The midday sun blazed overhead, reflecting off of every surface. My makeup had melted off hours ago, and my deodorant also waved the white flag. My feet ached and burned on the scorching pavement, a sensation I had yet to grow accustomed to. My cell phone rang in my pocket. I didn’t need to check the caller ID. I felt my whole body tense as I pulled the phone out. I took a deep breath, exhaled, and answered.
“You got any couples yet?” he asked, his voice thick with frustration. My stomach did a flip. I knew he wasn’t going to be happy with the answer.
“No, not yet. It’s dead here.”
“You haven’t got any couples yet. You need to come in earlier and stay longer. No excuses. You want your kids to go hungry?” He wasn’t asking me a question. My head got even hotter, something I wouldn’t have thought possible just five minutes earlier.
“I’ll stay until five, but I have to get home to my kids,” I answered.
“You stay until you get a couple,” he retorted. “If you don’t get a couple by eleven o’clock tonight, you come in at 7:30 tomorrow morning and get a couple then.” He hung up.
Such is the nature of the timeshare industry. My job as an “OPC” or Off Premises Contact, was to lure couples to my kiosk, located in a shopping center in Cancún, Mexico, and convince them to attend a timeshare presentation at the resort I worked for. I didn’t get paid unless the couple qualified and attended the full presentation. Many things could go wrong along the way that could mean a waste of time, and money out of my pocket.
* * *
Here I was counting every peso, when just six months earlier, my worries were much different. Our decision to move to Mexico came on the heels of three years of relentless stress back in the United States. This culminated in a terrifying incident of racial profiling by a police officer against my Mexican husband, and a court case that took nine months to resolve. After the case was settled, it took even longer for the knot that had formed in my stomach to finally begin to unwind. Despite the relief, we felt that the court case was over, there was a lingering fear of reprisal that fed into doubt that the United States was the best place for us to live. I hated the feeling that we were in an environment where my kids would see their daddy treated like a criminal based on the color of his skin.
It was May 2012 when I first mentioned moving to Mexico. My husband was excited by the idea, but we both understood that we had to think realistically. Our five-year-old son and three-year-old daughter spoke very little Spanish, and would need time to adapt to a completely different environment. I knew that my work options would be limited, and it seemed the timeshare industry would give me the highest probability to make a decent living. We finalized our decision, and the rest of 2012 passed in a blur as we saved our money and prepared for our move.
Once we landed in Cancún, I knew our savings wouldn’t last, so I began the job search. It wasn’t long before I met Felipe. I happened to be passing through a mall when he shouted out to me, “Hey lady! You want to go swim with the dolphins?”
Felipe waved at me, his wide smile framed by a broad nose and thick cheeks. He was slightly taller than my five feet, two-inches, but weighed close to three hundred pounds. His hair was flecked with gray, his skin a deep brown from the Caribbean sun. I gauged him to be about 45 years old. His smile seemed sincere. I interrupted him before he was able to continue his pitch.
“Hi, you work in timeshare, right? I’m looking for a job. I’m Rosie.” I extended my hand across the kiosk tabletop to shake his.
He shook my hand. “I’m Felipe. Mucho gusto. Are you living in Cancún or visiting?”
“I’m living here.”
“Oh, fantastic!” He chuckled. “I’m the supervisor here. You speak perfect English! You’re gonna make a lot of money. Other Americans are making three thousand dollars a week. I’m gonna write this address down. Go here and ask for Rafael. He’ll get you started.” I excitedly clasped the scrap of paper, boarded the bus and headed to the company’s office.
After signing employment papers with Rafael and turning in my tourist visa to begin the immigration process, I made arrangements to start my training the next day. Felipe spent a few hours going over the pitch and commissions, then sent me on a bus to a mall down the road. This is where I experienced my first dose of reality about my new job.
I shared the kiosk with Raul, and shadowed him while he pitched to a family by offering them discounts on deep-sea fishing. The father initially rejected Raul’s pitch after he realized it would require going to a timeshare presentation, but Raul deftly countered his rejection with a series of lies about the distance they would have to travel to visit the resort, as well as the time commitment required for the presentation.
I stood in awe at how easily Raul was able to lie. One of the first things I learned on my first day was that the hotel was not twenty minutes away. It was nearly an hour away. The presentation was not 45 minutes. It was at least ninety. I didn’t get any couples that day, or the next week, or month. I hated lying, and as a consequence, over the next six months I learned that I sucked as an OPC.
Four months later, a newlywed couple from my hometown spent over an hour talking to me one quiet weekday afternoon. I knew that if any couple would be willing to go to the presentation, they would. I told them about my hotel, and offered them free tickets to a park that they were hoping to visit. Once they learned that the hotel was nearly an hour away, they apologized profusely and backed out. The reality is that vacationers don’t want to travel an hour to go to a timeshare presentation.
