Live Like an Illegal Immigrant!

Photo by Jeanne RiceYou've been laid off from your expense-account job, and that dream of a Newport Beach split-level with an ocean view has suddenly been reduced to a duplex along the banks of the once-mighty Santa Ana River. The economy is tanking, your high-tech stock is squat, and career options now consist of daily hits and calling about that greeter position at Wal-Mart.

When things were good, you read Fast Company and Wired and looked to people like Sumner Redstone and Jack Welch for guidance; you paid hundreds of dollars to sit in all-day “Winners!” seminars or $35 for poorly ghost-written, how-to-be-rich-and-successful books filled with big pictures, big type and big promises of a good life that now seems far out of your reach. . . . Or is it?

Lemme ask you: Would you like a brand-new car? How about free child care? Care to party hearty every weekend or have people better-looking than you fighting to take you out? Of course you would. But how, you ask, is it all possible?

Well, what if I told you that the good life is not only attainable but also being lived by tens of thousands of Orange County residents right now. What's more, they're willing to share their secrets of success for free.

Welcome to the world of Orange County's undocumented!

“Huh,” you say. “You mean illegal immigrants? Why they're just those stooped farm workers and quiet old ladies who mop my bathroom floor.”

Yes, but what if I told you that farm worker is the treasurer of his hometown benefit association, aggressively negotiating between the Mexican and American governments? Or that the maid tends an organic garden that produces enough to feed her family? What if I told you that undocumented workers get more for their food, clothing and entertainment dollar and live in the kind of tight-knit communities that are the envy of master planners everywhere?

You see, insurmountable odds have a way of bringing out the best in humans. And it is the poorest of the poor—eight million of whom are illegal immigrants living in the United States—who not only survive in tough times, but also thrive.

It's about sticking together, looking out for one another, seeing one another—as another member of the Joad clan put it—as part of one big soul.

The good news: you don't have to evade the INS to live the fabulous life of an undocumented worker.

Here are the secrets of current and former illegal immigrants living the good life with little or no money. Just follow this easy three-part program, and live the life you've only dreamed about. Just promise us the next time you see one of your mentors mowing your lawn or cleaning your bathroom, you'll stop and say thanks.


There was a time when you considered it slumming to eat anywhere that didn't have finger bowls and warm towels. Now you're eyeing dumpsters like hot food trays in a smorgasbord. Does it have to be like this? No. Consider Irma. When her husband was deported a couple of years ago back to their native El Salvador, she had to make the family's already meager cash stretch even further.

“I couldn't even afford to go shopping for food at places like Northgate or La Rioja,” she says, referring to Mexican supermarkets that offer produce at vastly reduced prices.

Rather than approach the government or a social-service agency for assistance—and risk joining her husband in a San Salvador barrio—she scraped along on food donated by friends and family. Then, one day while shopping at a swap meet, Irma discovered a stand that sold supermarket food.

“There was everything: tortillas, diapers, granola bars,” she recalls with wonder. “And the prices fit into my budget perfectly.”

The prices would fit your current budget, too: 50¢ for a box of Lucky Charms, $1 for 10 cans of corn. “I think the food was stolen from grocery stores or something must have been wrong with it because the canned foods were always bent out of shape and packages that were supposed to be sealed were open,” she says. “But the food was good; we never got sick because of it.”

But if even cents on the dollar for your sustenance is too much, you might consider growing your own food.

“It's hard to grow crops because houses here in the States don't have much open space,” says Julia, whose back yard is filled with delicious corn, sugarcane and cactus. “But it's better to grow your own food than to spend a bunch of money buying stuff that's covered in chemicals anyway.”

You won't be limited to what you grow; Julia and her friends do almost no shopping by trading amongst one another the products that each grows. “One of my friends even raises chicken for our group,” she says. “And we get our beef and milk from another friend in Riverside.”


Lesson: Food is life, and a successful life requires a good deal of risk. Embrace that risk, swallow it whole—as long as it has no obvious signs of taint. Also, it couldn't hurt to have a Riverside meat connection.

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) 34-32-66×68;]

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].”

The cost?

“I always try to give her at least $50, but she always refuses,” Alicia says.

Lesson: It takes a village—and a short-tempered relation.

The love of huge gas-guzzlers is not unique to you and your kind. You share it with your average illegal immigrant. For reasons known only to cultural anthropologists (status anxiety) and Freudian psychologists (compensation), many undocumented young men save their cash diligently over the years only to splurge it on a troca del año (brand-new truck) or SUV. These illegal immigrants have been influenced by the SUV-driving elite in the belief that image is everything.

“Look, I work my ass off all week and have to share a bed with another man who I don't even like at night,” says Jorge, a 26-year-old native of Zacatecas who owns a 2001 Dodge Ram with a 10-CD changer. “So if I'm going to be suffering up here, at least when I go back home [to Mexico] or if I go to parties during the weekend, I'll have something to show off.”

To save money to pay for the truck, Jorge works two nearly full-time jobs in addition to weekends cutting grass and cleaning pools in Placentia. After saving diligently over five years, Jorge put down $15,000 to buy the truck (a friend with papers had to buy it for him) and now guards it zealously.

