Editor's Note: As a staff writer for Phoenix New Times, award-winning journalist Terry Greene Sterling reported for years on the political brawls and human tragedies that have made Arizona the epicenter for the national immigration debate. Sterling is now a contributor for The Daily Beast, and Writer-in-Residence at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Her stories have appeared in The Washington Post, Newsweek.com, salon.com and The Nieman Narrative Digest, among other publications. Her first book, ILLEGAL: Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone, from which this chapter is excerpted, tells the stories of unauthorized immigrants stubbornly hunkering down in the Phoenix area, and their friends and foes. Sterling is your tour guide into the shadows, where people hope, live, pray, work, sin and die in the city that begat the harshest immigration laws in the nation.
CHAPTER SIX: A DAY LATE, A DOLLAR SHORT
Mexican immigrants patronized the dollar store. So did crack addicts and a child molester. Why didn't the owners call the police?
It didn't take me long to learn Inocencio was a prankster. One day in the spring of 2010, when I visited his dollar store in central Phoenix, he dared and cajoled me to eat a fried grasshopper.
He had brought a Tupperware tub full of the crisp, salted brown insects, called chapulines, into the store for his lunch, along with tortillas he'd made earlier in the morning. Inocencio was 43 years old and had resided in the United States for more than two decades. He knew Anglos didn't eat grasshoppers.
Which was exactly why he wanted me to eat one.
“They are delicious,” he said.
He set the Tupperware on the counter. The large fat grasshoppers, he said, were females and tasted better than the smaller males. He warned me to pull the legs off before popping the bugs in my mouth because the legs sometimes got caught in the throat, like splinters.
I was going to do this thing.
So, I selected a male grasshopper—less to eat—and put 50 cents on the counter for a cold can of Coke to wash the grasshopper down. With a grin on his face, Inocencio gave me to the count of three in Spanish: Uno! Dos! Tres! I must have had a funny expression on my face when I placed the weightless bug on my tongue and forced myself to chew.
Inocencio exploded into giggles. His wife, Araceli, who rarely smiled, laughed so hard she could barely take my picture with my iPhone camera.
Actually, the grasshopper wasn’t bad. It tasted clean and slightly salty.
Inocencio told me his parents had brought the grasshoppers from southern Mexico during one of their visits to Arizona. The bugs were high in protein and low in fat, ideal for Inocencio, who’d been dieting and had just lost about 40 pounds. His once-tight golf shirt and khakis now hung loose on his short frame, and that made him happy.
On this particular morning, Inocencio sat on a stool near the cash register. Araceli puttered in the stock room. I stood on the other side of a glass counter that contained highly desirable merchandise that might be stolen: tall cans of spray paint (the kind used on freeway overpasses and freight trains), Hannah Montana toys, men’s cologne, manicure kits, women’s perfumes, CDs by the popular norteño group Los Tigres del Norte. Other items that might be shoplifted—phone cards, batteries, Tylenol, Alka-Seltzer Plus, prophylactics, pregnancy test kits, CD players, more Hannah Montana toys, makeup, lighters, cigarettes—were displayed behind the glass counter or on the walls above the cash register, where Inocencio could keep an eye on them.
About every 10 minutes or so, Inocencio would ring up a customer’s purchase—a Monster drink, a small bag of Cheetos, a couple of packs of Marlboros, a bicycle lock, a bag of white socks, a dozen eggs, a pound of rice.
One jittery man purchased a Bic lighter and a glass tube, which I figured he’d soon use as a crack pipe.
Inocencio wore an inscrutable expression on his face when he took the jittery man’s money. The man hurried out of the store. I asked, but Inocencio didn’t want to speculate about why customers bought the glass tubes. All he would volunteer was that he bought the tubes at Phoenix wholesale houses. “They’re legal,” he noted. He kept them behind the counter. They were made in China, and each held a tiny paper flower called a “Love Rose.” They are sold in convenience stores and small shops all over Phoenix.
Inocencio charged $1 for each Love Rose tube that had cost him a quarter. That’s a 75 percent markup.
Crack addicts hadn’t done him any favors. Addict whores promenaded on the street in front of his store in the evenings.
He’d been robbed twice, burglarized once, by people he assumed were addicts.
Once, a Spanish-speaking immigrant pointed a pistol at his chest and stole $160. The thief was never caught.
Another time, when Inocencio’s kids and wife were in the store, an Anglo held a knife to Inocencio’s side and robbed them of $100.
Burglars had robbed the dollar store at night, breaking in through the air-conditioning vent and stealing more than $300 worth of phone cards and Marlboros. They were never caught.
Inocencio insured the store against theft and vandalism and considered addicts part of the cost of doing business. He thanked God in heaven that the majority of his customers were not addicts, but immigrant families, oldsters, working people and students. Inocencio and Araceli had chosen the location of their shop on this busy street because the duplexes and rental houses and apartment buildings in the neighborhoods behind the store were home to their customer base—Mexican immigrants.
