Commentary : An Immigrant Family’s Uphill Struggle for Survival
“This is not a house!” our 14-year-old daughter, Mary, exclaimed as we pulled up next to the dilapidated stable our friends had just moved into. “I don’t want to go inside.”
I didn’t either. We hated to see this Oaxacan Indian family evicted from a decent apartment because they couldn’t manage the rent and utilities. This stable had been in better condition when it housed animals--but it was warmer than sleeping in the fields as many of their Mexican countrymen were doing.
Three of the children came out to greet us, full of smiles and hugs. A rusty tricycle and a faded stroller sat in the dirt. Around the fire pit a circle of small shoes was drying after the rain the day before. A hose led to a discarded sink, the only sign of plumbing at the stable. The couple who lived in the front house had offered the “Conde” family (as I’ll call them) shelter in exchange for yard work and baby sitting. I steeled myself to go inside.
A light bulb hung from the ceiling in the corner of the stable they were occupying. An old refrigerator, table and chairs completed the kitchen, while a scrap of avocado-colored sculptured carpet and one mattress made up the “parlor.” November winds came through the broken boards in the walls. Rita, the tiny mother, changing 8-month-old Arturo, gave us a tired smile and asked us to sit down. She looked a little fuller around the middle--but I put the thought out of my mind. Serufino was at work at a nearby nursery.
It appeared the only thing that had improved since my husband, Vic, and I met them two years ago, before we helped them file amnesty papers, was that now Serufino had a work permit and no longer feared being deported. Unable to read and write Spanish or English, because he only went as far as third grade in a remote mountain village, he still earned close-to-minimum wage. Most important to the parents, the new baby is a citizen, as are his brother and two sisters. Six-year-old Lucinda had started school and 5-year-old Oscar would soon. Pretty 4-year-old Teresa looked especially beautiful playing outside the run-down stable.
But how could they survive in this primitive place . . .
Amnesty was not enough.
The Condes had tried to better their living conditions. Last year, before Arturo was born, the family had moved out of a similar one-room shack with no heat or running water, into a real house in Encinitas they shared with several other families. The five were willing to live and sleep in a small corner of the front room, partitioned-off with plywood and a sheet, in order to have the use of a kitchen and bathroom. Rita was happy to be with other women--until drunks came in at all hours of the night, making it impossible, and unsafe, to sleep.
Just before Thanksgiving, in 1987, the owner of the house came home drunk one night, demanding the following month’s rent. When the Condes didn’t have it, he forced them out onto the street. They called us, asking Vic to drive them to a field where they could pitch a tent the Rev. Rafael Martinez had lent them. They had all their possessions in five trash bags when we arrived.
Unable to bear the thought of them in a field, we took them to a cheap motel. Vic had to persuade the desk clerk to let the family use only one room, even though it had two double beds. The clerk claimed it was against the law for five people to sleep in one motel room.
Our oldest daughter, Katy, surprised us by inviting them to spend Thanksgiving weekend with her family. The Conde children explored the grassy yard filled with toys, while Serufino and Rita walked up and down the streets of Leucadia, searching for a casita they could afford.
They found a “For Rent” sign on an old house that was in the first stages of being remodeled. Since the carpet had been torn out, holes punctuated the walls, and the broken stove and refrigerator sat rusting in the courtyard, the owner agreed to rent it for just $500--the rent would go up when the repairs were completed. The five were thrilled to have four rooms to themselves--and hot baths.
The hot water lasted as long as the privacy. Just as the water heater gave out the following week, the owner arrived late one night, bringing another family to share the place with them. Nothing was said, however, about sharing the rent. The others were to pay an additional amount. Serufino and Rita refused and insisted that the other family leave.
The antiquated electric wall heater gave off little heat. They plugged up the holes in the walls with rags, hung a bedspread at the drapeless sliding glass door. Rita cooked on a kerosene camp stove someone lent them, waiting each day for the new stove to be delivered.
