Immigrants: The Foundation of New York City

In a concrete abode nestled in the Bronx, awaits a diligent fleet mechanic waiting for the next truck to fix. He’s alone, but that doesn’t bother him. Feelings aren’t a part of his job. Alone or not, work needs to be done.

It’s after 10 pm on a Saturday, so I understand his dire need for coffee. As I pull up in my comfy little Corolla, homemade latte in hand, I see an opening to the shop, the name of a mechanic’s workspace. A husky little man, maybe mid-forties, notices that I’ve arrived and stays in place, hunched over what seems to be a SnapOn toolbox. He has a hard hat on with a reflector vest acting like a much-needed flashlight. It makes my eyes flinch, so I know it’s doing its job. I’ll quickly learn that, around here, that’s the most important thing – getting the job done.

As I get out the car, I greet the mechanic with a smile. I knew I would get one in return, as always. He goes to take his coffee and accidentally spills some on my very worn Fordham University hoodie. He doesn’t know that I wore it for this precise reason, to get dirty. I tell him it’s fine, but his reaction makes me feel like that was the worst part of his day. Whenever I’m around him, I know that I’m in the presence of a true gentleman.

He kindly leads me to a truck within the shop and places his coffee on the fender attached to it. How fitting to conduct this interview next to 30 years of his life. I look around and notice that, although everything seems all over the place, that’s just not the case. If I never had experience visiting shops before, I would’ve thought this place was a junk yard. You wouldn’t believe it, but everything had its rightful place.

The shop has two doors open, which leaves room for two concrete trucks to enter. There’s a mini statue of Mother Mary overlooking the shop. It’s a cliché statue as Mary has her arms open. This version of her always makes me feel comforted, like if my own mother is with me. Being a Diesel Mechanic is a dangerous job, especially in the concrete business. I understand the need to have her there, watching over them as they work under rough conditions. Mario will later tell me that he never gets scared. “It’s too quick,” he says, snapping. “It’s like when I go on road call to pick up a truck, you got nine minutes to go to the job, the engine is leaking antifreeze all over the place. I gotta’ figure out where it’s leaking, fix, and go to the job.” The only thing that would ever scare Mario is “the boss”.

As we’re about to start the interview, I had to bring myself back to reality from a set of beautiful green eyes. They were like two lemon-shaped emeralds placed into two balls of porcelain. I knew this would happen since his workers always talked about “Mario’s beautiful eyes”. I thought it was strange to hear such remarks from gruff men that cursed like sailors. Mario isn’t like them, though. He refuses to say profanities in front of women. I know this from all of the times he’s reminded his workers not to curse “in front of a lady”. This must mean he comes from a humble home…

Before working in the concrete industry, Mario used to live in France, with his family being from Portugal. They all lived in the quiet country, entirely opposite of the hustle and bustle of New York City. At 18, he and his brother were set to be drafted into the army. For this reason, he left his family to come to the United States. Even though Mario visits his family in France every year, his mother never adjusted to his relocation. Interestingly, it was his father who gave him the final push. “My father told me, don’t go with your family, go with your friends. You’re better off.”

When a young Mario arrived in the city, ponytail and earring on one ear, his friends immediately found him work as a fleet mechanic in the concrete sector. It was common for immigrants to gain employment in the construction industry. This industry is simply full of trades many of them knew and practiced back in their home countries. It also did not require schooling and offered immediate income. “I didn’t wanna go to the army, so I gotta’ do something. In 1988, I come over here and they gave me job. I learned to fix a truck before I learned to speak English. I learned Italian, because the guys over here are Italian, before I learned English,” Mario explains to me. I found myself wondering if I had the strength to work in a new country without knowing the language. What it must’ve felt like to figure out how to communicate with your Italian speaking colleague to fix a truck in under 10 minutes so it can make a delivery on time. After all, time is money, as he assures me multiple times during the interview.

