Looking for a Home
A half-million immigrants came into the US across the Mexican border this year in search of work. Some will stay. And one way or another, they will become Americans.
Thursday, December 8, 2005
Drive along any rural road or highway most months of the year and you’ll make them out just below the horizon: a raft of bobbing heads floating behind a tractor. Or carrying heavy boxes of vegetables they’ve just picked. Get closer. Their backs are bent. Their skin is brown. Even closer. They are men and women. Some young, some in their 50s. They’re not talking, just working. Sweating. Staring down.
Now you’re near enough to see their eyes. Her eyes. Her name is Carmen Angel. She speaks Spanish, but with an accent reminiscent of indigenous Mexican communities that have only recently taken up the national language.
She’s shy at first, but curious at your presence. She smiles when you start taking her picture. She takes her cap off and stands in the truck’s shade. She answers questions freely. “I’m from Mexico’s Federal District,” she replies. “I’m 35 and I have three children, ages 10, 13 and 15. They’re in Mexico with my husband now.”
Angel looks young for having three children. She’s short, about 5 feet tall, and her hair is dark. She has silver fillings in her front teeth, a popular fashion in some Mexican towns.
“I like it here,” she says. “Everything about it. I like the work. It’s no problem for me.”
She says she worked as a cafeteria cook in Mexico. But she wanted to get ahead and make more money so all three of her children could attend private schools. One day she found the courage to tell her husband that she wanted to migrate to the US.
“He didn’t like the idea at first,” she says, smiling. “But I convinced him.
“I make $7.25 an hour now. I live in Soledad, but I’m going to go back to Mexico soon. Life is more tranquil over there. People are more sociable.”
She says finding a job without a work visa is easy in the fields. All you need is a reference from a fellow worker. She’s heard rumors that there’s not enough farm laborers in some fields. And she’s seen on the Spanish-language television news how some Americans don’t want Mexican workers in the country.
“It’s really tough work, laboring under the sun all day,” she responds. “What do they gain by attacking us when they need us?”
Angel can’t take a long break. She returns to the napa cabbage field. Her calloused hands pull her yellow scarf over her mouth and she starts picking the napa heads off the ground and putting them in boxes.
Carmen Angel is one of about 10 million undocumented immigrants in the US, four million of whom are women. Only 15 percent are farmworkers. Half never completed high school. Many, like Angel, return to their native lands to live. But millions of them will stay. For those who stay, the vast majority of their American-born children are bilingual. Most of their children’s children will speak only English.
At what point do we call these people Americans? Are illegal immigrants—as Samuel Huntington argues in his book Who Are We?—contaminating the greatness of our nation’s traditional culture, and therefore imperiling America’s future? Or do some of them—especially the ones who stay—contribute something critical to our country?
~ ~ ~
Manuel Juarez can’t remember how he got across the border. He was only 5 years old at the time.
Now he’s a fit 22 year old. His voice is quiet, steady, emotionless.
On a bright, warm weekday morning, Juarez walks out the front door of an almost-new, three-bedroom house in North Salinas, off Boronda Street.
He’s dressed in baggy pants completely splattered by paint. He’s wearing a beanie pulled low, but not low enough to conceal two earrings. Two scars line the right side of his face.
Behind him, seven co-workers converge on the beige two-story home armed with brushes, rollers and paint compressors. Only their voices and the slow click-pump of the compressors break the suburban silence that envelops the street.
Juarez is taking a break. His boss, whom the paint crew calls El Guero—an endearing way of saying “whitey”—lent him permission to be interviewed on company time. Juarez seems relaxed and open to talking from the get-go. So I get to the point as soon as we find a shady spot to talk.
“Do you have papers?”
He shakes his head.
Juarez isn’t your typical undocumented immigrant. He speaks English without an accent. He dresses like any hip young Californian. He’s spent 16 of his 22 years on this side of the US-Mexico border.
But he has no green card. And that’s becoming a huge pain in the ass for him at an age when many young men his age see a myriad of opportunities bloom before their eyes.
Three times Juarez’s had his car confiscated by the police because, under state law, undocumented immigrants can’t apply for a driver’s license. Those ordeals cost him $1,500 each time. Now he’s driving a 1990 Chevy truck.
