3 Migrant Families Go From Hooches to Jacuzzi

Times Staff Writer

Paloma Rodriguez stood in the kitchen of her modern Carlsbad apartment, looking into an empty living room, and exclaimed, “All of this is either a dream or a miracle; maybe a little of both.”

It was understandable that Rodriguez and her family felt as if they were living a dream. Twenty-four hours earlier, her family was living next to a county landfill, in a crude third-world-like hooch made of scrap wood. The dirt-floor shack and others like it housing migrant workers were built against a canyon wall, among the sagebrush and manzanita.

Comfortable Apartments

Rodriguez, her husband, Lorenzo Santos, and their three sons had lived as squatters in Encinitas for more than 18 months. But now, with the help of the some North County church leaders and other supporters, her family and two others will live in a comfortable apartment.


Guadalupe Mojica Elizondo, Ruben Pina, and their two sons have run open-air restaurants in migrant camps since coming from Mexico five years ago. Now, they can cook for themselves on a gas range in a kitchen that has more modern conveniences than the family knows how to use.

Maria Zavala and her husband, Rutilio Fuentes Sanchez, from El Salvador, have lived in the North County migrant camps eight months.

Because the three were the only families left in the camps, the North County Chaplaincy made finding shelter for them a priority. At one time there were as many as a dozen families living in the largest of the camps.

Last month, all of the families and others were forced out of the Valle Verde migrant camp--situated on a ridge across El Camino Real from La Costa--by county health officials, who declared the camp a health hazard and ordered it closed after many citizen complaints.


Undaunted, several dozen migrants moved a few miles south to the landfill, where they built new plywood shacks and A-frames covered with plastic sheeting. However, it took neighbors less than a month to pressure the county health department and Encinitas city officials into closing down the new camp. The migrants, who were told the camp was about to be closed, left the site on Friday.

Modern Amenities

But, for the three families, the eviction from the canyon happened on the same day that the North County Chaplaincy, an interfaith denominational group devoted to aiding migrant workers, found each of them apartments in the same complex in Carlsbad, complete with a Jacuzzi.

On Wednesday, the families were getting acquainted with the modern amenities that many Americans take for granted, like a dishwasher, bathtub, thermostat, oven and a gas fireplace. But, for the moment, each of the apartments is without furniture. The migrants, including Maria Zavala, who is eight months pregnant, are sleeping on the carpeted floor.

“We’re sleeping on the floor but we’re in a real home. . . . Last night the kids ran all through the apartment, touching walls, flipping switches and opening doors,” said Rodriguez. She noted that each of the two bedrooms is bigger than the primitive shack that housed all five of them.

The gas fireplace, complete with fake logs, was of particular interest to Rodriguez’s precocious 5-year-old son, Jairo. Minutes after occupying the apartment, the youngster flipped a switch and jumped in terror when flames began licking the fireplace.

“He came running, yelling, ‘Momma, fire comes out of the hole in the wall,’ ” said Rodriguez, laughing. “We used firewood for cooking when we lived in the wilderness. These logs light without matches and don’t burn.”

On Tuesday night, the family bathed in an outside shower with cold water before they were driven to their new home. Little Jairo was still shivering from the previous night’s shower when he awoke Wednesday morning on the floor of the family’s new home, Rodriguez said.


‘World Was Crumbling’

Jairo and his 7-year-old brother, Antonio, had never been in a bathtub until they walked into their new bathroom. Rodriguez said she put the two boys in the tub and turned the water on.

“They were amazed that the water was hot. They played in the tub for almost an hour before I finally pulled them out,” said the laughing mother.

For Rodriguez and her husband, who hail from the interior of Mexico, their new living quarters were a godsend.

“Our whole world was crumbling around us on Friday, when we were evicted from the camp. . . . But, all of a sudden, it was as if God intervened and said, ‘All of you have suffered enough,’ and found these three apartments for us,” said Rodriguez.

The three apartments are within 30 feet of each other, in a complex that includes a mixture of races and ethnic groups. The families are being housed under a federal program that requires them to pay 30% of their net income for housing while the government subsidizes the rest.

The adults in two of the families have qualified under the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s amnesty program, while Zavala’s husband, who is from El Salvador, has applied for political asylum.

More than anything, the decent housing affords Rodriguez hope.


“Now that we live in a real house, I’m going to send my children to school. I want them to better themselves so they can have a better life than what we have given them so far. But, if they grow up to have good educations and good jobs, I want them to always remember when we lived in the wilderness. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. . . . We are poor but honest and do the best with what little we have,” Rodriguez said.

The woman, whose hands and face reveal the hard life she has known, looked in wonderment at her modern kitchen.

“They tell me that this is a dishwasher,” she tells a visitor. “Tell me, is it true that it washes dishes automatically? Will you show me how it works?”

Suddenly, she burst out laughing and turned toward her husband. The couple’s oldest son, Jose, 15, went to San Diego with a friend on Friday and does not know of the family’s new home.

“We better call his friend and tell him where we live,” she said. “Otherwise, Jose is likely to go to our old home and not find us. He’ll think that the migra has arrested and deported us to Mexico. Wait until he sees this place, even if it is without furniture. He’ll think that we’re rich now.”