As told to Tamar Brott
They told me you could make $50,000 a year here, but that’s a lie. I came from Nicaragua when I was 32, and now I’m 38. I sell tamales at MacArthur Park. On a nice day, I can sell about 70. First thing I do when I wake up is go buy the masa and the pork and the chicken. That ends up costing $30. Then I make the tamales. That takes three hours. Then around four o’clock or four-thirty, I start selling them. I always sell on the same corner. The vendors divide up the area. It’s like an honor system. This one takes that corner, and that one takes another. I charge $1 for each tamale, so I make $40 profit on a good day. But I have to give $20 of it to the cholos. They own these streets, and everyone has to pay rent. If you don’t, they beat you.
My story is very sad. Before I came here my husband abandoned me and my children for this person from El Salvador. I have six children. Their names are Fanny Lizet, Carlos Humberto, Josefina Cecilia, Jocelyn del Carmen, Gerald Antonio, and Francis Raquel. I used to have seven children, but there was a flash flood, and my youngest, Marco Antonio, was swept away and died. He was 18 months old, and I had too many kids to save them all. We lost everything, our house and all the things in it. My sister who lives here sent money and told me to come. In Nicaragua, you hear how beautiful America is, how people earn in one day what it takes a month to make there. My dream was to replace what we had lost and to send my children money so they could get an education. When I told my mother I was going to cross over, she cried and cried for fear that I wouldn’t make it. It took eight months to get ready. The hardest thing was knowing that I had to say good bye to my children. It was awful. It’s hard enough to lose one, but then to lose the other six right afterward.
It took me months to get to this country. I had a lot of trouble along the way. When I crossed from Guatemala into southern Mexico, I was robbed by a man who said he would help me get to the United States. He said I had to change my money from quetzals to dollars, so I gave him $340 worth, and he never came back. That was my life’s savings. I had to spend the next six months selling oranges and pineapples on the streets of Veracruz. The manager at the hotel where I was staying asked if I needed a coyote to help me cross. Coyotes are people who take you over the border into the United States. The manager introduced me to a coyote, who said it would cost me $2,500 to cross. I had no money at that point, so I cried and told him that I would work for him for a couple of months, cleaning bathrooms and cooking for the people who came illegally from Central America, if he would take me over. He agreed.
Many people who cross over into the United States don’t prepare. They don’t bring water, and they die of exhaustion. Luckily my coyote knew what he was doing. We had enough food and water. The trip was brutal. On the Mexican side, we climbed through drainage ditches full of filthy water. Then, on the U.S. side, we walked through hills in California. It was cold and exhausting, and I saw five dead bodies. There was the body of a lady, the body of a young girl, the body of a boy, and the bodies of two men. One man was just a pile of bones. They just lay there decaying. The odor was horrible. I was terrified. The only thing that kept me going was my desire to see my children succeed. At the beginning, we were 40 people, but then some got cold and tired, and the coyotes left them in the hills. Coyotes don’t wait. A coyote is a merchant. All he cares about is money. Later I heard that the people left behind were picked up by immigration. By the end there were only eight of us left. They put us in a van with its windows sprayed black, and they made us lie down and drove us to this house in Glendale.
The house had a black rug and it was filthy, and the bathroom was filthy. We all smelled from the trip, so they let us take showers, and then they let some of us go. They let me go because I had paid in advance by working. But they held people who weren’t paid up until their family members came with money. One guy—they told his sister they would kill him if she didn’t come and pay what was due. They didn’t hurt him, but they would have if she hadn’t paid. Sometimes, if a woman is beautiful, they never let her go. Luckily none of them fell in love with me.
