Living in the shadows
To Enrique Cervantes, family is everything.
Every risk he takes is worth it if it means his four children are well fed and in good schools, he says.
“God only knows what would have happened to us if we were still in Mexico,” said Enrique, as he relaxed on the couch in his family’s one bedroom South Tahoe apartment. His wife, Estela, stirs a giant pot of pozole, a Mexican stew.
“Back on the ranch in Jalisco we could get cheese, but we had to walk two miles to get the basics, like meat and bread. If someone got sick we’d have to pay someone with a car,” he continued. “Then they sold the ranch and there was no work. In many areas I still wonder how some are even surviving. I couldn’t sit there with crossed arms. I had to do something.”
Enrique heard stories from relatives who sought work in the United States. He’d heard about how they were able to feed their families well and their children received a good education.
The idea of tearing the extended family apart broke his heart, Enrique said, but he could see no choice. He decided he would scout out opportunities in the U.S. and send for his immediate family if things worked out.
“I was so sad to leave. I hated to see my father’s face. He was afraid he’d never see me again,” Enrique said. “Thanks to God I had no problems getting across the border. I went to church and prayed for a safe journey. Forget about the fear, the hardest part was being separated from my family.”
When Enrique arrived in Los Angeles, his head was full of many thoughts, he said. The city was very spread out, and transportation was difficult. He missed the ranch.
“I spent 10 days in L.A., and I thought, ‘This is the U.S.? It’s supposed to be beautiful,’ I was sad,” Enrique said. “Then my uncle called and told me there was work in Tahoe – he said there were no problems there. My cousin lived there too.”
Using false documents, Enrique immediately landed a job in Tahoe. He hoped Estela would come and make a home before sending for their children. Five months later, she did.
“I felt really, really bad leaving my children with their grandmother,” Estela said. “But the kids told me to go ahead, that their father might otherwise forget about us. They said, ‘If it’s nice there, send for us, otherwise come home.'”
Remarkably, the Cervantes family was able to pool resources and come up with $700 to pay the “coyotes.”
“The first time I tried to cross, the border official tore my fake papers to pieces,” Estela said. “I had to wait more than two weeks before trying again.”
The second time, in order to look like the photo on the document, Estela had to cut her hair and dye her eyebrows. It worked.
After months of uncertainty, Estela and Enrique were reunited. The couple, who were married in a small Mexican town at the ages of 16 and 18, now found themselves in their mid-30s in a strange culture.
Nine busy months went by without the four children. Enrique worked nights cleaning the floor of a large local business, Estela worked days as a maid – jobs they still have.
Working as independent contractors for low wages, neither has ever known what it’s like to have health benefits or vacations.
“One day Enrique’s cousin found me crying for my children – I’d seen all the things I wanted to give them,” Estela said. “My mother was afraid to send them – afraid she’d never see them again.”
Although the couple had sent money home in hopes of eventually bringing their children to Tahoe, it was Enrique’s cousin who went back to the ranch to get them. He crossed back over the border successfully, saying the four children were his.
Shortly after, Estela got a telephone call she’ll never forget.
“I have your kids,” the cousin told her. “They’re here with me in L.A.” He brought them to Tahoe the next day.
“I was so happy,” Estela said. “Thank God we are now all here together.”
The entire Cervantes family has been in Tahoe for about a year and a half.
Life is bustling inside the one-bedroom apartment. Floors are scrubbed clean, beds are made and the curtains are pressed. The smell of pozole fills the room as the children arrive home from school.
“I didn’t want to come here, I cried. I miss my uncles and grandparents,” said 15-year old Alma, the oldest. “But I feel comfortable at school. There are a lot of Mexicans and the teachers speak a little Spanish. But some American kids make fun of us and shout out ‘migra!’,” (a false alert that immigration officers are coming to get them).
Estela says she wants her kids to go far in school, learn English and get proper documents so they can stay without problems.
Both Enrique and Estela never made it past the fifth grade.
“My mother died when I was 11. I was the one who had to raise the other five children,” Enrique said. “When you work on the ranches, you go to school only certain months due to the harvests. To my parents it was not a big deal if I went to school. There was only one teacher for six grades. I had to work.”
Despite the advantages of being in the U.S., Enrique often worries about his children.
“I’m afraid of the problems you see on TV. I want them home early,” said Enrique, who is usually working while his children are in bed. “I’m worried something might happen. I don’t want them picking up bad habits, like baggy pants and tattoos. Sometimes the neighbors drink and the police come.”
The Cervantes’ dream to save money and buy a house back in Mexico has now been replaced with the unending struggle to cover rent, utilities, food and unforeseen medical costs – not to mention money sent to struggling relatives still in Jalisco. But Estela says it’s worth it, despite the foreign and often baffling culture that exists outside their windows.
“I could never give them in Mexico what I can give them here,” she said. “There was barely enough to eat there. We’re lucky to have jobs.”
“We come here in peace to eat, live better and work hard for our children. We don’t want trouble,” Enrique said. “But it’s hard to turn your back on your loved ones back home. Only those with dark, hardened hearts aren’t bothered by it. Occasionally, when I go back to visit my brothers and parents on the ranch, my heart wants to jump out of my chest – I’m so happy to be home.”
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