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INSIDE STORY

The Busboys of San Miguel

With American Dollars Earned at Two--Sometimes Three--Seasonal Jobs in Palm Springs, They Return to Central Mexico to Buy Farms and Build Mansions

December 14, 1997|DIANA MARCUM | Diana Marcum is a Palm Springs freelance writer and sometime waitress

Martin Garcia runs a full tub of beer glasses, greasy napkins and gnawed rib bones to he restaurant's kitchen. Table 41 needs plates cleared. Table 43 needs more water, coffee and two extra forks for mud pie. Three vacant tables need setting.

Garcia needs sleep. But he has six more hours of a two-job, 16-hour workday before he finally maneuvers around a darkened living room, feeling for an empty couch in the house he shares with five other men.

Garcia figures he has two more years of these relentless hours before he permanently rejoins his new bride, Cecilia, in the hand-carved, king-sized bed in the master bedroom of their new two-story house.

Other busboys--stacking glasses, mopping up a spilled bowl of ranch dressing--also own houses. Some own farms and ranches. Enrique "Chato" Franco, the youngest at 25, the one who keeps pushing an unruly lock of black hair out of his eyes, just bought a Chevy pickup to pull his jet ski. He has a snapshot of the shiny red truck tucked into his apron pocket.

But that life is some 1,700 miles away in San Miguel el Alto, Jalisco, a small Mexican town about an hour and a half east of Guadalajara. Here in Palm Springs, land of velvet golf greens and early-bird dinners, the task at hand is caring for the snowbirds who charge the $8.95 prime rib special on their gold cards.

"Con permiso! Con permiso!" waiters yell as they slam bodies to get to the soup crackers or a can of whipped cream. "Coming through! Hot soup! Hot soup!" shouts a cook. Garcia, 27, a mustache emphasizing his shy smile and dimples, moves through the mayhem with quiet intensity. He blends into the background as customers in booths make dinner conversation and pour another glass of Merlot. This is the invisible side of his double life: north of the border, a mere busboy; south of it, a baron.

*

If it hadn't been for the t-shirt, Richard Murray wouldn't be getting on this plane to central Mexico. The shirt had been a gift from Martin Franco Campos, a prep cook and busboy at Jeremiah's Steak House, where Murray is assistant manager.

Each time Murray wore the shirt, with its Spanish Colonial skyline, a homesick Campos would reminisce about San Miguel el Alto. The buildings are made of cantera, a pinkish-gray stone quarried in his town. The hills are green. The girls beautiful.

The two men started talking houses. Murray grew up in San Diego, where a kid could ride his bike to the beach and fall asleep to ocean sounds. It ate at him that even with a college degree, Murray could not afford the kind of house his father had bought at the same age.

Instead, he took a 30-year loan and bought a small house from an old woman who had homesteaded a piece of brush-covered desert in Morongo Valley. Murray, 34, spent much of his free time refinishing wood floors, installing sprinklers and, he hoped, building equity.

Franco Campos, 31, had more extensive projects in San Miguel. He had workers installing hand-painted tile in three bathrooms and finishing a 12-car garage where he could restore classic cars.

When Martin Garcia invited Murray to his August wedding in San Miguel, Murray immediately accepted. He had to see this rose-colored town where busboys built mansions.

*

San Miguel El Alto, a tidy mosaic of pastel-colored buildings, rose gardens and citrus trees, rises from an unending sprawl of pastures and empty fields. A tall, ornate cathedral built in 1612 anchors the plaza in the town of about 10,000 people.

Every afternoon, the plaza is empty but for a group of old men playing dominoes. Don Venencio always slams his dominoes down harder than anyone else, making a loud crack that ricochets around the square--he's a little hard of hearing from ringing the church bells for Mass. In the summer, there seems to be a Mass every hour, for in this season the men of San Miguel return to marry their sweethearts.

The rest of the year, says Refugio de Alba Sanchez, pushing back his big white sombrero, "it is here like it was in the States during the war: all women and old men."

Locals estimate that 90% of San Miguel's men have seasonal jobs in the United States. For generations, they had worked the fields of the Coachella Valley and the California coast. Then, in the early 1960s,

Lupe Loza and his friends discovered Palm Springs. It was the resort town's celebrity-laden, gin-soaked heyday, and the San Miguel men found they could make more money wearing an apron than picking crops.

Now almost every Palm Springs-area hotel, restaurant and golf course employs San Miguel natives who have green cards and reputations as "monster" busboys, waiters and cooks. Loza's son cooks at Billy Reed's, the same restaurant where his father worked until he retired.

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