Mexican immigrants searching for the American Dream
discover a harsh reality
by Jennifer Deitz-Berry
Veronica Gonzales was pregnant when she and her 3-year-old daughter
walked 3 hours to a Mexican border town hoping to find a better
life in the United States.
She found one in East Palo Alto.
She carried with her the $800 she would pay a "coyote" who would
drive her over the border -- while she sat beside him in the truck,
posing as his wife.
"I felt scared they were going to take my little girl away," she
recalls. But the "coyote" knew of a road where cars are rarely stopped,
and they made the crossing without incident.
Gonzales left behind a difficult life in Colima, Mexico, where even
those lucky enough to find work often can't earn enough money to
feed their families. She also left behind a daughter, 10, and a
son, 11. Both remain in their father's care. Of the daily struggle
to make a new life in East Palo Alto, remembering the children she
left behind is by far the hardest part. But she has little hope
they'll ever be reunited. The risk of bringing them cross the border
is too great, she says.
Veronica Gonzalez, 5, escaped with her mother over the Mexican
border when she was only 3 years old.
That more and more Mexican immigrants are making their home in East
Palo Alto should hardly come as a surprise to those familiar with
the city. What may be more startling is just how quickly their numbers
Census data show that in the last 10 years, the city's Latino population
has doubled, from 8,572 to 17,346. The city's population, as a whole,
has grown from 20,956 in 1990 to 29,506 in 2000, and Latinos, now
a clear majority, make up roughly 59 percent of the city's residents.
At St. Francis of Assisi, the only Catholic Church in East Palo
Alto, mass is held in Spanish once on Saturday and twice on Sunday.
And still, late arrivers on Sunday mornings will find it's standing-room
Many Latinos arriving in East Palo Alto have yet to gain citizenship
or working papers. Often they come to join family members who have
already gotten their start, settling into apartments and houses.
Uncles, cousins and brothers will offer leads on jobs. For those
who speak little English, the best work available is often as gardeners,
truck drivers, housekeepers, dishwashers, or construction workers.
Gonzales brings home about $1,000 a month, commuting 45 minutes
each way by bus to a Wendy's in Redwood City. She found a vacancy
in a Bay Road apartment complex called Carriage Manor where her
uncle was already living. Rent for a one-bedroom is $800. Then there's
childcare and food, and money to be set aside to send to her family
in Mexico. But as tight as her budget is, Gonzales has no complaints
and no intentions of ever returning to the city she left behind.
"Here you can live well," she says. "There's nothing you need."
The 48-unit apartment complex where Gonzales lives is home almost
exclusively to Latinos. The flat-roofed buildings on all four sides
look out onto a dirt and cement courtyard spruced up with a few
small trees. Given its bare-bones aesthetics, the building could
easily be mistaken for a government-funded housing project. But
Sister Trinitas Hernandez, who works with families in the complex,
says the government would never tolerate the conditions here: the
dilapidated structure wouldn't meet health and safety codes and
the apartments are overcrowded, with families of five and six people
crammed into one-bedrooms and studios.
"The place is falling apart," she says.
Recently, the Daughters of Charity of Los Altos, a religious community
service group, with the help of large donors like Bill Somerville
and the Community Foundation, paid $5.2 million to buy the complex
out from under a developer who planned to have it razed. The price
-- negotiated at the tail-end of the dot-com boom -- had more than
doubled from the purchase price eight months prior.
Before Daughters of Charity entered into negotiations to buy the
complex, Hernandez had worked out of a rented apartment, teaching
English and life skills to both children and their parents. The
women-who, when married, are more likely to stay home with their
children than work-have been the most regular attendees.
"The main reason they want to learn is to communicate with teachers,"
Most mothers are intent on making sure their children succeed at
school, so they'll have better opportunities later on. Others are
also hoping a greater command of English will lead to better-paying
The classes have a side benefit of turning strangers into neighbors.
Mothers who talk to one another in Hernandez' classes now trade
off watching each other's children. Men, who meet in a separate
group to converse in English, have helped each other find jobs.
Newcomers are only part of the story in East Palo Alto, however.
Many Latino families who have worked and saved for years are now
pooling their money and buying homes in the city, even though it
may mean squeezing as many as seven or eight adults, plus children,
into two bedrooms.
