Late one spring night, Jose Lopez jumped a 10-ft concrete wall at the U.S.-Mexico border at Tijuana carrying only the $600 he had saved for his crossing. Lopez, then 18, had lost his father and was determined to find work so he could help support his mother and three siblings still living at home.
Once on U.S. soil, the only work available for the undocumented immigrant was picking vegetables on a ranch near Indio, Calif. Jose lived in a cabin and worked in the fields beneath the blazing sun. Farming was a grueling, low-paying task for the native of Mexico City. He wanted out.
The following year, a farming friend helped him land a job installing carpets at a mobile home dealer in Bakersfield, Calif. “When I was six, I started helping my older brothers with carpet installation so this was the perfect job for me.” He learned many new skills, but soon wanted a change.
For a few years he jumped from job to job. Between jobs he lived in his Plymouth sedan, sleeping outside a Catholic church at night. While working as a taxi driver in Bakersfield, Calif, he earned his green card. “The heat was so intense that by noon I could see heat [waves] rising from the asphalt and had to take a nap under a tree,” he recalls.
After hearing about fishing in Alaska, Lopez traveled to Seattle to sign a commercial fishing contract at the end of the salmon season. Inside the ship, he gutted salmon and cleaned the processing machinery before getting to fish. In that rough and tumble world he carried a sharp knife for protection in barroom fights. Between contracts he picked apples in Yakima.
In 1996, he worked as a carpenter on residential remodeling for Bridgeway Construction, Seattle, until the firm was acquired by Belfor USA. Then he became a lead carpenter at Trammel Crow, building 25 multi-family homes in North Bend, Wash. “Every two weeks, we built a roof on the ground, added the trusses and lifted the roof with the frame,” he says. “There I learned many new skills and how to treat my coworkers with respect. Not easy, but important.”
Two years later, he married and started a family. He has three children. Over the following decade he made many transitions and worked on and off at Belfor while traveling back and forth to Mexico, where three of his eight siblings still live. At Belfor, he started as a laborer, but each rehire brought a promotion. Eventually he worked his way up to a finishing carpenter position.
In 2008, Lopez signed on with general contractor Charter Construction, his current employer in Seattle. Six months later, Charter awarded him a scholarship for a four-year work-study program with the Construction Industry Training Council of Washington. After completing his studies and 8,000 hours of work, he earned certification as a journeyman carpenter. “Although I had 16 years of work experience, I had to start from the beginning,” he says, but it was worth it.”
Now 44, Lopez, 5 ft. 4 in tall, is in relatively good shape with only occasional minor aches and pains. He has had only one serious injury when he nearly lost a finger while cutting a staircase after a 10-hour shift. Nonetheless, he admits, “My body is not going to last long enough to stay in construction as long as I would like.”
Lopez hopes to become a U.S. citizen and after retiring plans to help family or friends with building projects using his ability to transform and improve structures. “That’s what I love most,” he says.
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