The Long Road to the Other Side

The Border Is Broken! Adios Mexico! Amnesty Now! America Is a Nation of Immigrants! We Pick Your Fruit and Vegetables! Migration Fractures Families! Business Exploits Immigrants! Got Papers? Why Can't They Be More Like Us?

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I've heard a lot of slogans and rally chants this year--often shouted in the most venomous way--from those on both sides of the immigration debate, on both sides of the border. I've jotted down these sayings in my notebook, making for a strange catalog of contentious feelings.

And then, looking at this litany one day, it hit me: These cries could well be chapter headings in a diary of the Ramirez family, a clan I've been chronicling in pictures for 17 years.

Theirs is a story nearly as old as America: Like millions of poor people, yearning for something better, they made their way to this nation's doorstep. And like many, they were too weary to knock once they got here.

Adios Mexico!

The Ramirezes' roots run deep in and around Tonala, an agrarian pueblo of about 7,000 in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Wilfredo Jr.--Willie, as everyone calls him--remembers growing up in this broad, fertile valley. His father, Wilfredo Sr., supported his family by selling goats in the weekend market. From sunup to sundown, he scampered up and down the stony hillsides of Tonala whistling and yipping at his herd of 150, which foraged amid the cactus and scrub. At night, far from home, he'd simply lie down under a mesquite tree.

But Wilfredo's heart ached to be under a roof with his wife and three children. When an opportunity arose to buy a neighbor's milpa, or corn patch, he sold most of the goats and bought two acres near the irrigation canal. The deal included two bulls. He commuted an hour from his adobe house to the field on his donkey. The bulls pulled the plow through the farmland, and Wilfredo planted corn, as well as beans, chili peppers and squash. And he came home every night with bundles of alfalfa for the pigs in his corral.

Things, though, didn't pencil out. Gradually, over the next six years, produce sales and profits dwindled as the population of Tonala did the same. Many in this valley, crushed by Mexico's collapsing economy, were joining a steady exodus to the fields of California.

Amnesty Now!

By 1981, Wilfredo Sr. realized he couldn't cultivate another summer in Tonala.

That spring he bought a ticket to Tijuana on the Tres Estrellas de Oro bus line. Two days later he walked into the U.S. via the "Soccer Field," the U.S. Border Patrol's name for one of the crossing points south of San Diego that seemed to defy enforcement.

Several hundred men, and fewer women and children, huddled every evening on this foot-beaten expanse, just on the California side. Despite the field's moniker, the only game here was migra y pollo--what everybody called the cat-and-mouse contest between border agents and illegal immigrants who could scatter in an instant. Enforcement was breathtakingly inefficient.

The border was vaguely defined by a dirt road used by residents of Colonia Libertad, a Tijuana neighborhood. Smugglers and veteran border jumpers, such as Wilfredo Sr., could simply step across the line anytime they wanted to. When the moment was right, multitudes of people would follow dozens of footpaths through the coastal scrub to a ridge above San Ysidro.

One evening while I was there, a northbound crowd of illegal immigrants easily overwhelmed a Border Patrol Ford Bronco that gave chase across the rutted hillside. Some migrants sprinted back across the border. Some halted in their tracks, yielding to the bullhorn demand: "Stop where you are! You can't get away!" Most people simply disappeared over the ridge, deeper into the U.S.

Wilfredo Sr. knew the routine well. His usual destination was 70 miles from Tijuana, in San Diego County, where he had no trouble finding work picking gladiola flowers or tomatoes. Living in Carlsbad, he trimmed his rent to zero by sleeping in el monte, the hills where he lived in a tiny handmade hut camouflaged with chaparral brush. Scores of makeshift squatter camps in canyons throughout agriculturally rich North County were home to thousands of migrant farmworkers. (Today, many of those canyons are filled with subdivisions as agriculture yields to sprawl. And where multimillion-dollar houses surround the tomato fields, many homeowners are suspicious of their farmworker neighbors.)

