Opinion

The Arellanos of Anaheim

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This fall marks the 20th anniversary of my parents deciding to wade into the American dream. In 1989, they decided to stop living as renters in a bad Anaheim neighborhood, scrape together their tomato-canner and truck-driver salaries, and buy a three-bedroom, two-bath, one-pool house in a slightly better Anaheim neighborhood. Soon, other Latino immigrants moved onto the same street, displacing members of the Greatest Generation who retired to Temecula or who just didn't appreciate our fondness for brightening their stucco paradise with wrought-iron fences, palm trees, rose bushes and chickens.

My parents and siblings still live there, but now the Arellanos are one of three families that remain from when we moved in. In the last five years alone, we've seen the next generation of renters and buyers try vainly to keep up with escalating mortgages, only to fail and either lose their homes or bring in family members to help carry the burden.

My parents' generation of Mexicans came to this country with nothing -- many of them illegally -- and they still live as if they were back on the rancho. Yet all of my uncles, aunts and their middle-aged Mexican immigrant friends own their homes. And they are in many ways better positioned to weather this recession than the sons and daughters they encouraged to educate themselves and aspire to better lives.

Many of the kids of my generation still live at home or room with friends, and will for the foreseeable future. We don't even have the option anymore, as we used to laughingly threaten, to move back to our ancestral villages and live in our family homes. Mexico's hellish narco-war has killed that idea. So we're left with this fact: The immigrants of my parents' generation are better off than their educated American kids.

It's not that my parents' generation is unaffected by the recession. My mother was on its leading edge. In 1997, she lost her job when the iconic Hunt-Wesson tomato cannery in Fullerton, where she worked for 30 years, shut down. Now she works odd jobs. My father was laid off last week by the trucking company he worked for. (Anyone looking for a troquero with 20-plus years of experience? Call me!)

But my parents bought a house in a time when real estate was a lot cheaper, and their mortgage is affordable. The house will be paid off within the decade, free of refinancing or any stupid-human mortgage tricks.

My parents are also more nimble, better positioned than many people to find work in bad times. My father, with his fourth-grade education, has worked as a carpet cutter, a pool cleaner, a janitor, a gardener and even a pro bono Alcoholics Anonymous counselor. Even now, he's willing to learn another trade -- anything that will keep him out of the welfare or unemployment line. That, he has always told me, would be a supreme insult, not only to his pride but to his adopted country.

I have a white-collar career, a master's degree from UCLA and no debt or children, but I can barely pay the rent on my humble, one-bedroom Santa Ana apartment, let alone imagine owning a place of my own. My mom and dad have long encouraged me to buy, but I see too much volatility, despise the mortgage racket and -- frankly -- will not pay three times what my parents did for a similar-quality abode.

My parents came from a generation of nothing, an existence in which the sword of poverty dangled above families daily, teaching them to always prepare for the worst. My peers and I, spoiled on the Reagan-era notion of faith in money, stand at the edge of economic despair with few tools for coping other than constant Internet access. Mom, Dad and my tíos y tías will survive. Me? That bunk bed I shared with my brother for 15 years is sure looking good.

Gustavo Arellano is a contributing editor to Opinion and the author of "Orange County: A Personal History."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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