The American Nightmare

Erin Thompson May 12, 2006

Six years ago, while working for $5.75 an hour at an automobile parts manufacturer in Brooklyn, “Bernardin Gonzalez” collapsed and had to be taken to the hospital on a stretcher. Due to the extensive damage done to his kidneys, Gonzalez, an immigrant from Mexico, now has to undergo dialysis three times a week.

Gonzalez had been exposed to paints, thinners and chemical residues while working in the Superflex factory which had no ventilation and no regard for safety standards. “I was working with chemicals with no protection,” said Gonzalez, speaking through a translator. “There was no lunch time, no time to go to the bathroom, we ate with dirty hands because there was no time to clean up,” he said. Gonzalez spent three months in the hospital, and was eventually fired from the plant, for having health problems. “When I came out of the hospital, even my few belongings they had thrown out of the house, it was really terrible,” he said.

Gonzalez said he felt “completely defrauded” by what has happened to him. He can only perform light labor and in order to cover the $2,000-a-month cost of treatment, Gonzalez has to apply for temporary Medicaid every two months. “There were times when I used to have to walk all the way to Coney Island for dialysis because I didn’t have a subway token,” he said. Once, he said, he walked for two or three hours and he passed out, ending up back in the hospital. “It’s been hard, there’s been many a day when I just bought an Italian bread and just had that and a glass of water all day.”

After six years, Gonzalez is “still waiting for justice” and for the $62,000 in worker’s compensation he won in December 2004 after suing Superflex. He is still waiting for a trial date on his second suit for damages. Gonzalez credits Make the Road with helping him “in all aspects” – giving him financial support and finding him a good lawyer to fight his case, and is a member of the group’s Workplace Justice Project.

“This type of struggle I feel it’s my duty to help,” said Gonzalez of his participation in Make the Road. “I had a bad experience that I don’t want anyone else to go though it.” While Gonzalez’s experience might not be typical of all immigrants, it speaks volumes about the divide between the belief many immigrants have about America before they arrive, and the reality. “Most of the people that I know whether it’s because they don’t have papers, don’t speak English or they’re sick, none of them are prospering like we thought,” said Gonzalez. “When I left my country, like everybody, I believed in the American dream,” he said. “Here I came to know that it’s not the American dream, it’s the nightmare.”

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