sympathy was the wrong response. Instead, I felt a strong desire to do something.

And so, before I left the dentist's office, I gave José a tip that almost equaled his weekly salary. I did that, I suppose, because I'd also been poor. And because I had also become ambitious, just like José. And because I also had some help along the way.

On my way back home, I did my weekly shopping on this side of the border. Within two hours, I'd spent 1 and 1/2 times what José earns during his 60-hour week. When I arrived home, I was wildly welcomed by my two golden retrievers, whose daily sustenance almost equals José's daily income.

Jack McGarvey is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Southern Arizona.

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