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Invisible man

A Hispanic immigrant chases the American dream -- and falls



Editor's note: Some last names have been withheld to protect sources from retribution based on their status as illegal immigrants.

Pablo threw back the comforter and slipped out of bed. Pale light spilled through the bare bedroom window as he pulled his lean arms through a T-shirt, buttoned his jeans, and laced up his work boots. Leaving the room, he was careful not to wake his two little girls, huddled under the covers in their crib.

Pablo's wife, Birai, felt the mattress shift and rolled out of bed a moment later. She padded into the kitchen, her belly five months swollen into her third pregnancy. She packed her husband a lunch of fried eggs and green salsa. He grabbed the Tupperware and, from the bag that held his dirty work clothes, an off-white baseball cap stitched with the word "honor." He softly kissed Birai. "Goodbye, you old lady," he said.

Pablo trudged a quarter-mile through the mist to the meeting spot on Ga. 138. Since the night before, when it started drizzling, he figured that today's job would be tough. He hated working after it rained. The ground was damp, the machinery cold and slippery.

The boss's assistant pulled up, and Pablo crawled into the back of the pick-up truck with three other men, all of whom had been working beside Pablo for the past four days. The truck eased through Atlanta traffic in its hour-long trip from Stockbridge to Alpharetta.

Pablo wasn't his usual self. Typically, he entertained the other men by singing an upbeat corridos describing barroom brawls or brassy women. His trilling tenor energized the sleepy-eyed workers. But not today. Even after his friend Adan asked for a song, Pablo remained silent.

The truck turned off Ga. 400 and passed rows of strip malls before the road narrowed to a single lane. Drops of dew glistened on wooden fences and horses flipped their tails as they grazed in overgrown fields. The truck stopped in a gravel driveway near a butter-colored mansion. Pablo hopped out and made his way toward the north end of what would soon be a horse rink, its looming metal frame filling the sky.

Birai stood on her tiptoes, aligning screws to hang a set of blinds above the window. The night before, she'd asked Pablo to install them, in the bedroom of the trailer they'd moved into that day. He'd prodded her to try it herself first. Now, with 3-year-old Leslie and 2-year-old Denise plopped on the couch watching cartoons, Birai grabbed a screwdriver and went to work. Her calves wobbled as she twisted the screw into the wall. It took her about an hour, and the work wasn't perfect -- the screws were a bit loose, the valance somewhat crooked -- but it was her work.

Pablo will be proud, she thought. She'd grown up a lot since they first met five years earlier, when she was a 16-year-old schoolgirl watching him through the window of a San Pedro, Mexico, tortilla shop.

As she fiddled with the shade's cord, she glanced through the window to see Lorraina and Sanjuana, the wives of two of Pablo's brothers, walking toward the trailer. Their pace was labored as they passed the boxwoods and stepped onto the pebbled path. One of them carried a cord-less phone. Birai smiled at them. They didn't smile back.

The two women's flip-flops gently slapped the trailer's wooden steps. Without a word, they shuffled into Birai's room, collapsed into her bed and started to sob.

Birai remembers liking his confident, wide-legged strut, and her stomach had fluttered as he passed the tortilla shop. But he didn't even glance inside, failing to notice her long dark hair, gray-green eyes, and lean legs extending beyond her pleated school uniform.

She knew him as Pablo, a 21-year-old handyman with a firm gaze and a pointy nose. He harvested crops and occasionally worked at a hotel in Toluca, a three-hour drive from San Pedro. The two jobs brought in a meager but steady income for his mother, three brothers and three sisters, whom Pablo had been caring for since his father died when he was 11.

Birai watched Pablo's slim, muscular frame through the shop window until he disappeared down the road.

Two weeks later, Pablo spotted her outside Papeleria Nancy, a school supply shop that she began frequenting after learning that Pablo hung out there. He was struck by her shy eyes and petite curves. Birai had her little brother in tow, her hands smeared with mushy baby food. She quickly wiped her palms on her skirt as Pablo stuck out his hand for her to shake. He walked with her for 10 minutes, making small talk. She stopped.

"You better go back," Birai said. "From here, my mother can see us."

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