“How else am I supposed to get to work if I don’t drive?” he asks rhetorically. “I mean, it’s scary, ‘cause you don’t know if you’re going to go to jail, or what they’re going to do just because you don’t have a license.”
Juarez dropped out of Salinas High School in the 11th grade. “I regret that now,” he admits as he turns his head to check progress on the house. “But I didn’t drop out for the fun of it, but because I had to.”
Juarez says his mother wasn’t making enough money to support him and his two siblings, so he left school and joined her at a lettuce-packing plant in Salinas when he was 17. His mother, 39, is undocumented like her son, and still works at the same place. He says his father was essentially booted out of his house five years ago by his mother because he drank too much.
Juarez muses about returning to school someday. But he says he doesn’t have time now that he’s working.
“I like my job,” he says. “I like the feeling of satisfaction when we do a good job on a house.”
During his off hours, Juarez is with his girlfriend, a Monterey-born Mexican American. Every once in a while they visit the Mexican dance clubs in Salinas. But even that can turn into an embarassment because of his status.
“Sometimes they don’t let me in because I don’t have an ID,” he says.
To avoid the hassle of being “illegal,” Juarez recently tried living in Mexico. But the experiment lasted only one year. He felt out of place in his native Ciudad Juarez, and unfulfilled stitching pants at a sowing factory.
“They’d pay me like $50, $60 a week,” Juarez says. “Here you easily make that in a day. So I decided to come back.”
Crossing the border back into the US was simple. He rode in a car full of family members who are US residents.
“When the immigration officer asked me where I was from, I told them I was from here,” Juarez says. “I said I was going back to school and showed him my school ID. So he let us pass.”
Juarez needs to get back to work. He crosses the front door and climbs the staircase to a half-painted room, where he picks up a brush and starts painting again. I ask about his plans for the future, and he says it’s hard to say.
“I’d like to buy a house someday,” Juarez says earnestly. “But they’re so expensive now, you know? And it comes down to the same thing. To get credit and all that kind of stuff, you need to be legal. And I don’t have that.”
~ ~ ~
It’s 11:30pm on a Tuesday. Except for one window lit up by blinking Christmas lights, the apartment complex off of Fremont Boulevard in Seaside where Rolando Mendez lives is dark and undisturbed.
Inside, the flat he shares with two men is decorated sparsely, but neatly. It’s quiet. Mendez, 32, sits on the edge of a black leather chair in the center of the living room.
He explains how he worked laying concrete all day in Monterey, and then bussed tables at a Seaside restaurant all evening. His mind wanders to the tiny Oaxacan town of Santa Ana where his wife and two daughters, ages 1 and 8, await his return.
“I miss them more than anything and I worry constantly how they’re doing,” says Mendez, a small-framed and polite man with black, piercing eyes.
“I worry if they’ve gotten sick, if my oldest daughter is going to school or not. Things like that. About all you can do is worry.”
Two months ago, he completed his second successful attempt to cross the US-Mexico border illegally. The first time he crossed, in 2001, it was a harrowing adventure. He and two cousins trekked three days and three nights over the Arizona desert carrying only a gallon of water each, plus one change of clothes in a backpack.
“On the second day of walking we realized that we didn’t have enough water,” Mendez says. “So we became really afraid. Especially at night. It was so cold and you couldn’t see anything. Every time we heard a strange sound nearby, we’d dive into the bushes. But we just toughed it out and eventually found our way here.”
Mendez lived in Seaside for 18 months in 2001 and 2002, working six days a week as a busboy at two local restaurants. After saving about $5,000 dollars, he took the long bus ride back home to his family.
“It worked out well,” Mendez says. “We bought a small plot of land near our pueblo with some of that money.”
His homecoming lasted two years, which peaked with the birth of his second daughter. Those were happy days, he recalls with a tired smile. “I would get to see my family every night.”
But after two years, the lure of being paid in dollars again—after the frustration of earning only $2 a day in Oaxaca—was irresistible. Against the wishes of his loved ones, Mendez again took leave of his beloved hometown and its lush farmlands and deep canyons.
Instead of walking through the desert, Mendez paid a team of coyotes, or human smugglers, $3,200 to guide him across the carefully-protected border near San Diego.
