CUERNAVACA, Mexico — Marisela leaned out the gate and glanced down Calle Cuatlahuac, dusty and hot and filled with children and watchful old women. She has lived here for all of her 13 years, in Colonia Ruben Jaramillo, a settlement of a few thousand families near Cuernavaca, surrounded by rice paddies and fields of roses, by jacaranda trees and noisy cleft-tailed swallows.
"Do children play in the street up there too?," she asked, suggesting for the first time that she might be nervous about leaving her home for a strange American city 2,000 miles away. In a few hours, she and her two sisters would leave for Tijuana and, with luck, end up in Santa Ana, Calif., where they would join their parents and brothers and become mojadas (wets), as they call themselves--illegal immigrants.
Marisela's sister, Oralia, plopped herself down in a chair pressed up against the concrete kitchen wall. At 15, Oralia is the oldest of the three girls, and has been in charge since her mother left last year to join their father in the United States.
"I'm sad," she said. "I don't know when we'll be coming back."
When the girls' father, Jose, first left his home for the United States seven years ago, he figured he would be back in less than a year with enough dollars to lift his family out of poverty. Staying in the United States was not something he had considered.
His family, after all, had been one of the original half-dozen families to form the colonia. They had occupied the land--part of the communal farmlands that belonged to the local villagers--in 1972, to keep a local politician from unlawfully grabbing it for his son. Jose had helped carve the first street in the village out of the hillside, and was building a new house, one wall at a time, out of bricks and cement.
But Jose did not go back, except for two brief visits to see his family and to work on his house. Instead, his family has come to him in Santa Ana--first one son, then two more, then his wife and two more sons.
A few months ago, Oralia, Marisela and 11-year-old Marta became the last members of the family--whose last name has been withheld to protect their identity--to leave Mexico for Orange County. The house that Jose built is empty now; the big tin washtubs from the courtyard are pushed in the corner against the kitchen stove, the cupboards are draped with cloth.
In Santa Ana they will live in a house that Jose and his wife, Maria Luisa, rent; they share it with another Mexican family. When the girls arrive, 15 people will live in the three-bedroom house. Two sleep in the garage.
The family's story is typical of thousands of Mexican families who once viewed Orange County as a place to earn quick cash, but which they now call home. Estimates of the number of Mexicans in the county illegally range from 80,000 to 200,000 but most experts agree that the newest waves of immigrants include increasing numbers of women and children, many of them coming to join their husbands, fathers and brothers.
As complete families, they are changing the profile of the undocumented immigrant community. Their children are schooled here and learn English, and some go to college here; those who are born here, usually in county-funded hospitals, are American citizens. They hold permanent jobs and receive promotions. They get loans and buy cars and houses.
The family hopes for a better future are no longer based in Mexico; they have smuggled these, and little else, into the United States on their clandestine trips north.
Five members of the family hold jobs in Orange County. Two children are in school in Santa Ana--where illegal immigrants make up 22% of the school district's population--and the three daughters will enroll soon. The oldest brother is in night school, learning English. A granddaughter was born last year at UCI Medical Center in Orange. She is the family's first U.S. citizen.
"I had to go--what I earned just wasn't enough," said Jose one recent afternoon, sitting on a stack of Purina sacks in the back of the feed store where he works for $5.25 an hour. He speaks in his native Spanish, although he has learned enough English to wait on customers. When business is slow, Jose sometimes flips through a dilapidated Berlitz guide, learning new phrases.
He has worked in the store for seven years--the owners, a couple from the South, say they have "tried Anglos, but they just don't work out as well."
Had Work as a Mason
When Jose left Mexico, he had plenty of work as a mason, but if he earned 150 pesos a day (about $6 in 1978), it was a good day. And he and Maria Luisa had eight children to worry about.
"The children were all young, they needed clothing, food, money to keep on studying," Jose said. "It was a decision that I made very quickly. . . . We didn't want to separate. I remember that my wife was mortified. But I thought I wouldn't be there for more than six or eight months--a year at most."