Which is precisely why I’d sought out Inocencio and Araceli, as well as others you’ll soon meet. I hadn’t been able to ferret out any study on undocumented immigrants as retail consumers in either Phoenix or Arizona. Back in 2007, a University of Arizona study indicated that all immigrants, authorized and unauthorized, paid $3 in taxes for every $2 that the state spent on services for them. Those taxes immigrants paid included retail taxes, and that intrigued me.
Three years later, I hoped to find out on a purely anecdotal level what goods unauthorized Mexican immigrants purchased in the midst of a recession, the raids and laws that made it difficult to find work, much less drive to the store. Did they buy Mexican products or American products? What shopping environments were comfortable for them? As consumers, how did they contribute, on a daily basis, to the recession-buttressed economy of a state that wants to shut them out?
If some immigrants had left Phoenix because it was just too unpleasant to live there and because there were no jobs, how did their exodus affect shopkeepers like Inocencio?
I chose the dollar store because it is typical of Phoenix stores that cater to first-generation immigrants. Inocencio fused American products with Mexican marketing. Newly arrived immigrants were comfortable shopping at the dollar store; it was as familiar to them as the corner stores back home, tiny places that sold a little bit of everything. Just like in Mexico, customers could walk to the dollar store from their homes. Inocencio helped them understand the American products and ordered what they needed.
If all the indocumentados were to leave Phoenix, Inocencio once told me, “I wouldn’t have any business.”
Like almost every immigrant I met who entered the United States illegally, Inocencio needed very little coaxing to tell his crossing-the-border story. It bears repeating that most of the undocumented Mexican immigrants in Phoenix, like Inocencio, entered the country without legitimate visas. They were too poor and often lived too far away from government offices to try to get tourist visas to enter the United States (temporarily) legally.
It was more practical for these immigrants to hire a smuggler and take their chances.
When they told their border-crossing tales to me, they wanted it understood that they’d struggled just to get to Phoenix. I sensed an unspoken subtext to these stories—after learning about what they’d endured to get here, surely Americans would understand that they wanted and deserved to be here.
Inocencio’s story was a little different. Compared to others, he hadn’t suffered. Plus, he had been lucky enough to be in the United States at the very time the Reagan-era government offered amnesty to undocumented immigrants. Inocencio became a legal permanent resident, thanks to the Republicans. He was 17 years old in 1984, the year he decided to travel from his village in Guerrero to the United States of America. By then, so many young men in the village had trekked north to work in the United States that Going North was viewed as a career option.
Young boys might ask one another: What will you do when you become a man?
Well, one might answer, I’ve thought of becoming a mechanic, like my dad, or I might Go North like my uncle and three cousins.
When Inocencio told his mother he wanted to Go North, she opposed him. Her older son had already made the trip and had settled in Los Angeles, but Inocencio was too young, she believed. She knew Inocencio wouldn’t listen to her. He’d always been hardheaded. She would never forgive him for dropping out of school after completing the seventh grade, even though she had begged him to continue with his studies, to make something of himself for heaven’s sake.
“I don’t like school,” he would tell her, smiling.
He was stubborn, that boy.
After he quit school, Inocencio helped his father for several years in the two family businesses—a butcher shop and a mill where townspeople ground their fresh corn. He first met his future wife at the mill, when Araceli brought corn to be ground. Her family raised livestock—goats and cattle and chickens. He didn’t think much of Araceli either way. She was skinny, plain, serious, and she kept to herself. She was one of the smart kids in town, one of the bookworms who dreamed of doing something important with her life. She was a scholar. He was not. He knew the difference.
For teenagers like Inocencio, life in the village could be stifling. The village sat near a dry lakebed pocketed in the Sierra Madre del Sur. It was no tourist resort. Occasionally, a group of Mexican university students or Americans would visit to study the local pre-Columbian ruins, where highly sophisticated, clay figurines had been discovered decades before. Those figurines were at least 2,400 years old and now sat in museums and private collections far away from the village. Some of the villagers, including Inocencio, had facial characteristics—prominent, downturned noses and full lips—that resembled those of the figurines. The visitors were more interested in the antiquities, though. They might stop in town for a soft drink or a beer, then be on their way. Inocencio couldn’t speak English, so he was unable to ask them about Going North.
The villagers were predominantly Catholic and celebrated Easter and Christmas and Day of the Dead with feasts and colorful processions that blended indigenous and Spanish traditions. Inocencio took these in stride. They were okay, but he wasn’t terribly religious. He’d tried reading the Bible, but it always put him to sleep.
