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Good Life in the U.S. Comes at a Price

Steve Lopez / POINTS WEST

May 02, 2004|Steve Lopez

Erika Rojano is relaxing in the parlor of her three-bedroom ranch house at the close of another exhausting day in the United States, reminiscing about the good life in Mexico.

Don't get her wrong, she tells me as husband Alex helps 11-year-old Gio with his homework. She's happily married, has a good job and two cars in the driveway of a comfortable home just down the street from Azusa High School.

But something was lost in the move north five years ago from Guadalajara, and there's a look in her eyes that says she knows she'll never get it back.

"You have to work twice as hard here to have the same things," she says. The result, in her case, is less time for the things that have always mattered most -- family and friends.

Welcome to the rat race, amiga.

In Southern California, where the price of a roof over your head has leapt from ridiculous to obscene, I wonder about the trade-offs for recent immigrants who work two and three low-paying jobs. The chances of getting off that track are slim and none, as are the chances of getting their children into decent schools.

Erika represents a twist on that story because, like other middle-class transplants, it wasn't economic desperation that drove her north. She had a university degree in international relations and worked for an import/export company in Mexico, where she shared a nice duplex with her parents and went out to dinner and movies whenever the mood struck her.

Then Alex, a childhood friend, returned to Mexico for a wedding, and they fell in love. Each had a son from a busted relationship, but Alex, a public school teacher, was less portable.

So Erika moved from Guadalajara, where she often strolled through the historic downtown and past a 400-year-old cathedral, to Azusa, which has a Costco off the 210 Freeway and bills itself as the "gateway to the American dream."

Erika's path to that dream includes a two-hour commute to work each weekday morning in her Ford Escort station wagon, and a two-hour commute back home. She's an administrator for a small healthcare company, and her job site was switched in January from Long Beach to Newport Beach.

"I take the 60 to the 57 south to the 91 east to the 55 south and then the 73 south," she said as if she's been doing it for a hundred years. In Guadalajara, she said, a 45-minute commute is considered an eternity. In L.A., it's something millions of people aspire to.

"I'm tired," Erika said, "and all the time I spend on that road is killing me."

But not for long. Erika and Alex are having their first baby together in two weeks, and after that, she'll find work a saner distance from home.

The one good thing about the wretched commute, she said, is that it has been her only chance to stay in touch with friends -- by cellphone.

She almost seemed embarrassed to admit she's been reduced to that -- squeezing in friends while transitioning from the 57 south to the 91 east. But she doesn't have to apologize to me.

We're all in the same traffic jam on a road that hit capacity a long time ago. And as I keep revisiting the subjects of population, environment and immigration, it becomes more clear to me that I'm not writing about someone else.

I'm writing about me, about us, about the way we live.

Erika said that on her mother's first visit from Mexico, Mom was surprised by her daughter's new routines.

"She said, 'Look at this. Compare your lifestyle.' "

Erika put in a lot of hours at her job in Guadalajara, too, but the family enjoyed certain luxuries, including a housekeeper. That's out of the question in Azusa, and so are frequent trips to restaurants or the movies.

But Erika doesn't miss any of that as much as she misses the chance to meet friends for coffee, stroll through a public square and have routine family get-togethers no relative would think of missing.

"It's just a simpler lifestyle in Mexico," said Alex. A lifestyle centered on family and faith. Yes, you work. But that's not all you do.

Is the pace faster in America because a marketing-dominated culture keeps bombarding you with signals that you don't have enough? I asked.

I had my eye on a TV the size of a washing machine as I posed the question, but Erika and Alex said no. People are into acquisition in Mexico, too, Erika said, although they don't run up credit card debt the way Americans do. They buy what they can pay for and do without the rest.

"You have to work hard in Mexico, too, but I miss exactly what Erika is talking about," Alex said. "Here, it's hard to make friends and get together with them. I think we're doing better here relatively speaking than our relatives in Mexico. But I miss the relationships."

Erika had written to me after seeing my column last week about a woman named Sylvia, who was driven north from Mexico by poverty and brutality. That story is real, Erika said, but it's only one chapter of the immigrant story.

She wanted me to know her parents sacrificed to pay for her education, and that she worked hard to provide for herself.

She wished for a future in which people like her neighbors -- three families from Mexico stuffed into one house -- will find opportunities that keep them in their homeland.

Erika lives in America with a family she loves, and with no regrets. But in the end, she wanted me to know about the riches that are left behind by those who come north for love, or a few pieces of gold.

*

Steve Lopez will be on vacation this week. His column will resume May 12. Read previous columns at latimes.com/lopez.

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