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Some years ago through a newspaper ad, I found a roofing contractor to put a tar roof on an addition to my home. It was a sweltering July day. When I arrived from work, I found the roofing crew, all Mexicans, spreading the hot tar on the flat roof.
Seeing them toil in the blazing sun, I climbed the ladder to offer them some cold drinks, and we struck up a conversation. I asked the crew leader how long he had been doing this kind of work. For ten years, he said.
“Ten years? Why don’t you start your own roofing company?”
He replied without hesitation, “Oh no, then I would have to compete with the owner. He gave me this job.”
That’s true loyalty, and an example of the values of a different culture. In previous eras of life in the United States, such loyalty was a value widely upheld.
Newcomers help us renew some values we let slip away. In earlier times, we cherished loyalty in relationships, work, neighborhoods — even brand loyalty. No matter where the big market was located, folks shopped at the neighborhood store. In those days, a handshake was all that was needed.
We had neighbors who came from different cultures. We managed not only to accommodate them, but to allow their traditions to enrich our lives.
Successful societies such as ours are able to incorporate customs, artifacts and foods from other cultures that please and benefit us while rejecting those we find less enjoyable or detrimental to our way of life. Now IKEA is promoting Swedish meatballs. Many of us will garnish them with salsa instead of ketchup.
Besides loyalty, the value so many Mexicans treasure is family. In the United States, oftentimes when we meet people, the first thing we ask is, “What do you do?”
Cultures define what is valued. In the USA, knowing what a person does for a living somehow is important. It seems to be so not only to define who we are, but for our own sense of personal worth.
In the Mexican culture that I know, you aren’t defined by what you do. Rather, the moral person is defined by his or her family and community relationships. Being somebody is not valued; belonging to something greater than yourself is.
While working with the U.S. Department of Labor, I once visited an orange-packing plant in Florida. When I saw all the white men working on permanent jobs running machines and Mexican migrant men and women hand-packing orange crates, I asked the owner why the Mexicans were not on the steady jobs.
His reply said it all, “We offer the Mexican workers those jobs. It would mean staying here all year, and that would break up the family that has to move on to pick the crops in other states.”
Being part of family can be more important than being somebody.
The United States has prospered because it has been able to take what fits into our way of life and reject what does not. To those who fret about losing our way of life because other cultures dilute ours, fear not. History has shown we grow stronger and better.
(John Florez, the founder of several Hispanic civil rights organizations, writes a weekly column for The Deseret Morning News in Salt Lake City. E-mail him at jdflorez(at)comcast.net)