From the house in Glendale, I tried to call my sister who lives here, but there was no answer. Then I went outside and saw that there were all these buses passing by. I wondered if one went to my sister’s house. I didn’t know because I can’t read Spanish or English. It’s embarrassing to admit it, but I can’t read or write, I was scared to ask. I kept thinking, “What if these people on the street are disguised, and they’re really the police and they take me away?” Finally I got on a bus, and I said to the driver, “I want to go to Los Angeles.” He said, “What part of Los Angeles?” I said, “I’m not sure.” The bus went to Marina del Rey, and then it started to turn around. The driver said, “This is the end of the line. You have to get off.” I told him, “Look, I don’t know anything. I don’t know even how to read.” He said to take another bus and transfer to the 18, which goes to MacArthur Park. I phoned my sister, and it turned out she lived nearby. When I got to her house, the first thing I did was call my mother. It was August 11, 2001. My mother cried and cried with happiness. She told me that not everybody has the luck that I had. “You may not be able to read or write,” she said, “but if you work hard in America, you’ll succeed.”
“I’ve never heard of any success stories on the street, except for drug dealers and thieves. The only success we’ll have is sending money to our kids.”
A month later it was 9/11. I was scared that it would happen in Los Angeles, too, and I thought of going back home, but I stayed because I needed to send my family money. I wanted to live with my sister, but her husband wouldn’t let me. He insulted me, and I insulted him back, and he never forgave me, so I had to spend my first eight days sleeping in MacArthur Park. It was dangerous. The park is full of addicts and gangsters, and I was terrified. You never know who’s crazy, or who’s a drug addict, or who’s homeless, or who’s in my situation. For the first five days, I was too scared to sleep. I finally lay down on a bench under a tree and was just dozing off when these addicts tried to take my purse. They were Latinos—a woman in a yellow blouse and a black hat and a man in a blue hat with white letters on it. He grabbed the strap of my purse. I wouldn’t let go. He pulled harder and started to drag me. I fell to the ground, but I kept hanging on to the purse. I had only $60, but I needed it to eat. I said, “I’m not giving you my purse,” and finally they went away. I’ll never forget that purse. It was a small black purse. It looked like a little empanada.
Once the sun came up, I would go to a Laundromat and use the bathroom, and when my sister’s husband left, I’d go to her place and shower. When he got home again, I’d leave and walk around in the dark. I would get scared and come back and knock on their door, but he would tell her not to open it. I’d stand outside crying, saying, “Why don’t you open the door?” And she would be on the other side crying, “Because he doesn’t want me to.” She never stood up to him. When I told my mother on the phone that I had been living in the park and that I’d been attacked, she cried and told me to come home. “Even if we were poor,” she said, “at least we had a roof over our heads.” But I said to myself, “I can’t leave. I need my children to be educated. I need them to grow up and be able to defend themselves.” Thankfully I made friends with a very nice woman who let me come live with her. She gave me room and board for an entire month. I was fortunate to meet someone with such a good heart.
At first I got a job in a sewing factory, making women’s blouses. Then I met this woman from Honduras who told me she had better-paying work. She took me to a Vons and filled my purse with infant formula and told me to walk out with it. At first I said no, but the woman convinced me that nothing would happen. That woman was a liar. A detective caught me, and they put me in jail for 17 days. I’m not sure why they didn’t deport me. They told me, “You know, you could be deported right now, because you don’t have papers.” I said, “Yes.” But the judge let me go after I’d served my sentence. That’s when I said, “Never again will I take something that isn’t mine.”
After that I started selling tamales and rice pudding. Thank God, I’ve been able to make a little money and support myself. You can buy all kinds of different tamales at MacArthur Park. That’s because the people who sell them are from all different regions. But I learned to make tamales in Nicaragua, and I make them the way they make them there, with rice and potatoes and a lot of meat and onions and tomatoes. The other tamale makers just have the masa, and they stick the meat in the middle. But I flavor the masa. I fry the meat in lard with green tomatoes and broth cubes. Whatever I don’t sell I always throw out, because I would never want to sell an old tamale and make someone sick.
