Almost Home

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...
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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.

Outside the city at the border, the coyotes used night vision goggles to scan for border guards. Given the all-clear, Ruiz and his companions crossed the braided bed of the Rio Grande, running, wading, and swimming over three channels. They brought nothing but the clothes on their backs.

The group ran for two hours, at one point through a small neighborhood, 40 people charging down the darkened streets and setting off a cacophony of barking dogs. They made it to the safe house, and the next night the coyotes brought them to the train.

As they rolled north for three days toward an unknown destination, the temperature began dropping. April temperatures along their route can dip into the 20s. "It was freezing," Garcia says. We were huddling together, hugging each other for warmth."

The group finally left the train in what they later found out was Kansas. From another safe house, the coyotes, a full-service agency, dispatched their charges to various destinations, some by plane to New York, some by bus to Memphis. Ruiz and his companions went by van to Atlanta to join more than 50 people from Garcia's home village.

Atlanta before 9/11 was still booming, and the duo had no trouble finding construction work. One boss told them that a job they finished in four days had taken his American crew more than two weeks. But the terrorist attacks sent the economy into a tailspin. The supply of work slowly dried up, and by February of 2004, it had disappeared. Ruiz and Garcia headed south hoping for agricultural work while Enrique went to Fort Lauderdale.

Agricultural work in most of Florida means fruits or vegetables, but in the northern town of Mayo, it means pine straw. Ruiz and Garcia found work gathering pine needles to be baled and used in landscaping. Their housing was crude, a ramshackle bungalow far from town, no air conditioning, the windows broken. They slept on a tile floor without blankets or mattresses -- not that it mattered.

"The work was really heavy, so we would arrive just dead," Garcia says. "We didn't feel anything."

At the end of a week of backbreaking labor, the boss handed them their checks: $130 each. They had been expecting $500.

"We worked from sunup to sundown without seeing anybody all day except for 15 minutes when they would come and get the bales," Garcia recalls, the memory of his anger showing on his face. "To work for so long and then for them to give you that..."

The same day, they left for Fort Lauderdale, joining Enrique in a Spartan, one-bedroom apartment in Wilton Manors, the fifth and sixth men to move in. Despite the cramped quarters for six construction workers, the apartment is spotlessly clean. Air mattresses with sleeping bags take up most of the floor space in the bedroom, but in the living room is a couch, a TV, even a PlayStation -- to decrease the temptation to go out and spend money, they explain. There are no posters, no knick-knacks, few clothes. The only decoration is a tapestry of the Virgin of Guadeloupe. The duo that did two weeks' work in four days had found an equally focused home in South Florida.

"There are a lot of people that walk around well-dressed with nice trucks, but in Mexico they don't have anything," Garcia says. "We want to work. We want to save money. The more money we save, the quicker we can go home."

Despite rural Mexicans' traditional mistrust of chilangos, people from Mexico City, Ruiz's affable nature won over his roommates from Hidalgo.

"I met Gregorio here in Fort Lauderdale," roommate Antonio Hernandez says. "He was so relaxed, he would just walk up and chat with this person, then chat with that person. He was easy to get along with."

On July 22, Garcia came home from work just as Ruiz was heading to the same site for the late shift. The two talked about the job, the weather, a few meaningless sentences before Ruiz headed out the door. The next time Garcia would see the man who had been his constant companion for three years, rescue workers were pulling his broken body from the rubble in Hobe Sound.

It fell to Garcia to break the news to his sister Laura, an attractive, dark-eyed 27-year-old.

"She works, but she can't make it on her own," he says. "She depended on him." Remembering the call, he looks at the floor in silence. Eventually he says one word: Duro. Hard.

In a photo Laura sent to Ruiz, their daughter Katia gazes calmly into the camera over her seventh birthday cake, having gotten used to celebrating without her father. Still, she will likely harbor some childhood memories of the man who worked so hard to give her a better life. Her younger sister, Jessica, who at 5 has spent most of her life without her father, will probably not.

For Garcia, the adjustment is just beginning.

"We have to move on with our lives," he says, but his voice is full of doubt. After a journey of more than 4,000 miles and three years together, he can't quite believe that "we" doesn't include Ruiz.

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