The Life of a Digger

Henry from the island of Jamaica

Jamaican digging crews have to sleep
eighty men to a room, in huge warehouses
like the ones where big wooden crates
of dynamite are stored.

My hands feel like scorpion claws,
clamped on to a hard hard shovel all day,
then curled into fists at night.

At dawn, the steaming labor trains
deliver us by the thousands, down into
that snake pit where we dig
until my muscles feel
as weak as water
and my backbone
is like shattered glass.

But only half the day
is over.

At lunchtime, we see sunburned
American engineers and foremen
eating at tables, in shady tents
with the flaps left open,
so that we have to watch
how they sit on nice chairs,
looking restful.

We also watch the medium-dark
Spanish men, relaxing as they sit
on their train tracks, grinning
as if they know secrets.

We have no place to sit. Not even
a stool. So we stand, plates in hand,
and undignified.

Back home, I used to dream of saving
enough Panama money
to buy a bit of good farmland
for Momma and my little brothers
and sisters, so that we would all
have plenty to eat.

Now all I want is a chair.
And food with some spice.
And fair treatment.

Margarita Engle, "The Life of a Digger (Henry from the island of Jamaica)]" from Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal.  Copyright © 2014 by Margarita Engle.  Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Source: Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014)
More Poems by Margarita Engle