The storied automotive industry is inextricably tied to the American Dream—and, as Donald Trump and the media constantly remind us, full of older white workers losing their footing in a changing country. Jerry Villagrana, an automotive engineer based in Detroit who is about to be stationed in Mexico, smashes that stereotype. He’s a 33-year-old Mexican American from El Paso, Texas, who was the first in his family to graduate college. He started working at General Motors in 2008, just as the Great Recession was bringing the auto industry to its knees. Here’s how he got there.
My parents both grew up in Juarez, Mexico. They met in Oklahoma and then moved to Kansas because there was a lot of work there in the meat processing industry. We had a nice little house in an area where there were a lot of Hispanics. I was a tiny kid who didn’t know a word of English. There weren’t any bilingual schools at the time, so it forced me to get thrown right into the fire and learn the language.
Eventually, because all the grain in Kansas affected my sister’s allergies, we moved to El Paso to be near the rest of my family. With just our savings we bought an acre of land out in the desert, in the far east part of the city in a very poor community. We had to have a bulldozer flatten out the land for us. We lived out of this 1950s trailer that you might have seen in I Love Lucy, and it didn’t have running water. We had electricity but it was in the form of an extension cord running out of the back of my uncle’s house.
My dad went from having a good job with benefits in Kansas to being just another immigrant construction worker in El Paso. In Kansas he made $10.50 an hour with medical benefits. Here it was $5.25—minimum wage, no medical benefits to be found. We’d have to go to the doctor in Juarez. I remember one time he broke his foot at work, so he had to wait until my mom came home and we drove to Juarez and they treated him there across the border. From 5th grade to 10th grade we lived in that trailer. Little by little, my dad used his skills from being a construction worker and he built a house on this land.
I remember knowing we didn’t have much money. In 5th grade I was talking to a friend whose dad was a professional. And I remember he said he earned $25 an hour, and my mind was blown that somebody earned that much money. At the time I thought I wanted to be a truck driver. That’s the best job of anybody I knew and that person was my uncle. That was as far as my aspirations went.
But then in 7th grade, one teacher noticed I was good at math and science and put me in a STEM magnet program. Suddenly I was surrounded by all these gifted and talented students. The teachers starting telling us that they were training us to be doctors and engineers, and I figured if I did all the right stuff, I could follow that same path, too. But in my family I was more likely to go to prison than college. A lot of my cousins and uncles were involved in some bad business—nothing violent, but we lived on the border, so you can imagine.
So I figured I had these two options—doctor or engineer—and the idea that clicked the most was to be an automotive engineer. My dad had been a mechanic before he left for the U.S. from Mexico, so he was always working on cars. And I remember helping him, even if it was just changing a tire or messing with the carburetor, and his love of cars rubbed off on me. When it came to choosing what I’m going to do, I said, literally in 7th grade, “I want to work on cars.”
Eventually I made it to university, in El Paso at University of Texas-El Paso. I lived at home with my parents and my sister. It kept my bills low. I was the first one in my family to graduate from or even go to college—getting in debt because of loans wasn’t something that we did. That was scary. I wanted to spend as little as I could. I got financial aid and I took the minimum amount of classes to keep my aid. I didn’t want to take too many classes; I was worried I might fail.
My second summer in college, sophomore year in 2004, I went to a career fair and I saw General Motors and Ford, and I was very eager and excited—“This is it,” I thought. It’s funny ‘cause up here in Detroit, a lot of people figured they would always work in the automotive industry. Their dad did and their uncle did and everybody did. But to me it was like this dream come true.
I got the internship in ‘05, and came back for ‘06 and ‘07. A lot of interns did that. Before the bankruptcy stuff, GM really was trying to get younger talent and diverse talent, so we were really welcomed. They took care of housing for us, we had salaries. A lot of the guys from UT-EP would come to GM even if they planned to later go into aerospace, because they knew they would be treated well. There were all kinds of plant tours and tours of the facility.
Then I got hired in 2008, right when everything was changing. I remember hearing rumblings of, “Why are we hiring people if there’s this impending doom?” It was a really scary time. Luckily, in my group, they didn’t do layoffs by seniority, so I got to stay. But that wasn’t the case for a lot of people. I lost a lot of friends who had been hired before the financial crisis. There had been a lot of hiring freezes throughout the ‘90s, so there weren’t a lot of young people at GM to begin with. [Editor’s note: Today, more than 40% of GM’s workforce is still over 50 years old.] That earlier push for diversity also kinda got thwarted by these black Tuesdays where groups would cut 20% of their workforce.
It was difficult to be the new guy in a place where people with a lot of experience were being let go, and the people I’d come up with were being let go. I had this double survivor’s guilt. It was weird fulfilling my dream right at that moment. Everything I’d wanted since 7th grade was supposed to be crumbling down.
Even the home I bought for my wife and kids was a foreclosure. I had been saving and was all ready to buy a house, in the midst of everybody losing their homes. It was hard to share sometimes. You’re not gonna say to your coworker, “Hey, looking to buy a house!” ‘Cause they might be like “Oh really? My brother just lost his house and can’t find a job.” It was a really hard time to be moving up here.
And then on the Texas side, you go to university, you graduate, and then of course you leave. It was kinda hard not to lose touch with a lot of the people I grew up with who were not able to accomplish those things, because there’s not really a safety net for them. I used to go back twice a year, but now it’s just easier to fly my folks out. So I end up not going back all that often.
Nowadays I work in manufacturing, with prototype vehicles. We start building cars that are going to come out one or two years in the future, and start troubleshooting for damage and quality. Three-quarters of my time I spend in the factories. Sometimes I go to Mexico, which is where I’m moving next month. Whenever I see a Latino worker, they say an enthusiastic “Hey!” to me and speak in Spanish. There aren’t all that many of them, although we’re getting more. [Editor’s note: Only 5% of GM’s workforce is Latino.]
At that time in 2008 there were a lot of people who just expected this industry to die. It turns out it didn’t; the country needs it. That said, the time when high school graduates could get a job in the manufacturing plant and make $30 or $40 an hour—that’s never going to happen again. I remember during the campaign, and still now, Trump would say how he’s going to bring that back, but it’s just not possible because there are people in Mexico and China who are gonna do the same work for much, much, much less money. It’s like he’s speaking in a fantasy world.
This feature is part of Splinter’s project to recruit local, embedded reporters, essayists, and photographers across the country. Read more here.