Longform

ILLEGAL From Terry Greene Sterling

Page 5 of 10

She crossed the border, and soon she and Inocencio were in Phoenix.

Araceli hated Phoenix.

The city was hot, noisy, crime-ridden, spread out, impersonal, lonely. Inocencio’s siblings lived close to him, but Araceli’s three sisters and five brothers were back in Guerrero.

There was no one she could confide in. She missed her little store and the rivers and mountains and the tall cacti grabbing at the sky with their thick green arms. She couldn’t speak English, so the Anglos were a mystery to her.

One day soon after she’d arrived, Araceli looked Inocencio in the eye and said: “I’m going back home.”

But she didn’t go back because as arrangements were being worked out for the return journey she found out she was pregnant. In the span of three years, she had two children, a daughter we’ll call Mitzi and a son we’ll call Jack. And of course, once her American citizen kids were born, she knew she’d probably never live again in Mexico.

Araceli and Inocencio now lived in a mixed-status family.

She was an unauthorized immigrant; he was a legal permanent resident; the kids were citizens. In Phoenix and across the nation, such mixed-status families were becoming common. Increased border enforcement made border crossings more dangerous and smuggling fees more expensive. It was just too costly and dangerous for migrants to visit their families in Mexico, as they had done for decades. Instead, wives joined their husbands in the United States and had American kids. In 2009, the Pew Hispanic Center reported that about 73 percent of the children of undocumented immigrants were American citizens.

High-strung, temperamental, take-charge Araceli and good-natured, happy-go-lucky-yet-stubborn Inocencio built a good marriage. Inocencio worked for a janitorial company, Araceli stayed at home with the kids. When she shopped or visited the Laundromat she took notice of nearby apartment buildings and duplexes and trailer parks where a lot of Mexican immigrants lived. There was money to be made there, she knew it.

On weekends, Araceli and Inocencio and the kids became door-to-door peddlers, selling sheets, blankets, and other bedding to people living in these high-density areas. Inocencio purchased the linens wholesale from an American distributor in Los Angeles. Araceli and Inocencio fused two cultures when they combined Mexican marketing with products they purchased in the United States. The door-to-door selling was common in Mexican villages in southern Mexico, and newly arrived immigrants felt comfortable with itinerant vendors who spoke their language and understood their customs. Interest-free credit arrangements could be made with a handshake; installment payments were agreed on. The informal credit arrangements were key to success.

You had to find just the right place to sell just the right product, is how Araceli and Inocencio had always seen things. In 2006, Araceli and Inocencio augmented their door-to-door peddling business when they rented one hundred square feet in a local Laundromat patronized almost exclusively by newly arrived immigrants. They paid $700 a month for the space, about $70 a square foot, but the Laundromat had a lot of customers who bought Ariel laundry soap (a Mexican detergent imported by an American company), as well as sodas, snacks, stuffed animals, gifts, and, yes, linens, from Araceli and Inocencio.

Inocencio quit his day job at the janitorial service.

Business was so good, Inocencio and Araceli saved $15,000.

Inocencio leased an empty 1,800 square-foot store near the Laundromat for $1,000 monthly. He started up an LLC. He got a business license. He officially became one of about 35,000 licensed Hispanic business owners in Arizona that, at the time, produced collective statewide revenues of about $4.3 billion. He and Araceli stocked the store with about 2,000 different items, most of which were American products. Among other things, they stocked toasters and toilet seat covers and coffee makers and milk and tortillas and eggs and potato chips and teddy bears and Mexican laundry soap and ceramic salt shakers designed to resemble strawberries. They sold phone cards and made commissions on remittances sent by immigrants to family members in Mexico. Back then, the foot traffic on the street was thick and steady at certain times, when school let out, after the workday, on weekends.

The first year, Inocencio reported a personal income of $72,000 and paid taxes on it. Araceli and Inocencio bought a house (in the same neighborhood where Inocencio’s siblings lived) for $156,000. Araceli indulged herself with frequent trips to Mervyns and Ross.

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Terry Greene Sterling