“I have no insurance, not even a driver's license,” he says. “If a cop ever stops me, my truck is screwed.”

Lesson: The most important thing in life is . . . a 10-CD changer?! Sweeeeeet!

You can't even afford the $2 ATM fee to access your life savings, and your IRA is down the drain. Do what illegal immigrants have done for years: buy tomato cans. You see, until Wells Fargo recently changed its policy, illegal immigrants were unable to open bank accounts, so . . .

“We couldn't save our money at a bank, but we had to keep it somewhere safe,” says Angela. “So I'd go to the old Hunt-Wesson cannery in Fullerton, request an empty can, and slit a small hole in it. I'd leave it with the rest of the food so if anyone robbed our house, they wouldn't even know all that money was there.”

After years of making weekly deposits of $50 with every check, she and her husband saved a sizable nest egg. “We were able to pay our daughter's entire quinceañera with it (about $9,000).”

Lesson: Remember all that money you lost on Enron stock? You were investing in something called “electricity futures.” At least you can touch a tomato can.

Photo by David Bacon
Take a cue from illegal immigrants, whose political policy is extraordinarily libertarian.

“I don't care for the politics of this country because they're going to screw over everyone somehow, regardless of the party or immigrant status,” says Benjamín, a 46-year-old native of Michoacán.

What have Benjamín and countless other individuals done to improve their lives in this country and the motherland? Prove to the Mexican and American governments that they are indispensable to the well-being of both nations. The governments need them, not the other way around.

Benjamín is an active member of his rancho's benefit association, holding quarterly dances to raise funds for the tiny hamlet's modest infrastructural needs. The rest of the time, he washes dishes in a Garden Grove hotel, a member of the silent service-sector economy that keeps this nation rolling and is addicted to illegal immigrants.

“Both countries need us, even if they hate to admit it,” Benjamín says with a hint of bitterness. He's right. Because of hometown associations like the one to which Benjamín belongs, Mexican politicians actively court the Mexican-immigrant vote. And before Sept. 11, President George W. Bush openly talked of granting amnesty to the United States' most invaluable workers.

All this attention paid to people who don't truly belong to either country? Meanwhile, your Member of Congress won't give you the time of day.

Lesson: “Show your government that it is unnecessary, and take care of yourself,” Benjamín says. “Then they'll come back to you like the pendejos they are.”



“I almost never shop at malls for clothes,” boasts María. Instead, she frequents weekend yard sales and swap meets for many-times-used-but-still-wearable clothes for her family; an entire week's wardrobe can be bought here for less than $50. “If I really want to get fancy, I'll go to la segunda [thrift stores],” she says.

Don't wince in disgust at the prospect of buying already-worn clothes; María says you'd be surprised at what you can find. “One time, I was looking for clothes for my kids and found a beautiful dress that cost me $20. I thought it was expensive at the time, but when I wore it to a party, my daughter's friend saw it and said that she saw the exact same dress for several hundred dollars up in Beverly Hills!”

Like Maria, Lucas has only disdain for those who pay retail.

“Anyone who buys CDs or stereos from big stores deserves to be ripped off for their stupidity,” says Lucas. He's a part-time DJ who got all his equipment and most of his 500-plus CD collection from years of haggling with vendors at the swap meet.

“They're always going to tell you that they can't go any lower on their prices,” he says, adding, “The vendors are always lying.”

His advice for bargaining: “Give them a price, and when they refuse it, say forget it and leave. Come back later in the day—like in the afternoon, before they leave—and ask them if they've sold it yet. Most likely, they'll say no. Then tell them that you'll buy it, but only if they reduce the price to what you originally offered. They'll be so desperate to sell by then you'll have a good bargain.”

Lesson: Cash will always be the most fashionable accessory.

Ricardo's life consists of five days of strenuous labor and weekends jam-packed with parties.

“There's always more than four parties I can go to any Saturday,” he says. Ricardo has merely plugged into his rancho's network of celebrations. “If it's not a wedding, then it's a baptism, quinceañera, a birthday party. Regardless, there's always great food and live music for dancing. Best of all, it's free!”

Of course, there comes a time in every person's life when they tire of parties and think about settling down. Joaquín was a loser with the ladies; he didn't have a car to pick them up or a place of his own, and the rigors of working 60 hours per week as an auto mechanic left him exhausted by Friday night.

“I still wanted a wife or at least someone to spend some time with,” he says. Forgoing the women already here in the States (“They're too crazy for me,” he says), Joaquín went back to his rancho in Guanajuato about five years ago and married a 17-year-old girl (he was 24 at the time). Their honeymoon: a trip back to el Norte with 10 other immigrants crammed in a van that slipped unnoticed past the migra.

“Down there, there are no guys left, and all the girls are dying to get out of the rancho,” Joaquín says. “They'll marry anyone, even an ugly guy like me, as long as it means moving to the United States.”

Lesson: The most important thing in love is . . . a 17-year-old girl?! Sweeeeeet!

“I try not to go out,” says Susana. “I'm an illegal immigrant.”

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