For eight seasons, Wilfredo sent his profits back to Mexico. The money helped his eldest son, Willie, move out of Tonala to the coastal city of Salina Cruz, where he tailored his high school curriculum with an emphasis on accounting. He was the first in the family to graduate.

In 1986--following another heated period of debate--Wilfredo Sr. qualified for amnesty through the Immigration Reform and Control Act. With his new green card, he could now cross the border at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. He no longer needed the "Soccer Field."

The Border Is Broken!

In 1989, during one of the few months in the year that Wilfredo could afford to spend with his family back in Tonala, he sat down with his son Willie to chat about dollars--and common sense.

Although Willie had made good on his high school accounting degree, he was earning only about $25 a week at his new job in a Banamex bank office. By contrast, dad made nearly $200 a week in the fields of Carlsbad. Willie remembers well his father's mantra: Oportunidad es el otro lado. "Opportunity is on the other side"--a common reference to the United States.

In the fall, the family decided to multiply its "opportunity" by four--even though for Willie it meant moving away from his young bride. A quartet including Willie, his father, his brother and his uncle purchased one-way tickets on the Tres Estrellas de Oro bus line for its 48-hour run to the border. When the bus pulled into town, there were no seats left. Wilfredo Sr. took off his signature white sombrero and, with the family following close behind, piled onboard anyway. They stood, shared seat corners with sympathetic passengers and slumbered on the floor through most of the length of Mexico.

At the north end, they collapsed for a night in a cheap hotel in downtown Tijuana. The next morning a local bus dropped them in Colonia Libertad, a hardscrabble neighborhood of dirt streets, rubber-tire retaining walls and work-in-progress houses on a hillside that leaned up against the borderline and overlooked the "Soccer Field."

By this time, enforcement of the border was intensifying, but it was still plenty porous. Conveniently, the ever-lengthening 10-foot-high steel fence being assembled from surplus Vietnam War aircraft landing mats ended here, a few miles inland from the 24-lane-wide official port of entry in San Ysidro. "By noon," Willie recalled recently, "we just walked across. We didn't have to run. It was easy."

They followed the patriarch who knew the routine from his frequent trips to El Norte. "At McDonald's," said Willie, "we took the red trolley to San Diego. Then a bus to the university, then bus #301 to Encinitas, and #309 to Carlsbad. On El Camino Real, we got off at La Gallina."

La Gallina is a reference to the giant fiberglass hen that still roosts atop The Country Store. The landmark grocery and liquor shop was a bittersweet oasis for migrant farmworkers who lived in shacks near the tomato fields across the street. The store was close enough for the agile to safely dash in and out between Border Patrol vans that regularly patrolled El Camino Real.

At La Gallina, Willie learned that prejudice, not just supply and demand, set the price of groceries. He never saw a sale on the stuff he really needed: tortillas, water, toothbrushes, deodorant, toilet paper. Although he didn't drink, he knew that beer was always cheaper for hueros--the white guys--than it was for Mexicans. And the store's owner was infamous for his displeasure with migrants who lingered in the parking lot sipping Cokes and nibbling ready-made burritos from his store, waiting to be tapped for a day's work by a local building contractor or homeowner.

On Jan. 3, 1990, Randy Ryberg, the burly, 6-foot-6 proprietor of The Country Store, became so fed up with the loitering, he swaggered into the parking lot, slapped a short Oaxacan man on the right side of his face and tied his hands and feet with duct tape. He then covered his head with a brown paper grocery bag and handcuffed 26-year-old Candido Gayosso Salas to a railing behind the store. Crudely drawn on the front of the bag was a gap-toothed clown face. Above the crossed eyes were scrawled the words No Mas Aqu¡--translated literally as "No More Here" but clearly meaning "Don't Come Back."

News of the incident polarized the community. Protest marches at the store drew loud, divided groups. One side cursed and the other championed immigrant workers. On June 11, Ryberg was convicted in state Superior Court of misdemeanor false imprisonment.

We Pick Your Fruit and Vegetables!

