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Chasing the American Dream

By Michelle Mattich

You never get used to cow’s blood or being covered head-to-toe in it. My father assured me it was nothing and that my summer job, slicing specialty cuts of meat, was bearable. I took his word for it and reminded myself that I was “living the dream.”

This dream, however, didn’t look or feel like I imagined it. 

Cow’s blood smells. The metallic odor was so bad that I couldn't bring myself to eat any meat. Sometimes the blood splattered and stung my eyes or it was simply on my face. I counted the minutes and the seconds until my shift ended. I prayed that I’d make it home alive without losing a limb. Fellow employees joked about that but I took it seriously. 

This job might sound grueling and disgusting but like most people who live in Liberal, the meat packing plant, National Beef, is the main place of opportunity for my family. It can be said that the majority of the 20,000 or so people in town works at or has stepped foot into this plant at some point. Meat packing plants are part of southwest Kansas’ DNA.

Hispanics flooded this part of southwest Kansas over the past 30 years to work in the “Beef Triangle” – Liberal, Garden City and Dodge City. They joined the Vietnamese in the heavy, hard labor of slaughtering and butchering livestock from the surrounding ranches and feedlots. Immigrants from several African countries joined the mix.

Plant workers make a living with a better-than-minimum wage yet very difficult job. An estimated 3,000 cows are butchered per eight-hour shift. My father has done this work of slicing, grinding, hauling and inspecting for 11 years. He keeps going back for one reason: to fulfill his dream of providing a better life for his family.

Chasing the Dream

Growing up in Mexico was a hard life for both of my parents. My father only has a second grade education. He ran away with the circus to escape my grandmother’s harsh abuse. He fended for himself. He spent most of his childhood without a pair of shoes. 

My mother worked from the age of six to buy her own school supplies. She dropped out in sixth grade to work full time and help her family. 

My parents wanted better for their children. They made sure we always had clothes on our backs, shoes on our feet and food to eat. But most importantly, we attended school. 

“School is your only job and I want both of you to excel at it,” my mother said to us and continues to say to this day. 

To them, education was the “American dream.” 

Chasing this dream wasn’t an easy task but rather a long chain of risks. The first step was making it into the United States. My parents crossed the border together and were overwhelmed with what was laid out in front of them. 

“When we first arrived in the U.S, we slept in a small van we brought from Mexico,” my mother recounted. “I left your older brother with your grandma so he wouldn't have to suffer along with us.”

They had no money and went three days without food. One day, my mother saw a woman selling quesadillas on the street and offered to help in exchange for food. She agreed and even let them stay in her back room on a spare mattress. 

“We suffered a lot those first months, then we began to follow the produce seasons. Whether it was onions, tomatoes, limes, or potatoes, we went where there was work,” my mother said with a shrug, downplaying it.

Making Dreams Reality

Once my younger brother and I were born, my parents decided things needed to change. Instead of transient work or driving a truck, they wanted us to be together and have a solid foundation. They wanted their children to get the education they never had. The “American dream” was alive for them, now more than ever. 

Attaining the next step of this dream meant we moved from Chaparral, New Mexico to Liberal. My father found a job at National Beef.

When we arrived in Liberal, nothing came easy. We didn't have a house. So my parents rented a moldy, cockroach-infested trailer for a night. We didn't bring furniture so we slept on the floor. 

We eventually moved into a small, two-bedroom home. We went through financial struggles and even lost our truck. My mother found odd jobs like housekeeping and harvesting potatoes. We didn't have money for groceries except red chili and a turkey that was given to my father at work. We ate turkey and red chili sauce for weeks. Let’s just say we ate it for so many meals in a row that I don't eat turkey anymore. 

We endured it all in hopes of living a better life. My parents did everything they could to make sure their children stayed in school.

Understanding the Dream

After two months of cow blood and cutting specialty meats, I understand their dream and sacrifices to get it now more than ever. I learned a lot about people who do whatever it takes to provide for their families. 

This whole summer at National Beef I couldn’t help but ask, “Who puts up with these types of jobs?” The answer is people like my father — people who want to give their children the opportunity to grow up differently than they did. 

The workers at National Beef are some of the most hardworking people that exist out there, and that includes my father. I worked there in order to save money for college. But for many of my coworkers, it’s survival. They follow in the footsteps of my parents, putting feet and action to their dreams. 

"...attaining dreams doesn't mean there’s a perfect happy ending."

My parents are proof to never stop working toward a dream. My brother and I graduated high school and are pursuing higher education and training to prepare for our chosen career paths.

It would be nice if the story ended there but attaining dreams doesn't mean there’s a perfect happy ending. After years of hard work, my father has arthritis from the workload. He’s aged faster and is constantly in pain. My mother still takes odd jobs for as little as $15 cleaning kitchens. She suffers from tendonitis in her left shoulder from a restaurant accident where she worked as a dishwasher. 

Despite these ailments, the chase for something better for their children continues. It is up to my brother and I to make this next phase of the dream a reality. I know it’s possible because I’ve been living the dream my whole life.

About Michelle Mattich

Michelle Mattich is an ambitious college student who plans on pursuing on writing the truth. In her spare time she catches up on Law & Order: SVU and looks after her dog and three cats. 



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