California Dreaming No More
The Carranza family, like many Latino immigrants, found its way into the American middle class by leaving the Golden State.
By Daryl Kelley and Carlos Chavez
Times Staff Writers
ROGERS, Ark. — The winter chill is biting. But Rogelio Carranza, his
brother and son are out early, hammering two-by-fours together in a house-raising
expect to finish this month, and celebrate with a sweet toast of sugared coffee.
They are working on one of six houses and mobile homes here owned by
six Carranza brothers and their families. It's a long way from 1993, when
crowded everyone into a three-bedroom home in Oxnard. An electrical cord overheated and burned down the house, putting 43 Carranzas on the street.
Living along a rutted dirt road outside this Arkansas boomtown, the
Carranzas are the new face of decades of Latino immigration: no longer
in poverty, no longer
renting, and no longer in California.
It is a story illustrated in the latest census data. USC urban planner
Dowell Myers, in a study to be released Tuesday, said that foreign-born
Latinos are experiencing
a degree of upward mobility not previously detected by demographers. "They're turning the corner — and it's a big corner," he said.
For example, 32% of the nearly 1.8 million Latinos who settled in California
in the '80s — such as the Carranzas — were living in poverty in 1990, compared
23% by 2000. Likewise, Latino immigrants from the '70s had a poverty rate of just 17% by 2000.
Contrary to stereotypes, about 70% of Latino immigrant children in California
graduate from high school, Myers said. And 55% of middle-aged California
who immigrated at least 20 years ago own homes. That number increases to 68% after 30 years of residence, he said.
"I'm always surprised at their homeownership rates, given how low their
education levels are," Myers said. "And my guess is, the reason [the Carranzas]
crowded in Oxnard was because they were penny-pinchers, saving to buy their own homes."
At the same time, the Carranzas illustrate the burdens created by illegal
immigration. All of the brothers came across the border illegally. Their
families drew on
housing subsidies, food stamps and free public education. And while the Carranzas are no longer leaning on government, critics will always find their entry to be a
"There are honest, hard-working people who apply for citizenship and
have to wait longer in line, because illegal aliens are jumping to the
head of that line," said
Stephen R. Frank of Simi Valley, a leader in the 1994 Proposition 187 campaign, which sought to deny benefits to illegal immigrants. "And there are those who pay
taxes expecting quality social services and education who cannot get the quality they deserve because others decide to violate the law."
But to the Carranzas, such arguments are academic. They crossed, they eventually became legal residents or citizens, and now their dreams are within grasp.
"We're pulling together as a family," said Rogelio, 42.
"We're moving up step by step," added son Jose, 20. Said brother Javier,
52: "We're still searching for more for our children. But I'm very proud
of what we've
"I'll work as hard as I have to for as long as I have to, as long as
my children become something," said refrigeration mechanic Ruperto Carranza,
40, the first in his
family to become a U.S. citizen, in 1996. He moved his family to Arkansas last July after building $125,000 in equity in two California houses.
"Everything I've dreamed of is coming true," said Ruperto, noting that
his fine new house on four acres is situated between homes owned by a doctor
and a lawyer.
"I'm almost there."
The Carranza brothers came to this country for the work, and for the free public education.
The brothers displaced by fire — Javier, Rogelio, Ruperto, Baltazar,
Felipe and Jose — are six of 12 children born in the farm village of Los
to farmer Jose Guadalupe Carranza.
The family's nine sons had all established a seasonal migration to Oxnard
by 1980, because work as sharecroppers on Mexican government-owned fields
enough to provide for their young, and growing, families.
"I'm the pioneer; I directed, and they followed," said Javier, who first toiled in an Oxnard field in 1970. "We came here to work. And that is what we did."
Oxnard rents had soared by 1987, so the strawberry-picking brothers
began to live together. They already had 18 children. By March 1993, just
before the fire
made them homeless, six brothers, their wives, 30 children and a father-in-law all lived in one tract house.
The catastrophe jumped the Carranzas to the top of the Oxnard Housing Authority's five-year waiting list.
Within weeks, they were living in six spare but clean houses or apartments with subsidized rents, so they paid only 30% of their incomes for housing.
The families — nearly all legal residents by then due to two federal
amnesty programs — also found they qualified for food stamps and free health
care for expectant
mothers and newborn babies. Javier said he did not apply for food stamps until after the fire, and that he had paid the hospital bills for the births of all but two of his
"I am proud that I was able to do it and not ask the government for help," he said in 1993. "I hope in a couple of months I will no longer need help."
