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Latinos Find Luck in Vegas

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

No one can say Lilia Guzman didn’t give Los Angeles an honest try. But after 15 years of going nowhere in South-Central, the weary garment worker from Acapulco was ready for a fresh start. In 1994, she packed up her husband and four kids and headed east.

Guzman followed her dream to the land of quickie weddings and Elvis impersonators, a place where possibilities seemed as vast as the desert horizon and taking risks was as natural as breathing. And like thousands of restless immigrants who beat that trail before her, she wasn’t disappointed.

In Las Vegas, Guzman soon learned, even a kitchen helper can lead a middle-class life. A decent wage, health insurance, vacations--all those things she’d never had the nerve to expect were suddenly hers in exchange for eight hours of chopping vegetables at the Mirage. Within two years, even after a stroke left her husband disabled, she was able to buy, with her oldest son, a five-bedroom house in a quiet north-side neighborhood.

“Oh, it’s a thousand times better,” said Guzman, who has since persuaded her uncle, brother and a handful of cousins to take the same plunge. Laughing, she added, “There’s nobody left in Los Angeles.”

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Multiply Guzman’s experience by tens of thousands and you get a sense of what’s been happening around Vegas this past decade. Since 1990, Clark County has seen its Latino population grow by 139%--faster than any other county with a statistically significant base--according to recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Most of the growth is driven by first-generation Mexican immigrants such as Guzman. Not all their journeys end happily: Some newcomers find only one more round of disappointment. But enough succeed to sustain an ever-expanding network of migration. At about 200,000 last year, Latinos accounted for 17% of the Clark County total, up from 11% in 1990 and a mere 4% in 1970.

The trend is not unique to Las Vegas. Nationwide, the Latino population--now at 31 million--is growing six times faster than all others. As their numbers grow, Latinos are moving beyond the traditional hubs of Los Angeles, Miami and New York into mid-sized cities where they have had little presence until recently--cities such as Bend, Ore., and Fort Smith, Ark.

With its booming casino economy creating an abundance of service and construction jobs, Las Vegas leads the pack, drawing fortune seekers from all parts of the United States and, increasingly, straight from Mexico and Central America. But the sprawling immigrant barrios of Los Angeles are by far the primary source of new workers.

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“The gaming and tourist industry is like a big magnet because the town . . . is constantly coming up with new jobs and usually jobs that don’t require a whole lot of skill,” said Tony Miranda, chairman of the department of anthropology and ethnic studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and author of a 1997 book on Latinos in Nevada. “Every time there is a new resort, we get an influx of Latino migrants.”

In the ‘90s, there have been plenty of new resorts: Luxor, MGM Grand, Paris, Bellagio, New York New York, Mandalay Bay, Venetian. Each one employs more than 5,000 workers in round-the-clock shifts, polishing, repairing, cooking, serving. About 70% of those jobs are union, and those that aren’t pay the prevailing rate or better.

The casinos create opportunities even for those without English-language skills or high school degrees, but that is only part of the attraction. Las Vegas also offers low rents, family homes for less than $100,000 and quiet neighborhoods. Although some complain of a growing gang presence, 1998 federal crime statistics showed Clark County and the surrounding area had significantly less violent crime than Los Angeles County, with seven violent crimes per 1,000 residents, versus 10 per 1,000 in Los Angeles County.

And, as Guzman’s 22-year-old son, Jeff Bravo, noted, the place is manageable. “In South-Central, you had to drive forever to go to a bowling alley or to Sears,” said Bravo, who earns $11.14 an hour cleaning rooms at the Mirage. “Here, everything is 10 minutes away.”

A Flowering of Strip Malls

Almost overnight, taquerias, money transfer outlets and immigration consultants have filled strip malls in new immigrant neighborhoods to the north and east of the Strip. One roadside swap meet catering to immigrant Latinos in the adjacent city of North Las Vegas now draws an estimated 20,000 customers each weekend.

