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Angel M. was a highly skilled medical technician in Honduras for 30 years. His family lived well. His job sent him on business trips around the world. By Honduran standards, Angel was a very successful man.
Today, he’s part of a roofing crew in Noblesville making $40 a day. He struggles to feed his wife and daughter. He has no health insurance. And just last month, he was diagnosed with intestinal cancer.
What happened? How did someone so successful end up doing manual labor for less than the minimum wage? Why did he come to America when he once had a job so good?
These were the questions I sought to answer when I sat down with Angel last week. In our one hour interview, I heard a story that not only broke my heart, but convinced me that something needs to change in our country…
A Chance at Prosperity
Angel was born to a poor carpenter in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. Though struggling with poverty, his parents worked, scrimped and saved to provide him with a University education. Thankfully, Angel was a gifted student, and after graduation found a good job in his chosen field: medicine.
His job included a mix of responsibilities. He was part medical technician, part salesman, part teacher. He traveled to many countries around the world, and made quite a few trips to the U.S.
Depending on the bonuses and commissions he made, Angel brought in as much as $20,000 per year. It may not sound like much by American standards, but it’s almost ten times as much as Honduras’ GDP per capita.
Angel’s hard work and skill helped to bring his family out of poverty. His four daughters were able to attend the finest bi-lingual schools in the country, and were on their way to successful careers themselves.
Then, in 1998, Hurricane Mitch swept across Central America. The hurricane killed 6000 people in Honduras alone, did $2-3 billion in damage and devastated the country’s economy. For the next three years, Honduras struggled under a severe economic recession.
In 2001, Angel’s company went bankrupt. He lost his job. And everything came crashing down.
Because of the new economic climate in Honduras, Angel was not able to find work. He could no longer afford to send his daughters to their school, and they were forced to drop out.
For five years, his family struggled with the decision of what to do. With every year that went by, Angel’s age made it harder and harder for him to find a job. Finally, in desperation, he made the decision to come to the U.S., confident that his experience in medicine would eventually land him a well-paying job.
Because the business visa from his previous job was still valid, Angel was able to enter the country legally. However, to land an American job in medicine, he would have to acquire a specific license, as well as go through the rigorous process of immigration. The license alone cost $10,000… no small fee for a man with little more than the clothes on his back.
For his first month in the U.S., Angel lived in Florida. He searched high and low for any job that would help pay the bills. Nothing. Washing dishes, doing construction, mowing lawns… every job was already taken.
Barely Making It
Eventually, Angel gave up on finding a job in Florida and moved in with relatives in Indianapolis. Here he was able to find a string of jobs paying minimum or less-than-minimum wage.
He did siding. He was a janitor. He drywalled.
Now, two years after his wife and daughter moved to the U.S. to join him, he is living in a small house on the near-east side and putting on roofing tiles in the suburbs.
Roofing is hard work. Each house his crew works on takes two full eight hour days. Because undocumented laborers don’t have the same rights as documented ones, any accidental damage to the roof or to gutters comes straight out of their paychecks.
Last week, for example, Angel put in two long days of work. He came home with a check for $80.
With such measly pay, the $10,000 license is looking more and more like an unattainable dream. Add that to the $2000-3000 it will cost him to go through the official immigration process, the high cost of food and transportation in his day-to-day life and his newly discovered intestinal cancer, and it’s clear that he won’t be finding a better job anytime soon…
The American Dream
As I sat listening to Angel’s story, I became more and more upset.
Here is a guy who has a whole range of useful skills and a broad spectrum of experience, a man who has a charming sense of humor and a big heart. He loves his family. He works hard. Yet he lives in poverty.
It’s hard to reconcile his story with what I have been taught throughout my life.
Here in the States, we love the whole “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. Elementary school students across the country are taught that with enough hard work and dedication, they can accomplish anything. But Angel has been “pulling himself up by his bootstraps” his entire life, and he’s still poor.
By definition, Angel should be living “the American Dream.” But because he wasn’t born here, he is faced with a far more difficult reality.
Hope for the Future
However, even with every right to be bitter, Angel is remarkably happy. With every right to be hopeless, he exudes a calm and expectant hope. With every right to just give up, Angel presses on.
And although the odds are stacked against him, Angel has been getting help in a variety of remarkable ways.
With the help of Shepherd Community Center, Angel’s family has had access to food, counseling and after-school programs for his daughter. Through Wishard Hospital, he has received free medical care for his cancer. And through Shepherd Community Church, he has found a significant outlet for his intelligence and education as a lay pastor for the church’s Hispanic population.
Like his parents before him, he has been scrimping and saving with his wife to send their daughter to college. Thanks to their dedication and a few scholarships, she is now studying history and anthropology at Indiana University.
It’s heartbreaking to think that Angel will most likely end his life in the same situation as his impoverished parents, but it’s incredibly uplifting to know that his daughter has a chance.
Perhaps for her, living in America will amount to more than just a dream…
About the Author: Barry is the founder and director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.