A hard life for one Latina teenager

Miriam Hernandez is 16 and a native-born Georgian. She works two jobs to help support her mother and siblings, the main breadwinner since her stepfather, an illegal immigrant, went back to El Salvador.

Miriam Hernandez, 16, was born in Georgia. Working two jobs to help support her mother and siblings, she is the main breadwinner since her stepfather, an illegal immigrant, returned to El Salvador.

November 18, 2011

Reporting from Athens, Ga. — When she is at home, Miriam Hernandez eats fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy. And corn bread. And corn tortillas.

She has a little sister, Ana Maria, whom everybody calls Guera — Spanish for blondie. She has a little brother, Jesus. Everybody calls him Bubba.

The New Latino South

The Latino population in the South has grown dramatically over the last decade. This is one in a series of occasional stories chronicling the lives of Latinos in a changing region.

Interactive: Mixed households in the South

More in the series:

Guatemalan man with a U.S. family is threatened with deportation

Fewer hands in the fields

Legal taxis ferry illegal immigrants to work in Georgia

She sings along to Sinaloan bandas when she is busing tables at her uncle's Mexican restaurant out by the shuttered chicken plant. She sings along to country hit-maker Luke Bryant when she's driving in the family van with her white Southern mother.

She is 16 years old, and a native-born Georgian. She has a learner's permit and would like to take the driving class that would allow her to get a license — that elusive prize so many of her foreign-born friends will never have.

The class costs $230, but the money from her two jobs is spoken for. Since her stepfather, an illegal immigrant named Abigail Carrillos, returned to El Salvador to avoid a forced deportation, she has stepped up as the family's main breadwinner.

In October, unpaid bills nearly prompted the utility to shut off power to the family home, a single-wide trailer with a leaking roof, gashes in the rain-softened drywall, and a framed photo of Abigail staring down at his family from the vantage of some happier past.

Which is why Miriam drives through Athens tentatively — overcompensating, at times, with a litany of sass.

"Trust me, I'm not gonna hit your ugly car."

"Why you lookin' at me like that?"

"Don't you people realize you're in Miriam's world?"

Miriam's world did not really exist two decades ago. In 1990, there were about 100,000 Latinos in Georgia; today there are 850,000. Her biological father was one of them. He came from Michoacan, Mexico, illegally to work in the construction industry. But he was killed on a job two years ago by an exploding truck tire.

The boom times that lured him to Georgia are no more. Today his daughter, the newest kind of American Southerner, struggles to survive and succeed and make sense of the world that remains.

She is in the Junior ROTC at Cedar Shoals High School. She is taking an honors literature course. She aspires to attend college and have a white-collar career, perhaps one that exploits her ability to bridge two cultures that can seem irreconcilably disconnected.

Perhaps, she says, she will become an immigration attorney.

The police have pulled her over twice recently, and both times asked if she was a legal resident. It pains her. So does the absence of people in her life who were, in fact, here illegally — the stepfather and her boyfriend, the friends and friends' parents — all of them forced back across the border, leaving families split and sometimes shattered.

"I feel like I don't belong," she says. "Like they want us out. Even me, even though I'm American."

Miriam Hernandez, 16, is comforted by her mother, Donna Carrillos, after a trying day at work. She waits tables and cleans houses to support her family. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Miriam Hernandez, 16, is comforted by her mother, Donna Carrillos, after a trying day at work. She waits tables and cleans houses to support her family. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

And so, on the week of her high school's homecoming game — that most American of rituals in this famously football-crazy town — there would be only so much buy-in from Miriam Hernandez.

On that Thursday afternoon, she and her fellow ROTC members mustered in a Baptist church parking lot in hopes of marching through the suburbs in the homecoming parade. But there was no way, she said, she was going to the game the next night.

Some of that was cool-kid insouciance. Some of it stemmed from feeling that football was mainly of interest to black kids, not the province of Latinas like her: "They score when they cross that line, right?" she said.

