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

A Mexican woman came to Jerry's Market awhile ago, asked Steve Mize to sign a petition supporting immigrants' rights in Greeley, to oppose the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office the feds want to put nearby. We're a majority of your customers, she tells Steve; you don't want to see your customers go away, do you?

It wasn't like this at first. The Mexicans were just happy to have a neighborhood store, a place they could get their tortillas and beans and beef foot and feel safe, like they belonged. Steve was glad to have the business. Dad always told him to know the customers better than they knew themselves; whether they were chicken or fish people, whether they liked their beans fresh or canned.

So Steve spent years trying to understand his customers. Did some research, stopped ordering lots of fish because these weren't fish people, they grew up in central Mexico, not on the coast. Steve talked to some of his employees, changed that sign. A little touch of Mexico—Steve holds the tips of his index finger and his thumb in a pinch to emphasize the word little.

The customers see Steve's work in the aisles, how he's trying to make the market look more like them, how he's carrying Bimbo bread now, chips with lime flavor. Still, some call Steve bad names, curse at him in Spanish, when he refuses to cash a $400 check without identification. Steve doesn't speak Spanish very well, but he understands when people get mad and say "chíngate," when they look him right in the eye and challenge him to a fight in the parking lot.

Even so, Steve stands by his customers. One day, Steve was invited to a rally, the kind where people stand up and say the Mexicans are destroying their way of life. Steve declined the invitation. Told those folks that he thinks these Mexicans are pretty darn important to our economy. They're pretty darn important to his bank account. Some whites in town started wondering whether Steve was a friend of the Mexicans. And they stopped shopping Jerry's Market.

So here Steve is, back in his office, Chris LeDoux singing over the speakers, sitting at a desk counting money. White linoleum floor, the yellowish hue of the overhead lighting cascading across his desk onto the photos of Jerry, Steve's wife, his son, and his adopted daughter from China.

When Jerry was running the place, the Kreuters and Heinrichs stopped by to pick up their groceries. Steve sees the Archuletas and Gomezes. Hundreds of brown faces each day. Good people, Steve says.

The tightrope, he calls it. Don't want to seem too friendly to either side, but Steve feels like he should be best friends with both. Sure, he'd like to see those Mexican gangs eradicated. But what about the hard-working Mexicans, the Mexicans like Gerardo who stuff money under their beds each week with the dream that someday they can make something of their lives? Steve says it seems like they're more American than some of the Americans he knows.

Yet here he is, feeling pinched, the two sides of the vice closing in on him. There's fear: fear that someday he's going to be forced to choose a side when he doesn't want to, that he's going to lose his customers or his friends no matter what he says or does, no matter how friendly and helpful his market is. There's fear that someday maybe Jerry's on 14th Avenue will no longer exist, and it will all be Steve's fault.

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