It was in the hills across from La Gallina that I first met and photographed Willie. He had just landed in California with his father, brother and uncle, and I was in the area documenting living conditions among farmworkers.

I found them milling around after dinner as a coastal breeze puffed an ash plume from their smoldering cooking fire. Then 26, Willie strummed his guitar and crooned a corrida romantica. Like the tomatoes he'd been picking all day, his fingers were green and raw. The emotion of the words hinted that he missed his sweetheart, his wife in Oaxaca.

It was more than the music that attracted me to Willie. He was handsome, smart and gentlemanly. His whole family was that way, inviting me to have a tortilla and some leftover beans, even though they didn't have much themselves.

Willie told me how, just a few weeks before, his job had been thumbing through stacks of money at a bank in Oaxaca. Now he sat on a crate in the makeshift squatters' camp at the edge of the field. He slept in a plastic- and brush-covered hovel. There was no running water, no lights, no stove, no bathroom, no phone, no healthcare, no insurance.

But there was opportunity. Willie was astounded at how many dollars he'd counted on payday.

Got Papers?

As the years went by, Willie plugged into the area's informal network of farmworkers. Eventually, he got wind of a way to get something else he was desperate for: his green card.

He submitted an application for amnesty under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act. Thanks to a ranch in Bakersfield, which attested to Willie's working there years before, he was able to qualify.

Now holding his papers, he was able to legally work on the U.S. side of the border and shuttle back and forth across as he pleased. There'd be no more sneaking.

I kept in touch with Willie, and one thing struck me: Amnesty, he clearly believed, was a precious gift. "I wanted a better life in this country and to be like a real person living here," he said. "I didn't want to cross the border with a coyote anymore. I was tired and sad to do it that way."

Willie worked as hard as anybody I'd ever seen, heading into the tomato fields at first light. All day, depending on the time of year, he'd plant, hoe, tie or pick fruit. The labor was grueling, but I never heard him complain about anything. His laugh remained easy. And he carried himself with a certain dignity.

Every night, as other workers were heading back to their shacks in their muddy duds, Willie would strip to his underwear, wash himself under an irrigation valve and put on a set of clean clothes before dinner.

Business Exploits Day Laborers!

When the autumn rains of 1992 hit, Willie had been living in the hills for about four years. The rows of tomatoes that provided him with a steady income turned into rivulets of sticky mud. The season ended prematurely. There was no work.

Every morning Willie joined a dozen or so of his countrymen on El Camino Real, at the corner of Kelly Drive, well away from The Country Store parking lot and the specter of what had happened there. The curbside hiring hall was convenient for contractors looking for dependable low-wage workers. One morning, a roofing company supervisor named Hector Melendez pulled up in his white Toyota. The men pressed forward to hear him explain how he needed someone to take on a dirty, hard, dangerous job--the most dreaded chore in the trade.

It's known as "tearoff"--ripping out old shingles, tarpaper and plywood. It's an exhausting grind that demands brute strength. Hard work didn't bother Willie. He just hoped to God that, if he was lucky enough to be picked for Melendez's crew, he'd be paid minimum wage. In the past, Willie had been cheated on wages and deductions by the tomato ranch boss.

As it turned out, Melendez's offer was even better than anyone could have imagined: $2 above the state minimum, which was then $4.25 an hour. It all added up to $50 a day, plus lunch and a ride back to camp after work.

Suddenly, the group of would-be laborers broke into a frenzy, each pleading to be chosen. Menendez, a Puerto Rican immigrant, looked down and noticed two things about Willie: his tough hands and sturdy shoes--details he demanded of a guy who would spend eight hours lugging the dead weight of splintered shingles across gables full of rusty nails.

When Willie jumped into the truck he clutched a rumpled plastic bag of clean clothes that he would change into before coming home. Melendez noticed that about Willie, too: the farmworker who preferred to dress like a bank clerk, even in the fithy camps. He picked Willie every day for weeks and would go on to hire him full time in May 1993.

Migration Fractures Families!

