Ernesto A., the subject of this interview, grew up Hispanic in a rough Chicago neighborhood, exposing him to some of the harshest living conditions in America. Torn between the influence of gangs, drug dealers, prostitutes, thieves, and ethically depraved financial opportunities, Ernest set the goal of honest work for himself because he saw the destruction that desperate criminality entailed. Ernest managed to move out of the city and graduated high school in the suburbs, but he never escaped the prejudice against his ethnicity and his inability to read.
After being laid off from working at a meat packing plant for many years, the search for employment has reached an indescribable level of difficulty due to the clash of an inability to read in an era of information which has completely disenfranchised a sizable chunk of the population. Imagine the difficulty of filling out any basic paperwork application and having to take the word of the person reading it to you, if they’re willing to read it to you, before signing. Having your very means of survival up to the discretion of whoever is willing to help you is part of the harsh reality affecting everyone with a physical or mental disability under Capitalism.
Q: What is your name?
A: Ernest A.
Q: And how old are you?
A: Forty two.
Q: Do you have any labor, political, church affiliations?
A: No. I was in the butcher’s union, but not any more.
Q: What is your living situation like?
A: Well, right now it’s been tough, you know, with this medical stuff going on and trying to find a job. Trying to support my mom and my brother.
Q: Would some sort of functional public housing (not having a landlord) alleviate those kinds of problems?
A: Yeah. Sure.
Q:Do you think you would see an improvement in your family relationships if rent were not in the equation?
A: Of course. That would be one less major thing to worry about.
Q: What ethnicity do you identify as, and has it proven to be an obstacle in finding employment or housing?
A: No, y’know, honestly, but I gotta go with ‘White’ because I always noticed, like, the doors open more, like when people look at you as like a ‘Caucasian Male’ or ‘White’ instead of ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino’. When you’re trying to survive you gotta do what you gotta do.
Q: What level of education have you completed?
A: I graduated High School with two credits extra. But, I still have a learning disability. That’s the kick of all this for me is that I have a disability with my whole reading stuff and again that’s been been a huge problem I can never escape from.
Q: What kind of a barrier has that been?
A: I’m used to old-school job interviews and stuff, you know? I didn’t have to write stuff, you’d go in and sit down. Usually when you can get a foot in the door and show them you’re a hard worker willing to get your hands dirty and not some priss and privileged person where the job is beneath them then they might be likely to hire me, but the problem is getting enough money to survive. If I’m upfront about my disability they might not even give me real work or, you know, look down on me for it.
Q: What type of work have you done?
A: I was a union butcher for fifteen years and then I also worked in security.
Q: What are your working conditions? Do you feel safe at your job? Do you earn a comfortable wage? Does your employer allow enough time for food and bathroom breaks?
A: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah everything was legit and it was good work for me. Everything was good, but then the business went under so then I had to re-work myself into the work environment again.
Q: What has your experience been trying to find work?
A: Everything has changed completely Back when I was in school we didn’t have cellphones, you know? The ones we had were as big as shoe boxes, and the only ones who had them were rich people. Everyone has a little cellphone that can do everything now. We didn’t have online applications. Now you do an online application to show your credentials and it’s a whole different situation. But this is the thing that’s also very offensive, they use a computer software to try to weed out people. That’s been very dehumanizing and discriminatory to me, you know? Because you cannot tell until the person is right there whether that person is going to be a hard worker or a decent person and who could be the best possible worker for your company. But they go by what the software dictates is the best and that’s false and very wrong because it excludes a whole group of people who would have ten times the work ethic and would be ten times better for the job. This is where I think there’s a grave injustice because the process is very superficial and discriminatory. When there’s someone who can’t read or write, we have technology to help people like that now; I was raised to value a person’s character, and have strong work ethic, I am a firm believer in working hard, but people like me can’t get past the barriers to apply to the job. Not everybody wants to sit around and live off the government cheese, every good person wants to be productive and be a part of society, but they’d rather force me into welfare instead of help me get to work.
Q: Do you have a political leanings?
A: No, I just wish our government would fight more for people who have learning disabilities like mine, because it’s so overlooked. They look at the situation as just ‘oh you have a problem, so just sit on your ass and we’ll take care of you’, but not everybody wants to live like that. Just give me the tools to work for myself and to be myself. They’re not looking at the bigger picture, the more people who are productive the better the society is going to be, but if you don’t educate them, you don’t feed them, if you leave them out in the cold then they can’t support themselves and it looks like a burden to society. They talk about taking away the medicaid and the food stamps, but they don’t see that’s going to hurt a lot of people who need the help. But they also just expect me to stagnate in the projects or stay at home because I’m ‘disabled’, but we all want to move forward in life. Everybody just wants to move up, progress, and improve their lives, but I can’t do that without the tools to do it. They talk about the interests of rich vs. poor but they don’t talk about my interests, working class interests you know? If they cut the safety nets then we go backward and what we need to do is move forward. There is a saying we had in church where they said ‘if you give a man a fish he eats for a day, but teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime’ because the majority of people want to work and if they want to live in a bad situation they’ll stay in a bad situation, but the rest of us want to work and improve our situation.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to comment on, or do you have anything additional to say?
A: Like I said, they gotta help and assist the people who need the tools to be put in a situation where they can do better in the world. They don’t want to really improve, they want a divide of rich and poor with no united working class, they want to keep people divided so they keep their privilege. I get what they try to do, what they’re trying to do, and what they call it is weeding out the herd, but they hurt and destroy countless lives and families by doing this. By just keeping it rich or poor, when we need to focus on getting everyone together and productive as a whole working class. Do we want it to get better? Or do we want it to get worse? The way I see it, things are gonna get worse. Things are going to get a lot worse until we come together with practical working class ideas to move forward. Not some political backstabbing or ‘you scratch my back I scratch yours’ diplomatic crap or political games; we need real solutions right now. I want to be a productive member of society, I don’t want to be a parasite when I can be useful, of course there are people who really need the help, and god bless those people, but I just want the tools to be a productive member of society. Not everyone will be fortunate enough to do that, but I think we need society to provide a level of help that we could give everybody what they need to make sure they can get where they want to be in life. All those people who got all educated, who act very privileged, with their college degrees, pretend that work is beneath them or look down on people like me because they haven’t walked in my shoes; it doesn’t mean anything unless you do something with it, and that’s where we need to apply that knowledge for some real practical solutions.