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Making Santa Ana Home

* Assimilation: The first wave of Granjenal emigres re-created their little hometown in the big city. But as their presence transformed a town, they changed as well. In a centuries-old pattern, they became Americans.

August 04, 1997|NANCY CLEELAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — In a haggard neighborhood of rental houses and faceless apartment buildings, of rusting shopping carts, produce trucks and litter blown against chain-link fences, the rebirth of a dying Mexican village began.

Here, near 1st Street and Grand Avenue in the heart of Santa Ana, the first people from Granjenal settled 35 years ago, after two decades of following crops around the American Southwest under the U.S.-sponsored bracero program.

This is where hundreds of relatives and friends followed--some with papers, some illegally--as their town in the parched hills of northern Michoacan state emptied.

Orange County's fast-growing suburban sprawl created a hungry job market, and Granjenal's people developed a reputation as uncomplaining and adept at the low-skilled muscle work that was the foundation of the construction trade--digging ditches, pouring concrete, laying irrigation lines and planting sod.

Their new neighborhood was affordable and, more important, within walking distance of the Laborers Union, Local 652, where most men reported at 5 a.m. to be trucked to work at new tracts in the southern part of the county.

Newly arrived families shared apartments or houses near one another, slowly re-creating their community and cushioning the jolting transition from rural Third World poverty to urban blue-collar life.

At the same time, they helped transform Santa Ana from a city of English-speaking, American-born Anglos to one that is overwhelmingly Latino and Spanish-speaking, and increasingly foreign-born.

Their story is typical of immigrant movement from rural areas, a process known to anthropologists as network migration.

"A pioneer manages to establish a foothold in a place and then serves as the focal point for others," UC Irvine anthropology professor Leo Chavez said. Those who follow cluster together for a generation or two before assimilating into the culture. "That's pretty much the story of immigration."

Joined by weddings, baptisms, funerals and Sunday Mass, by twice-a-year dances at the union hall and by soccer games that pitted them against other immigrants, the people of Granjenal held on as tightly as they could to the intimacy of a small town.

Over time, however, the immigrants learned their new community was as fleeting and illusory as the summer rains at home that so often promised, then failed, to give life to fields of corn.

They could not maintain the tranquillity and connectedness of rural Mexico in urban America, a place that Granjenal's people found to be isolating, immoral and dangerous. With opportunity and vastly higher incomes came financial pressure, fear of crime, occasional--though still rare--divorce and unrelenting competition from others with the same dreams.

In the span of a generation, the people from Granjenal had become American.

"There are things people lose when they leave their roots, and they don't realize it until it's too late," said Francisco Lopez, 59, a construction worker who settled in Santa Ana in 1962 and eventually brought his wife and eight children north.

Lopez would do it again, he said, because he had no choice. He could not have provided for his children by working his tiny plot of land in Granjenal. Still, he dreams of the easy pace of his hometown, where he knew every neighbor and where life presented fewer possibilities but was safer and simpler.

"I think of life here as a sort of slavery," he said. "There is a constant need to work to pay the bills. . . . We have an expression for the life here: We call it the platter of gold--you can touch it, but it never belongs to you."

Lopez is a stocky man with a soft handshake and small eyes that shine with pride when he speaks of the Orange County tracts he helped build--Mission Viejo, Irvine, Rancho Santa Margarita. "Leisure World, the place with the big globe, the men of Granjenal built that," he said.

The same look of pride dances across his face when Lopez cites his daughter's graduation in June from Santa Ana's Century High, in a class with six other children of Granjenal, and when he tells of his son's recent swearing-in as a U.S. citizen.

As Americans, his children have far more opportunity, said Lopez, whose education ended at the fifth grade. That alone justifies the sacrifices he made, he said.

But the transition was hard on his generation. For 35 years, Lopez worked back-straining jobs. He endured years of separation from his family, and once they joined him here, he struggled to pay for rent, food and clothing.

Even now, he struggles.

Every morning at 6, Lopez reports to the union hall, a beige, one-story building near Chestnut and Grand avenues in east-central Santa Ana that has become a second home to Granjenal's emigrants. In a windowless back room, he joins dozens of men from his hometown at large round tables, where he plays cards and banters, and waits for his name to be called.

Lopez, who is paid only when he works, has waited for months.

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