By 1997, only Javier and his family remained in government housing,
his 11 children making it impossible to escape, he said, despite his job
as a mechanic of farm
machinery. By then, the extended family had begun a 1,600-mile migration to Arkansas.
"My aunt's husband was here, and told us about this place; there were
jobs and cheap houses," said Felipe, 43, who along with Rogelio was the
first to move to
Rogers more than seven years ago. They quickly landed work at a Tyson Foods chicken plant and moved their families into homes, which they eventually bought.
Thousands of Latinos have migrated to Rogers. Last year, the Milken
Institute think tank ranked northwest Arkansas the fastest-growing urban
economy in the U.S.,
as corporate vendors who need access to the headquarters of Wal-Mart flocked to the area. The boom also has heightened demand for laborers, particularly in
construction or on assembly lines where chicken, plastic and steel products are packed for shipment nationwide.
The percentage of Latinos in Rogers, an old farming town of 40,000 residents, increased from less than 2% in 1990 to nearly 20% in 2000, the census reported.
The city's mayor, Steve Womack, said the immigrants' arrival has been
mostly positive, because they take jobs no one else will. "There's a saying
Arkansas that no house would be built up here if there were no Latinos," he said.
Still, Rogers has seen a minor backlash to Latino immigration, the mayor
said, especially among residents concerned that schools are spending too
much time and
money on newcomers who speak marginal English, or none at all. And a private hospital in the part of town closest to Latino neighborhoods spends about $2 million
for charity care a year, the mayor said.
"Some social issues divide the community a little — loud music and the
way they drive," he said. "But most of them are extremely hard-working
people in search of
the same things we are."
Rogers real estate agent Ida Fineberg, a native Cuban who represents
many Spanish-speaking clients, said one of the first things Latinos do
when they arrive is buy a
house. A starter home in Rogers sells for between $70,000 and $100,000, she said.
"They don't make much money, but they seem to save a lot of it," Fineberg said. "The minute they get themselves on their feet, they buy a home."
Today, the six Carranza brothers work steadily, each earning up to $20,000
a year — as opposed to the $6,000 to $10,000 they made as seasonal strawberry
pickers on the Oxnard Plain. Five of their six wives work as well. So do nearly a dozen of their children, including several still in high school, who have jobs as store
clerks, maintenance workers, fast-food cashiers and nurse's assistants.
The six families have also grown. They now total 52 members, plus two
grandchildren and two daughters-in-law. All but a few of the children still
live with their
"There are better chances here to save money and buy a house," said
David Carranza, 24, a former college student who now works for $8.25 an
hour at the Glad
plastic wrap plant. "In California, everything was so expensive. But here, we have a better opportunity for a better future."
In Javier Carranza's household, for example, seven family members are employed, including two daughters still in high school.
Adela, 25, the oldest child of Javier and Berta Carranza, was the first
family member to graduate from high school. Now she holds a two-year nurse's
degree from Oxnard College. But she placed her ambitions to be a registered nurse on hold after Javier had a stroke in 2002. Recovered, he recently took a job.
"Life's been tough; all I do is work," Adela said on a recent Saturday,
her only day off from a full-time job at a nursing home and a part-time
cashier's position at
Harp's grocery store. "But I couldn't leave here and go off on my own as long as my family was struggling."
In California, high school teacher Maurice Shimabuku remembered Adela,
her brothers, sisters and cousins. He taught them for a decade. He watched
feeling the emotional weight of a role model, studied until her forehead ached and her eyes burned.
At Oxnard's Hueneme High School, she started off at the lower end of
her English as a Second Language class, but ended up with an A in a college-preparatory
English class, he said.
"Adela was ambitious, but she was always playing catch-up," the teacher
said. "The family may not have been the brightest, but they always stuck
seemed to find a way to reach their goals. And when I started talking about rents and mortgages, they were all ears. They'd come back the next day and say their
moms or dads wanted them to ask more about that."
Shimabuku said he wondered last year where all the Carranzas had gone.