Latino-owned enterprises in Nevada more than doubled between 1987 and 1992 to 3,900, most of them in Las Vegas, said Otto Merida, executive director of the city’s Latin Chamber of Commerce. And recent years have brought even more dramatic change.

After 27 years in the restaurant business in El Monte, Luis and Bertha Ramirez were set to retire to their native Guadalajara. But when they swung through Las Vegas in 1991 to say goodbye to their son, they were wooed by the barren landscape--and the utter lack of competition.

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“When we started Cordobes, there were no other Mexican restaurants in town,” the family’s 78-year-old patriarch said. “Now there are more than 60.”

Arthritis now slows the movements of the elder Ramirez. But Cordobes has become part of the rhythm of Latino Las Vegas. On Saturday nights, crowds of 200 pack the restaurant’s modest dance hall to sweat until dawn to the beats of banda, quebradita, salsa and merengue. Weddings feature banquets of barbecued goat and thick-cut beef ribs, trucked from Los Angeles, where Ramirez once bought nearly all his food supplies.

Los Angeles-based Latino ventures expanding into Las Vegas are also hitting the jackpot. Tacos Mexico planted its first restaurant there six years ago. In the last year alone, the Los Angeles chain has opened three more, and another is under construction on the Strip.

The city is now home to three Spanish-language weekly newspapers--one recently purchased by the Las Vegas Review Journal, the city’s main daily paper. And the oldest of the three, El Mundo, has bulged from 48 to 72 pages in the last year and a half, landing national advertisers such as Sears, Pardee Homes and Lucky, said publisher Eddie Escobedo.

Three radio stations, two television networks, two telephone directories and a smattering of other monthly newspapers and magazines now court Spanish-speaking residents, the bulk of them Mexican-born.

While most Las Vegas Latino-owned enterprises remain relatively small, the community’s growth is driving some to new heights of sophistication.

Heels clicking down the wide aisles of her latest supermarket, a cell phone at the ready, Aracely Paredes recently showed off the 45,000-square-foot Super Mercado del Pueblo to local dignitaries. A nine-piece mariachi band performed on the gleaming linoleum as guests--including the mayor of North Las Vegas--sipped fine Don Julio tequila.

The market is the Guatemala native’s third in Las Vegas since she and her husband left their Diamond Bar home five years ago. The company’s work force will top 200 in coming months.

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Overcoming Voter Apathy

While still lagging politically, with only five Latino elected officials in the state, the fast-growing segment may be about to catch up at the polls as well. Several groups have run energetic voter registration drives, boosting the number of Latino registered voters to 57,000--about 10% of the Clark County total. “Right now we could carry any race in the county,” said Fernando Romero, president of Hispanics in Politics. “The problem is voter apathy. . . . Hispanics feel that their vote doesn’t count.”

On the Strip, the demographic shift is coming full circle. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority estimates that 2 million Latinos visit the area each year, and mega-resorts such as the $950-million Mandalay Bay have began to target the growing market by showcasing cultural icons such as Juan Gabriel, Vicente Fernandez and Ricky Martin.

Each tourist is a potential new resident. Take Jose and Ana Cecilia Cruz, Salvadoran immigrants who visited old friends in Vegas from their Los Angeles home over the Fourth of July weekend. On the trip, Jose Cruz took a gamble and submitted a job application at the Golden Spike resort, about 30 miles southwest of town. The next day, he had a new job.

After 12 years in south Los Angeles, Jose, a maintenance worker, and Ana, a downtown janitor, were ready for a change. They wanted better schools for their five daughters, a neighborhood where they could walk at night and jobs that paid more than the minimum wage. They found all that and more in Las Vegas.

Now both earn $10 an hour cleaning rooms at the Golden Spike, and their wages are due to climb after a six-month probationary period. They enjoy full health benefits and take free English classes offered by the casino. Within a month of moving, the family bought a $100,000 two-story fixer-upper in the middle-class neighborhood of Spring Valley, with a park down the street and a school within walking distance.

