Collector scavenges to survive in Pasadena

Juana Rivas, 47, takes to the streets in and around Pasadena between 3 and 4 a.m., five days a week, to collect recyclables.
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

It’s not yet 3 a.m. Juana Rivas grabs her shopping cart and steps off the curb into the dark.

She shields herself from the cold with a sweat shirt and jacket, along with a pink hat and gloves she bought at the 99-cent store. Only a barking dog interrupts the silence.

Rivas arrives at the first house, lifts the trash can lid and shines her flashlight inside. Nothing.

“No hay. No hay,” she says in Spanish.

She peers into another trash can. Nothing. She zigzags back and forth across the street, stopping at each house to search for aluminum cans, glass bottles, plastic containers, anything she can exchange for money at the local recycling center. She reaches inside and shakes the contents, listening for the telltale clink of a beer bottle or the hollow tap of a milk carton. Nothing.

She starts to feel anxious. Her husband and four children are depending on her. The $2,300 rent check on their Pasadena home is due in one week. She already asked for an extension on the gas. The cable and the phone have been disconnected.

She speeds up the pace. The plastic bags attached to the cart swoosh against one another. The wheels rattle as they roll over pebbles in the street.

A few minutes later, she finds an empty Sierra Mist can, a few plastic water bottles and several Foster’s beer bottles. She dumps them into her empty cart.

“There are bad days and good days,” says Rivas, 48.

As she walks toward the next house, she says, “It’s going to be a bad day.”

Rivas knows what people think, that she digs through her neighbors’ trash to make money for drugs or alcohol. She knows what people call her -- scavenger, digger, thief.

“There are people who look at me like, ‘You aren’t worth anything. You aren’t anybody,’ ” she said.

For 13 years, she says, she has collected cans and bottles “to pay my rent, my bills. I do it out of necessity.”

She has looked for more stable jobs, including cleaning offices at night. But nowadays, more companies are asking for immigration papers, papers she doesn’t have.

Besides, scavenging pays OK, she says. The more hours she puts in, the more she earns. Her proof is in her recycling center receipts: Oct. 22: $70.12. Dec. 12: $143.08. Jan. 4: $134.91. Overall, in a year she might earn between $20,000 and $25,000. Combined with what her husband earns and what her children contribute, they can meet the rent and put food on the table.

Rivas is part of the expanding underground economy -- the hundreds of thousands of immigrants in Southern California who clean houses, mow lawns and wash dishes, making money at the margins and paying few if any taxes. Her story mirrors the contradictions that make illegal immigration such a flash point. She broke the law getting here and drains a municipal resource staying here. Yet she works hard, very hard, so her children won’t have to do the same.

Every weekday, she wakes at 2:30 a.m., knowing that even an hour more of sleep means less money. She walks miles and miles, even when it rains, even when she is battling the flu.

“If I miss one day, I’m short,” she says.

Her only company is the Spanish-language DJ El Piolin, Eddie Sotelo on KSCA-FM (101.9), who entertains her through a hand-held radio one of her sons gave her two years ago.

Her shoulders and legs ache from pushing the heavy cart up and down hills. Her hands throb from arthritis. This morning, two of her fingers are bandaged with white tape. Two years ago, she had to go to the emergency room to get stitches when a broken bottle gouged open her forearm. She left with several stitches and a tetanus shot. Emergency Medi-Cal covered the treatment.

“I don’t know how much longer I will be able to do this,” she says. Yet she doesn’t know what else she would do. So she continues.

Often, homeowners yell at her: Get out of here! Don’t go through my trash!

Rivas never challenges them. She puts her head down and says in broken English, “I sorry. I sorry.” And she moves on. She knows what could happen if she doesn’t. The homeowners will call police, and she’ll end up with a ticket.

About three months ago, a police officer stopped her as she pushed her cart near her house. He told her the cans belonged to the city and that she was violating a city ordinance. But instead of issuing her a ticket, he simply advised her to go in a different direction.

Pasadena police and public works officials said stopping scavengers isn’t a top priority, in part because the materials do end up being recycled. But Gerald Weber, supervisor for street maintenance, said the city loses money every time a scavenger takes a bottle from someone’s trash can. Weber estimated collectors siphon about 5% from the city’s annual recycling profit of about $400,000.

“Technically, they are stealing,” he said. “Once it gets to the curb, it becomes the property of the city.”

Rivas says the police should harass the drug dealers and prostitutes instead of her.

“We are working honorably,” she said. “We aren’t robbing. The police should let us work.”

Rivas grew up in Durango, Mexico, and crossed illegally into the United States in 1982 with her two oldest children. She met her husband, Luis Angel, and the couple had two more children.

After years cleaning houses, Rivas started collecting cans in 1995. She had temporarily separated from her husband and needed to earn more money. At first, she felt embarrassed going through trash cans. But now, she says she likes being her own boss.

Many of the residents on her routes know her. They greet her as they leave for work. Once, at Christmas time, a woman gave her $20. Sometimes, they hand her bags of their own recycling.

When she finishes her day, at about 11 a.m., she cleans her house and does laundry. To relax, she watches Spanish-language movies on a small television in the kitchen. But she rarely sleeps during the day, except on the weekends. That’s when she recuperates and prepares for the next week.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, she cooked carne with pico de gallo for her children as they prepared to go out with friends. Music blasted from her youngest son’s bedroom. An ice cream truck drove by. Her dogs wandered in and out of the house.

