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Invisible man 

A Hispanic immigrant chases the American dream -- and falls

Page 3 of 6

But while their contributions and culture are visible almost everywhere, Hispanics' influence is highly limited. From under-representation in state and local government to the inability to open a bank account to the proposed illegality of obtaining a driver's license, the Hispanic condition is eerily similar to that of African-Americans almost 50 years ago, says Adelina Nichols, a Mexican immigrant and president of the Coordinator of Community Leaders in Atlanta.

As a result, Hispanics have ghettoized in an attempt to replicate their culture in the shadow of a much less welcoming one.

"We're forced to be invisible," Nichols says. "When we're excluded from the system and ignored, except when people want our work, we have no other choice."

The town square kiosks of San Pedro quickly disappeared as dust shot up behind Pablo's truck. Three hours later, in Toluca, he and Birai boarded a bus. After a day-and-a-half, the bus passed through the last Mexican town of Piedras Negras and approached the U.S. border at Eagle's Pass. The way Birai recalls it, a U.S. Customs patrolman stepped on the bus, asked if everyone was a U.S. citizen, and waved the bus through -- a rare occurrence for the typically vigilant Border Patrol. The couple continued on past the tumbleweeds and cacti for another eight hours before reaching the country diners and trailer parks of Paris, Texas.

Like he did in the past, Pablo took a job landscaping with a company that covered his room and board and paid him $300 a week. But Pablo's brothers, who lived in Georgia, kept bragging about raking in $1,000 in 10 days' time. Wooed by their success, Pablo and Birai left Texas a month later for Stockbridge, about 20 miles south of Atlanta. Pablo's eldest brother, Roman, worked as a cook at Folk's and got Pablo a job as a dishwasher.

Pablo soon learned, however, that Roman had sugarcoated his success, failing to point out that he had to work two jobs to bring in that kind of pay. After three months, Pablo quit.

While looking for work, one of Pablo's friends introduced him to a man named Clyde Sawyer, who owned a construction company called Metal Building Erectors. Sawyer offered Pablo $9 an hour, a decent raise from the minimum wage he earned at Folk's.

Finally secure in his job, Pablo began to help his young wife acclimate to American culture. He'd often urge her to try harder to memorize certain English words -- "hello," "fine," "goodbye" -- just as his brothers had memorized "eggs" and "chicken" to understand the meal tickets at Folk's.

By the beginning of 2001, the couple began to feel settled. In the evenings, after a stroll around the neighborhood, Birai would prepare Pablo's lunch for the next day. As she wrapped tortillas and beans in foil, Pablo often would sing "El Culumpio," a song by his favorite singer, Trini. Sometimes, when Pablo's brother, Miguel, would join in, Pablo would yell, "Miguel, shut up, man, you can't sing for shit." They'd laugh and tip back their beers.

Other times, when Pablo was alone with Birai, he'd softly serenade her, singing Enrique Iglesias' "Nunca tel olvidare" ("I'll Never Forget You"). The confident, at times cocky attitude he assumed in certain company would disappear as he would sing, "I could die tomorrow, my soul could dry up, but I'll never forget you, but I'll never forget you."

On a July morning in 2004, Pablo, Birai and their two daughters lugged their clothes, pots, pans, children's books, dolls and sheets up the wooden steps of a gray trailer trimmed in blue. For the past two years, ever since Denise was born, they'd been living with Pablo's brother in a trailer park off a rugged road flanked by piles of dirt. But the three-bedroom mobile home wasn't offering enough space for the four members (soon to be five) of Pablo's family. After all, they shared the trailer with six other relatives. The trailer next door, where Roman, his wife and their one child lived, offered more space to the growing family.

That night, Pablo and Birai went shopping at Wal-Mart and returned with a new comforter, blankets for the girls, and a set of plastic blinds. Birai quickly fried Pablo's eggs and green salsa for the next day while Pablo set up the bed frame and pulled the sheets and comforter over the mattress. It was 10 p.m. when Pablo came into the kitchen and whispered, "Mira werita, I put the guachitas to sleep. I tucked them in really well."

His steady tone soothed Birai. The past few weeks of living in cramped quarters, and now the move, had exhausted the couple. Perhaps the stress was the reason Pablo had begun speaking strangely to family and friends -- and why he had started to pray. He told his younger brother, Miguel, to return to Mexico, because there was too much trouble with police in America. "Go home, where it's safe," he said. Around the same time, he told his friend Adan, "You never know when death might come."

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