He'd heard that Latinos were moving from California to Washington state,
Chicago. "Then I'd hear kids talking about Arkansas, and I'd look at them and say, 'There aren't any Mexicans in Arkansas!' "
What's happening, the teacher said, was that the smarter, more ambitious
families understood they must go elsewhere to sink their roots quickly
into the American
"We're having a big turnover in Latino families," Shimabuku said. "It's just too darned expensive around here."
USC's Myers said census figures confirm the trend: Just 25% of newly
arrived U.S. immigrants — about half of whom were Latino — settled in California
1990s, compared with nearly 38% the previous decade.
As California struggled with recession, immigrants flocked to Texas, Georgia and Illinois, he said.
"They found places where the cost of housing was much lower and established beachheads; I think it's a permanent change," he said.
Gregory Rodriguez, whose studies of Mexican American households in the
1990s found that 55% had reached the economic middle class, said Latino
another chapter in the old American story of upward mobility.
"This is akin to Irish and Italian mobility," said Rodriguez, a senior
research fellow in Los Angeles for the New America Foundation. "It shows
that education is not
the only ticket. Hard work can still pay off."
Ruperto Carranza moved to Arkansas last year for three reasons, he said.
He missed his family, he could afford a nice house there and he wanted
to start his own
carpet cleaning business.
More than his brothers, the young jack-of-all-trades had prospered in
California. Shortly after the fire, the city of Oxnard had hired him to
help maintain a public
housing project into which his family had moved.
By last July, Ruperto was earning $34,000 a year, including overtime,
he said. And he had equity: He sold a rental house and his family home,
bought a $30,000 van
equipped to clean carpets, and plunked down $90,000 on a $224,000 red-brick, six-bedroom home with a swimming pool in Arkansas.
Although he'd moved across the country to be close to his brothers, he soon realized he wasn't close enough. Most of his brothers still live about 30 minutes away.
So he's buying a 28-acre hilltop cattle ranch just minutes from his brothers' homes.
"This is where I'll build my house," he said in English, motioning toward
a clearing among tall stands of pine trees and white and red Encino oaks.
"The house will
face the sunrise. And I'll have a couple of horses for the kids to ride."
On a nearby dirt road named Cartown, next to an auto wrecking yard,
four other Carranza brothers have pursued the same dream with fewer resources.
already have a couple of horses, several cows, eight goats and dozens of chickens, from which they get eggs, milk, butter and cheese.
On five acres they bought for $29,000 in 1999, they've placed four mobile
homes. Now, one at a time, they're building houses. One brother, Justino,
who was not in
the '93 fire, already has his new house. Rogelio began his before Christmas. Jose plans to start his this spring. And Felipe may follow after that.
Meanwhile, Javier, who moved his family to Arkansas only last year,
has joined with daughter Adela to purchase Rogelio's old house in Rogers
Rogelio had paid $79,000 for it in 1998, but sold to his older brother at a loss so the whole family could be together.
"He's my brother," Rogelio said. "It gives me a chance to help my family. We're all pulling together."
In the unincorporated areas of Arkansas, Rogelio explained, there are
few building codes. So the brothers can construct their houses at minimal
cost. They paid
about $7,000 each for the land, a few thousand more for a common well and septic tanks. Then for $10,000 to $15,000, they'll pour a cement foundation and erect
a frame. "I used to make homes in Mexico out of bricks," said Rogelio, speaking English after learning the language because so few people understand Spanish in
Arkansas. "Here I'm making them out of wood."
On a recent Sunday, three dozen Carranza family members gathered at Rogelio's unfinished house to celebrate the day.
Teenage girls whispered about boyfriends. Teenage boys swapped good-natured
insults. Small girls watched over their toddler cousins. And small boys
windowsills, tossing chicken bones to prowling dogs.
Several Carranza brothers, speaking in low tones, discussed a looming
problem: The two newly arrived brothers must change auto license plates
from California to
Arkansas or face a $500 fine.
And in what will soon be a back bedroom of the new house, the wives
sat quietly as Rogelio grilled chicken legs and tortillas above a small
fire he'd built among gray
"Just like Mexico," Rogelio said with a wide smile. "The children like the chicken this way."
What the children like most, several said, is the way their families have stuck together. And the opportunities they now see for themselves.
"Family is the most important thing there is," said Rogelio's son, Jose,
a $10.25-an-hour nurse's assistant who plans to enter community college
this summer and
eventually become a chiropractor.
"My dad always had a dream of one of us having a career," Jose said. "I just want to accomplish his dream and make him proud."