Already, half a dozen relatives have followed them east, but at least one is having second thoughts. Brother-in-law Amilcar Ochoa, 40, said despite the $14-an-hour landscaping job he found at a resort golf course, he’ll probably return to his Los Angeles home near the Coliseum, where his wife and three children remain.

“It’s a city built in the desert with few diversions--only the casinos,” said Ochoa, who said gambling threatened to drain away his higher wages. “I think Las Vegas is good for some people who know how to control themselves.”

In high-density, graffiti-scarred neighborhoods near the old Vegas downtown, scores of other new immigrants can attest to the downside of the Las Vegas dream.

While jobs are plentiful, competition for them is fierce. And casinos generally insist that workers submit to police background checks--a requirement that rules out the best employment for those without proper immigration documents.

It’s far from the easy life they’d expected, and some immigrants have found themselves pouring concrete and mowing golf course fairways in the 120-degree summer heat or working feverishly on residential housing projects that could dry up on a day’s notice.

“They told me there were lots of good jobs here, and there are, but only for those who have papers,” said Juan Jose Alvarado, 48, who moved north from Mexico City two years ago and now earns $6 an hour in landscaping. Alvarado shares a shabby $475-a-month two-bedroom apartment with three cousins--all undocumented immigrants. He sends home what money he can to support his wife and four children in Mexico but is still paying off the $800 he’d borrowed to hire a smuggler at the border.

Desperate to gain legal residency, migrants such as Alvarado, whose education ended at the sixth grade, make easy marks for con artists. One of the biggest immigration frauds uncovered in recent years--in which thousands of immigrants were charged for amnesty paperwork that was never filed--operated out of Las Vegas. Immigration agents busted the ring in 1990.

“It’s sad. People are victimized horribly,” said Zullie Franco, director of the Nevada Assn. of Latin Americans, which coaches immigrants on smart ways to buy a used car and negotiate a contract.

Even those who succeed may find opportunities limited. Although the Las Vegas economy is diversifying as it grows, low-skilled service, construction and landscaping jobs still dominate employment--particularly for new immigrant workers. Wages may bump up dramatically at first, but then stagnate.

“They get the TV, the stereo, the car,” said Thomas Rodriguez, director of diversity programs for the Clark County School District. “There’s no question that for many, it’s a better life. Is it the life most Americans aspire to? I don’t think so, but maybe that will happen in the second or third generation.”

Rodriguez is among a corps of successful Latino residents working to improve outcomes for immigrant workers and their children, but the task is daunting. Only about half of the state’s Latino adults have finished high school; many immigrated from parts of rural Mexico where such an education simply wasn’t available.

The sons and daughters of those immigrants often struggle in public schools. In Clark County, 17% of Latino students don’t finish high school, compared with a 10% overall dropout rate.

Directing young Latinos to college is now a priority for the city’s Latin Chamber of Commerce. Shining hair pulled back, Gabriela Garcia sat quietly with hundreds of other Latino students on a recent morning, listening to a parade of educators and business leaders in a community college gymnasium.

The 17-year-old high school senior is already mother to a 7-month-old. And when one speaker mentioned the B average needed to qualify for a college scholarship, Garcia wrinkled her nose and grimaced.

But the native of Nayarit state has perfected her English in her five years in Las Vegas. Along with her regular classes, Garcia attends a trade school that is grooming her for a customer service job. At the end of the “Latin Career Day” breakfast, she marched off behind Randy Garcia, president of Fidelity Financial Group Inc., to explore the world of investment management consulting.

“This community is not that different than Los Angeles, and some of its problems are very serious,” said the elder Garcia (no relation), a longtime chamber member who financed the breakfast. “These kids have got it tough. . . . Hispanic youth are reaching out. In my opinion, what we’re doing will make the difference.”


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