There was also the fact that she would probably have to work on Friday night.

The sky darkened and dumped rain a few minutes before the parade was to begin. Miriam and the other ROTC kids were milling in the parking lot, waiting to hear if the event would be canceled. Miriam's uncle, meanwhile, had called to say he might need her for the dinner rush.

"Colonel, are we going to march?" Miriam asked. "Because I have to work."

The rain persisted. Miriam left with her mother, Donna Carrillos, who navigated the family van past college condos and a trailer park and a new subdivision until she arrived at an unsightly strip mall and the Buy 4 Less Discount Foods.

Miriam stepped out in her crisp green-on-green uniform, clutching a job application. Donna flicked the ashes of a Marlboro out the window.

In El Salvador, Abigail is laboring as a brick mason for $8 a day — barely enough to live on, let alone send help to his Georgia family.

Donna has a bad back and knee; she says she can't keep a 9 to 5. So Miriam cleans houses during the week and works at the restaurant on weekends. She thought she could squeeze in this third job at the grocery.

If you are now employed, why do you desire to change? the application asked.

"I am employed, but I do not wish change," Miriam wrote, in her small, careful hand. "I just need to work more."

She works long hours to pay the bills at her family's trailer. Her mother has a bad back and knee. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

She works long hours to pay the bills at her family's trailer. Her mother has a bad back and knee. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Summarize your skills.

"I speak English and Spanish fluently and am very dependable."

Then it was home to Catalpa Drive and the dun-colored trailer, where their two Chihuahuas greeted them. Soon Bubba, a big, sweet-faced 12-year-old, was home from his after-school program.

"Que tenemos por la cena?" Bubba asked. What's cooking?

"Chicken potpie," Donna replied, flipping casually to English.

"That has a lot of vegetables in it," Miriam whined, as Donna folded the filling into a baking dish. "It doesn't even look like it has any chicken."

She changed out of her ROTC uniform and into jeans. Donna took her place on the lounge chair under the photo of her husband.

Donna had told Abigail that if he wanted to marry her, he had to make things right and apply for legal residency. When his application was rejected, he bought his own ticket to El Salvador, hoping the gesture would help him when he reapplied from his home country.

He flew back in April. Since then, Donna has refused to sleep in the room they shared. She spends most nights in this living room chair, with the TV remote and her Marlboro Reds and three little bottles marked Zoloft, lamotrigine, trazodone. She was pretty sure that one of those was supposed to help her sleep.

It would not help tonight. It was their fourth anniversary.

They ate their potpies in front of the TV, and then Abigail called long-distance, from his concrete-block home outside of the small city of Metapan.

It turned out that Miriam wasn't needed at the restaurant after all, so she answered the phone and, pinching her nose, played the role of a comedy-sketch Latina operator.

"Immigration, how may I help you? … No, I sorry sir, I no a-speak Spanish.... I no a-speak English either."

"Hey, happy anniversary," she said, finally, her voice natural again, and sweet. "No, there's no celebration.... No, immigration don't miss you. Jesus and Ana and Miriam miss you."

Bubba spoke next, playing hard for his stepfather: "Hey fool. Here's my mom.... Bye, punk."

Donna took the phone for a brief, private moment. Then she lit a cigarette and grabbed the remote.

Donna, 41, was born Donna Kiker. A military brat, she grew up all over the Southeast, but considers home to be Greensboro, Ala., a place she describes as mostly white and mostly racist. She remembers flunking middle-school Spanish.

She mostly dated white guys before she met Miriam's biological father. They broke things off before Miriam was born, but shortly thereafter Donna married her first husband, a Mexican construction worker named Jesus Hernandez.

Donna would point at things and Jesus would translate: The stars — las estrellas. The moon — la luna. She had him decode love songs whose meaning she felt but didn't understand.