For fun, as well as a food staple, Inocencio would accompany his family to the outskirts of town, where they’d harvest wild grasshoppers. They’d head to nearby meadows and fields and return hours later with bags full of the insects, a local delicacy. The chapulines weren’t just any old grasshoppers; they were delicately flavored and could be prepared a number of ways. They could be fried in hot oil, salted, then eaten alone as a crunchy snack or as a meal encased in fresh tortillas, seasoned with red chiles and lime juice.
Ground-up dried chapulines, when mixed with raw egg, could be formed into little balls, then fried like falafel. Or the insects might add flavor and texture to a soup.
If grasshopper hunting was one of the community’s main diversions, the village was in the backwater, all right. Ironically, one of the most cosmopolitan resort cities in the world, Acapulco, sits on Guerrero’s Pacific coast, perhaps a two-hour bus ride from the village. Nevertheless, Going North seemed more attractive than Acapulco to Inocencio, who had never left the Sierra Madre del Sur. He was curious about the United States. He’d heard so much about it from migrants who had returned to the village.
When he got on the bus to join his brother-in-law in faraway Phoenix, Inocencio knew he’d miss home. He knew he’d miss his five siblings, his father and, yes, even his mother, who was still mad at him. But his homesickness was overpowered by excitement—finally, he was Going North.
The bus trip to Nogales, Sonora, was long and uneventful.
During the trip, Inocencio had carefully guarded his savings—the peso equivalent of $250. He’d heard from other immigrants that this sum would pay for his border crossing; it was easy enough to walk into Nogales, Arizona, from Nogales, Sonora. You just needed to pay to borrow the visa of a Mexican citizen and walk right through.
The con man in Nogales, Sonora, took one look at Inocencio and knew he’d found his mark, an indio from the south, the kid in country clothes who looked so bewildered. “Give me your money, and I will go get you papers, and you will cross with no problem,” the thief said.
Inocencio handed all his money to the man, and when the man didn’t come back, he realized he’d been robbed.
He was penniless, and he still hadn’t Gone North.
Inocencio promised the next coyote that his brother-in-law in Phoenix would pay the smuggling fee. The coyote dressed Inocencio up like a tourist in shorts and a golf shirt and gave him fake papers to cross at the port of entry. He handed Inocencio a beer for “courage” in case la migra stopped him.
But no one stopped Inocencio at the port of entry. His brother-in-law picked him up in Nogales, Arizona, and paid the coyote. Then he drove Inocencio to Phoenix.
Inocencio found work almost immediately as a dishwasher for $3.75 per hour. He felt rich. He soon found a second job at a janitorial service. He cleaned houses and offices and restaurants. He didn’t care about saving money. He was a small-town boy in a big American city. He’d never felt so free. He danced at the big Latino clubs, like the Capri Lounge. He drank Budweisers until he couldn’t see straight.
His big brother drove from Los Angeles to Phoenix and took Inocencio back to Los Angeles, where he could keep an eye on him. “You’re going down the wrong path,” his brother said.
Inocencio didn’t think so. And anyway, Los Angeles had its own magic. It was as if the Virgin of Guadalupe herself had plucked Mexico and transplanted it in SoCal. In Inocencio’s neighborhood Mexican immigrants were everywhere. People preferred to speak Spanish over English. The place even smelled like Mexico. Chiles. Garlic. Street food. For a while, Inocencio sold tacos from a truck. Sometimes, he worked as a cook in Mexican restaurants. Days off, he had his Budweiser and his bailes (dances). If he craved a taste of home, and if he looked hard enough, he might find a corner store that sold bags of fried grasshoppers imported from home.
After Inocencio got his green card in the amnesty plan passed by the Reagan-era government, Inocencio traveled freely back and forth to Guerrero. Soon, only his parents would remain the village. Everyone else in the family had opted to Go North. In 1994, Inocencio moved back to Phoenix, where most of his siblings now lived.
He began to think about settling down. The Budweiser and the bailes no longer interested him. The young women in the bars bored him.
He was changing physically; he could see it. Growing a little fat. When he combed his thick black hair in front of the mirror, he’d spy one or two threads of gray. Smile lines were beginning to etch into the tawny skin on his face.
In 1999, on one of his trips south to see his parents, he ran into Araceli, the smart girl who used to bring corn to the mill.
She was the same age as Inocencio, and she intrigued him.
She was so different from the girls at the Phoenix bailes.
She didn’t wear a lot of makeup—some days, she didn’t wear any makeup at all. She had a no-nonsense, almost brusque way of talking. She wasn’t much for chitchat. And sometimes, when Inocencio cracked a joke, she didn’t laugh.
Araceli had gone to school for 12 years and had trained as a social worker. After she graduated, she’d gotten an excellent job offer to be a social worker in a larger town, but her mother wouldn’t let her accept it. Araceli was bitterly disappointed, but she obeyed her mother. As a reward for her obedience, Araceli’s family set her up with a corner store in the village. The years passed; other girls married. Araceli remained single.
