A dust devil charges down the swap-meet walkway and stirs the shop's neatly displayed sunglasses, silver trinkets, and daisy-happy pillows. A fleeting hippy prism half obscured by dust refracts from a store across the way, and it's gone. Cosmic kitsch on a bizarrely warm January day.
Shop proprietor Abelardo "Abe" Caraasco hurries from behind his counter to retrieve sunglasses flung to the squall. "Yesterday I had three sunglasses stolen," he shouts. "What are you going to do?"
A moment later, Abe's conversing effortlessly in Spanish and English, counting change for a customer's new necklace, surrounded by a wall of hats, perfumes and umbrellas. In the last two hours, a few dozen customers of assorted sizes, ages and nationalities strolled in, obliged mild curiosities, and left. A precious few spent cash.
Abe’s manning his storefront at the Tanque Verde Swap Meet. He began here five years ago selling things on a single table he hauled from home, then two, and "it grew from there.” Now it’s a shop stocked of sparkly goods purchased from a California wholesaler or brought from his Oaxaca, Mexico homeland. His prize ponies are the real silver chains and several handmade rugs.
It’s not an easy business, especially now that swap-meet culture is slowly dying. The shop suffers further in summer months and the rent is tough to make, but monsoons offer salvation. A leaky roof here, a snapped tree there. People call him. He fixes and builds things. “I have three kids and a wife,” he says, straightening sunglasses on a rack filled with them. “But I try not to think about my future.”
Guided by his young cousin, then 17-year-old Abe left his tiny village in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico and made the bus ride to Mexico City. He'd never seen a metropolis before. Abe's family was one of maybe 20 in their tiny village near Tamazulapam del Espíritu Santo. The Mexican capital was dirty, loud, terrifying, and he felt alone in the world for the first time. When night came, they got robbed.
Stuck in Mexico City, they starved, slept where they could, and hustled masonry work for cash.
You don't go home, Abe told himself. You die trying.
Two months later he'd saved 150 pesos (less than $100 U.S.), enough to get to Nogales, Sonora, and to begin the journey into the Arizona desert. The checkpoint police between Mexico City and the bordertown frightened them, especially in Sinaloa cartel country. They pegged Abe, with his darker skin and shorter stature, as Central American, not Mexican, and made their hatred known. The racism was "worse than here," Abe says. "We had to always prove we were Mexicans, otherwise they abused us."
They arrived in Nogales, the top of Mexico, at sunup, 36 hours on the bus. Next stop: the border fence. Abe's 21-year-old cousin had real-life experience, he knew where to cross.
Their first attempt was hijacked by a border gang and saw Abe stripped naked at knifepoint, searched and stabbed, but not seriously injured. They spent six weeks in the bordertown attempting to get over the fence for good. "Every time we crossed we had an incident with gangs," he says. "We were scared but we always fight back. If they had knives we had rocks."
Border patrol caught and arrested Abe five times, and each time he was sent back to Nogales, where he told them he lived. The sixth border-crossing attempt was the charm, so to speak.
Abe grew up with no shoes. His parents and grandparents were born into abject poverty. From generation to generation the poverty was like disease. A dirt-floored adobe hut with a tree-branch door served as the family home, built by his father. He was 11 years old when electricity arrived. Forget plumbing; trees doubled as outhouses, rivers as baths ("there's a certain dirt that made your hair soft," Abe says). He'd learned to work, hard, pretty much from the day he slipped from his mama's womb, and helped raise six younger siblings. He quit school in 9th grade to help.
Planting and harvesting, the family lived solely on food they grew, or that from their cow and chickens. Hunger (and logic) taught Abe to live with no money, taught survival habits. He hunted with rocks, mostly rabbits and doves, but there was the occasional bobcat. ("You don't know how mean they are when they are hurt. But we never ate coyotes."). The one-room poverty showed his mother's pains—from menstrual cycles to miscarriages. "She couldn't afford pads. I saw her lose babies. A kid my age, I thought she was dying."
He imagined young a world where his siblings wouldn't starve, a place with running water, and maybe a refrigerator. A refrigerator would be riches.
You don't go home. You die trying.
Abe didn't die the first time he crossed over to Arizona, but came close. He collapsed in the desert south of Tucson, crippled by dysentery and dehydration. The group who crossed the mountains and desert with him left him to die like so many before and after him. But his cousin stayed, and saved his life. "I walked almost seven days in the desert, ran out of water after three days," Abe says, adding, "It gave me a good lesson."
If he could make it to Tucson he'd have a place inside a toolshed in someone's yard, where king snakes hunt mice, where his bed would be a blanket and a plywood board atop dirt, alongside other undocumented migrants. He'd have hard-labor jobs no one else would do. If he could just make it to Tucson.
You don't go home. You die trying.
