From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

Cop by Destiny

I loved my job. I loved every minute of it for thirty-six years—because I was never supposed to have it. In a few weeks, I will be retiring from a law-enforcement career that spanned five decades. Since 1966, I’ve been a deputy constable, police officer, patrol sergeant, district attorney investigator and finally a labor standard investigator for the California Labor Commissioner. I have worn five badges.

My last job has taken me back to the same agricultural fields that I worked in as a six-year-old boy in 1947. Back then, I carried water to my parents and brothers as they worked. My father gave me that job. But he didn’t give me hope that I could have the job I really wanted. I was about eight years old when I told my father I wanted to be a policeman. I had seen a storybook at school called Dick and Jane where a police officer in a blue uniform helps get a cat down from a tree. I thought to myself, That’s what I want to do—help people. My father smiled, shook his head and told me it could never be. It was the end of the 1940s, and he never imagined there could be Mexican policemen. Besides, he thought I was too small.

“Estás muy pee-wee,” he said.

My father, who was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, thought only about providing for his family. He had no idea about what his children could do in life nor did he have the desire to look that far into the future. Maybe if he had, he could have warned me about what lay ahead. I experienced my first obstacles in grammar school. I could not learn as fast as other kids. I had learned to be resourceful, alert and quick-witted, but those skills didn’t benefit me in the academic world. It didn’t help that I didn’t speak very good English— or even very good Spanish for that matter. I used to mix both the Spanish and English words whenever I felt comfortable. I’m also left-handed. The teachers in the second and third grade would grab my left hand, spank it with a ruler and try to force me to write with my right hand. I never finished my lesson, and I would always get a black star, never a gold one or even a silver one like other kids got.

And, of course, growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, I had to deal with racism. In the seventh grade, I volunteered to be in a school play about the South. I asked the teacher in charge if I could be one of the gentlemen, a part that appealed to me because I could wear a top hat and white gloves and carry a cane. The teacher told me that I was too dark to play a gentleman and suggested that I be one of the slaves. Soon, my face was all painted up, and I was standing next to three other dark-skinned slaves. I was only about twelve years old then, but I caught on quickly. I asked the teacher for permission to go to the restroom, and out the door I walked. I never went back.

No matter what obstacles I faced, I never let go of my dream of helping people. Today, I find myself doing a job that combines all the others I’ve had, a job where I can put my life experiences into practice. I’m working in the same agricultural fields as when I was a boy, but in a very different way. I’m enforcing labor laws. I make sure that the workers—most of them Mexican immigrants—are protected from abuse and low wages, and I make sure that they are protected by worker’s compensation insurance. It’s my job to see that workers are not taken advantage of. As I walk the fields and approach these hard-working people, all dirty and sweaty, I sometimes think I see my father’s image and feel his spirit around me.

When I approach the workers, I try to put them at ease. They’re scared, and some think I am with the INS. I greet them with a smile and tell them, in Spanish, that I’m there to help them. That’s when my father helps me. I tell them that, a long time ago, my father (“mi apá”) came from Chihuahua and worked these same fields. The only difference, I tell them, is that he had nobody looking out for him. Around me, I see sad faces that, all of a sudden, have a little bit of trust in them. I spot the face of an older man, un viejito, standing with the younger ones, and he cracks a smile. I put my arm around his shoulder. I tell him things are going to get better, and I hand him my business card, which has a small emblem of a badge. His face lights up. A few seconds later, a dozen or so other workers come closer to me. They’re smiling and laughing and thanking me for the visit. Soon, they all have business cards.

Then I talk to their supervisor, the field labor contractor. I make sure he knows what the law says and what his responsibilities are. I also make sure he knows that there is a dark-skinned angel looking out for these field workers. As I walk to my pickup, I look back and see the old man waving good-bye to me.

Right about then, I am that eight-year-old boy who wanted to wear a uniform and help get a cat down from a tree. I can feel my father’s spirit again. But this time, instead of telling me I’m too small for the job, I hear him telling me: “Son, I’m very proud of you. And I respect you for following your dream.”

Ruben Navarrette, Sr.

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