Garcia (and his wife Esther, above), and their four children
- including Omar, a fourth-grader - live in a one-bedroom apartment
in East Palo Alto. The family has saved enough to buy a three-bedroom
house in Turlock, and will be moving in the near future.
Others, like the Garcia family, may offer a hint of changes to
come before the next census rolls around. After eleven years in
the United States-seven of those living in East Palo Alto apartments-the
family of six has finally saved enough money for a down payment
on a home. But as prices skyrocketed locally, they turned their
search to cities like Stockton, Tracy, Sacramento, and Patterson,
before finding the home they wanted in Turlock. They purchased the
three-bedroom, two-bath house for $166,000.
"The house is really pretty," Esther Garcia says. "It has a garden
and a big back yard."
Latecomers to the Spanish-language Saturday or Sunday services
at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church on Bay Road likely
will not find a place to sit.
The added space will no doubt come as welcome relief. For the last
five years the family has made due in a one-bedroom apartment -- part
of a teeming three-story complex in the only remaining East Palo Alto
neighborhood west of Highway 101.
Cross over a narrow bridge on Newell Road and it's almost another
world from the wide, quiet streets of Palo Alto. Here, the pavement
is cracked and riddled with potholes, and the roadsides are lined
bumper to bumper with well-worn cars. A woman leans over a second-floor
balcony watching traffic come and go out of the apartment's parking
lot. Down below, young mothers carry babies or push strollers as boys
race by on their bicycles.
There are seven people living in the Garcia apartment right now. Esther
and her husband Jose, three children, ages 13, 4 and 2, plus a baby,
just 2 months old. Esther's mother is visiting from Mexico, helping
her take care of the children.
Jose works 14 to 16 hour days as a truck-driver. After the family
moves, the commute to and from work will be too long. So he's hoping
friends or relatives will open up their apartments to him on the
weekdays. Then, when he can, he'll find another job closer to their
The couple also stands in contrast to the stereotype of Mexican
immigrants who come to California. They were not wealthy by U.S.
standards, but they weren't poor either. Both were college educated.
Jose worked as a civil engineer, building roads and stadiums. Esther
was a young lawyer working in a government office in Tijuana. Frustrated
with government corruption, which made it difficult to do her job,
and lured by stories about the better life they'd find in the U.S.,
the couple decided to move.
"We're thinking about our kids," Esther said. "We thought that
it would be better for them to live in the U.S. because there are
more opportunities for them."
But they weren't in America long before they realized that the
sons and daughters who returned to Mexico with glowing stories about
the U.S. hadn't been honest about the hardships facing Latino immigrants.
"I don't know why they don't tell people in Mexico the reality
of living here," Esther says. "I tell my family and my friends that
they're better off there."
Juan Acala loads pipe and lumber onto his truck in the Home
Depot parking lot. Many new Latino immigrants find work in construction,
truck driving or gardening, regardless of their work experience
At first, the Garcias hoped to save enough money to return to Mexico,
but as time wore on, they gave up. Now, looking back, it is hard
not to have regrets about their decision to leave. "We are always
homesick for family," Esther says. "Always, we want to return there,
but we know it's very hard. My husband has not seen his family in
seven years, because we are not able to afford the trip to Mexico."
Instead, they are trying to make the best of their new life here.
Esther went from school to school in Ravenswood seeking out the
best for her children. Eventually, she settled on East Palo Alto
Charter School. But even if her children do well in school, the
Garcias aren't sure how they'll be able to afford college tuition.
They are saving money now, but say they may encourage their children
to attend college in Mexico, where tuition is less.
Esther has also tried to continue her own education. She studied
English briefly while in Los Angeles, and for the two years they
lived in the Bay Road apartments, she studied with Sister Hernandez.
She considers, after her children have grown, going back to school.
In the meantime, it's been difficult adjusting to a blue-collar
life after having held jobs in Mexico that endowed them with greater
responsibilities and respect.
"I'm always frustrated because I think both of us studied hard
in Mexico, and we come here and we are nothing," Esther says.
Her husband agrees. "It's difficult to come from a position of
a boss, and having people under you, and then starting from the
bottom in the U.S."
Knowing what they know now, would they still have chosen to come
to the U.S.? Neither one is quick to answer.
"Maybe," Jose says finally.
"Maybe," Esther agrees.
Email Jennifer Berry at firstname.lastname@example.org