SAN ANTONIO — Verónica keeps her foot steady on the pedal. She turns onto a side street, where trouble is easier to avoid. A yellow traffic light flashes and she stops; running it is not an option.
Verónica, 31, does not take chances. In her mind, she already took the biggest chance of her life by moving here illegally from Monterrey, Mexico, with a husband and three young children. Now she has too much to lose.
Border Patrol agents routinely monitor the main roads near her house on the outskirts of this sprawling city in south-central Texas, so Verónica and her friends and relatives have informal alert networks in place. “My husband just called to tell me he saw them right now on the street,” she said, clicking shut her cellphone, before leaving the house.
Spanish-language radio also does its part; “limones verdes” — or green limes — “are sprouting” near the highway, an announcer warns over the radio, using shorthand for the agents’ green uniforms.
“We’re careful,” Verónica said.
And why not. After six years in America, her list of accomplishments would be the envy of most everyone in the ramshackle neighborhood where she grew up.
There is the little house, stone and stucco, with a browning yard, a battered trampoline and rusty plumbing. The family’s two used cars (a minivan and a Ford Focus) sit in the driveway.
Her common-law husband, José, has a job other immigrants covet, $15 an hour working for a boss who offers no benefits but gives generous presents: a refrigerator, a washing machine, tickets to SeaWorld. Her children speak to each other in English and bring home mostly A’s and B’s. Her eighth grader is in the National Honor Society, and a son was recently rewarded with a GameCube for doing well in school.
It may not seem like much, Verónica says, but in Monterrey’s working-class “colonias” she lived in houses with cardboard walls and zinc roofs. Growing up, she shared a single damp box spring with eight siblings and coffee cans. The cans were there to catch the rain. And Verónica was the lucky one of the bunch, she said: she made it to eighth grade, with the help of her siblings’ wages, and, as the baby of the family, escaped her father’s beatings.
Two of her sisters, Raquel Rodríguez and Irma, and one of her brothers have also ventured to San Antonio for better lives. (The last names of Verónica and other family members who have immigrated illegally are not being published here.)
Though separated by years, distance and degrees of success, their journeys have crisscrossed time and again, an up-close version of the broader immigrant experience that has Mexicans, legal and illegal, shuttling between hope and despair, between leaning on friends and relatives and going it alone.
Even before Verónica’s arrival here, Raquel’s green card, her legal residency document, cast a special glow on the whole family. Raquel was the fixer, the one who made it possible even to imagine a path out of the thicket of poverty, the one who offered up a relatively soft landing in America, at least for a few months.
“Raquel was already here, and she got us so enthusiastic,” Verónica said, remembering her sister’s pitch about jobs and a better life during her visits home. “She kept at us. We thought no, no. Then we said, ‘Let’s make a go of it.’ Raquel did it. She helped us.”
Irma, who had no green card, also took advantage of Mrs. Rodríguez’s welcome but later gave up on America, returning three years ago to Monterrey to a dreary cinderblock house with an outdoor bathroom; Mrs. Rodríguez still lives here about 10 miles away, but her world is also far removed from Verónica’s: Mrs. Rodríguez has a steady job with benefits and can move about without fear of getting caught for being here illegally.
Like millions of other illegal immigrants, Verónica and José first entered the United States on tourist visas, which they were able to get from the American consulate in Monterrey. Verónica had secured hers as a child and was able to extend it. The family was waved in at the checkpoint in Laredo, except for her two daughters from her earlier marriage who hid under a blanket in the back seat.
Verónica’s visa is still good, for five more years, but there are conditions. She can stay only for six months at a time and cannot work. Verónica has violated both rules, making her an illegal immigrant, or in the Mexican vernacular, someone “sin papeles,” without papers.
Neighborhood Safety Zones
In a country of dedicated spotlight seekers, Verónica makes a habit of kicking attention away like a stray ball. She prefers to shrink into the background of her modest neighborhood and operate within its safety zones, an area of about five square miles where people don’t ask her to flash cards she doesn’t have. Insurance card. Social Security card. Credit card. Green card.
Caution corrals her hopes and expectations. She doesn’t dare drive the 200 miles to Houston to visit a close cousin. The road, so open and busy, is pockmarked with risk. That popular little taco restaurant on the road about a mile away? Verónica heard it was a favorite refueling stop for Border Patrol agents.
This summer, when word filtered down that “la migra” — immigration — was staking out Wal-Mart and the flea market, Verónica stayed away. “Now no more Wal-Mart, and in Wal-Mart they gave you layaway,” she lamented.
In the garbled game of immigrant telephone — where messages trundle past cultural miscues and language hurdles — bad information gets passed along like extra coupons. It took her five years to get a driver’s license because she heard it was not safe for someone “sin papeles” to apply. She also heard she had to take a test on a computer and she had never used a computer before.
