That summer I was determined to find a job. A real one. I had already had a taste of making my own money and even though the earnings my heart had determined would be mine were not exactly destined for frivolous spending money, they were in fact leading to a mild case of obsession on my part. Every business we visited or saw from a distance, whether by foot or otherwise, would send my imagination racing into how cool it would be to work there. How nice it would be to have a uniform to wear. I would imagine myself walking in the door of that establishment, making my way to the back where the customers couldn’t see me, punching my time card in, and then after a week or two, driving to the bank to deposit my check. En esos días I couldn’t imagine doing anything else more productive.
Who cared if I wasn’t 16 yet and couldn’t actually work legally in the state of Texas yet? I didn’t. And that hadn’t stopped me from working before.
Now granted, selling faux perfumes to family members and spending Saturdays and Sundays outside of local grocery stores offering the Houston Post to anyone who would look my way did not constitute much earnings, but it was more than I had in those days, and that was more than enough. Todo lo que vale, cuesta. En esta vida hay que trabajar para salir adelante. Those words I constantly repeated to myself, so how could I not begin planning for my future now.
My parents worked. My sisters worked. Everyone I knew who was old enough to work did. It was my rite of passage, and it was mine for the taking. I wanted to prove to the world that I was growing up and not a child anymore. Hell, if I could find an employer who would give me the chance and pay me $4.25 an hour to trabajar decentemente my life would be made. I would be accomplished and happy at 14.
Only no one ever did want to give me that chance. Every time it seemed I was about to land that “dream” job there it was, that two digit number, two years shy of 16, that would make employers tell me things like “oh, sorry… you’re not old enough to work here,” “come back in two years,” or any other lame excuse to get me out the door. What made me even angrier in those days was that I did not look 14. I was a stocky boy – okay, more than a little stocky… estaba bien grodito, and I could easily pass for 16 or 17, I thought. But there it was. No matter how many times I rode my bicycle up and down the streets, filling out one application after another, the result was always the same.
Por eso me decidi un buen día that this taco joint over by the freeway was going to be the place I would work. Everyday I would call and ask to speak to the manager. At first it was to actually speak to him and tell him that I had filled out an application and that I was really interested, but after he turned me down in usual fashion I began calling only to find out if he was actually there. If he would come to the phone on the other end I would hang up and ride my bicycle over there immediately. Most of the time by the time I would get there the other employees in the front, who after a couple of times already knew who I was and what I was there for, would just tell me he wasn’t there before I could even ask. Then they’d smirk at each other and pretend I wasn’t there.
No matter, my perseverancia would convince him eventually, I would tell myself. At least that’s the way it worked in the telenovelas. When the lovesick good guy in those stories would refuse to take no for an answer from his kindhearted, albeit confused, love interest that would give me more hope. No matter how many times he was rejected, time always had a way of giving him what he wanted, and eventually he and the beautiful leading lady would be smacking lips atop a church alter in the presence of all who had witnessed their long struggle to be together. Whatever it took, me and this taco joint were going to end up in each other’s lives, at least for a little while too.
And so it came to be, finally one day when the manager had no choice but to see me because I had shown up unannounced and refused to take his rejection for an answer. “No, it’s okay you can pay me cash.” “I have worked before even though I am not 16.” “I have no problem at all washing dishes.” “Yes, I can close… I can sweep too.” And so the poor guy just broke down and said “okay, go ahead and get started on the dishes.”
I was ecstatic. I had done it! My relentless efforts had finally paid off. Those telenovela life lessons were true. Perseverancia really did pay off!
I couldn’t wash those dishes fast enough, I was so excited. Finally, after so many days and nights of dreaming about earning a living, this taco joint was going to put money in my pockets. Enough to bring a little home and help with the family expenses. What else could a boy this determined want?
Only a few minutes later, the owner called me over and reneged on his offer. Despite having given me his word, he changed his mind and asked me to leave that taco joint that only less than an hour earlier had made me the happiest boy in the world.
I couldn’t fight back the tears as I slowly rode my bike back home. All I could think was how disillusioned and embarrassed I was. I was pathetic, I imagined in my own head. How could I not ride down the side of the road with my head down in shame?
Of all the jobs I’ve had and not had, to this day, that is the one that has impacted me the most. I learned a lot about myself on that bike ride home. I learned that telenovela scripts were simply that. Telenovela scripts made for the perfect world of television. I learned that sometimes, no matter how bad we want something to happen, we can’t force it to take place. I learned that the best of intentions can lead to the most painful heartache. I learned that despite the incredible will inside me to just break down and quit, I kept peddling slow and steady until I made it back home. I learned eventually that experiences like these would only make me stronger, and that perseverance indeed, would remain one of my most characterizing traits.
I have had many jobs since then, and many right after that experience too. With each one I have learned to trust myself more and to value and understand my own strengths and weaknesses. Probably the most important lesson I’ve learned along the way is that work does not define me. It is a constant in my battle to salir adelante, but it is no longer the definition of my own success. I measure that instead against my own happiness.