When I left southern Mexico for El Norte five months ago, I knew that it would be a long time before I saw my family again. If I had known how hard the journey would be and the difficulties I would face in my new life in the United States, I wouldn’t have gone. But the only job I had been able to find at home in Oaxaca was as a parking-lot attendant, and I didn’t make enough to pay our bills. I had heard many stories about people like me who found a coyote to guide them across the Mexican border into the U.S. Once there, the stories went, they were able to find work.
On the advice of friends in my village I went to Nuevo Laredo, where I hired a coyote for $450. For more than a week dozens of us lived on a concrete slab next to a house on the outskirts of Nuevo Laredo while we waited to be taken across the Rio Grande. We spent another week crowded in a shack north of the river, watching fearfully as each day some of our fellows were crammed into cars that took them to different parts of the state.
By the time I finally got to Houston, I had been robbed of most of the money a friend had lent me. I had less than $100 in my pocket, no job prospects, and no place to stay. Other wetbacks had established themselves in neighborhoods all over the city—in the Heights, near Moody Park, around Chimney Rock, and even across town in Pasadena. But I wanted to live where rents were cheapest, in a neighborhood east of town that I called, for lack of a better name, El Pasillo (“the Passageway”). El Pasillo is Houston’s answer to San Francisco’s Mission District and New York’s Spanish Harlem. It is where Latin American immigrants go when they get off the boat or out of the truck or down from the freight car.
Latin Americans come to the U.S. not because they want to but because economic and political conditions at home force them. Mexicans have an extra incentive. All of us—or at least those of us who are under the age of thirty, as most wetbacks are—have known of someone who emigrated and made good, someone who left for El Norte and returned a few years later driving a shiny new car, someone like my landlord in Houston, Anselmo Mendoza.* For the few months I stayed in Houston, I lived in one of the El Pasillo apartments that Mendoza had bought years ago with money he earned as a bracero. From him I learned what life has been like for older Mexican immigrants. In places such as Houston new immigrants, like me, get to see these winners up close, but we also find out that the big cars and color television sets, the portable plums of Norte-américa, cost more than we knew and perhaps more than many of us are willing to pay.
Anselmo Mendoza worked on a West Texas ranch for sixteen years. With the help of the patrón he saved $9000 and became a legal resident. When he moved to Houston in 1970, he bought a house in El Pasillo that was a long, low structure about fifteen feet across and more than sixty feet long. It was enclosed by a chain link fence on all but the east side, where cars entered the long driveway that led to the garage in the back. Mendoza was its third owner. The previous owners had each built a piece of the house, extending it to the rear to make room for apartments. Mendoza continued their work, converting the garage into living quarters. His improvements made the place what it is today: six rental units. The rents from his sufficient but cramped apartments ranged from $60 to $65 a week, bills paid. During the oil boom, Mendoza never had to worry about keeping his apartments full. There were more people than apartments in El Pasillo, and tenants were subletting corners, closets—any space that was big enough to throw a mattress.
Mendoza’s second piece of property, which he bought in 1975, was about twenty yards by forty yards in size, with three buildings on it. At the rear was a sheet-metal shed where his oldest son, Hector, * did auto repair work. To one side was a house with two apartments on the ground floor and a third in the space that once was an attic. A set of wooden stairs connected them. At the other side, nearly touching the garage, was the house where Mendoza, his wife, and his sons now lived. It was a simple shotgun house, painted turquoise-green like the apartment building. It had a low-roofed extra room in front, added on as a warehouse for Mendoza’s other business.
When he first arrived in Houston, Mendoza worked as a bricklayer by day and as a janitor and porter by night. In the afternoon hours between his two jobs and during weeks when construction was slack, he drove his station wagon to a farmers’ market in fart north Houston, where he bought fruits and vegetables at wholesale rates from the truckers who came up from the Valley. Mendoza sold his wares to housewives and restaurants in El Pasillo. As his business grew, he stopped going door to door and became a wholesale supplier to El Pasillo restaurants and groceries.
In many ways Anselmo Mendoza was a success. He never could have amassed so much money in Mexico, and he could probably have lived in real comfort in America, if he’d wanted to. Undoubtedly, old-timers and peers in his native village, where he was having a house built, called him Anselmito el millonario. But his voice turned sorrowful when he talked about his sons to tenants he had befriended.
“Sometimes I get to thinking,” he told me with the air of a man who had been shamed, “just who is to blame for my sons? Is