When Inocencio proposed, she thought, “Why should I be single the rest of my life?”
One night in April 2000, a few days after she’d married her husband in Guerrero, Araceli prepared to cross into Arizona through the desert in sandals.
Araceli had bunions; closed-toed shoes never fit. She could do this thing in sandals, she told herself. And she did for a few hours, until the Border Patrol picked her up, along with the rest of her group.
Inocencio had been monitoring Araceli’s progress and met her when she stepped off the Border Patrol bus at the Mexican border. He took her to Nogales, where a deal was struck with a different coyote. This time, Araceli would attempt to cross using the borrowed visa of a Mexican citizen. Inocencio agreed to pay the smuggler $2,000 if his bride crossed successfully.
There were probably a lot of reasons that Araceli didn’t raise the suspicion of the American officials who checked her visa. She was a small woman with shoulder-length brown hair and light skin. She must have resembled the woman whose picture was attached to the visa she borrowed. For sure, she didn’t look like Inocencio or other dark-skinned indigenous-looking immigrants entering the United States from southern Mexico. Her Spanish showed she had schooling, and many immigrants who were pouring into Arizona at the time didn’t have a lot of schooling. What’s more, all those years of being a shopkeeper had taught her to keep a neutral expression on her face because you can’t judge the customer for what he buys. She had nerves of steel. She had confronted thieves who’d tried to steal from her store in the village; why should she back down when border officials tried to trip her up on her story?
She crossed the border, and soon, she and Inocencio were in Phoenix.
Araceli hated Phoenix.
The city was hot, noisy, crime-ridden, spread out, impersonal, lonely. Inocencio’s siblings lived close to him, but Araceli’s three sisters and five brothers were back in Guerrero.
There was no one she could confide in. She missed her little store and the rivers and mountains and the tall cacti grabbing at the sky with their thick green arms. She couldn’t speak English, so the Anglos were a mystery to her.
One day soon after she’d arrived, Araceli looked Inocencio in the eye and said, “I’m going back home.”
But she didn’t go back because as arrangements were being worked out for the return journey, she found out she was pregnant. In the span of three years, she had two children: a daughter we’ll call Mitzi and a son we’ll call Jack. And of course, once her American-citizen kids were born, she knew she’d probably never live again in Mexico.
Araceli and Inocencio now lived in a mixed-status family.
She was an unauthorized immigrant; he was a legal permanent resident; the kids were citizens. In Phoenix and across the nation, such mixed-status families were becoming common. Increased border enforcement made border crossings more dangerous and smuggling fees more expensive. It was just too costly and dangerous for migrants to visit their families in Mexico, as they had done for decades. Instead, wives joined their husbands in the United States and had American kids. In 2009, the Pew Hispanic Center reported that about 73 percent of the children of undocumented immigrants were American citizens.
High-strung, temperamental, take-charge Araceli and good-natured, happy-go-lucky-yet-stubborn Inocencio built a good marriage. Inocencio worked for a janitorial company, while Araceli stayed at home with the kids. When she shopped or visited the Laundromat, she took notice of nearby apartment buildings and duplexes and trailer parks where a lot of Mexican immigrants lived. There was money to be made there; she knew it.
On weekends, Araceli and Inocencio and the kids became door-to-door peddlers, selling sheets, blankets and other bedding to people living in these high-density areas. Inocencio purchased the linens wholesale from an American distributor in Los Angeles. Araceli and Inocencio fused two cultures when they combined Mexican marketing with products they purchased in the United States. The door-to-door selling was common in Mexican villages in southern Mexico, and newly arrived immigrants felt comfortable with itinerant vendors who spoke their language and understood their customs. Interest-free credit arrangements could be made with a handshake; installment payments were agreed on. The informal credit arrangements were key to success.
You had to find just the right place to sell just the right product, is how Araceli and Inocencio had always seen things. In 2006, Araceli and Inocencio augmented their door-to-door peddling business when they rented 100 square feet in a local Laundromat patronized almost exclusively by newly arrived immigrants. They paid $700 per month for the space, about $70 per square foot, but the Laundromat had a lot of customers who bought Ariel laundry soap (a Mexican detergent imported by an American company), as well as sodas, snacks, stuffed animals, gifts and, yes, linens, from Araceli and Inocencio.
Inocencio quit his day job at the janitorial service.
Business was so good Inocencio and Araceli saved $15,000.
Inocencio leased an empty 1,800-square-foot store near the Laundromat for $1,000 monthly. He started up an LLC. He got a business license. He officially became one of about 35,000 licensed Hispanic business owners in Arizona that, at the time, produced collective statewide revenues of about $4.3 billion. He and Araceli stocked the store with about 2,000 different items, most of which were American products. Among other things, they stocked toasters and toilet-seat covers and coffee makers and milk and tortillas and eggs and potato chips and teddy bears and Mexican laundry soap and ceramic salt shakers designed to resemble strawberries. They sold phone cards and made commissions on remittances sent by immigrants to family members in Mexico. Back then, the foot traffic on the street was thick and steady at certain times: when school let out, after the workday, on weekends.