“I said, ‘God, you are my Social Security card and my driver’s license,’” Verónica said. “We were afraid to go and get it. But then you meet people who have done it, and you figure out it’s O.K.”
Her social life is just as constrained. As Verónica walks out of her house, she spies a neighbor across the street and gives her a quick wave. She doesn’t know her name. She doesn’t want to know. People on her block learn to avert their eyes.
“You never know,” Verónica said. “There are bad people in the world. We could have a problem with immigration. There is a lot of envy in the world, so we are careful.”
She has one constant friend, Belinda, a sweet Mexican woman who recently had a job earning $3.50 an hour making tacos. Belinda lives in a dusty trailer park nearby with her two daughters and an American husband who charges her to use the family car. Being with Belinda reminds Verónica that her life, however difficult, is blessed.
An Exercise in Humiliation
No rules are too small for Verónica, and she tries hard to live as a lawful illegal immigrant, an oxymoron she shrugs off.
Her husband, a shy, handsome man who works 50 hours a week as a machinist, relaxes after work by fixing up old cars. One day not long ago, a code enforcement officer told him that broken-down cars had to be kept off driveways. Verónica panicked. José now fixes the cars in the backyard.
One mistake, Verónica explained, and it’s back to Monterrey, back to borrowing money for diapers.
Even in her daily routine, Verónica said, it is hard to forget that she is illegal, and sometimes unwelcome.
A few months ago, she and José ventured into a big-box store to return a faulty microwave oven. It was an exercise in humiliation, she said. The employee refused to take it back.
“I told them we are paying customers,” Veronica said. “We are not asking for things for free.”
Finally, José’s boss called the store and the microwave was swapped.
Mexican-American cashiers have pretended not to understand Spanish when Verónica, who can’t speak English, asks a question. It is a power play among Spanish speakers designed to haze and embarrass the newest immigrants.
“Sometimes they call you mojados to your face,” said Verónica, using the Spanish word for “wetback.”
But then, she said, there is the flip side. Santa Claus visits their house every Christmas, courtesy of a local charity. The nurses and doctors at the hospital where she had her fourth child, a girl, also saved her elementary school boy after his appendix burst. “They treat you better here than in Mexico,” Verónica said. “Living here without papers is still better than living there.”
She worked for a while, when José was still pounding out car dents and hustling odd jobs for $200 a week. The underground network led her to a man who sold fake Social Security cards and to a job at a factory, making cots for the military for $5.15 an hour. Her boss was kind and gave her extra shift work.
But she noticed her son, at the time her only child not in school, had grown listless. A few questions revealed that the woman who watched him for $60 a week secluded him in one room and fed him scraps to save money. He became anemic, and that ended Verónica’s job. Now she works some weekends cleaning her husband’s boss’s offices.
Mostly she labors at home. She mops the green linoleum floors every day, cooks two meals for her husband and feeds her children in the evening. She brings order to the bedrooms, even the makeshift ones with hanging sheets as doors and dividers, each with a bed, queen or twin. Her children all share beds. The youngest daughter, a 4-year-old born in San Antonio, proudly brings forth her toys: a book, a doll’s head, a plastic dollhouse.
Bargain hunting is a second job. She drives around the neighborhood Fridays and Saturdays with her friend Belinda looking for “garajes,” garage sales. Verónica is assiduous in her bargaining.
“Cuánto?” she asks, holding a set of sheets in someone’s driveway.
“Cuatro dolares,” the seller says. Four dollars.
“Te lo compro por dos,” Verónica says, bringing her down to $2.
For $6, Verónica walks away with strappy sandals, two pairs of pants, towels and the sheets.
Working Off the Books
Verónica is grateful to be here, even as a shadow. But she earns her keep. “I get angry when you hear on television that we don’t pay for things and don’t pay taxes,” Verónica said.
She yanks her property tax bill out of a file. It is more than $1,800. Here is her home insurance bill, $713 a year. Social Security is deducted from her husband’s paycheck even though he bought his Social Security card on the black market.
Verónica works off the books so does not pay taxes on her wages; her sister Raquel, the legal resident, got her a cellphone, which also required a Social Security number.
Verónica and José have learned to navigate the underground economy to get ahead. At first they shied from opening up a bank account, but the fees at the check-cashing place ($1 for every $100 cashed) drove them to it. All it required was a tourist visa and a taxpayer identification number, which allows workers to pay tax to the federal government.
She pulled out her $1,000 bill from the hospital for her son’s appendectomy. She is paying it bit by bit. That was all she was charged, she said, because she didn’t have enough money to pay the whole bill. The hospital told her the government would pay the rest.