“There were 18 of us and we walked for 24 hours straight, going up and down an endless row of hills,” Mendez says. “The coyotes always knew where la migra was because they had someone with a walkie-talkie out ahead of us, relaying back their positions.”
After a few long, tough days of travel, Mendez was in, and arrived safely in Seaside for the second time.
Two months into his stay, he’s found a steady job bussing tables four evenings a week in another Mexican restaurant in Seaside. When other day jobs didn’t appear, he joined the dozens of mostly undocumented workers outside El Seven, as day laborers call the 7-Eleven convenience store at the corner of Fremont Boulevard and Echo Avenue in Seaside.
There, a steady stream of trucks pull up to hire men for about $8 an hour to move furniture, trim bushes, clear properties or do other miscellaneous jobs.
“I do any kind of work they need,” Mendez says. “That’s why I came. To work. That’s all.”
Mendez hasn’t yet made enough money to wire cash home after he pays for his food and his share of the rent: $250 a month. But he’s optimistic that will change.
“It’s OK for now, because I just got here,” Mendez says. “Things will pick up. I’m sure of it.”
~ ~ ~
It was supposed to be a quick photo shoot of day laborers standing around and waiting for work. Get in and get out. Stay invisible as much as possible. Avoid becoming a part of the story.
It didn’t work out that way. By the time photographer Jane Morba and I left the corner of Fremont Boulevard and Echo Avenue in Seaside, at about 10:45am, every day laborer and most of the business owners on that corner knew who we were and why we had been there.
The scene began when we approached four men to ask permission to take their photos. They were standing on the curb in front of the 7-Eleven, waiting with about 50 other mostly Spanish-speaking laborers to be picked up for a job.
Every day they are hired to do construction, landscaping, or moving work throughout the county—anything that requires a strong body to lift heavy things for a few hours. Nobody ever asks them for working papers. And that’s fine, because it’s likely that none of them have any to show.
Our shoot starts off smoothly. The four men agree to let us photograph them. Jane springs into action, snapping away as they try to ignore us. But it’s futile.
On the other side of the parking lot, a cacophony of giggles and jokes grow louder, invading the brisk morning air. From out of nowhere a short man in an oversized black jacket named Jose gets in my face and asks me what we’re doing. I tell him we’re journalists, that we’re doing a story on immigration and we need pictures of immigrants.
“I have a story for you,” he says in Spanish. “I’ve been married to this white girl for five years but I still can’t get my green card because they say they need a copy of my birth certificate, and that’s laying around somewhere in Mexico. I want you and the photographer to come to Mexico with me when I go to get it.”
As Jose makes his case, Jane moves closer and starts taking his picture.
Jose hams it up for her lens and now all the day laborers are staring at us from afar. Their curiosity is too much. In a matter of seconds, Jane and I are surrounded by a sea of bodies.
“Why are you here? What are you doing?” demands one man. I tell him.
“Are you with the government or something?” asks another suspiciously.
Negative. I tell them we’re there to share their story. They listen closely.
One man unleashes a diatribe echoing what most undocumented immigrant workers I’ve ever interviewed say: “We just came to work.”
“Look, we’re not here to cause trouble,” he says. “We’re very respectful of everyone who comes here. I don’t know why so many people are against us when we work hard and provide a service for people.”
“That’s right,” says another face.
The conversation then turns to a favorite topic: driver’s licenses.
“A lot of us have to drive to work,” one man says. “But we can’t afford to keep losing our cars.”
“Not only that,” another laborer interrupts. “When the police see us driving, they get right on our tail and right away you get real nervous. You start to make mistakes.”
Suddenly, a woman pokes her head into the crowd. “I want to speak with whoever speaks English here,” she says as she ducks for a moment into the store.
“We speak English,” replies one laborer curtly, defiantly. Jane and I sense trouble.
The woman, Dorothy Williams, emerges from the store two minutes later and walks right through the wall of laborers to tell me how her business, Stitches in Tyme, is hurting because of their presence throughout the mini-mall parking lot.
“I have women customers who call and tell me that they are afraid to walk through here,” she says.
“But we’re very respectful, we never bother anyone,” replies the English-speaking laborer.
Most of the men speak only Spanish. But they are fascinated by the confrontation.
Williams tells me that Seaside Police officers were here the day before and they had asked if the men could congregate on the north side of 7-Eleven, adjacent to Echo Avenue.