When Willie climbed down from a roof at day's end, his hands, legs and back ached. But his heart ached as well. He longed for his wife and two daughters. With his roofing job now yielding profits beyond his wildest dreams, he took a couple of weeks off and rode the bus back to Tonala.

Shortly after New Year's 1993, Willie, Teresa, 4-year-old Kenia and 3-year-old Gabriela, climbed aboard the Tres Estrellas de Oro bus for the exhausting ride to the border. Two days later they staggered off at the Central Bus Station in Tijuana. A few miles shy of the border fence, the young family rented a room in a downtown flophouse. When it rained, the water poured in.

Never, though, was Willie tempted to smuggle his loved ones into the U.S. He was determined that they would come someday--but legally.

While Willie was away working in San Diego, Teresa got word of a new subdivision opening up on the northwestern edge of the city. One weekend, Willie and Teresa stood on a patch of dirt near the top of a hill in Colonia Cumbres, Summit Town. Sloping below them was a grid of dirt streets recently carved by a bulldozer. Two streets up, a view of the Pacific Ocean. Through the haze, the skyscrapers of San Diego.

They signed a contract and bought into the new neighborhood of uniform 24-by-30 lots--a space sized better for a garden patch than a house. There was no running water, no lights, no sewers, no gas and no telephone.

At least, Willie vowed, he'd build Teresa a place with a good roof.

Why Can't They Be More Like Us?

Over the years, Willie worked his way up from "tearoff," learning how to cut and shape a new metal roof. In 1998, he rose to the position of site foreman. Sometimes he set antique French tile and concrete shingles on mansions in Rancho Santa Fe or Del Mar. He marveled at the size of these structures, some with garages two or three times as big as his dad's house in Tonala.

Back in Tijuana--where Willie would return every Friday night, after staying during the week with relatives in Chula Vista--no one would ever confuse his own plywood house with a palace. But little by little, he started to fix it up.

When someone threw away a toilet on a job in San Diego, Willie had a friend truck it across the border. He bolted it over the hole in the outhouse, and the family flushed with a bucket. Then came a four-burner stove to replace the wood fire outside; he rigged it to refillable propane tanks. The ultimate upgrade came a few years ago, when Tijuana brought pressurized water to Willie's subdivision. Soon after, electricity arrived.

All the while, Willie did something downright un-American: He saved his money. He made his last mortgage payment several years ago.

This Is a Nation of Immigrants!

Now that he owned his house and lot free and clear, Willie had a little extra cash for English classes. He hired a tutor to drill him on the history, politics and geography of the U.S. "I believe in what the United States is," he's told me over and over.

On March 25 of this year, during a crowded ceremony staged at the San Diego Convention Center, Willie Ramirez stood, pledged allegiance and waved a tiny American flag with about 1,500 other new citizens from 40 countries.

As I watched, I became teary-eyed. I thought about my own grandparents, who came from Italy to Ellis Island in 1899. And I thought about the debate we're now having as a nation--about all those who insist that we shouldn't reward the millions of illegal immigrants who've stolen across the border by granting them amnesty. I've taken the same stance on occasion. But getting to know Willie has complicated things for me.

Posing for a photo to mark his special day, Willie held his citizenship diploma and a tiny American flag that came in his naturalization packet.

Seventeen years ago, not far from where the U.S.-Mexico border fence now drops into the Pacific, he stepped into this country illegally. Now, with rights granted him as a citizen, he is finalizing paperwork to legally bring his wife and children the final few steps north into his adopted country.

Willie's dad, Wilfredo Sr. is retired and living in Tonala. He gets monthly U.S. Social Security checks for his years of labor in California. He shepherds 50 white goats and receives money from family in the States. Willie's younger brother is a U.S. citizen from a different ceremony who recently bought a house in Oceanside. His uncle still crosses the border illegally for farmworker jobs.

In response to the question about why so many Mexicans continue to cross illegally, this new American expressed frustration, with an understandable slip of the tongue: "My government is corrupt. People can never make enough to live."

His government, though, is not the Mexican one anymore.

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