He and his cousin made it to a Circle K on Tanque Verde Road on foot, Nogales to Tucson. And for three years Abe lived with others in that tiny windowless toolshed. He paid $2 a day for it. He bathed in a bucket, pooped in a Porta Potty.
"Wintertime was tough," Abe says. "Summertime was OK, we'd be in our underwear. We slept on plywood. Earned $2 an hour to landscape, lay concrete, build fences, do odd masonry work."
Harder than that, he says, was not knowing the language. "I'd have no idea where to go or who to ask for help. I was so scared. People would get sick or hit on their bicycles, and their bodies would be shipped back to Mexico. I was scared. So I learned English. I'm still learning." His English is percussive, formal and attentive; concentration in lieu of verbal theatrics. He's more confident speaking Spanish. His wide brown eyes convey what words don't, they're expressive, kind even.
Abe learned in those toolshed years rules of construction and craftsmanship: "If somebody said, 'Put a wall here,' I'd put a wall there. When I started welding, it was one man who said, 'Oh, I'll teach you,' and then I learned to weld." Learned plumbing, electrical, construction, driving tractors and forklifts. The autodidact learned "how to just work with people," especially wealthy ones, who'd see nothing wrong with hiring dirt-cheap Mexican labor, work their asses off, offer no raises or even tips, all the while micro-managing, pulling out digital levels to measure their work, and so on.
The family home is clean, bright and comfortable, familiar-feeling, nothing arranged for show, aside from many framed family photos. A laundry room with washer and dryer, spacious backyard — modern conveniences in off-whites and beiges. Two cars outside, a small trailer for hauling things. A newly purchased modular home in central Tucson.
"Sometimes we're down to beans and rice," Abe says. "That's good enough for us."
Their three children, all born in Arizona, have decidedly English- and German-sounding names, "so they can move around easy here," Abe says.
Leo, their 4-year-old, is bilingual and shy, instinctively speaks to me in English, shows off his plastic dinosaur and shark pillow. Their autistic middle daughter Brittany is off at the International School of Tucson. The eldest, Emily, is a sophomore at Salpointe Catholic High School with a 3.97 GPA.
Abe crushed on his wife Yadira back in middle-school, but was too poverty-shamed to talk to her. She had shoes, pretty dresses, an only child whose father had a government job. Abe hardly stood a chance. Once he migrated to Arizona, he returned home to collect family members. He discovered Yadira had been widowed, with a daughter. Her husband was a cop, murdered on the job. Abe had a little confidence now, so he wooed her, and won her. But her parents didn't want their only daughter (and granddaughter) living in the states.
"Her parents weren't happy with me bringing their daughter through the desert," Abe says, his expression softened by a thought that maybe the crossing was, after all, pretty damn dangerous. He adds quickly, "she was never hungry crossing over, and she didn't have to run from the Border Patrol."
Yadira nods. Never dreamed of leaving Mexico. Crossing, she adds, "took two days. No border patrol. And no bad guys."
That was 2001, and Yadira's daughter stayed behind, which wasn't easy either. "I see her as my daughter," Abe says. "It's her and our three kids." The family visits Oaxaca every year, spending as much time as possible. Gives Abe opportunity to show his children the penury from which he rose. "I think that they think that even having a TV is a normal thing," Abe says. "I want them to see how it can be."
Yadira cooks meals culled from family recipes, passed down. The couple hope to open a restaurant, small, "maybe breakfast and lunch." There's no way they could raise the capital to start anew, they'd have to take over a restaurant that's gone under. Anyway, they point out, their special-needs daughter requires extra parenting and time.
Yadira’s beautiful dark features show knowing calm, like she could asses everything about you without saying a word. She has flowing black hair and is often mistaken for Filipino, Native American, "or Asian. It's funny." Abe too gets mistaken, like his days traveling penniless in Mexico. He’s been hassled by border patrol in Tucson but let go because they figured him Native American.
Abe speaks of his dad, who's 76, in terms of drinking and fighting. “He still drinks and gets in fights, because he still thinks he's young." Dad lived in Arizona and in California but chooses Mexico. Abe and his siblings send money home, though he’s not sure where dad's living exactly, maybe with a woman. "He's the kind of man who didn't mess with his kids' lives. He always said we'd always find food."
He knows he can drink like his old man, the only family member who could, he says. As a kid, he cut agave plants for the juice, to ferment. ("That's how we get into alcohol as kids.") Abe's boozing about blew his family apart, he cowers slightly talking about it. Says the AA rooms saved him. "I don't go to church," he adds, "I did when I was a boy. I'm not a very religious guy, but sometimes I pray. I should be more thankful. Sometimes I say, 'Thank you, God.' Sometimes I get mad and say mean things to my wife. I don't want to. I want to be a better man.
"I know that you help those who need it, and the more you give, the more you get. We never got food stamps or anything like that, and I really appreciate that I can work and provide."
"It makes me sad that people here think that Mexicans just take."