Almost Home

Hoping to return to his family, Gregorio Ruiz strived and died in America

Gregorio Ruiz froze, scarcely daring to breathe for fear of discovery. He listened to the footsteps crunch on the gravel outside as the guard walked the length of the motionless freight train. The only light in the musty boxcar filtered in through narrow slits hacked out with hatchets by the coyotes, or immigrant smugglers, to allow their 40 clients to breathe.

Ruiz had left everything he had known behind, crossing illegally from Mexico into the United States in the hopes of earning enough money to save his wife and two young daughters from a life of grinding poverty. Now those footsteps outside meant his mission might end before it began.

The footsteps stopped. Ruiz exchanged worried glances with his brother-in-law Jose Garcia. Slowly, the latch on the massive door rotated. The door slid back -- to reveal the faces of the two coyotes who rode outside, on top of the train.

"We were sure it was la migra [immigration police]," Garcia recalls. "They looked in and started laughing at us."

Ruiz endured the fear of that April 2001 journey. For three years, he endured the constant uncertainty of living illegally, the obstacles of an unfamiliar country with a language he didn't speak. He endured a depressed economy and occasionally unscrupulous bosses and accomplished what he had set out to do: He sent enough money home for a down payment on an apartment, enough for private schooling for his daughters. His gamble in coming north was paying off.

In June, Ruiz began work on a new project in Hobe Sound with Macs Construction and Concrete, one that he hoped would be his last in the States. He made plans to return home in December. He would reunite with his family for good in the home that his hard labor had paid for.

The Hobe Sound project did turn out to be his last. At 6:15 p.m. on July 22, he was standing with coworker Lauro Marquez inside the three-story structure they were working on when it collapsed in a thunder of concrete, metal, and wood. Eight hours later, Ruiz's broken body was pulled from the rubble. He would never have his triumphal return, his long journey ending in tragedy just as the finish line was in sight.

Accounts of the accident that killed Ruiz and Marquez have explored its causes and speculated about who is to blame, but the victims themselves have been bit players in the official drama. The story of Gregorio Ruiz, a smart, determined, 31-year-old Mexico City native, pieced together from the accounts of friends and relatives, is itself a personal drama far more compelling.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Ruiz's story is that, until the moment of his death, things were going so well. He had ignored the temptations of material culture in the States. He didn't drink, didn't go out, worked all the hours he could, and steered clear of trouble. In an era when many immigrants toil in virtual slavery, trapped in debt to the 21st Century's answer to the company store, the labor contractor, Ruiz paid off his debt to the coyotes and had steady work at a decent wage.

He had avoided all the pitfalls common to undocumented immigrants only to fall victim, apparently, to imperfectly dried concrete. Early evidence discovered by Martin County Building Official Bart Stuart suggests that contractor Macs Construction and Concrete of Delray Beach may have given the second-floor concrete insufficient time to cure before starting to pour the third. Whatever the cause, questions about the company's workers' compensation insurance may mean that Ruiz's hopes for his family died with him.

Ruiz grew up in Azcapotzalco, a gritty industrial suburb of Mexico City. His father left the family when Ruiz was a boy, and he had to begin working early. But with the inflated prices in the capital, it was a Sisyphean task. Even a decent construction job would pay only $70 a week.

In 1995, he met Laura Isela Garcia. She had left her small village in the rugged Mexican state of Hidalgo to work as a nurse in the city, and the two quickly formed a bond that would become a common-law marriage. Their family began to grow -- first came Katia in 1997, then Jessica two years later -- and with it the financial burdens.

In 2001, facing the cost of sending his daughters to school, Ruiz decided to head north. The stocky, amiable 28-year-old had become fast friends with his brother-in-law, José Garcia, who also had a wife and two daughters to support. So with Garcia's brother Enrique, just 17 years old at the time, they joined the roughly 300,000 people who enter the United States illegally every year.

The three contracted with the coyotes in Mexico City and left the city with a group of 40 the smugglers would guide over the border. Their bus ride to Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, passed uneventfully, but while the coyotes were explaining the next step in a city park, a gang of men armed with automatic weapons appeared, wearing the uniforms of Mexico's Judicial Police. After some dickering, the coyotes coughed up about $300, and the men left.

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