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.
Scott Duke Harris

Scott Duke Harris last wrote for the magazine about the Orange County "affluenza" epidemic.

Los Angeles Times October 30, 2005

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 español 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 cliché: 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.

Like many of their neighbors, the Cansecos sublet one bedroom in their two-bedroom apartment to two solteros, or single men, both recent arrivals from south of the border. The men pay $400 each, covering most of the $1,150 rent. Money is always tight, but Canseco says he would be much poorer in Mexico. "Here I have a car, car insurance, a cellphone. Here the money I can make is better." Most important, he believes Nestor has a brighter future.

Javier Montoya put dirty dishes and Santa Ana behind him years ago. He lives with his wife, two grown sons and a home mortgage just across the county line in Corona. To achieve middle-class success, Montoya toiled long hours in two jobs, operating his own yard-maintenance business while also working in restaurants. These days he drives his Chevy pickup down the toll road to his job at Bistango, an expense-account restaurant near John Wayne Airport.

Like many of its rivals, Bistango's kitchen bustled with Latinos under the command of a European or American executive chef with formal culinary training. But three years ago, after Montoya's Austrian boss was wooed to another job, Bistango bucked convention. Now it is Montoya who dons the double-breasted white coat stitched with his name and title of executive chef.

As inspiring as Montoya's success is, most immigrants struggle as Canseco does. Historically, scholars say, Latin Americans have lagged economically compared with other immigrant groups because they tend to arrive here poorer and less educated than their counterparts from Europe or Asia. They often face more prejudice, overt or subtle. Their children often go to school in places where the isolating effects of de facto racial segregation can blunt ambition.

In recent years, the Latino immigrants' ascent to the middle class has been complicated by the shift of manufacturing jobs overseas. Escalating real estate values and changes in the tax code, meanwhile, have reinforced the old saw about the rich getting richer.

Advocates for tough enforcement of immigration laws argue that the sheer number of illegal immigrants, an estimated 11 million nationwide, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, depresses wages while creating a burden on schools, healthcare and other social services. Those who champion the immigrants counter that their economic contributions outweigh the costs. The Canseco family lives on a shady lane east of downtown Santa Ana, around the corner from 118-year-old St. Joseph's Church. On a hot summer day, brassy ranchera music blares from a parked SUV, and inside the courtyard of a 12-unit building there are a few strollers and the sound of children. The Cansecos' clean, neat living room is decorated with family portraits. A soltero watches television as Nestor plays with his Game Boy.

Lucino Canseco shows me his pay stub. He is on pace to gross about $15,000 for the year. He says, "Nestor told me, 'When I grow up, papa, I want to be a busboy like you!' " His smile is sad and proud, and there is a slight catch in his voice. "I said, 'No, m'ijo, that's not for you. You will get something better. I don't want you to have to work so hard for so little.' "

The faces -- white, brown, black -- in my Santa Ana High School yearbooks of the early 1970s are not the Orange County of the plain vanilla legend. Rich and poor sat side by side in the classrooms. Back then, the students in the English as a Second Language program constituted a minority quite distinct from the Chicanos who wore Saints athletic jerseys or joined the political club MEChA, not to mention those who ran with gangs such as F-Troop. The day after my 20th high school reunion in 1994, the Orange County Register featured a front-page story about white students at Santa Ana High, because they had become so rare.

That is true now of the Santa Ana Unified School District, whose students are 92% Latino, 4% Asian, 3% white and 1% African American. The state classifies about 57% of the district's students as "English learners." And to think: Some of these students attend Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School, named for the Latino parents who, in 1945, filed a civil rights suit that forced California to rescind segregation policies.

The city of Santa Ana has tried to embrace cultural realities. In the early 1990s, it adopted a policy that required the hiring of bilingual workers for most city jobs in part to reduce the demand for translators. This cost-cutting move complemented a community-policing strategy that is credited, in part, for a recent sharp decline in crime -- about 50% between 1993 and 2003 --that has outpaced the national downturn.

Sister Eileen McNerney, founder of a nonprofit job-training program called Taller San Jose (St. Joseph's Workshop), often works with dropouts who joined gangs, served time in jail and are now trying to go straight. "Most believe themselves to be Mexican, but if they return to Mexico, and some have never been there, the real Mexicans would label them pochos . . . or hybrids," she writes in a newly published memoir, "A Story of Suffering and Hope: Lessons from Latino Youth." "These young people get lost between two cultures. Most of them have been raised in chronic, crushing poverty. If they don't know how poor they are, it's only because they see around them people who are poorer than themselves. They're always worried about rent and food. . . . They are forced to dwell with relatives and strangers whose behavior they would not tolerate except for the interdependent poverty of their circumstances."

When McNerney speaks before Orange County civic groups, she sometimes hears the question: Why can't Mexicans advance to the middle class as easily as the Vietnamese did? She sighs just thinking about it. For starters, McNerney points out, most Vietnamese arrived as political refugees with the blessing of the U.S. government.

Millions of Latino immigrants live and work in the U.S. despite immigration laws that, in theory, prohibit their employment. Deportation is uncommon, but even in a climate of lax enforcement, it's harder to keep jobs and earn promotions.

