Home Truths

After decades of living month to month in trailer parks, some South Dade migrant workers have found a permanent address

Although undocumented immigrants reside in both the Royal Colonial and the Andrew Center parks -- "We sort of have a don't-ask, don't-tell policy," notes Mainster -- illegal workers will not qualify for the new housing. At least one family member must be a permanent resident alien or a U.S. citizen, and families must earn close to half of their income from farm work in order to be accepted into Everglades Villages. Priority is given to those who make between 80 to 100 percent of their living from agricultural employment. Once established in one of the houses, the family must bring in at least $2600 a year from farm work.

"One of our goals is to integrate farm workers into the community," explains ECA executive director Steven Kirk. He's strolling through one of the new tan stucco homes: three shoebox bedrooms and a slightly larger master suite; central fan system and several large, low windows to provide cross ventilation; a refrigerator and a gas stove. The house stands on a small grass plot landscaped with a row of plants bordering a square cement front porch. "The perception that these people are different is probably more fiction than fact," Kirk adds. "Migrancy makes them different, but year-round farm workers are regular working-class people. We envision the Everglades Villages as a stepping stone for home ownership. We think we have a model community here."

Carmen Rivera, an Everglades Community Association housing counselor, slows for a speed bump as she steers a white golf cart down one of the narrow streets on the grounds of the Royal Colonial. Rivera spends most of her days in her office listening to residents' problems and screening new applicants for trailer rentals. Prospective tenants' police records must be clean of felonies, while serious misdemeanors -- like carrying a knife -- can be overlooked if the candidate appears responsible and hard-working. Sometimes a single man will show up with a woman he barely knows, someone he has asked to pose as his wife, so that he can be eligible for a family trailer. Rivera usually exposes these pretenders with a few pointed questions, and turns them away. About one in twenty applicants is rejected.

Certain days in the office are especially busy. For example, if a report on government proposals for tightening immigration laws appears on the evening television news in Spanish, she'll arrive the next morning to find a room full of people. "They ask me will I take care of their children if something happens to them," she sighs.

Rivera, an attractive dark-haired woman who wears a heavy-looking silver cross around her neck, is Mexican herself. She arrived in San Francisco after graduating from college in Durango, then moved to Miami in 1987 with her husband, who was born in El Salvador. (The couple met in San Francisco.) Once settled in they started a service at Miami International Airport that delivered lost luggage to passengers, but it was tough going. Their customers were various airlines, some of which were slow about paying their bills A or didn't pay them at all. In 1993 they decided to fold the business. Her husband went to work for the U.S. Postal Service, while Carmen sought a job in Dade's Mexican community.

As she tools through the facility on this quiet morning, dueling ranchero music drifts from the open doors of several different trailers. The tinkle of bells from a faded ice cream truck joins in as it rounds a corner, just in time to snag some youngsters and their mothers as they emerge from a doublewide trailer at the front of the park. The group, which includes Marta Cruz and Esmeralda Sanchez, takes part in Dade County Public Schools' adult education and First Start programs; these provide English classes for mothers while their kids go to a special daycare facility designed for "at risk" children A all on the Royal Colonial's grounds.

Farther along the golf cart catches up to a white sedan. A boy of about ten sits in the back seat, behind his parents. "You have to stop driving," Rivera tells him. She chides the parents for letting the child take the car out by himself. She's seen him zooming around the park at high speeds. His parents feign surprise.

"They think it's funny," clucks Rivera, after they've gone. "I tell them, 'If you live here, you have to have a driver's license, you have to get a car seat for your kids.' These people don't know the laws in the United States. It's very difficult because here, in South Dade, it's not like the United States. They feel like they're in Mexico."

Rivera continues on, passing one trailer whose steps are covered with AstroTurf and plastic flowers. "The woman who lives there wanted a trailer really badly," Rivera explains. "She said she'd take any one we had, and she'd fix it up nice."

Other sights dismay the housing counselor. She spots a clothesline from which work pants, baby T-shirts, and men's jockey shorts stiffen in the sun. She frowns. Clotheslines are against the rules at both the Royal Colonial and the Andrew Center. Residents are supposed to wash and dry their clothes in the on-site laundromat. "That's part of their culture, to hang their clothes outside," Rivera acknowledges. "But when we go to the houses they won't let them do it at all. Then they'll have no choice." She also points out several trailers where cars are parked on the grass instead of on the cement slabs provided for parking. Another no-no.

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