My Father’s Hands

~ for the full essay pick up your copy of Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class

My father is a tall, thin man with an almost bald head. He’s in his sixties and has a small beer belly beneath his white cotton Hanes T-shirt. His hands are never empty. There is always a cigar, cigarette, or beer can. He’s handsome and he’s an alcoholic.

Years before the Cuban revolution, my father, then a teenager, saw a soldier in the hills where he and his family picked coffee beans, cut sugar cane, and raised pigs. He liked the soldier’s matching jacket and pants, the uniform’s sense of purpose. My father didn’t want to be a farmer. He wanted something more. He wanted to be on the side that won.

Some years later, he got the uniform and fought against Fidel Castro. Unfortunately he only talks about it now when he’s drunk, slurring the words and his history into a number of possibilities. But this much is true, he says: It isn’t easy to switch sides in a war. So he left the island along with the United States embassy and came to New Jersey, where he cut hair, opened a bakery, painted houses, closed the bakery, and cut wood. By the early 1970s, he had settled into factory work and married my Colombian mother.

He returned to visit Cuba once before NAFTA and told his cousins how good work was in the north. His job was to stay up through the night with a textile machine. He’d replace needles that broke and alert the bosses to any problems. It was he and the night and the deafening sound of the machines. He didn’t need more than a few English phrases. On weekends he made extra money helping with plumbing, electricity, those multitude of jobs where a man is always useful.

Then in the nineties, factories began closing. My father’s work hours were cut from twelve a day to eight and then six. I began finding him home at all hours of the day and night and after awhile I stopped asking what had happened because all he said was, “Se termino el trabajo, the work ended.”

When he wasn’t on the clock, my father drank. His hands would point at me and remind me to study hard because, “You don’t want to end up at a factory like your mother and me.” Even before I went to college and understood words like manual labor, working class and alcoholism, I knew how they felt: like my father’s hands.

Parts of my father’s hands are dead. The skin has protected itself by hardening, turning his large hands into a terrain of calluses and scars, the deep lines scattered on his palms like dirt roads that never intersect. His hands are about power and survival, my first lessons about class.