“Look, I’m not a citizen either,” she says. “I’m a Brit and I’m very sympathetic for these men and I want them to be here. They need work and to provide for their families and that’s fine. I just would like for them to congregate on this side of the building, or back in the other parking lot where they won’t interfere with customers.”
When she’s done explaining, all eyes fall on me. So I translate for the men.
“Well, that makes sense,” says one man in Spanish. “The problem is that there’re always new guys showing up and they don’t know the rules. And sometimes they don’t want to be told what to do by us.”
“What the City should do is designate a place where we won’t get in anybody’s way,” another man says. “Then the problem would be solved.”
I tell Williams what they’re saying, and she’s encouraged.
“I really respect these men,” she says, “I just don’t want them to hurt their own cause.”
Williams departs to open her store.
Almost as quickly as they had swarmed around us, the laborers have moved back to their posts, waiting for the work to arrive.
~ ~ ~
Esmeralda Esquivel tosses her head back and laughs when she thinks how she crossed the US-Mexico border in 1974.
“To me it was exciting, like an adventure,” says Esquivel, who was 18 at the time.
“The coyote took me in his arms and carried me across the river while the water was at his chest. As soon as we got to the other side, my mother and I just ran and ran.”
While she was an illegal immigrant, the term didn’t have much meaning back in the 1970s, Esquivel says. Few Mexicans crossed the border without papers compared to now, and no laws existed against hiring “illegal” workers.
And technically speaking, she didn’t really have to cross over the way she did.
Esquivel’s father was born in California in the 1920s after her grandparents fled the bloodshed of the Mexican Revolution. After the war, his family returned to Mexico.
Esquivel’s father could have filed a solicitation for her green card when she was a young teenager. But, she says, he had already abandoned her, her sister and her mother in Jalisco by the time she was 10.
Like countless others, Esquivel decided to make the leap to California to find work and a better life.
“In Mexico, the only employment option for someone like me was to be a servant-maid,” Esquivel says. “And I remember that that idea just left a hole in my stomach.”
Today, Esquivel lives in an isolated community of about 10 apartments located a few miles west of Salinas. The complex is small, and is surrounded by farm fields as far as the eye can see. Behind each residence, a backyard opens up to trees, flowers and benches where boys and girls play safely.
Behind that is a temporary camp for migrant workers that is empty during the winter months.
“I’ve raised all five of my children here,” Esquivel says.
Her three oldest are attending college at UC Berkeley, Cal State Sacramento and Cal State Long Beach, while the youngest two still live at home.
Esquivel has a green card today, thanks to her father, who lives in Stockton. After years of estrangement, she says, he finally filed for her residency in the late 1980s.
After she became legal, Esquivel still worked in the Salinas Valley’s agricultural lands for years. She recalls it as brutal work.
“It was a horrible life to lead,” she says of the 12 years she spent picking lettuce. “The bosses were mean. If you stopped for 15 seconds to catch your breath they would be all over you, threatening to dock your pay, insulting you.”
Esquivel says she doesn’t regret her life, but if she could do it over she would have finished high school.
“That’s why I’ve stressed an education to my children,” she says. “And that’s ironically why there’s a shortage of farmworkers, too. When the children of farmworkers grow up, a lot of them look for a better life and never look back to the fields.
“Maybe some people are upset about that, because we don’t have old slaves breeding younger slaves to replace them.”
Esquivel calls her youngest son, Jose, away from his computer game to say hello.
“I tell him he’s going to go to university, not just to take up a seat but to be one of the best,” she says as Jose, embarrassed, turns away.
She’s especially proud of her daughter Grisel, 21, an English major at UC Berkeley.
“She says she wants to be a journalist,” Esquivel says. “And that would be great, having a reporter in the family.”
Today, Esquivel works at the Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove cleaning rooms. She says it’s much better than working in the fields.
“If I could do it over again, I would have listened to what a lot of people told me when I first came to this country, and that’s to study,” says Esquivel, who speaks very little English.
“But I was a fool. I would tell them, ‘No, I just want to work.’”
~ ~ ~
For every undocumented immigrant who has failed to find the better life they were seeking in the US, there are others who’ve found it. They often don’t speak perfect English, but their children invariably do. These immigrants often exude an air of personal confidence, because they know that the odds they faced were great, and they still succeeded. Jaime Sanchez is one such success story.