As she cut up vegetables, Rivas pointed out things she found while working and carried home in her shopping cart -- planters, candle holders, wicker baskets, a gate for the dogs.

Rivas said she wants her children, ages 16 to 25, to have careers. Rivas’ children said they appreciate the sacrifices their mom has made for them. Her oldest sons, a landscaper and a loan originator, contribute what they can to the rent for their four-bedroom house. And Angel, who has a green card, earns about $300 a week working in a Food 4 Less warehouse. But the family couldn’t survive without Rivas’ income.

Living in another part of the county would be cheaper, but Rivas said she and her children prefer Pasadena because it’s safe and quiet.

Angel still worries, however, about his wife being on the streets in the middle of the night.

“It’s dangerous,” he said. “I would prefer if she had a stable job.”

Aura Angel, 18, fears for her mom too. When Rivas leaves in the morning, Aura tells her, “God bless you, Mom. Be careful.”

Aura said she sometimes has to defend her mom to her friends when they ask why she goes through people’s trash.

“I tell them it’s just like any other job,” she said.

Jose Rivas, 20, said he respects what his mom does now but that he hasn’t always felt that away. About five years ago, a friend was driving him to school when they passed his mom, with her cart. Jose put his head down and didn’t acknowledge her. He still feels bad.

A few years later, he tried doing the job himself but lasted only one day.

“It was really hard,” he said, as he ironed a shirt on the kitchen table. “It seemed impossible to fill up the cart.”

Jose Rivas said he wished he could earn more money and help out more with the rent so his mom wouldn’t have to work so hard.

“Imagine if I could buy my mom a house,” he said. “She could shop, watch telenovelas. That’s just, like, one of my dreams.”

Each week, Rivas follows her set routes: the streets near the Rose Bowl one day, north toward Altadena the next, and so on around the city. Without a license or a car, she walks everywhere. She doesn’t know how many miles she walks, but she is on her feet some days for seven hours.

This morning, she traverses the streets close to her house. Because she hasn’t found many cans and bottles yet, she worries that someone else might have beaten her to the neighborhood.

The others are her competitors, but also her compañeros. They call her supermujer -- superwoman.

“They say I walk fast, I fly,” she says.

Soon after she leaves the house, Rivas’ luck starts to change, as she finds Bud Lite bottles, Fanta Strawberry cans, ketchup and Canola oil bottles, peanut butter jars. Sometimes, she puts the flashlight in her mouth so she can use both hands to search. Other times, she bends over into the trash can, nearly lifting her feet off the ground.

When she accidentally knocks a “student of the month” certificate and a newspaper onto the ground, she picks them up and puts them back inside, neatly arranging the lid.

“If you mess up the trash, leave it thrown on the ground, people get mad,” she says.

At one home, a handwritten paper taped to the top of a blue recycling container reads, “Trash.” Rivas looks inside anyway.

By 6:30 a.m., Rivas has completed her route. Her cart is full and several plastic bags hang over the side, but she didn’t collect as much as she had hoped.

She walks back home, a bit slower now, and parks her cart on the side of her house. The full cart -- a large, sturdy grocery store rig Rivas says she found on the street -- smells of stale beer, sour milk and rotten food. Rivas doesn’t notice. She steps inside, sheds her sweat shirt and jacket and drinks a cup of instant coffee.

Across the street, Ana Gonzalez said she respects what her neighbor does to earn a living, especially because rents in the neighborhood have gotten so expensive.

Some mornings when Gonzalez can’t sleep, she looks out the window and sees Rivas leaving her house at 3 a.m. with the cart.

“I don’t know where she goes,” she said. “But some days, she doesn’t come back until midday.”

One day, she ran into her in the grocery store and Rivas had bags of bread, juice, milk and beans. Gonzalez said she was surprised by how much Rivas was able to buy with her daily earnings.

Just a few hours later, Rivas is out the door again, this time on her way to the recycling center. Opening time is 10 a.m. and she doesn’t want to be last in line.

When she arrives, Rivas says hello to several people, including a man who recycles to supplement his Social Security income and a woman who began recycling after her eyesight weakened and she lost her factory job.

“Where is your cart?” a man asks in Spanish.

“Over there,” Rivas responds, pointing behind her.

“Why so little?” he says.

“You didn’t leave any for me!” she teases.

At the center, a posted sign tells how much the recyclables are worth. Aluminum cans are the most valuable ($1.56 per pound), glass bottles the least (11 cents per pound). She can estimate what she will earn by the number of bags and the height of her pile.

If she has had a good day, she heads across the parking lot to buy flashlight batteries, new gloves, milk, beans or tortillas. On really good days, she buys meat or even a small present for one of her children. Recently she took home a football for her youngest son.

Today, however, isn’t one of those days. She dumps her cans and bottles into oversized blue trash containers, pausing to dump out ketchup and soda. Clink. Clink. Clink. Clink.

When she reaches the front of the line, the employee weighs the containers and tallies up the total. He hands her a receipt and $50.30.

“Poquito,” she says, shaking her head.

Rivas takes comfort in knowing there is another full cart at home. She had gone out the night before, from 6 to 11 p.m., in a different neighborhood.

She will make another trip back to the recycling center later that day, hoping for a higher tally.

For now, she takes her money and stuffs it in her pocket. Then she grabs her things, says goodbye to the others and pushes her empty cart toward home.

Life in the Shadows is one in a series of occasional articles.