“He doesn’t know, I am a man.” In a small writing circle at Hofstra University where young Dreamers, community elders, organizational leaders, and activists wrote side by side, the words of a seasonal laborer, as written by Marian Conway, become a beacon for us all to hold onto those moments when the knowledge of our common humanity was forged.
“Words” by Marian Conway
I was used to the boss yelling, picking on one person or broadly denigrating anyone within earshot, so when he came into the building hollering that day, I was not concerned, just curious. I wandered up front to the sales counter where the fleet mechanic was leaning against the counter with a handful of paperwork. When I asked what had happened, I was told that the boss threw a cup of coffee at Julio in the shop.
“Why?” I asked, knowing there may not be a reason.
The mechanic shook his head, saying “Because Julio opened one of the boxes and put the spreader together to display. Boss said he hadn’t decided to keep the shipment.”
“You mean, he threw coffee on him because Julio took initiative?” I sighed. “Is he in the yard?”
“No. He ran out of the yard and across the road. He might be walking home.”
I went back to my desk, grabbed my purse, and left the building without a word. Julio, one of the seasonal workers from Puerto Rico, did not have a car and usually got a ride to the house he shared with a few other men. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but something made me go after him.
I saw him walking along Straight Path, a half mile from the office. He was on the other side so I made a U-turn and pulled up beside him. I leaned over and opened the passenger door and said to him, “Get in the car, Julio.”
He shook his head and kept walking. I rolled the car backwards on the shoulder of the road.
“Please, get in my car.”
He stopped, looked at me, and got in the car. I made a U-turn again and just drove. We went without a word for a minute or two. Then he abruptly looked at me and in his thick accent said, “He doesn’t know, I am a man.”
His eyes locked on mine, they held a great sadness. “I am a man.”
“I am sorry, Julio.”
I apologized for the boss, the situation, Julio’s life spent between two islands without a family, and I wasn’t sure what else to tell him. In the end, I suggested he return to work, that it would not make him look weak, but strong — in the face of mistreatment — and he agreed. He needed a paycheck.
Today, two dozen years later, I often hear Julio’s voice in my head. I do not know if it is why, when Freddy, the young man with cerebral palsy, reaches out from his wheelchair to greet me, I look him in the eye and take his hand. It could be that one instance of humanity, or it could be accumulated experiences, but when his caregiver has to translate his difficult speech, I still look Freddy in the eye, not the caregiver.