The first year, Inocencio reported a personal income of $72,000 and paid taxes on it. Araceli and Inocencio bought a house (in the same neighborhood where Inocencio’s siblings lived) for $156,000. Araceli indulged herself with frequent trips to Mervyns and Ross.
Then, in late 2008, business began to decline. The Employer Sanctions Act had taken effect. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio stepped up his raids of Latino neighborhoods and workplaces. The recession ate away at the construction and hospitality industries that employed so many undocumented Mexican immigrants in Phoenix.
Vacancy signs began to sprout up in immigrant neighborhoods. We’ll never know how many undocumented immigrants left Phoenix because we’ll never know how many were there, exactly, in the first place. What we can surmise, though, is that many lived in Maricopa County, the most populous county in Arizona.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics estimated in 2010 that 100,000 undocumented immigrants left Arizona in one year—from 2008 to 2009. According to the federal agency, about 560,000 undocumented people were thought to live in Arizona in 2008. By 2009, only about 460,000 were thought to remain. That’s a 20 percent drop in number of undocumented immigrants in Arizona.
Inocencio and Araceli guessed that 30 percent of undocumented immigrants left the Phoenix metro area. Sales at the dollar store dropped by 50 percent.
When I first met them, in late 2009, Inocencio and Araceli were considering closing down the store altogether. They decided that before they gave up, they’d change the name of their store, which they’d previously called a gift shop, to a “dollar and more” store. The name change worked. More immigrants started wandering in the store, looking for deals.
Even so, a lot of the inventory they’d already purchased was not moving. Inocencio and Araceli climbed on ladders and rearranged the hard-to-sell merchandise—the ceramic salt-and-pepper-shakers and small appliances and such—stacking it on the highest shelves. Customers had no money for such luxuries, and some said there was no point buying nice stuff, since they could be picked up by Sheriff Joe any day.
Inocencio’s American suppliers felt the pinch, too. Few immigrants wanted to buy American party goods, for instance.
No one bought the paper birthday plates with matching tablecloths and napkins. No one bought gift cards or ribbons or wrapping paper. Inocencio and Araceli moved those goods into the back stock room, leaving just a few out for view. They replaced several shelves that had contained party goods, linens and tchotskies with food, like cans of hominy, dry pastas, pancake mixes and other groceries they’d bought at Sam’s Club and Costco. After all, people still had to eat.
They still stocked the store with a few new “luxury” items that women requested—inexpensive American hair dye, mascara, eyeliner, lipstick. Women also still bought cheap plastic earrings and bracelets and hair clips made in China. Shoplifting was on the upswing, and Araceli had posted signs (black marker, white paper and no-nonsense Spanish) that said shoplifters would be turned into the police.
The signs were meant to terrify customers into behaving. It was unlikely that Araceli actually would call police. But practically every undocumented immigrant with sticky fingers knew that a shopowner’s calling the police was tantamount to calling la migra because if you got arrested for shoplifting, you went to Sheriff Joe’s jail, and if you went to Sheriff Joe’s jail, the deputies had an agreement with ICE that allowed them to check your immigration status.
On the days I visited the store, this is what Spanish-speaking immigrants bought: Marlboros, Monster drinks, Pepsis, Coca-Cola, cheap plastic toys made in China (cowboys, Indians, farm animals, blond dolls, guns), Cheetos, Doritos, milk, eggs, Clamato, Clorox, Funyons, Gatorade, Capri Sun, bicycle locks, pencils, notebook paper, pliers, socks, soap, lighters and the Love Rose tube.
Araceli wrote out lists of products that had been sold and needed to be replaced. She wrote a different list for each warehouse Inocencio purchased from. On the first day I visited, one list read:
22 boxes aluminum foil
30 trinkets or toys made in China
12 bicycle locks
5 bags clothespins
Inocencio and Araceli marked most goods up 30 percent to 50 percent. Love Rose tubes, marked up 75 percent, were an exception to the rule.
They needed to clear about $36,000 per year to meet their living expenses. Rent and utilities for the store cost about $13,500 annually. By my calculations, if they marked up merchandise 30 percent, they had to gross about $350 per day to cover both the store expenses and their living expenses. The week I visited, they grossed from $220 to $300 per day.
Their customers paid 8.6 percent sales tax on non-food items, which Inocencio, in turn, paid to the state and Maricopa County, which ironically funded Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s agency. (Inocencio was no fan of Sheriff Joe; he’d once joined a march to protest the sheriff’s treatment of immigrants, but the heat had made him queasy.)
