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Under the Freeway : A Migrant's Life by the Fast Lanes

July 20, 1986|PETER PAE | Times Staff Writer

The rumble of freeway traffic keeps Adolfo Reyes awake most nights, but when he dozes off he has a dream: Someday he will make enough money to bring his family from Mexico to the United States.

Reyes lives on a dirt ledge under a freeway in West Los Angeles with 25 other migrant workers.

They gather under the freeway each night after a day of cutting someone else's lawn, building someone else's house or cleaning someone else's home.

They sleep on discarded carpets, mattresses and sofas on the ledge that is six feet deep and three feet high. Some have battery-operated fans. All of them deal with the rats.

They are all men. For $1, a local YMCA lets them use its showers and bathrooms. Cooking is impossible under the freeway, so most eat at nearby restaurants.

Police Can't Evict Them

The dwelling under the freeway is like a way station, one of Reyes' friends said. "Most live under the freeway three or four months and then move on."

West Los Angeles police officials said they cannot evict the squatters because the land is state property--out of their jurisdiction.

"We, however, alerted the Fire Department officials, who found mattresses and other materials under the freeway a potential fire hazard," a West Los Angeles Police Department official said.

The state Transportation Department, which maintains the property, was cited for the fire hazards, a Fire Department official said. "They cleaned up the area, and then erected fences along the freeway."

But the squatters returned.

"We've done all we can," a Fire Department spokesman said. "It has been a persistent problem for about a year now. It is now up to the state Social Services Department to do something about it." The spokesman said the state agency would be notified.

Mary Burkhart, a homeowner near the freeway dwelling spot, said people have been living under the freeway since she moved to Los Angeles three years ago. "They are pretty quiet up there, and mind their own business," she said.

Reyes, 33, who said he has been in and out of the United States since the 1970s, said he lives under the freeway because he can't find an apartment he can afford.

"I prefer to sleep under the freeway and save money," said Alejandro Rios Rios, who came to the United States illegally through the border near Tijuana.

Rios, however, has been saving his earnings and hopes to find an apartment soon with three other friends who are also freeway dwellers. "I am not blowing my money on drinks anymore," he said.

During the day, Reyes and Rios wait for work with hundreds of other day laborers along Sawtelle Boulevard, between Ohio Avenue and Pico Boulevard. If they're lucky, they'll land a day job that pays between $3.50 and $6 an hour.

"Most employers will pay you $3.50 an hour," one migrant worker said. "But some will pay you $40 a day."

At night, Reyes goes to nearby University High School to learn English. By 9:30 p.m. he is back home under the freeway.

Sometimes, when their mattresses or their bodies stick out of the underpass, a passing police car will take their mattresses away or warn them to stay off the embankment.

"They usually don't give us a hard time if we don't have open containers (of alcoholic beverages)," said Rios, who has been living under the freeway for seven months.

Rios is known as the "philosopher" to his fellow squatters because he earned a college degree in Mexico. Most immigrants have only an elementary-level education.

Rios said he dislikes downtown Los Angeles. "I lived in Los Angeles and there was too much drinking, drugs and crime," he said. "I'm much happier here."

According to Rios, the Immigration and Naturalization Service about every four months raided an area where he once lived in La Brea. The squatters could not recall any INS raid in West Los Angeles since they arrived in the summer of 1985.

Most of the freeway residents said they are from Mexico, but some said they are refugees from El Salvador. The Mexican immigrants said the refugees have a harder time adapting to the freeway life style.

"They came here expecting to find friends or families willing to help them, but they found nothing here," Rios said.

But Reyes and others like him continue to dream of the day when they and their families will be living in one of the apartments across the street.

"We are always looking for a place to live once we make enough money, but it is very difficult," Reyes said.

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