Buying their house was tricky. Without a credit trail, Verónica said she didn’t even think about a mortgage, so they took another route, one without lawyers and credit reports. They met with the owners of the house and the four of them signed a piece of paper, banking on nothing but trust that in about 15 years the house would be theirs. Verónica goes to the bank every month and deposits $537, which includes 10 percent interest. That money pays off the owners’ mortgage.
Verónica frets that the house could be snatched away from them, by the government, by the owner. When that happens, she prays. She pushes the negative thoughts out and takes a leap of faith.
“The owner is a nice person,” she said. “But who knows? It is in God’s hands.”
Uncertainty and Longing
Verónica speaks about God with the passion of a new convert. It is her way of fending off the uncertainty at home and the longing she feels for her family in Monterrey. When her days seem too tenuous, Verónica prays, usually alone in her bedroom with her Bible.
She asks God to protect her family from harm, to keep her strong, to help her relatives in Mexico buy a hot water heater. She asks that her husband’s boss stay faithful to him. She prays that her children stay far from drugs and sex. Some of her 17-year-old girl’s schoolmates are already pregnant.
She talks to God about helping her go home to visit her mother and brothers, and her sister Irma, who left San Antonio three years ago. But her deepest prayers center on legitimacy, on getting a green card. She has heard on television about the election last month, and she is hopeful the changes in Washington might make it easier for her to stay here.
Verónica found God the usual way; she stumbled across him when she needed him most, in her case during an emergency room visit for pain in her uterus that wouldn’t let up. The pain in her heart, Verónica said, cut just as deeply. She was depressed. José picked up a pamphlet on a table; it was an invitation to an evangelical church.
Now the tiny church nearby — no more than a converted garage in the back of a house where she prays to Jesus in Spanish — is her solace. It is one of the few places she visits regularly without fear.
“Since then, I have not been sick,” Verónica said of her churchgoing. “It’s the prayers. I feel so much better. Thank God.”
“God has his plan,” Verónica added. “None of it is coincidence. Because of him, we are better off.”
On her knees, with her hands raised high as the youth choir sings and jams, Verónica finds that she fits in perfectly with the 50 or so other members, all of them Latino, many of them also one slip from misfortune. Her children sit with her, singing, studying. This is her community and she dresses up for it, with highlights in her hair, a long, tight-fitting skirt and an elegant black top. Her face is subtly lit by makeup. Despite her hardships, Verónica manages to look her age.
“We praise you Lord,” the choir leader, a teenage girl, says over and over as the guitar player riffs. “Te alabamos Señor. Te alabamos Señor.”
Struggles With English
Back home, sitting down on her imitation leather sofa, Verónica watches as her 4-year-old daughter fixates on “Dora the Explorer” beaming from their large-screen television set, the family’s most prized possession.
Verónica has just finished cleaning her pots and pans. She had made chicken mole for José’s boss and his workers earlier that day. She cooks once in a while to say thank you, whether he decides to pay her or not.
The other children come home and do their homework. Verónica knows she should learn English. She can’t check the homework — the older children must help the younger ones — and she can’t understand what they say to each other, which makes her both nervous and proud. But finding a good English class requires more money, time and confidence than she has.
“I went to some free classes and learned a bit,” she said, smiling, acknowledging that the classes offered up more gossip than English. “I can say hello, order some hamburgers.”
Photographs of Verónica’s family in Mexico are all over the house. Most people don’t give their photos a second glance. Verónica looks at them repeatedly, hungrily. The telephone is expensive. The Internet is not an option. Her family in Mexico is not wired, and her own secondhand computer crashed this summer.
When a new pile of photographs arrives, Verónica scoops them up. “Look, it’s Shakira,” Verónica said, poking sweet fun at her niece Lupita, Irma’s daughter, who had dyed her hair light, like the singer’s.
A Father’s Funeral Missed
Of all the hardships she has faced — grueling jobs, mice-infested apartments, illness, insults — the worst, Verónica said, is not being able to hug her mother or idly chit-chat with her brothers and sisters.
When José’s father died, he could not go home for the funeral. He would not risk getting stranded in Mexico.
“To not go and put flowers on his father’s grave, that is hard,” Verónica said. “He still cries about it.”
Her husband, a gentle, strapping man who does not drink, spends most weekends working and has not taken a vacation in two years. Nothing like her first husband, who beat her. In Mexico, José had his own machine shop, and still they could not pay the bills.
“And it was not because my husband was not a good worker,” Verónica said.
Verónica, despairing, lost her willpower three years ago and went back to Mexico for a visit. At the border on her return to San Antonio, inside a car with a legal resident, she was questioned. The agent had found her Texas identification card in the computer database, a giveaway that she was not a tourist.
Her heart racing, Verónica concocted a story on the fly. She had applied for the card for a visit to Las Vegas, she told the agent. Somehow it was convincing enough; he waved her through.
“It was too big a scare,” Verónica said, vowing never to try such a journey again. “I won’t risk the future of my children.”