She divorced him in 2004, and married Abigail three years later. Her fondness for Latin men, she says, has something to do with the way their families stick together — something she said she never had in her own broken home growing up.

Her ex-husband's family are all over this neighborhood, in its trailers and ranch houses, still friendly, still supportive. Miriam's boss at the Tlaloc El Mexicano restaurant is the brother-in-law of her deceased biological father.

The ex-husband's family came for Miriam's quinceanera — "I always dreamed of being a princess for a day," she says. Afterward, they had more photos for the rain-softened walls, with Miriam resplendent in a lavender princess dress of her own design.

It cost them dearly. By May, the bank was threatening to foreclose on the trailer and repossess the van.

On the day before Mother's Day, Miriam surprised her mother, giving her $100 she had hidden away. Go play bingo, she said.

"We need this money," her mother protested.

"Just go," Miriam said.

So Donna drove up to a Cherokee reservation in North Carolina and played. At home, Miriam lit candles to the Virgin of Guadalupe for good luck.

Her mother phoned a few hours later.

"M'ija, m'ija, I won!"

Donna returned with a purse stuffed with $36,500. They paid off the trailer and the van.

The winnings ran out, and soon the family was back in trouble.

Enjoying some free time, Miriam and sister Ana Maria shadow dance outside their home. The high schooler is taking enough classes to graduate early. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Enjoying some free time, Miriam and sister Ana Maria shadow dance outside their home. The high schooler is taking enough classes to graduate early. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Donna has been pushing Miriam to acquire the means to vault beyond such troubles for good. She is a sophomore, but is taking enough classes to graduate a year early.

On Friday morning, the kids were dressing and primping for school, Miriam in an '80s-style off-the-shoulder T-shirt, with big hoop earrings and stylish rectangular glasses.

"Me traes Q-Tips, please?" she yelled to Guera. Her sister handed them over.

One of Miriam's homies stopped in and drove her and Guera to class. She has two kinds of friends at school, she says. The Latino kids, her homies. And what she calls her "academic friends" — the white kids in her college prep classes, though she rarely hangs out with them after school. She doesn't hang out with the black kids.

She and Ana may be half white, but in the self-segregating culture of high school they are lumped with the Latinos. So that is what they consider themselves, and proudly so. When they visit their step-grandmother in Alabama, they bristle when she tells them to stop with all the Spanish.

In the short term, Miriam wants her brother to gain a little self-confidence, maybe through sports. She wants Guera, who has a wild streak, to keep out of trouble. Guera, 15, is already in ROTC, which Miriam considers a positive step. "They teach you how to be a good citizen," she says. "That's one of our goals."

She wants Abigail to come home and for her mother to be happy again.

She wants to make enough money to pay for more than utilities. Her mother's intermittent contributions to the family income come from informal work as a fixer of sorts, the gringa you call when you are being picked up by police or become otherwise entangled with government. She works for tips or, if tips aren't forthcoming, for free.

On Friday evening, Donna raced off when a man named Manuel called to say he'd had a fender-bender with a BMW. With her mother away in the van, Miriam had no way to get to her housekeeping job.

The next morning, she was hustling around her uncle's restaurant, serving pozole and sopa de mariscos to patrons longing for a taste of home and to adventurous college kids lured, perhaps, by the five-star reviews on Yelp. ("Don't worry about the skuzzy location: just go here."). A black woman wandered in. She had grown fond of the tripe.

Miriam's uncle said the job was the best gift he could give her. He could just give her the cash, but what would that teach her about the way the world works?

Miriam was also an asset. Some of the cooks in the back, he said, couldn't write in Spanish. Miriam moved confidently from table to table, took phone orders in two languages, and attacked a mound of dirty dishes in the back when she could.

Eleven hours later, she was home, exhausted. A friend's quinceanera was in full swing, but she was too tired to go.

She bid good night to her mother on her chair. Tomorrow, Miriam still had that house to clean.