If you haven’t noticed, San Antonio has a problem with voting. But what about the people who want to vote but can’t? I met a man in downtown San Antonio today who wants to be part of the process, but can’t legally vote. In fact, he isn’t legal.
His name is Jesús Mendez and he totes around a wooden shoe shining box with bumper stickers endorsing Leticia Van de Putte for Mayor on either side of his work box. Jesús is a homeless undocumented worker from Nueva Rosita, Coahuila who spends every morning near Market Square looking for day labor work. When he fails to find work, he takes to the downtown streets with his shoe shining kit. Mendez has lived here for nearly 10 years, and hasn’t seen his wife and eight-year-old son, Jesús Jr., for two years.
My curiosity was piqued, and I felt compelled to interview Jesús, which was possible because his English is far better than my Spanish. He seemed like an intelligent guy trying to make an honest living, and he had taken the time to learn about the candidates running for mayor. He had made his own educated decision on who he would like to see lead the local government.
Scott Ball: What made you decide, at least in spirit, to support Leticia Van de Putte?
Jesús Mendez: She’s a real public woman, she has had a long career and you never hear bad things about her. She knows how to keep her mouth shut, she knows when to talk. She looks like she has a lot of experience.
SB: You can’t vote, so what makes you personally invested into the leadership of our city if you don’t have a voice?
JM: I live in this city and whatever policies they want to do affects me somehow. Even if I can’t vote it’s going to effect me.
SB: You’ve been here for 10 years, you voice your support for Leticia Van de Putte as someone who doesn’t legally live in the United States What are you looking for in our city? What matters to you the most?
JM: This is a country that I can live in peace and that most people respect me, even the police. I see everyday police officers and guards look at me suspiciously, they make me feel embarrassed. Just because I’m from a country with a lot of violence and injustice some people still think we’re not human, that we are less than nothing. Black people, Mexicans, people from Latin America, so I guess if it’s a Mexican person in charge of the government like the mayor that somehow something good is going to come for us. Somehow.
SB: I know that there is a lot of talks about being able to legalize immigrants already living and working in this country. What are your thoughts on that happening in Texas?
JM: It’s never going to happen because it’s the way people are. They need us, if you go to most of the restaurants there’s going to be Mexican people serving you. Go to any hotel and you’re going to see Mexican people cleaning your room, it’s Mexican in the whole country. But still, everybody closes their eyes like we are not here, but we are here. Nobody cares about us, it’s just the way it is and I don’t mind. I’m going to make my money and send that money to my country.
SB: If you could say anything to the mayoral candidates, including Leticia Van de Putte, what would you say?
JM: She’s going to win no matter what. I’m not saying she’s perfect, but she’s the least worst candidate, and she has a lot of experience by the way.
SB: What are your long-term goals?
JM: I have a dream. To get enough money to rent a little place downtown and get my shoe shine store up with a big sign that says ‘Shoe Shine Store.’ We are not terrorists, we are not here asking for food stamps, we don’t ask for nothing. We are here for opportunity, to work. What about us? We are neighbors, we have a good relationship with the United States. People who say ‘No, don’t legalize those people (Mexicans)’, rich people, ranchers. Guess who’s digging the holes for their fences? Us. Think about how much money we are saving the city. We are cheap labor, they use us to build houses. I don’t think it’s a bad thing.
SB: How much do you earn in an average week?
JM: $200, $250, sometimes $300, sometimes less than that.
SB: How much of that do you send back to Mexico?
JM: At least $150 every two weeks.
SB: What are your living conditions?
JM: I’m homeless. Look at what I bought this morning (he opens a plastic bag filled with shrimp flavored ramen noodles). I’m homeless but my family has something to eat at the table in Mexico so I don’t mind it.
SB: Is traveling back home to see your family an option?
JM: I can’t go. It’s not just that it’s too expensive to go, it’s too expensive to come back. Coyotes charge you $3,000 to bring you back here.
SB: How did you enter the country?
JM: I paid a coyote and they brought me here. It’s not just the money, you risk your life. They are bad people.
SB: Were you worried for your safety?
JM: Of course, I’m afraid and I don’t want to go back even for my wife. I’m scared. I don’t want to go back until I have a little money and I can buy a little truck. It’s going to take a couple of years but it will be worth it.
*Featured/top image: Jesús Mendez shines a black leather shoe in downtown San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.