When I started my business I had all white boys working for me. Labor for the tool-making trades has historically been supplied by European immigrants and their offspring. My ancestors were Italian, German, and English and my grandfather was a toolmaker who came through Ellis Island with his family as a young boy from Italy. Of five children and seventeen grandchildren, his eldest grandson would be his only descendant to take up the trade which made his living.
When I was eighteen, a coworker and I constructed a mold for a part which held chemicals and hung inside a toilet bowl. The part was complicated for the time (before EDM machines and CNC machines were available to the trade). When I showed the part to my grandfather, he was proud.
If you learn this trade well Jimmy, you will never have to worry about work for the rest of your life , he warmly quipped.
He could not possibly have anticipated the cultural change which awaited our industry. In his day tradesmen were well respected in the community and they received a top wage. Today the big corporations send as much of this work overseas as possible. A large sector of the industry has been severely depressed and those who haven’t closed up shop have made radical adjustments to stay in business.
Some have bolstered their precision in tool manufacturing to fight for that small segment at the top of the market. This requires huge capital outlays for very expensive equipment, and in my opinion, very little financial reward, keeping these businesses on a precarious edge.
I have adjusted by completely changing the character and focus of my business. In essence, I have started a brand new business processing instead of tool building. With that change the demographic of my labor has completely changed.
In the old days (with all my white boys) I was the Boss , and the boss was some guy out to screw everybody. There was a constant tension between employer and employee and many of my workers could not empathize with the pressures I faced trying to insure the company’s profitability (although many have called to express their regret for being such a pain in my ass now that they have moved on to management jobs where they are responsible for profits).
Today, I am not the boss I am the Jefe , and the Jefe is a much different guy than the boss is. In the Mexican culture, the Jefe is a benevolent father figure to be respected. It is a completely different dynamic and the respect is well received, however it comes with different responsibilities.
Mexican culture has a strong Catholic base, it is also much more family-oriented than our fractured American culture has become. Mexicans love to party with family and when you’re the Jefe, you’re part of the family (if you truly aspire to the job).
To be successful in business, management must have intimate empathy for labor and in nearly fifteen years I have had only one workman’s comp claim which I managed to have removed by paying all the medical bills myself. Meanwhile, many of my colleagues have had their profits decimated by workman’s comp premiums.
My willingness to embrace this culture with reverence and humility has made me the only white guy at parties with more than a hundred people on more than one occasion.
I don’t mind, but if you ever find yourself in this situation I have a few words of advice. The lengua is tongue and tastes just fine. Chorizo isn’t bad either, but I’m not sure what’s in it; it may not be Kosher. A shot at your favorite bar is an ounce, but at a Mexican party it’s two, and if you’re the only white guy at the party, you’re not getting away without doing a few. Try and stop at three, however, because six ounces of Mexico’s finest chasing down after the six Corona’s you already had with dinner will leave you three sheets to the wind Montezuma style!
Copyright 2007 Jim Pontillo