Feature

Pinched

Greeley is at the center of the fight over immigration reform in the United States. Two men on the same street are trying to survive the battle.

August 2008

Now picture Gerardo standing here at his tortilla factory, Tortillaria Los Comales, nearly two weeks before Christmas 2006. It's the morning of the federal immigration raid. Two-hundred-and-fifty people have been arrested at the Swift & Company meatpacking plant. The business got a new name, used to be Monfort, the same place where Gerardo got his start 24 years earlier. More than a dozen workers have been caught with stolen identification. The others? Many were undocumented workers. Wrong place, wrong time.

Gerardo steps onto the sidewalk. No one shows up for work, no customers come through the door. The refrigerators hum, the kitchen is silent. The parking spaces are empty. Makes him wonder if Immigration is waiting to take his customers. Have they already taken them? Will his customers return? Gerardo is scared—angry, even.

Greeley is at a crossroads and Gerardo Lucero is now stuck at that intersection, wondering what will happen next. A few months after the arrests, the mayor, a Republican named Tom Selders, goes to Washington, D.C., and says the Mexicans are good people, that they're working some important jobs in this town. Gerardo writes a check to the mayor's reelection campaign, stands behind the mayor. Tom Selders says his piece in D.C., then returns to Greeley—and loses the election in a landslide.

So now all these immigrants in town are on edge. But they don't go away. They keep buying their homes and trucks and shops. But, this time, they stick to their neighborhoods even more than before, shop more often in places like Jerry's Market and Gerardo's bodega and his factory—places where they can pick up some chicken and tortillas in peace.

A year and a half after the raid, stand in the doorway of Gerardo's tortillaria on 14th Avenue and feel the heat pouring out of the room. The feeling of warmed dough being cooked into money. See that slim man standing in the middle of the room, with the button-down shirt and the black jeans and the worn shoes? That's Gerardo Lucero back at work, watching the 12 men and women in this shotgun room behind his market.

He rarely speaks. But when he does, it's worth listening. The other day there was a fight between an employee and her husband. The woman came in, sniffling back tears. Brought her man in to talk to Gerardo. Gerardo respects his family, and the workers see the loving way he looks at his wife. So Gerardo pulled the woman's husband aside and told him how important a man is to his family, how his kids would be lost without him. Told the man he needed to set an example for those kids, honor his hard-working wife. The man nodded. Then Gerardo took his employee aside, told her how a mother needs to be strong for her family, how she needs to make her husband feel like the most important man in the world. You don't want your brother raising those kids, do you? No, the woman says, I love my husband.

His workers respect him. Gerardo doesn't yell, his employees say. The farmers yell when you don't pick the vegetables right, when you drop a basket on the ground. Some mornings, immigrants arrive at the tortilla shop looking for work, tell Gerardo his name's all over town, that he's a good boss. Gerardo checks their paperwork, takes a few, then he turns most away. It doesn't seem like they respect work, hard work, honest work. Seems like they want a handout, like Gerardo somehow owes them something. He already has that problem here, probably would have made more money, would have more restaurants and more tortilla factories and more markets if he didn't have so much family around, so many people showing up at the door asking for a job. Too many people in this room don't take pride in their work, use too much flour or water to make the tortillas when a little will do. Treat this like it's your business, he tells them. Manage the product like you were paying the bills.

It's always about money, about taking care of family, about building new businesses. Gerardo bought a new tortilla shop a few blocks away. Thirteen-thousand square feet in an old grocery store. Gerardo will ship tortillas to stores in Denver and in Greeley, to Jerry's Market on 14th Avenue.

But the city keeps telling Gerardo to make more improvements to the new factory, clean it up more, make everything to code, spend more money. Steve, down the street, thinks it has to do with the color of Gerardo's skin. If a white guy owned the store the city wouldn't be making so much trouble. Gerardo isn't sure. All he knows is that he's just trying to make a buck, take care of his family, buy a bigger house, send the kids through college. Maybe they'll take over his business some day. That's American, right? The American Dream?

{C}

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