Coming to a new country wasn’t easy for the once amateur mechanic. Ben, one of Mario’s mechanics, explained that, “When Frenchy started here, they gave him the bullshit work; the dirty and back-breaking work that nobody wanted to do. Also, his boss, at the time, was also named Mario, Mario Panicci. He really had it out for him. He’s why a lot of the guys picked on him.” Mario confirmed this struggle, however, he didn’t seem sad about the experience. He’s the kind of person who doesn’t worry about the struggles of work, after all, the self-taught Supervisor has a lot on his plate. From delivering concrete to trucks breaking down, time is the most important priority.

As he continued telling me about his experience working in a different country, with different people, and a different culture, I started to have a profound realization. Most concrete companies, if not all, in New York City, were founded by immigrants. I am the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, so I know what this means. When my mother moved here, her fellow Mexican peers would help her find employment and other opportunities. As time passed, she has returned the favor countless times to Hispanics along the way. It’s a “thing” that we do to help each other out. The same went for Mario, and the same would happen for every other immigrant coming in the country, resulting in immigrant-owned businesses throughout New York City; this made it the melting pot it is today.

Immigrants literally laid, and continue to lay, the foundation of the city. “The foundation of America is immigrant. If you don’t have the immigrant to build it (America) the way it is, America is in trouble,” he tells me. “One day you can eat Chinese food, one day Italian, one day Spanish, one day Indian. You get so much to choose.” I believe the immigrant in front of me. Instead of beauty in his eyes, I now see the history of the United States. I see all the immigrants who rigorously worked to keep their jobs while creating what is now called “The Best City in the World”.

After my interview with Mario, I know I will never look at construction workers, or New York City for that matter, the same. Within his 30 years, his company provided concrete for the Bronx Zoo, Fordham University, Yankee Stadium, the Botanical Gardens, practically the whole Bronx, and Columbia University, to name a few. Although Mario now has an impressive resume, a family with young kids and a daughter in an $50,000 a year college, a house in Long Island, and is the Supervisor of the shop, it has not been an easy journey for him. “New York is cutthroat. You mess up once, you’re screwed. Time is money. You gotta’ think quick. The pace is so fast that you lose money,” he tells me in an excited tone. I can tell that this man is passionate and proud of his job. Either that, or he’s been in the business too long.

It took Mario five years to finally gain acceptance and respect from his colleagues for being a Portuguese Frenchman that didn’t speak the preferred language. Nevertheless, the communication barrier has always been the last problem on Mario’s list. He tells me a heart-pounding story of a time when a transmission blew up in a truck after it dumped half of its concrete in the middle of 59th street. Whenever a transmission blows up, driving is off the menu. It took Mario and his co-workers five heinous hours to drag the truck back in chains to the Bronx. The truck was back to work the next day. It’s truly the norm to do whatever it takes to deliver the product. After all, you delay the concrete, you delay everything and everyone.

Fortunately for his employer, they seemed to have perfected the industry. The boss’s son made an app that enables everyone in the company to know exactly where trucks are throughout the city, as well as which trucks are unloading concrete. The company now has an effective communication system like that of a Queen Bee and her worker bees. It was quite comical to see Mario show me the app like he had made it himself. This is a good sign to me. It lets me know that Mario isn’t hesitant on learning new tricks of the trade.

Whenever Mario isn’t working about 80 hours per week, he makes wine, honey, and manages a bee farm. He lets me know that the key to having time is cutting your sleep hours. Five hours is the right amount for him. Mario is truly a hardworking man who, according to his employee, “Never has excuses and never gets sick”. According to Mario, he has gotten sick three times in thirty years; something most of us can’t relate to.

As we finished the interview, a truck driver, whose name is also Mario, came in to greet his friend. I noticed that both men’s shoulders went down while the ends of their mouths went up. I was in the presence of longtime friends who’ve experienced the best and worst, together. “We criticize each other, and know each other for so many years, and, uh, whatever we do, it’s nothing personal. According to him, I’m his best friend,” Mario, the truck driver, tells me with a smirk. I understand him. They both experienced migration to a new country. They both contributed to it. They both love it. And most importantly, they both play a vital part in its foundation.

With Love 3

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