In 1985, Jaime Sanchez hopped into the trunk of a coyote’s car in Tijuana that was headed for the US and began his American journey. Today, he is a successful real estate broker. He and his wife Gabriela just moved into a spacious, brand-new home in the Seaside Highlands neighborhood. For his birthday, he bought himself a 2006 baby-blue Porsche.
But success didn’t come easy for these illegal immigrants. Three years ago, Sanchez, Gabriela and their infant daughter were poor. Gabriela, born in Jalisco, Mexico, was doing odd jobs to pay the family’s bills while, Sanchez, who says he couldn’t hold down a job, stayed home to take care of their daughter. He was depressed and defeated—a different man from the ambitious young immigrant who arrived in California and enthusiastically worked any job he could find, yet carried notions of becoming a famous actor.
Jobless, Sanchez walked into a library one day—one of his favorite refuges—and read an inspirational line he says changed his life forever. It was the one about knowing the difference between what you can change and can’t, and having the wisdom to know the difference.
He says he walked out of the library a changed man. Even though the couple had only had $400 in the bank, Sanchez used all of it to pay for a real estate course being offered in Monterey.
“When I told my wife, she became furious and wanted to strangle me right then and there,” he recalls. “But all she did was sigh and cry in silence.”
Sanchez diligently studied real estate principles for weeks. He bought a used suit. But he couldn’t close any deals.
Sanchez had no other choice but to return to being a restaurant busboy for an employer he hated, but who was the only one that would hire him back.
He swore to his wife that this time he wouldn’t quit. But a few weeks later, unable to contain his rage, he told his bosses off and left.
Seeing no way out, he started a “hunger strike” in his apartment to call attention to what he said was the restaurant’s mistreatment of its workers.
No reporters bothered to cover his protest.
“On my eighth day of fasting, I decided to just disappear and die,” Sanchez says.
He says that he spent a night alone in Big Sur, and that there a feeling of determination to succeed returned.
A rejuvenated Sanchez returned home and went to work for another real estate broker a few days later. The broker lent him some motivational tapes. It worked. In two months, Sanchez closed four deals, making $20,000. The next month he did even better. He’s never looked back.
“After 2006, I will never make less than a million dollars a year,” he says.
During a short cruise on Highway 1 in his Porsche last week, Sanchez praised the virtues of the US, despite its few bad apples that sometimes try to ruin opportunities for others.
“What I like about this country is that you can achieve anything you want,” Sanchez says. “I never thought I’d ever own a Porsche or a house.”
However, Sanchez says the US should put more stringent controls at the US-Mexico border. And that government leaders shouldn’t attack laborers who are already here and working.
“Latinos are assimilating to the culture more than anyone really understands,” Sanchez says. “The fact is no one can take anyone’s job until they don’t want it anymore.”
There are stories like Sanchez’s in the US. But not all undocumented immigrants have a happy-ending story to tell. Some are downright tragic. Some illegal immigrants end up in jail, or fall into the traps of homelessness and drugs. But, by all accounts, these are a minority.
The vast majority of undocumented immigrants pay taxes—even into funds like Social Security that they aren’t eligible to receive back. And contrary to the argument put forward by anti-immigrant intellectuals, their children—for better and for worse—assimilate to US culture, values and norms.
According to one study released by The Tomas River Policy Institute in 2001, The Latino Middle Class: Myth, Reality and Potential, the country’s large Latino community is indeed upwardly mobile.
The report discovered this after analyzing the economic progress of two groups of Latinos separately: On the one hand were recent immigrants, all Spanish-speaking, whom the study found were mostly poor. And on the other were Latinos who are second and third generation, whose incomes in the 1990s made steady economic gains and, in this way, mimicked the offspring of earlier waves of immigrants to the US. By the third generation, for example, about 90 percent of Latinos will speak exclusively English.
Perhaps most important, most undocumented immigrants, like Sanchez, are people married to the idea that a better life lies at the end of the rainbow. And that’s essentially the same spirit that carried earlier waves of immigrants to the US—the same people who built this nation into what it is now.
Next Week: Three generations of Latinos, and three definitions of “Latino.”