Census 2001
Census 2001
A Better Life
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 have grown.

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 only.

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," Hernandez said.

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 jobs.

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 new home.

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 in Mexico.

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 jberry@paweekly.com