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Not Much Time to Enjoy the 'Easy' Life

June 20, 2004|Steve Lopez

Guadalajara — I was supposed to meet Isabel Avalos in her home at precisely 6:30 p.m. to talk about the easy life for middle-class Mexicans, so I could compare it with her sister's high-pressured middle-class life in Azusa.

Just one problem.

Isabel was having trouble breaking away from her job as a financial planner for an international electronics company. Her aunt waited with me, having taken care of Isabel's 6-month-old son, Rodrigo, the entire day.

I sat in Isabel's living room watching the clock approach 7, and then 7:30. Rodrigo was not happy about it either. Or maybe he just wasn't thrilled to have a stranger lounging around.

Isabel called from the office a couple of times, promising that she was just about to finish up a workday that had begun 12 hours earlier. No telling whether she'd make it home to this small but comfy two-bedroom garden apartment before Rodrigo went down for the night.

The easy life was beginning to look like a familiar grind.

Six weeks ago, I had written about Isabel's sister, Erika, who was raised in Guadalajara but lives in Azusa with her husband and children. Erika had complained to me that immigrant stories were mostly about poor Mexicans willing to risk everything to get to the United States.

For once, she suggested, somebody ought to write about immigrants longing to get back to Mexico.

Erika, an administrator for a healthcare company in Newport Beach, insisted that life in the United States wasn't all it was cracked up to be. She had a wretched commute, she was working twice as hard as she had in Mexico and she had fewer belongings and less time for family.

If not for her husband's family obligations in Los Angeles, she said, she would run home to Guadalajara, a lovely metropolis with a stunning downtown district that showcases five centuries of history and culture. Not that Azusa doesn't have its points of interest.

Erika's parents visited her recently from Guadalajara and echoed their daughter's sentiments.

There's no rat race in Mexico, said her dad, a retired air traffic controller. Life is simpler, saner and safer.

If you're middle-class, maybe. But that's not a particularly large group in Mexico.

If the lives of campesinos were simpler, California wouldn't be overflowing with immigrants, both legal and illegal. And as for public safety, Mexico's got plenty of problems.

Isabel's parents were making a valid point about a Mexican culture that remains stubbornly and proudly family-centered. But Isabel's Guadalajara life looked pretty American to me.

It was just shy of 8 p.m. when Isabel, 29, got home and apologized for being late. Her husband, Alejandro, who works for the same company, was still at the office.

Isabel grabbed Rodrigo and hugged the boy, who was delighted to see Mama.

"I don't want to work this many hours," Isabel claimed when I asked if this was the slower, more balanced life her sister was referring to.

But as a college-educated professional, Isabel said, you can quickly get on a fast track in Mexico, and your boss doesn't care to hear about your family obligations.

The global economy is a hell without borders. You can have anything you want, if you're willing to sacrifice time, family or both. Even in Mexico.

Isabel has a plan, though. She's trying to set up her own housewares company, so she can spend more time with Rodrigo and the rest of her family. Until it's up and running, she'll work two jobs.

Whether her business venture works out or not, Isabel said, she would never dream of moving to the United States. She's visited Azusa.

Erika had it better in Guadalajara.

"When she lived here, Erika met with her friends for coffee every day," but doesn't have time now, Isabel said. Erika also used to go to dinner and movies frequently, but in L.A., where she's married to a teacher, they can't often afford such luxuries.

"I believe I earn less here than I would for the same position in the U.S.," Isabel said. "But I live pretty fine."

She and her husband have cars, nice furniture, and they've started to build a house not far from the leafy residential area where they now live. But Isabel says she isn't just talking about a comparison of material goods when she pledges her allegiance to Mexico.

You can talk to your kids in Mexico, she says, and they listen with respect. Many immigrants in the United States work so hard to survive, the kids become their own masters, and families slowly disintegrate. In her homeland, Isabel doesn't have to trade her language, culture or values.

"I'm in my country," she said with pride, as if calling out to her sister and all the others to come home.

It was getting late, and little Rodrigo was ready for bed. Isabel's husband was just now dragging himself home from work, here in the country where middle-class life, for better or worse, looks remarkably as it does north of the border.

Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at steve.

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