It isn’t just the cholos who give you trouble. Sometimes the police come and confiscate our things. They throw them away right there in front of us, and sometimes they’ll put us in jail. Once they threw away $60 worth of my tamales and the cooler and the pot and pan I use to make them in. They threw it all in the trash. I don’t think they should throw our things out. I think it’s unfair that we get arrested but the criminals walk the streets. One time they arrested me and held me for six hours, but I didn’t get charged with anything. I told them about my situation and how I’ve sent money to my kids, and I guess they felt sorry for me. But they didn’t give me back my merchandise. It’s disheartening, but you can never give up. If they take our stuff, we’ll just come back the next day.
Whatever money I make I send to my children, usually $40 a week. I buy phone cards to call them. I try to talk to them at least once a day. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes the children say hurtful things, especially the older ones. Three days ago when I called, one of my daughters, who is 14, said that the $250 I sent them for Christmas was too little. “There’s six of us,” she said. “This isn’t enough! We couldn’t even afford tamales for Christmas!” I said I was sorry, but that I don’t have a mold to make money in. People down there think money grows on trees here. They don’t realize how hard life is here, how much it takes out of you. When I tried to explain, she said, “Yes, well, I understand that, but we haven’t eaten!” She said that she didn’t love me anymore. “You’re a bad mother,” she said. “If you were a good mother, you would have stayed with us in Nicaragua, even if we had to just eat tamales and tortillas. So we don’t love you anymore. We only love our grandmother.”
“I had to spend my first eight days sleeping in MacArthur Park. It is dangerous. You never know who’s crazy, or who’s a drug addict, or who’s homeless, or who’s in my situation.”
I started crying, and I said I couldn’t talk anymore. She called back two days later at five o’clock in the morning to see if I would be sending more money that day, and I told her I couldn’t because I was sick with the flu and had a fever and couldn’t work. I thought she would be mad, but she was nice about it. She told me not to worry. She said, “One day we’ll grow up and make the money.” Sometimes my daughter talks about coming here, too. She’s making $25 a month down there, and she knows she can make that much in a day here. After I left she basically had to take on the role of the mother, and that’s not what she wants to do. But I’m afraid to send for her, for fear the coyotes might rape her or kidnap her.
I know people shouldn’t complain because there’s always someone who has it worse. I know this lady whose husband died, and now she has to pay the rent all herself. But sometimes I get angry. It’s very, very hard—especially when you don’t know how to read. It’s practically like being blind. Anybody can take advantage of you. I try not to let myself get taken advantage of. I have good eyesight and good hearing, so I know what’s going on. Even so, I try not to leave the area, partly because I don’t read and might get lost, and partly because people say you better not leave here because immigration will catch you. I made a friend who lives in San Francisco, and she invited me to go there, but I’m afraid la migra might get me if I go on the Greyhound. They say there are a lot of agents in San Francisco, and in San Diego, too. They say that Los Angeles is the safest place if you’re illegal. It’s easier to blend in here.
I’ve never heard of any success stories on the street, not for the people selling tamales. The ones who succeed on the street are the drug dealers and the thieves. The only success we’ll ever have is sending a little money back to our kids, and if anyone tells you otherwise, then they’re lying. I try to keep a positive outlook and be grateful for the things I do have. A lot of people end up going back. They can’t take it. They miss their families and their customs and their culture, I can see how that happens. I used to dream of becoming legal. Now that I’ve been arrested and have a criminal record, I know it’s not possible to become legal. Right now I’m worried because my mother is sick. My sister went back to take care of her. She can do that because she married a citizen and has her papers. I wish I could go, too, but if I did then they’d never let me back into the United States.
I just ask God to give me courage so I can stay through the year and save up $5,000 and go back to my country, I still have three young kids there, and I hope to watch them grow and regain their love. If not, then let it be God’s will. Sometimes I get lonely. Today I bought a goldfish to keep me company. I love animals. They remind me of home.
This feature originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Los Angeles magazine