Sometimes, families dropped by to send money home. Araceli and Inocencio made $5 on each remittance sent to Mexico. The way it worked is a family member picked up a special telephone behind the counter that connected to an operator for the company that would wire the remittance to a relative’s bank account. Araceli would collect the cash and write a receipt. Later on, she’d deliver the cash to a nearby bank, and the money would be wired to Mexico. Araceli told me remittances were down about 40 percent since 2007. During the week I visited the store, three families sent a total of $1,000. The decline in remittances in the dollar store mirrored a national trend that showed the interdependence of Mexican and American economies. Migrants sent $26 billion home to Mexico in 2007, but as the American economy worsened and more migrants returned to Mexico, remittances shrank to $21 billion in 2009. The remittances sent home by migrants are critical to Mexico’s financial stability. Only two other industries, drug trafficking and oil, are as critical to the Mexican economy.
Araceli and Inocencio decided in 2009 that they would make more money if they kept the store open longer—from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day but Sunday. This was hard on their two kids, 9-year-old Mitzi and 7-year-old Jack, who were confined to the store from after school until bed time. Inocencio had yanked two seats out of his van and arranged them in front of the small television in the stock room. From behind the stock-room curtain, Jack watched TV and played video games.
Sometimes, he’d sneak onto the family’s Toshiba laptop and order games without his parents’ permission.
Mitzi wrote an essay about the store for me.
“The store looks big, huge, large,” she wrote. “It is a big place with many, many things in it. It is also a beautiful place.”
A few sentences later, she noted, “I kind of like the store but not too much.”
She wrote that she liked ringing up sales on the cash register and helping her parents stock shelves. She didn’t like being cooped up all day after school or on weekends, unless her cousins visited to play. Her parents were nice, she wrote, but sometimes they treated her and Jack “like little babies.”
Mitzi believed her mother and father were overly protective.
Every day, Araceli didn’t just drop the kids off at school; she marched them into their classrooms. She was the only mom who did this, and it embarrassed Mitzi.
And at the store, Araceli frequently checked up on the kids in the stock room.
What Mitzi didn’t know was that a 39-year-old Anglo registered sex offender came to the store frequently. He lived in the neighborhood, and immigrants who’d lived in the area for a while told Inocencio the guy was a sex offender and that some official had gone door-to-door warning people about him. I actually saw the sex offender in Inocencio’s store one day, buying a treat for a little girl who looked about 5 or 6 years old.
The scene bothered me so much I looked up the man’s court records. He was indeed a registered sex offender and had served time in prison for molesting his 9-year-old stepdaughter. He was categorized in the sex-offender registry as a category three offender, which meant he was very likely to reoffend.
He admitted on more than one occasion that he was a crack addict, according to his files in Maricopa County Superior Court. He was the father of two kids himself and had signed them over to his mother and father, whom he lived with. He served time in an Arizona prison for robbing an old man at knifepoint. Another time, he was incarcerated for auto theft.
So, what was this self-admitted drug addict and child molester doing buying treats for a little girl in the dollar store? I asked Inocencio why he didn’t bring the matter to the attention of the police.
What he said speaks volumes about the consequences of law-enforcement officers, like Sheriff Joe, doubling as immigration enforcers. Inocencio had lost faith in the police.
Araceli had no papers. What if he went to the police, and they deported his wife?
Inocencio made the mistake of calling police back when another Anglo guy had robbed him at knifepoint.
As a result, Araceli had been subpoenaed to testify for the prosecution at the upcoming trial. She didn’t want to testify because she thought she might be apprehended when she went to the courthouse.
In the undocumented underground, all police and law-enforcement agencies had been lumped in with Sheriff Joe.
Distrust that began with Sheriff Joe’s raids was re-enforced by media reports detailing how law-enforcement officials had double-crossed immigrants. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, reported in 2010 that some ICE agents reneged on promises of legal status to undocumented immigrants who had acted as valuable informants.
As far as Inocencio and Araceli were concerned, it was better to stay under the radar.
Competition for customers was fierce and unrelenting.
As many immigrants in Phoenix lost their jobs to the recession or to ramifications from the Employer Sanctions Act, unemployed immigrants took to selling whatever they could to other immigrants. Yard sales became more prevalent and frequent. Paloteros, those energetic Mexican vendors who sold icy treats from their handcarts, fanned out after school and sold ice cream late into the night. Spanish speakers with driver’s licenses ran informal taxi and shuttle services for those who feared driving. Peddlers took orders for everything from vegetables to tee shirts and made home deliveries. Corn vendors set up impromptu storefronts in vacant parking lots.