A few days before Christmas, the owner called me, asking my help to get them out. The school nurse had visited them, and, seeing piles of garbage under the adjoining building, holes in the walls, and finding the children huddled in bed to keep warm, called the woman a “slumlord” and threatened to call authorities.
“I am not a slumlord,” she protested. “They moved in before the place was ready. I never promised them a stove. . . . “
“And,” she spat the words out, “she’s pregnant again!”
When the family moved to a decent upstairs apartment in Carlsbad, they were in for a shock.
Even though they had rarely used the electric heater, and little other electricity in the time they were at the old house, faulty wiring had caused an electrical leak somewhere, running up a bill of hundreds of dollars. The utility company confirmed the meter reading. The huge bill kept coming, along with threats of the electricity being disconnected at their new address. A generous couple loaned them the money to pay the utility company.
Thinking that their problems would be solved if they could just get their three children baptized in the Catholic Church, Serufino asked us to be the godparents. We were delighted to do so, wishing that were the solution. On Feb. 28, 1988, on the 100th anniversary of the birth of my grandfather on a poor farm in Ireland, the Conde children were baptized with our grandchild Katy’s new son, Billy. We were now compadres .
Since Rita had almost died giving birth to Teresa, the Rev. Martinez checked on her often in March. When he found Rita in labor, he rushed her to the hospital to give birth by Cesarean. The following week, when the Condes went to visit their tiny preemie son, Arturo, they were told to take him home, as he had run up thousands of dollars and they had no insurance.
With Serufino’s low wages, and Rita unable to work outside the house, it was difficult juggling rent, utilities and all the expenses of this growing family. The electricity was finally turned off. Needing a way to keep their milk from souring, he ran an extension cord from the refrigerator, down a wall and into the laundry room of the complex on the floor below. By this time, in order to pay the rent, they had “sublet” the bedrooms to two other families and they slept in the living room. Serufino should run a hotel, we kidded.
But we were not surprised when the landlord asked them to leave. It was then that the couple offered them the use of the former stable--where they still live.
Our church gave the Condes groceries at Thanksgiving and a family adopted them at Christmas, providing toys, clothing and food. They were grateful that so many people cared about them.
Life was improving until two weeks ago, when Rita wrenched her shoulder while cleaning the stable. Serufino called us several nights later when she was still in pain. Convinced she must have stepped on someone’s grave, the tiny Oaxacan Indian tried to treat the muscle spasms by rubbing herself with garlic.
When we took her to the hospital emergency room, the attendants were very kind to her. The receptionist said they would not turn anyone away because he had no money. They would mail the bill (for several hundred dollars) to the Condes.
Moments later, the nurse came out to the waiting room and asked Serufino in front of everyone, “Is she pregnant?”
He nodded and said, “Five months.”
I had to leave the room so he wouldn’t see me cry.
Back at “home,” the painkillers made Rita hallucinate. She thought she was possessed or that a witch had put a spell on her. When rain leaked into the shack, her spasms grew worse. Vic decided the only way she could get well was if we brought her home with us. With pain-killing ointment rubbed onto her shoulder and a heating pad, she fell asleep in our Mary’s bed. After a hot shower the next morning, Rita could move her arm a little. Knowing I would understand, since I had seven babies in nine years, she told me this would be the last child, making a scissors gesture at the sides of her abdomen.
Rita is now well and has found a Spanish-speaking doctor, who we hope will deliver the baby--and honor her wish that it be her last. Serufino is back at work. He has patched the stable walls with plywood, and is building an outhouse.
Our neighbors donated blankets, furniture and a crib. Chubby Arturo is thriving. Lucinda is learning English--and teaching it to her parents. The Condes still need guidance, a living wage, medical insurance--and a great deal more than amnesty.
But these people are survivors. They give me more than I could ever give them.
Little Oscar has a dream. In good weather, he sees red, green and blue hot air balloons launched near the stable. He announced to his family, “When I get big, I’m going to buy us our own hot air balloon.”
I hope he’ll take me up with him.