Home Truths

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

Anguiano greets a small hunched woman dressed in men's work clothes and a bright striped rebozo. It has started to rain hard, and the woman has been sent home from her job. Soaking wet, she smiles and waves and keeps walking determinedly through the downpour. "The fact is that here [in the United States] we're different," Anguiano continues. "We have stoves and refrigerators; we also have the law. We try to show our people that you can be poor but you don't have to live in a ghetto."

On this Saturday afternoon, a parade of cars and pickups passes by the Andrew Center's guardhouse as families return from the grocery store or head out on their way to lunch at El Rodeo, a nearby roadside tortilla stand. Strings of laundry, displayed here and there during the week, now flap outside most of the trailers. The Mobil Market, a truck stocked with candy, meat, milk, and all manner of hot peppers and spices, makes its rounds, honking on each block.

Surrounded by racks of shirts, jeans, shoes, shampoo, and a table full of ripe melons, Maria Perez sits on a chair in front of her trailer. On weekends Perez and her husband Magdaleno set up this open-air market for Andrew's residents. Neighbors pay on a credit plan. Magdaleno oversees a table stocked with audio cassettes by Selena, Vicente Fernandez, Gloria Estefan, and other popular Latin artists.

The Perezes' tiny patch of lawn is decorated with statues of elves and angels, and the couple has stretched a chainlink fence around "their property." Management doesn't appreciate such initiative, however, and has asked Maria and Magdaleno to remove the fence and statuary. "I don't understand it," shrugs Maria. "They want it nice but they won't let us make it nice."

Nor can she comprehend why it's against the rules to set up her own shop. "We do agricultural work but it's not enough," she insists. "We have to supplement our income. If it rains, we don't have work in the fields, but we still have to pay the rent." Perez feels that a house in the Everglades Villages is not for them. "It's too strict here," she sighs. "We're not going to live in one of those houses -- it's like prison with all those rules. We're going to look for a place to rent in Homestead."

In a far corner of the Andrew Center, Josefa de Leon is crocheting a shawl, quickly wrapping thick white thread around her crochet hook with her strong weathered hands. The old woman worked in the fields alongside her husband for decades, right up until he died last year. De Leon is dressed in a simple black cotton dress, and she wears her waist-length gray hair pinned up in a twist behind her head.

She is visiting her son Jesus and his family. Her daughter Rosa lives in the Royal Colonial. They will all leave soon for Monterrey, Mexico, where they return for the summer each year. Jesus de Leon, a 30-year-old tractor driver, plans on coming back to live in the Andrew Center with his wife and two daughters next year. But he's not sure what the family will do when the trailers are replaced by houses. "We qualify for a house but it's not worth it for us," he says. "We have a house in Mexico, in the most beautiful place of all. We spend our dollars there. If we could work there, we would. But there is no work. We don't come here to be part of a community. We come here to make money."

Over at the Royal Colonial, Francisco and Delia Alvarez are waiting to find out the date for their move to a house in Everglades Villages. "We've never had a house before," Delia notes. "We've always lived in a trailer." A petite woman with long hair, Delia and her husband sit in the living room of their neat but crowded trailer. Several of their eight children, who range in age from 5 to 21, play noisily in an adjoining bedroom, ignoring Francisco's suggestion that they should put a movie in the VCR and watch it.

Actually, Francisco isn't supposed to be here. He had planned to go to South Carolina to pick beans but nixed the trip when he heard there wasn't much work. A robust, handsome man with a mustache, he sits quietly on the couch studying the callouses on his hands. "They keep shutting the door," he says softly. "It's not so easy to make a living." On the wall above his head are several plaques that commemorate his coaching winning teams in Khoury league baseball. More baseball trophies sit on a cabinet next to two parakeets in a cage.

The whole family used to spend the year moving from place to place -- South Carolina to Virginia to Washington -- but now that their fourteen-year-old is an honors student at Mays Middle School in Cutler Ridge, they've decided that, in his best interests, they should stay put. To help make ends meet, Delia has started studying to be a legal secretary. She talks animatedly about her word-processing classes at a Homestead technical school.

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