Just down the street from Inocencio and Araceli’s dollar store, a sixtysomething-year-old former construction worker we’ll call Samuel parked in an empty lot every day and sold fresh corn, roasted peanuts, and citrus from the back of his pickup. Samuel told me he netted from $5 to $140 daily, depending on blind luck. His wife raised chickens (she bought the chicken feed at Costco) and sold eggs door-to-door.
I asked Samuel why a customer would buy corn from him or eggs from his wife instead of purchasing the same food at the grocery store, and he said, “We let them sample it.”
He and his wife had total monthly expenses, including rent, of about $2,000. Their kids, who were grown, helped them with expenses if the egg sales and corn vending didn’t pay the bills.
They were undocumented and got by, he told me, just hoping President Barack Obama would make good on his promise and bring about that elusive immigration reform.
Samuel hoped to return to construction work when the recession ended. He wouldn’t go back to Mexico, not if he could help it, even if he could only make ends meet by standing around all day in an empty parking lot waiting for other immigrants to buy corn and peanuts from the back of his truck.
“My whole life is here in Phoenix,” he said.
Samuel’s sentiment was the sentiment of many migrant vendors at Los Perros, which means The Dogs. Los Perros is a large Phoenix swap meet that resembles an open-air market in a big city in southern Mexico. Spanish speakers call the place Los Perros because the complex of storage sheds and shaded stalls sits on the parking lot of a shuttered dog-racing park in southeast Phoenix. The Anglos have another name for it: Park N Swap. It’s been around for at least 30 years.
Park N Swap had once been entirely Anglo, but on the day in 2010 that I visited, the crowd was predominantly Latino. A few Anglo holdouts (mostly middle-aged men with straggly goatees and tattoos) still manned booths stocked with knives and martial arts paraphernalia. One Anglo woman sold rocks and gems and tie-dyed T-shirts. Mostly, though, Spanish speakers sold other Spanish speakers a variety of goods, including brand new rakes, tamale steamers, overalls, gloves, sheets, towels, Malverde (the drug saint) dashboard ornaments, St. Jude medals, used cars, shoes, candles, CDs, saddles, parakeets, blankets, Chihuahua puppies, mangoes, caramels, cucumbers, plastic jewelry made in China, toilet paper. People queued up to get their computers fixed at various computer booths, and others bought curative herb formulas for colds and coughs from herbalists.
Kids rode the Tilt a Whirl. Some of the wares for sale were garage-sale junk, such as used toasters or old shoes, but most of the products were new, and of these, most were either made in America or imported by American companies.
What’s key is that vendors used Mexican marketing to sell goods they purchased from American companies. In produce stalls, for instance, some vendors displayed fruits and vegetables on small paper plates on long tables. A plate of small tomatoes sold for a dollar. The same tomatoes could be found in bins in local grocery stores for about the same price, but newly arrived immigrants preferred the small-plate-for-a-dollar marketing. It reminded them of home.
About 15 percent of the stalls in Los Perros were empty, an indication that people had either left town or were too spooked by the sheriff and the laws to shop in an open marketplace.
They had reason to be spooked.
Sheriff Joe’s deputies had twice raided the Mercado, another open-air swap meet. Once, in 2007, deputies said they were investigating underage drinking. The second time, in 2009, they said they were investigating complaints of sales of pirated videos. A few arrests were made, but the effects on this once-popular Mexican immigrant market were more than damaging. In the early 1990s, a lumber-company owner and palm-tree farmer named Herb Owens noticed that Latinos frequented a nearby swap meet. He figured if he shaded his parking lot and added bathrooms, he could offer a better venue to these Latino merchants and shoppers. His El Gran Mercado, The Great Market, was an overnight success. He expanded the space, added two dance pavilions and booked some of the best Latino bands in the country. This way, he attracted two crowds—families in the daytime and men and women dressed to the nines for the evening concerts and dances.
Owens was born in 1932 in Phoenix. His parents were local Anglo farmers who eventually branched out into construction. Like most people who grew up in farms around Phoenix, Owens learned Spanish as a child. The agricultural workers were Mexicans and so were his schoolmates. He respected Mexican culture.
When I first wrote about Owens’ Mercado in 1997, 1.5 million people visited it each year. The last time I talked to him, the two raids had taken their toll on his business. Visitor attendance for 2009 had dropped to 750,000—about one-half of the pre-raids count. What’s more, after Sheriff Joe’s second raid, monthly attendance plummeted once again—down from 95,000 visitors in March 2009 to 30,000 visitors in September 2009. He needed 60,000 monthly visitors to break even.
Owens viewed the last raid, in which deputies combed the Mercado for hours and arrested seven adults and three kids in connection with allegedly pirated videos, as “disastrous” and an “abuse of power” that had the intended effect of frightening customers and vendors from the swap meet.
