Live Like an Illegal Immigrant!

Secrets of the Good Life from OCs Undocumented

The houses you once plotted after are now far beyond your price range; you'll be lucky to score a Stanton apartment these days. Moving in with your parents is not an option, and your friends are in the same financial straits as you. Time to start working the hometown roots angle, as countless illegal immigrants have done over the years. Mario first lived in a Fullerton two-bedroom apartment along with 16 other people.

"Since I was from the same [Mexican community] as the owner of the apartment, I got to sleep on a couch by myself while everyone else slept on the floor."

He also got a discount: $100 per month as opposed to the $150 everyone else had to pay. But sharing cramped quarters—which constantly were visited by police responding to neighbor complaints—was a necessary nightmare.

"There was no privacy. I'd be eating my food, and right next to me would be a girl changing the diaper of her baby brother with the shit making me want to puke. And don't even get me started on how many times I was awakened by couples moaning during sex."

After finding a better job—he started as a jornalero(day laborer)—Mario now pays $200 per month along with four other men to live in a one-bedroom apartment in the back yard of an Anaheim home owned by a family from Mario's rancho. "It's still cramped," he says, "but I get my own bed this time."

Lesson: Most Americans think of family as merely nuclear—Mom, Dad, siblings. When it comes to emergency housing, you've got to go post-nuclear.

Lost your job and health insurance? Welcome to my world. When my mom was laid off in 1997, we had to plug into the same medical system that my father (who was an illegal immigrant until the 1986 amnesty) used for years: the curandero and sobadora industry. Learned in the forgotten art of offering medical services at a cheap rate, these men and women will treat what ails you using a combination of folk remedies and Catholic and indigenous chants—not to mention pre-owned underwear for a sore neck.

If you insist on licensed doctors, take the two-hour trip to Tijuana's clinics. The border town's doctors can cure anything, even if it's not their specialty. Seek out the services of Dr. Emilio Vargas Huerta, a proctologist who removed tumors from my mother's breast, my father's stomach and my cheek and has been attending to the needs of many illegal residents for the past 15 years. [Hospital Real de VH, Calle Edmundo O'Gorman, No. 1571, Zona Rio, Tijuana, Baja California; (0115266) 34-32-66x68;]

Lesson: Health is a state of mind. Baja is a state of Mexico. Tell Dr. Huerta that Lorenzo Arellano sent you.

As in any business, knowing someone is the best way to find work in the world of the illegal. Roberto got his first job at an Irvine carpet factory in 1979 from his cousin's friend.

"The guy was real close to the owner, who was always looking for new workers. Pretty soon, the owner promoted me to supervisor despite the fact I had no papers."

But he was let go after injuring his back, and because he was still undocumented, he was unable to collect workers compensation or get sick leave. Later, Roberto got a job at another factory and became a citizen. Now he does recruitment for that firm by hiring recent arrivals from his rancho in Michoacán.

"Everyone in my rancho knows that if they need work, I'll give it to them," Roberto said. "You should always help the people from your town."

Use your own connections to try to find work. If you have none, street corners with equally friendless jornaleros await you.

Lesson: In life, it's not what you know or even who you know but that you know people who appreciate what you know.

Photo by Jeanne Rice

After years of seeing your children only when the nanny had major surgery in Tijuana, you're now stuck with raising them yourself, something for which you're completely unprepared. What's worse, you've just gotten a job by going through a friend—but can't afford a day care center. Your parents wouldn't take the kids off your hands if your life depended on it, which it does. What will you do?

Create a comadre network, a method of raising children used by many Latino families for decades. Here's how it works: any stay-at-home female remotely related to you takes care of your child. This produces child care from someone you not only trust but who will also fatten your kid with homemade food and isn't afraid to discipline.

"Why should I let strangers take care of my kids when mis comadres can take care of them?" says Alicia. She drops off her children at 6 every morning with her sister-in-law before heading to her factory job. "A day care center won't raise my kids right because they won't discipline them. But I can rest easy knowing that [my sister-in-law] will slap my son if he's malcriado [bad-mannered]."

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