"What happens is that the employer finds out there's a problem with a Social Security number, and tells them to straighten it out. But they can't. So they quit and start over somewhere else," says Art Guerrero, an employment counselor at Taller San Jose. "It keeps them in perpetual poverty."

The coveted green card, McNerney says, does much more than just legalize residency: "It's a ticket to move up."

Javier Montoya slices a fresh fig and places it just so, artfully accenting an entree of grilled quail over polenta on a beveled rectangular plate. "They say you eat first with your eyes," the chef explains. Just a teenager when he crossed the border in 1980, he bunked first with an uncle and then with other solteros, and he took jobs in a series of kitchens. He eagerly learned from French, American, Italian and, finally, a pair of Austrian chefs at Bistango.

It's said that character is destiny -- but luck helps. Montoya arrived in the United States in time to qualify for the amnesty provisions of the 1986 immigration reforms signed by President Reagan. Montoya also considers himself fortunate to have gone to work for restaurateur John Ghoukassian, an immigrant from Iran and, as Montoya puts it, "a really cool guy" who wrote character references for kitchen workers to help them obtain green cards.

When Bistango's Austrian executive chef departed in 2002, some people advised Ghoukassian to hire from the outside. But he had watched Montoya work his way up from an assistant to pastry chef to sous chef, second in command. Montoya, he says, was not only capable, but talented. Why should his birthplace hold him back?

Thirty-two people work under Montoya, all Latino. "When I got this job," Montoya says, "I thought it wasn't just a good opportunity for me, but also for my kind. I asked them to help me succeed, and that I would do what I could to help them."

And Montoya now nurtures a dream of someday opening a restaurant of his own. He grins. "I hope John shares some of his secrets."

It is a Sunday evening, and while a diner at Bistango might be tasting Montoya's signature chocolate soufflé, the priest at St. Joseph's is inviting worshipers at the jammed Spanish-language Mass to accept the sacrament.

Lucino Canseco harmonizes in the tiny choir -- a small cross-section of the community. Celina is a single mother who cleans houses seven days a week and helps watch one client's children. She sleeps at night in a bedroom with her three teenagers while her sister, brother-in-law and niece share the other room. Marta quit a longtime nursing home job after managers questioned her legal status. Now she gets entry-level wages in a fast-food restaurant. As a teenager, Pedro worked one miserable season picking strawberries alongside his parents. He later became a janitor in a small computer firm while learning tech-support skills that now earn him $35,000 a year. He and his wife, who recently opened a beauty salon, have three children and hope to someday buy a home.

Standing beside his father, Nestor Canseco cheerfully talks about his quest to reach "the next level" on his Game Boy. But what does Nestor want to be when he grows up? Sometimes he says he wants to design computer games. But on this evening, he brightens with the memory of a Mexican restaurant the night before. "We had flan! Mmmm," he says, rubbing his belly. "Maybe I'll be a chef."

Lucino says his ambition is for his son to attend college. He talks vaguely of trying to save money for Nestor's education, but he has learned that providing for his son's well-being can mean working less, not more. When Canseco worked double shifts, he sometimes left for the restaurant before Nestor woke up and came home after his son had gone to bed. The Cansecos didn't realize how unhappy Nestor was until a teacher called to express concern. Nestor, it seems, thought his father had moved out.

"The undocumented residents," McNerney writes in her memoir, "are fairly hidden from view and happy to remain that way." There is a sense that they know their place, and in Orange County their place happens to be Santa Ana. Neighboring cities attract immigrants as well, but none can match older Santa Ana's inventory of affordable, if dilapidated, housing and established communities for Spanish speakers. For years I've heard some of my pals who still live there talk about how illegal immigration has "ruined" our hometown. "Santa Ana is lost," one tells me, complaining of litter, graffiti, loud music.

Some people rage against the reality, and others roll with it. America sporadically recalibrates its immigration policies according to its economic hunger and political temperament. As Congress prepares to debate immigration reform bills this fall, there are signs that immigration may have crested in Santa Ana. With the soaring cost of living and stagnant wages, immigrant families are moving out to the Inland Empire and beyond. The rate of new arrivals is slowing. School enrollment has declined in recent years, and there are steady gains in English proficiency. A magnet high school is being considered among several new district campuses to prepare students to work in targeted industries or launch businesses of their own. Santa Ana's standardized test scores ticked upward for the third straight year, though they still miss state and federal goals, and the high school graduation rate has climbed dramatically, by almost 20%, in the last decade.

The Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce is pushing what it calls "a Marshall Plan" to raise the English proficiency of schoolchildren and adults who make up the present and future workforce. "If we don't do that by the end of the decade," a chamber official says, "we'll be at great competitive disadvantage." Civic leaders, meanwhile, are planning a 37-story office tower in downtown Santa Ana, the county's tallest, to stimulate more urban development and help the city reclaim its stature.

Santa Ana still poses more questions than answers. Leo Chavez, the immigration scholar, suggests that Orange County's "hardship" city may serve, to a certain extent, as "a workers' dormitory" for immigrant workers. But in the same breath he describes it as "a dynamic place" that can still deliver a better life. It's both.