The Mercado had been successful because first-generation Mexican immigrants felt comfortable there. They wanted to buy American goods as well as Mexican imports. But they preferred the Mexican-style open-air market atmosphere to American stores with fixed prices. The raids impacted not only swap-meet vendors, but also American wholesalers, importers and, of course, Owens.
Ironically, Owens had for years hired Sheriff Joe’s off-duty deputies to act as security guards for the Mercado. It had been a happy arrangement, Owens told me, until several years ago, when the off-duty deputies were no longer allowed to work for him. “The sheriff withdrew them,” Owens said. That happened about the same time that Sheriff Joe began his raids.
Recently, I visited the Mercado. The Spanish-speaking vendors were dispirited; many said they weren’t making enough money to break even and they were thinking of pulling up stakes and moving to another state.
“We depend on undocumented people,” said Angela, a vendor who sold religious amulets, paintings and statues. Some weekends, Angela didn’t sell enough to cover her $173 rental fee for the stall, and her booth was one of the most popular because, Angela said, “desperate people pray.”
Jesus icons and rosaries still sold well, she told me. The best selling saint was the Virgen de Guadalupe, the brown-skinned Madonna of Mexico, but St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, came in a close second. After that, Santa Muerte and Malverde and other saints competed for the dollars of those “desperate people” who pray.
One morning, Inocencio let me accompany him on a buying trip to his suppliers—warehouses owned by American companies. Our first stop was at a large Mexican-import warehouse in south-central Phoenix. The warehouse was owned by an American company and carried American products, too. Inocencio took his sweet time, wandering up and down the aisles looking at cases of prayer candles. Araceli had been after him to buy a case of those thick candles encased in glass stamped with images of religious icons, like the Virgin of Guadalupe. Araceli knew that in hard times, these prayer candles sold well. She’d seen them fly off the walls of yerberías, Mexican herbal-remedy stores patronized by many newly arrived immigrants.
The warehouse carried the largest variety of candles Inocencio had ever seen. There were cases of Shut Up candles (you lit the candle, and by the time it burned out a few days later, the person who’d badmouthed you would shut up) and Come Back to Me candles (for jilted lovers) and Jesus Malverde candles, to name a few.
Inocencio purchased a case of Virgin of Guadalupe prayer candles, a case of Mexican Coke in bottles and a case of Fanta sodas. Soon, we were driving down Indian School Road in his old van, listening to cumbias.
The second warehouse was stocked with goods ranging from Love Rose tubes to baby diapers to manicure chairs.
Inocencio hoped to sell a lot of Mylar balloons on Valentine’s Day (he would rent a helium tank and fill the balloons at the dollar store), but he seemed stumped by one balloon that read, "When I said I liked you I was Lion! I love you!" I translated.
He didn’t say anything.
Inocencio chose instead a dozen bright-pink balloons with the words "You are my best friend" and "I love you!" along with "It’s a Girl!" balloons and "It’s a Boy!" balloons, a large case of Soft and Silky Bathroom Tissue, and a big carton of bleach.
Back in the van, Inocencio got lost, so we had a long time to talk. He told me Americans tended to have tidier yards than Mexicans. He told me the economy failed in part because immigrants had returned to Mexico. And he told me some immigrants cheated on their taxes, claiming more children than they had, just so they’d get refunds. This infuriated Inocencio, who paid his taxes and wanted Americans to have good impressions of Mexican immigrants. “These cheats,” he said, “don’t make it easy for the rest of us.”
We drove around an industrial park, trying to find the small warehouse owned by the American who’d stopped by the dollar store just to get Inocencio’s business. The American worked with a lot of Mexican corner-store owners, and unlike other wholesalers Inocencio patronized, the American delivered the goods to his customers in his delivery truck.
We finally found the warehouse. The American wasn’t around, but a Latina clerk greeted us. Inocencio spent almost an hour in the showroom, sniffing aftershave, puzzling over boxes of cake mixes—he almost bought a case of spice-cake mix, mistaking it for vanilla—and pricing candies and soap. He purchased cases of Mentos, cases of cleaning products, several bags of Mexican candies, laundry soap and a few boxes of cake mix.
The total bill for all three warehouses came to $391.21, and Inocencio had paid once with cash and twice with his credit card from Wells Fargo Bank. He owed about $3,000 on the credit card, most of these expenses related to the store.
When we returned to the dollar store, Araceli helped him unload the soda and candles, the bleach and Mylar balloons.
I thought back to what she’d told me when we first met.
Mexican consumers, she told me, were impulse buyers who liked to enjoy themselves when they had the money to do it.
“They like to eat, and they like to buy, eat and buy, eat and buy,” she’d said.
Inocencio and Araceli figured if Sheriff Joe had a change of heart and the recession let up and immigration reform got passed, they’d once again have a robust clientele who would eat and buy, eat and buy. They would hold out at the dollar store as long as they could, regardless of the personal sacrifices, because, honestly, they’d never been happier.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.