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Immigrants in Poverty Cling Tightly to Dreams

November 16, 1989|JAMES M. GOMEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Elsa Saravia left the poverty of her village in the Honduran jungle on a search for a new life in the United States.

But almost a decade later, the 58-year-old, part-time housekeeper's dream home has turned out to be a cramped, two-bedroom apartment in the working-class city of Bell. She shares living quarters with 11 family members.

"I always dreamed of coming to America, but not to live like this," she lamented. Her apartment on Flora Avenue has a leaking roof, rotting floorboards, a broken toilet and rats. In fact, she said, her hand-to-mouth existence in Bell is not much different from her life in Central America.

Saravia's story is a familiar one in the predominantly Latino areas of Southeast Los Angeles County, where thousands of immigrants have settled.

The stories they tell are full of hope and ambition. They speak of a willingness to suffer temporary setbacks to ensure a future for their children.

But if the future looks bright, the present is dim for many immigrants who must suffer abject poverty.

On a Bell Gardens street, overlooking the Rio Hondo Golf Course, a young couple from Guadalajara, Mexico, live in a leaky, one-room shed that is surrounded by foot-high weeds and piles of discarded bricks and lumber.

Virginia Madrigal, 18, although pointing out the dirt floor, deteriorating wallboard, dangling electrical wires and lack of plumbing, spoke optimistically about the couple's efforts to clean up the almost unlivable home.

"This is much better than how it looked when we moved in," she said. A year ago, the couple moved from a two-bedroom apartment, which they shared with 10 other people.

"At least we have more room," she said, smiling.

Members of the Romero family, on the other hand, live almost elbow to elbow.

Family members began immigrating to the United States from Leon, Mexico, a decade ago. Now, there are more than a dozen family members living together in a three-bedroom apartment in Cudahy.

Sofia Romero, whose husband works evenings as a short-order cook, spends her late afternoons cooking large pots of beans, rice and meat for the family. After a hot meal of caldo , a vegetable and beef-rib soup, the Romero family talked about their hopes for a better future and made comparisons between life in Mexico and in Cudahy.

Romero said her dream so far has not diminished despite the poverty, the area's gangs and drug problems and the questionable immigration status of many family members.

Her goal is to see her 16-year-old daughter, also named Sofia, graduate from high school with honors and become a doctor. "Yes, that is what I want the most," the 38-year-old mother of four said. The younger Sofia agrees with her mother but scowls in embarrassment over the attention.

The younger Sofia often acts as an interpreter for the family. But as long as some members of the family remain in the neighborhood and speak only Spanish, there is no need for an interpreter.

"It's like home here in many ways," said the mother, talking about the Latino neighborhood that includes a Tianguis, a popular supermarket that specializes in Mexican products. But the money is better.

"You can make $4 an hour here," said cousin Lalo Contrera to the enthusiastic agreement of the other young men. "At home, you only make $4 a day."

Romero said she prefers the closeness of the family, despite the overcrowding. "They are all here because I want to help them and take care of them," she said. "We help each other; we give each other strength."

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