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Hardship City

Santa Ana is a crossroads for immigrants who come here to help keep Orange County clean and well-fed. They're living the American dream--sort of.

October 30, 2005|Scott Duke Harris | Scott Duke Harris last wrote for the magazine about the Orange County "affluenza" epidemic.

In the early 1970s, a used-car dealer on Santa Ana's First Street beckoned shoppers with a jaunty sign: We speak English! It was a wry acknowledgment of the city's emerging image as a somehow foreign, forbidding place. Among the sunny, sedate suburbs of Orange County, the city of Santa Ana could come across a little like big, bad Los Angeles, complete with barrios, gangs and crime.

Year after year, Spanish speakers had arrived by the thousands, mostly from Mexico, to seek work in the county's robust economy, with or without legal authorization. With wages low and rents high, they packed into Santa Ana's bedrooms, living rooms and sometimes garages. Many stayed and started families, intensifying and expanding the urban character of the county seat. Portable classrooms claimed school playgrounds. Cars crowded the curbs on streets shaded by sycamore, elm and jacaranda trees. Apartments bulged with people; the only sizable California city more densely populated is San Francisco. The 2000 census would reveal another startling fact about my old hometown: More than 150,000 of Santa Ana's 350,000 residents come from Latin America. Nearly three-quarters of its population hablan Espanol at home, the largest proportion in the nation.

Latino immigration also would help Santa Ana achieve a perplexing distinction in 2004--as America's No. 1 "urban hardship" city, in a study by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government. Even the institute's director expressed surprise that Orange County could harbor the winner (or rather loser) over Newark, N.J., and other usual suspects in the matrix of wages, housing costs, crowding and education.

Significantly, though, this quality-of-life analysis didn't factor in crime. And even though Santa Ana has long been considered dangerous by Orange County standards, it ranks low--3,436 incidents per 100,000 residents, less than half the crime of, say, Sacramento--in the FBI Crime Index for a city its size. This is all the more remarkable given the abundance of poor, young people (the median age is 26.5) living in tight quarters. The city has serious problems, but it's hardly as hopeless as the hardship study suggests.

If the prime-time soap "The OC" distills the mythology of wealthy, white Orange County, then perhaps a telenovela could dramatize Santa Ana--or "SanTana," the spelling that the OC Weekly's "Ask a Mexican" columnist sometimes uses to emphasize the three-syllable Spanish pronunciation (sanTAN-ah). Then again, viewers might not want to spend a vicarious hour with the masses who mop floors, change diapers, weed gardens and then retreat to cramped rentals, where sometimes they have to line up to use a single bathroom.

Like the unseen kitchen crew of a swanky restaurant, Santa Ana props up the prosperity that shimmers in Orange County. Here and throughout America, Latino immigrants defy the law to do the dirty work for low wages--and also for a sense of hope. Leo Chavez, a UC Irvine anthropology professor who focuses on immigration, describes the appeal of an unspoken covenant: "You can come here and you can expect that you'll work hard, and you may still be poor. But your children's lives will be much better. And by and large that was true. But now I think we're going back on that promise."

Nowhere will the backsliding be more evident, perhaps, than in a city such as Santa Ana.

Like many Mexicans who crossed the border without a formal invitation, Javier Montoya and Lucino Canseco each came with a plan so common that it's a cliche: Work hard, save money, then go home. Not long after arriving in Santa Ana, the two men landed restaurant jobs--Montoya washing dishes as a 16-year-old in 1981; Canseco busing tables at age 22 in 1990.

One year turned into two and then three. They became husbands and fathers of birthright Americans. Notions of returning to Mexico evaporated long ago. To hear Canseco and Montoya tell it--in English--they weren't pursuing the American dream. It ambled up on them.

Canseco has been a busboy for 15 years now, working the breakfast and lunch shifts six days a week at a busy, full-service eatery next to a motel. The lasagna lunch special, including salad and a beverage, costs $6.99. Canseco moves efficiently about the dining room, clearing and setting tables, filling water glasses and coffee cups. He earns $7.50 an hour, and the wait staffers share their tips, usually about $25 a week. He used to bring home more money simply by pulling double shifts, working 15 hours a day. Now he wants to save time for his 9-year-old son, Nestor, and wife, Belia, who makes a few dollars a week baby-sitting.

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