​Citizen José

Posted by Tim Gilmer in Life After Paralysis on January 31, 2022 # Lifestyle

JoseAs a paraplegic for a very long time, I’ve never had an attendant, but I did have José. I met him in 1988 and employed him on my farm as a temporary laborer. At first, he lived in another farmer’s garage, slept on a mat on the concrete floor, and worked for minimum wage, $3.25 an hour. I paid him the same rate for the late summer months he worked for me that year. The next year and every year thereafter, I gave him a raise, and later, an annual bonus. José was an extremely reliable, hardworking, honest man who gained my respect and affection over the years. Each year he would travel from his home in Vera Cruz, Mexico, usually by bus, and call when he arrived.

I would pick him up at the bus station, and we would talk on the way to my farm, where he lived in a small used trailer my wife and I bought for him. Each year he would tell me about his life and family in Vera Cruz, and each year he would return to his family and tell them about his life here on the farm, with me, my wife and daughter, and her children. He split his time equally between his family and ours every year.

At first, we talked an uneasy mix of English and Spanish, but we began to talk almost exclusively in Spanish as the years passed. I would hire other migrant laborers and talk to them in their language as a sign of respect. Spanish became the official language of the farm. In our talks in the off-hours, either in my car or somewhere in the shade at break time, or at the end of a day, we would leave farm talk behind and get to know about our very different lives.

José worked long hours as a young man in the sugar cane fields in Vera Cruz, cutting cane with a machete, bundling it, carrying it on his shoulders, loading it in trucks to be hauled to the refinery. He had a little education beyond high school, but not much. He married, and when he came to work for me, he had three children, two boys and a girl. They lived in an agricultural village, Yanga, a population of 15,000 (today), located about 20 miles from Cordoba, a city of 218,000. His village — his home from birth to this day — was named after an African tribal leader who was sold into slavery and shipped to Vera Cruz. He was the leader of the first community of slaves in Mexico to be liberated from Spain, in the early 1600’s. José’s curly black hair, he told me, came from that side of his ancestors, Los Negros.

At first, I didn’t need a lot of personal help from José. I was 43 when I met him, and he was 37. When he returned to his home in Vera Cruz for the last time, he was 67, and I was 73. In the beginning, I had a way to board my tractors independently and also got around the farm on a four-wheel ATV. José would help attach implements to the tractor, fill the tank with diesel, and I would do the tractor work. I would start seeds in the greenhouse and manage the young plants until it was time to plant them in the field. He would do the planting, weeding, packaging, and harvesting, sometimes working alongside my wife and other workers.

Over the years, as health issues and medical complications began to limit my activities, I would teach José how to do my duties as needed. He became adept at tractor work — discing, rototilling, cultivating, pulling a mechanical transplanter, and sometimes making overflow deliveries. In time he would direct the crew (always treating them as equals), help me into an out of the greenhouse, which was down a steep path, and sometimes assist me getting on and off my ATV, and whenever I needed an extra push in my wheelchair.

It wasn’t just a one-way relationship, with José doing all the helping. Many times, he came to me for help in navigating the nightmare of immigration regulations each year and keeping his green card updated. I found a Spanish-speaking attorney to help him travel unimpeded between Vera Cruz and Oregon, and he eventually became a resident alien. Once he was unjustly arrested, and I went to court and testified on his behalf. Another time he was detained at the border unfairly, and I was able to help him gain re-entry. There were numerous difficulties he had because of misunderstandings or downright discriminatory attitudes or policies. He knew he could always call me, and I would get him out of trouble. He did not drink alcohol, do drugs, or cheat on his wife in the 30 years he was here. He was, in fact, a model citizen, even though he lacked that official status and many times was treated like an unwanted illegal immigrant.

His fourth and fifth children were born in Mexico when he was here during the farm season, working. His parents died, his sister died, and his wife got cancer. Each time I advised him to go home, and each time, out of loyalty, he stayed on the farm. He was a man of faith who believed God would provide. Once, I insisted he take time off to be with his wife for her cancer operation. I gave him a plane ticket and all but shoved him out the door. A week later, he paid his way back to the farm, happy that he got to be by her side, and she recovered.

While he was here, I had to have quintuple bypass heart surgery in 2005, an above-the-knee amputation in 2012, and a major flap surgery that kept me in bed for six months and three more operations in 2018. Each time I lost function, and each time he took care of whatever needed to be done. I will always remember the early days when he would walk our young daughter to the end of our drive and wait with her until she safely boarded the school bus. He was a trusted member of the family.

On the day he left, I was lying in my hospital bed in our living room. José was always welcome in our house, in a bathroom we had remodeled for him, and at our table. Out of respect for our employer-employee relationship, he politely refused any special treatment, choosing only to use the bathroom. Unable to embrace because I was bedridden, we held hands, he cried, and so did I. Four of his children were grown now, educated, and he was going home to spend the rest of his life with his wife. It wasn’t the first time we had shared tears. But this time, his leaving was meaningful in another way. He had just become a legal citizen of the United States after spending thousands of dollars of his hard-earned money and decades of his life as a taxpayer, trusted worker, friend and helper.

Thank God for the many Josés in our midst.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.