Most couples didn’t want to spend a day of their vacation at a sales pitch. The only way to get them to attend was to bribe them with gifts, usually tours or tickets. Every gift I offered was taken out of my commission, so I had to be careful. My commission was based on a convoluted structure that rewarded booking white couples over black couples. People who held American Express cards resulted in the highest commission, and people with Capital One cards didn’t qualify. Every workday was a draining test of will in which I had to set aside my principles in an attempt to make money.
Felipe began calling me incessantly and demanding that I work more hours. I cried at the thought of spending even less time with my kids. I was broke. Months had gone by and my husband still hadn’t found a job. I was already gone for more than twelve hours per day without a penny to show for it. Felipe didn’t understand. As with most of my fellow OPCs, Felipe was a former United States resident who was fluent in English but had committed a crime serious enough for deportation. My coworkers’ crimes ranged from money laundering to drug dealing to more violent crimes and involvement in gangs.
My anxiety had me on the verge of a panic attack. It had been weeks since I had a day off. On the day I was scheduled to have off, Felipe called me to ask where I was. He angrily demanded that I get to work right away, and chastised me for having the audacity to take a day off. I hadn’t gotten a couple yet, he argued, and therefore I hadn’t earned my day off.
The thought of going back to the United States crossed my mind, but it wasn’t as easy as jumping on a plane. The company took my tourist visa so that they could process my immigration paperwork. It should have been easy. I was married to a Mexican. My children were Mexican by virtue of their father. I thoroughly researched all of the documents I needed, and I had copies of every one. Despite having original documents and complete, certified translations, the immigration office in Cancún inexplicably demanded more. We had reached a stalemate. The company’s immigration lawyer was demanding a bribe to pay off officials. I simply didn’t have the $1,200 that they wanted.
* * *
I had been working as an OPC for five months. Four hours into my shift one afternoon, Felipe called my cell phone. I cringed as I answered, anticipating the line of questioning to come.
Felipe told me that he had food for me. Of course I was excited. I was hungry. After my shift finished, I met Felipe at his kiosk. I cut off his questions by feigning excitement about nearly getting a couple. He didn’t ask any questions, but handed me a container of mystery food that I took to a nearby convenience store to heat up. Once I got back to Felipe’s kiosk, I took a bite of what turned out to be pure gristle. I chewed until I gagged, and spit the gristle into a napkin.
“I’m not very hungry,” I told him. Lie.
“What, you don’t like it? My wife made it. She’s a wonderful cook,” his voice started to rise.
“No, it’s really good. I’m just not feeling well. I think it’s from being out in the sun.” My excuse seemed to appease him.
“You better get used to it. I’m going home now. You stay here until the mall closes at eleven. Get a couple.” With that, Felipe disappeared into the nearby elevator leading down to the parking garage.
I had fitful dreams that night, and I awoke with the pre-dawn light illuminating our bare bedroom. I could feel panic settle in my chest. Rent was due in a few days, I barely had enough change to get the bus to work, and my kids were going hungry. This job would kill me. If my family didn’t starve to death first, I would most certainly have a heart attack. As I lay in my hammock, I watched the ceiling fan slowly whirl in the early morning light. I thought of my kids and I was overcome with emotion. My son tried to learn Spanish, but mostly got teased by other kids. He was starting to show signs of depression. My daughter, a feisty three-year-old, was independent and happy-go-lucky. I imagined what her life would be like. My greatest fear was that she wouldn’t thrive in an environment that was filled with stress, and it would crush her spirit. I knew what I had to do.
After breakfast, my husband left on yet another day of job hunting. I sat at our plastic kitchen table, collecting my thoughts and carefully planning what I would say while I stared at the phone in front of me. Suddenly, I snatched the phone up and sent my mom a text message asking her to call me. I stood up and began pacing in the tiny kitchen, my bare feet cold on the tile floor. The phone rang after a few minutes, and I hastily answered before the first ring finished.
Hearing my mom’s voice on the other line was the soothing balm that my anxious mind needed. I poured my heart out as she listened patiently. Once I had finished telling her what we had been through, copious tears accompanying my sobs, she sat in silence. I waited. She sighed, paused for another moment, and finally said she would help us get back to the United States.
We booked our flights, and took the insane chance that we could get out of the country without my tourist visa by telling the truth. My passport stamp showed that I had been in the country for nearly a year, meaning my visa had expired almost five months earlier. I expected to pay the $32 per day penalty for overstaying my visa. We explained the problem with the company lawyers keeping my original tourist visa. Without any further questions, they waived the fine, wrote me out a new tourist visa, and sent me on my way to check in for my flight. I could feel the relief rising from the pit of my stomach.
As I stood in the check-in line at the Cancún airport, I took in the sights and sounds around me: The tanned tourists in their sombreros, fancy luggage in tow, looking relaxed and happy. I turned to my kids, both with smiles on their faces, and I smiled back. I’m sure that more than one of these tourists passed by my kiosk in the mall, heard me call out to them, but kept walking. It would have made me bitter and sad at the time, but now I was happy for them.