Everyone liked Esperanza, even the racists. I mean, how could you not like a woman who showed up for work every day with a smile on her face while she emptied the trash, swept crumbs from the break room and mopped piss from the floor around the urinals. Esperanza — not her real name — was pretty, too, and maybe that was part of it, because even the ones who complained that she couldn’t speak English seemed taken with her classic Mexican features.
Sometimes at work I’d flaunt my Texas roots by bringing in food, like smoked brisket and sausage, or homemade Mexican salsa. On one such occasion, Esperanza — in halting English that was far better than my Spanish — said my salsa tasted like what Mexicans eat at home, not the stuff that comes out of a bottle. It made me feel ridiculously proud, and in a strange sort of way, perhaps it was my salsa that helped Esperanza decide that maybe I was okay.
One day I was sitting at a desk when Esperanza swung by to empty the trash. She paused and talked to me a few minutes, a conversation punctuated with stops and starts and hand gestures, but she finally got across that she was originally from Veracruz. I let her know that I had been to Mexico and traveled extensively through the state of Michoacán, which seemed to please her to no end.
Maybe that bit of knowledge is why Esperanza sought me out when she and a friend made fresh tamales. While I overheard more than one co-worker say something like, “Hell no, I’m not eating that,” I bought a couple because not only did I want to try the tamales, I also wanted to help out. I figured a couple of Mexican women wouldn’t be trying to sell homemade tamales — not in this neck of the New Jersey woods — unless they had a real need.
Every day Esperanza would push the bulky automatic floor sweeper through the narrow aisles, and one time she accidentally clipped a customer’s cart. From a distance I saw him, a white man a little older than I, turn and shout, “Watch where you’re going, you stupid Mexican!” Others heard, too, but none of us came to her defense — no doubt we’d have been fired if we had — and Esperanza, to her credit, just kept going.
The Trumpers were grumbling the other day about how the new guy just doesn’t do the job like Esperanza did, and when I pointed out that she might have had to go into hiding after Nov. 8, the looks on their faces would have been laughable if it hadn’t been so sad.
“You think? I never would have thought of that! Oh my god!”
That’s right, you didn’t think. All those words about walls and bad hombres sounded fine to your ears until you realized they might have crashed into someone you liked — or at least tolerated — someone with a pretty face and a friendly smile.
I tried to find out what happened to Esperanza, but the other Spanish-speakers — the ones who knew her best — were just a little too quick with their responses. Yes, Esperanza has a new job, they’d say, a better job, but we don’t know where. They said she’s never coming back.
Of course I don’t blame them. Just because I can make salsa like a Mexican doesn’t make me a Mexican, and what could I possibly know about the need to hide? Hell, I wouldn’t tell me either.
All this presents a bit of a problem, because as a former journalist, I know better than to print stuff I can’t verify. I don’t know Esperanza’s whereabouts, and to pin it on Trump or his supporters would make this “fake news,” and we certainly can’t have that.
But what is verifiable is the racist tenor of the Trump campaign, which resonated with a broad section of white America that was all too eager to demonize people of a darker hue, people like Esperanza, who with a smile and a wave stole good jobs like mopping piss, or being called “dumb Mexican” for sweeping the floor a little too quickly, and having the temerity to run into a white man.
Oh, their looks of sudden recognition after my speculation about her whereabouts!
And what of Esperanza, a name and a word that in Spanish means hope?
Esperanza no tiene esperanza. Nosotros no tenemos esperanza.
And that, too, is verifiable.