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Low Profile in Mexico : Alien Lottery Winner Plays It Cool, Frugal

October 27, 1986|PATT MORRISON | Times Staff Writer

APATZINGAN, Mexico — When Jose Caballero came home last Nov. 15, a double millionaire after winning the California lottery, the dusty town square was a tumult of cheers and banners.

But the parade was for someone else--a local hero, a welterweight boxer named Rene Arredondo. Jose Caballero, the illegal alien who had been filmed and feted and then ordered out of the United States--with his winnings--watched the parade, with some bemusement, from the crowds on the raised sidewalks that encircle the square.

There never was a parade for Caballero, and that is the way he likes it.

Now, a few days away from what he calls his "other birthday"--Nov. 4, the day he receives the second of 20 annual checks for $70,000 (his winnings after taxes)--the 25-year-old Caballero is keeping a low and frugal profile.

Worldwide Headlines

When Caballero, working as a furniture deliveryman in San Jose, won $2 million in the state's second "Big Spin," and then left the United States after being arrested as an illegal alien, he made worldwide headlines. A Chihuahua, Mexico, paper bannered the story, " ' Mojado' y Millonario "--" 'Wetback' and a Millionaire."

But back home now, the one-time "mojado" is not living like a millionaire. Of his first-year winnings, he has spent perhaps one-third.

There is the new four-bedroom house he bought in distant Morelia, where the young bachelor spends weekends with some of his family. "When I go there, nobody knows me," he says with some satisfaction. The house cost about $15,000, cash on the barrel head.

There is the new remote-control Sony color TV that sits on the shelf below the Spanish-language Reader's Digest Condensed Books in the Apatzingan house his father built 27 years ago.

There is more rented acreage for their papaya business, and a little something toward some land for a home of his own.

And finally there is Caballero's only toy: probably the only air-conditioned, stereo cassette-equipped Chevy pickup truck in Apatzingan. He still owes on this new truck. He paid only 50% down, the minimum in inflation-ridden Mexico. The salesman was "surprised," says a smiling Caballero, when he didn't pay it all, in cash.

Likes Donny Osmond

As the light-blue truck rounded the square on a recent morning, Caballero slipped in one of his tapes--Donny Osmond singing in Spanish. "He sings in six languages," says Caballero.

Caballero's English is severely limited at best; he didn't bother much with it in high school or business school, and now he regrets it. "I didn't think you need it, but you do." But he still lapses into phrases he picked up in his months in the United States, occasionally answering the phone "Hello," or once, shopping for a VCR in Morelia, startling the Mexican clerk--and himself--by saying, without thinking, "Excuse me, sir."

He taps the brakes lightly as he turns a corner. Out here, in the arid plains of Michoacan, Caballero wears cowboy boots, instead of the Reeboks he favored as a furniture deliveryman. But he still wears Levis jeans, from the stockpile of 15 pairs he bought at the San Jose swap meet where he used to work weekends selling furniture.

His jeans belt, with the letter "A" on its buckle--for Adalid, his middle name--is cinched a notch tighter nowadays. He has lost about 10 pounds since he got back, he says. He has done without his U.S. fast-food--Burger King Whoppers with cheese, and pizza with almost anything--and he waxes nostalgic about them. "We're new at that kind of thing here."

Still, plump or slim, there is no mistaking Efren Caballero's oldest boy. In this town of 70,000, fruit vendors and traffic cops wave as he drives by. In front of the Casa de la Constitution--Apatzingan's guaranteed place in the history books, the site where Mexico's first constitution was signed in 1814--he spots his cousin's husband. He pretends to nudge him with the new truck; the man grins, and they exchange an enthusiastic soul handshake through the open window.

Still the Same Guy

Those who knew him then and now, including his father and his mother, Maria, say he is pretty much the same fellow. Only his sister-in-law, Blanca, the U.S. citizen who interpreted for Caballero during last year's lottery brouhaha, believes he has changed "a little." How, she would "rather not say." He is still, she says, a nice guy.

Caballero seems to enjoy the glad-handing good wishes of townsfolk, like bank manager Roberto Barrajas, an old colleague who greets Caballero heartily at his desk in the bank, where Caballero still points out the stations where he once worked. Although the bulk of Caballero's money is in investment funds in San Jose, he keeps some of it here, for loyalty as well as convenience.

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