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Crisis Looms for Latinas Near Retirement

May 06, 2000|AGUSTIN GURZA

She is already seated at a table Wednesday afternoon when I enter a small front office at Latino Health Access. With her are two volunteers from the Santa Ana nonprofit that has just completed a study of middle-aged Latinas as they approach retirement.

Her name is Beatriz Murphy, a Mexican immigrant from Sonora whose surname hints at Irish roots buried along with her father when she was 3. She's now 55, the mother of three grown children she raised mostly on her own. She is small, slight and shy. Flashes of a youthful spirit still flicker in her green eyes. But her face appears prematurely aged, a sign of the depleting pressures of poverty.

She's been selected to be my interview subject, the person who will put a face on the dry data of dead-end lives. Her story is a case study in the fears and insecurities faced by poor Latinas like her. They are working women who have arrived empty-handed at the vestibule of old age after a lifetime of labor in Orange County's underground, immigrant economy.

We meet here at the office, I'm told, because Beatriz is embarrassed about her crowded living conditions. Five family members cram into a one-room cottage where she sleeps in a bunk bed and cooks on a portable grill. Later, when I ask what's her one wish in life, she'll let herself dream about having a better house some day with a room of her own.

I don't usually like formal, arranged interview settings. To Beatriz, who sits stiffly, this must seem like a job interview. She actually borrowed her outfit from a sister, to appear more presentable for me. She's wearing a coral coat over a cotton dress with a floral pattern in complementary red-orange hues. Reddish highlights help mask the gray in her chestnut hair, which looks thin and slightly disheveled.

Her work history is typical of the thousands of immigrants hired to wash the cars, clean the houses, cook the food and care for the kids of those of us in the mainstream economy. They help us build our secure futures, while they work themselves into financial ruin.

Did I say work history? Not really. Nobody ever kept track of it for Beatriz. Not officially. Her memory holds the only record of where she's worked.

Her employers were usually white. They lived from Palos Verdes to Los Alamitos. Sometimes she served as their live-in nanny; sometimes as a housekeeper commuting by bus. She was almost always paid in cash. No payroll, no health insurance, no paid holidays.

Today, she is diabetic and works only sporadically. So after 20 years of labor accumulated from job to job since she was 15, there is no trace of her contributions as a productive employee.

She and her family will have nothing to show for it.

No savings, no pension, no home equity, no 401(k). But worst of all, she will have no Social Security since neither she nor her employers ever paid into the system. She can't even say for sure what Social Security is.

"I've heard of it, but I didn't pay much attention," says Beatriz, who never learned English.

And now, how does she feel about facing such an uncertain future?

"Well, I feel sad that I wasn't able to do something for myself," she says, speaking with a soft voice and expressive hands. "I never thought I'd need help. Now that I'm sick, I do worry more about it.

"But now it's too late."

Beatriz is one of 108 low-income women who participated in the study of Latinas between 45 and 64. All of them live within a targeted Santa Ana ZIP Code, 92701, a pocket of what we used to call the underprivileged.

Are they ready for retirement? Will they be able to get good health care when they need it most? Will they remain independent, or become a burden to their families and society?

The answers, to be released Wednesday, are alarming, says Mary Paul, a gerontologist and board member of Latino Health Access, which promotes health care education.

"We find that these women are absolutely vulnerable," she says. "We need to do something quickly to prevent a catastrophe."

The overall concerns about the security of aging baby boomers mask the severe crisis facing the poorest segments of society, says Paul, who also sits on Orange County's Senior Advisory Council.

Statistically, Latinos stand out as a young population. Yet nearly one in five Latinas are older than 45. And the older segment is growing fast. By 2020, the Latino population older than 60 will increase 336% by county estimates.

Being old is hard enough. Being old and poor is a real hardship.

Among the women in the study, 60% were widowed, divorced or alone. The vast majority--90%--had no idea what it takes to qualify for Social Security benefits. That means many of these women won't be eligible for Medicare when they turn 65, says Paul, since the federal health program is linked to Social Security eligibility.

What they need is more information, she says. They need to be told how to find available resources, especially for preventive care.

"I am desperate to change the future for these women," says Paul.

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