Zero Down

Los Angeles Times
Saturday July 17, 1999
Zero Down, Hard Work and Dreams That Came True

The secret to life in America, Manuel Garcia says, is credit. He slaps the dash and says it emphatically: “Cheap credit.”
The dash is attached to a 1998 Freightliner Classic Raised Roof SleeperCab with 13 forward gears, two backward and 410 horses under its canary-yellow hood.
It’s an early evening dressed in warm light and long shadow. The dash, the Freightliner and Manuel are southbound on Interstate 5, climbing the hill out of La Jolla, pulling a load of Lompoc broccoli and lettuce.
He grins across the gloaming. Once you’ve seen Manuel Garcia smile you can’t help but be struck by the appearance of his face when he doesn’t. It seems to belong to someone else. It’s a face of flat, implacable planes that betray nothing of what goes on behind them. The relationship of his grinning face to this one is that of a child skipping to an old man standing stock still.
Right now, Manuel is skipping down the highway.
“This truck?” he says and slaps the dash again, “Zero down!”
“The house?”
“FHA!” he shouts.
“Zero down!”
This then is Manuel Garcia’s California, a land rich with contradiction and very many confusions but, oh yes, some significant satisfactions. Manuel and his wife, Ana, arrived in Los Angeles from El Salvador a decade ago with five children and little more than the clothes on their backs.
In addition to the Freightliner, the Garcias have since accumulated two subcompact cars, a Toyota Sienna minivan, two houses, two dogs and a squawking parrot. If this isn’t some version of the California Dream, it’s hard to imagine what is. And Manuel Garcia’s explanation of his road to these riches–zero down!–is as powerful an empirical account as we are likely to get.
Amid all its inequities, one of the geniuses of latter-day American life is the gradual extension to the poor some privileges of the rich. Chief among these is capital.
Give me a lever, Archimedes said, and I’ll move the Earth. Cheap and easy credit is the leverage that moves the modern world. It creates billionaires out of other people’s money. It nurtures dreams. And every once in a while it does something truly worthwhile–like give fresh purchase to a family otherwise headed over the edge.
Still, this dollars-and-cents stuff seems somehow insufficient. Manuel Garcia just doesn’t seem like the kind of man who could be made to smile with mere money.
A Port of Entry
The United States, it is forever said, is a nation of immigrants. To a large extent it’s the reason the country was formed in the first place–to provide a place for people to go when they didn’t like the place they were in. Being a destination for the discontented and ambitious is a central part of the country’s definition of itself.
American immigration has occurred in four waves. The first three were overwhelmingly European. The first occurred just after the country broke from Great Britain, the second prior to the Civil War. The third and biggest influx came around the turn of the 20th century, comprising 18.5 million people, a huge amount in a country of fewer than 100 million.
The third wave didn’t end until the U.S. virtually closed its door in 1924. By the time the door reopened in 1965, the world had changed. Europe was enjoying prolonged economic growth. Asia and Latin America were not. These were the areas where the fourth wave of immigration originated. And as the origin of migrants moved, so did their destination.
For its first 120 years, most of California’s steady stream of new residents came from other states in the union, mainly the Midwest, hence those stories of picnics for native Iowans drawing 60,000 people in Long Beach.
This has changed utterly. During much of this decade, California actually lost population to other states. But this was more than made up by international immigration. More than half of all current Californians were born outside the state, and roughly half of those were born outside the country. California has suddenly became what William Clark, a UCLA geographer, calls the nation’s port of entry.
According to data compiled in Clark’s book “The California Cauldron,” California now receives nearly three times as many immigrants as New York, the state with the next largest total. One of five foreign-born residents of the United States now lives in California. A quarter of all Californians are immigrants, the highest percentage of any state. California, in fact, has as many foreign-born residents as the next four largest destination states combined.
California is home to the largest (fill-in-the-blank) population outside the (fill-in-the-blank) country of origin–the most Koreans, most Guatemalans, most Iranians, most Vietnamese, most Armenians.
In the case of Mexico, Los Angeles has more Mexicans than every city in the world except Mexico City itself. By some estimates, fully 10% of the entire population of El Salvador has emigrated, half of it to Los Angeles.
Madness in El Salvador
Madness must lay buried in the earth, ready. With the least fissure, it rises. Loosed, it commands the landscape, taking what it wants, retreating when and only if it will.
For much of the last three decades it engulfed El Salvador. Death disguised as ideology visited every corner of the tiny country. During most of that reign, Manuel Garcia’s family remained remarkably untouched. They lived in the shade of coffee trees in Santa Ana. Manuel was a bus driver, Ana a shopkeeper. They lived in relative ease compared to many of their countrymen.
While a civil war sputtered and smoked and occasionally blew up around them, their house was a refuge. The Garcias concentrated on raising their family, which grew to include four daughters and a son. Out of devotion and paternal protectiveness, Manuel drove the children wherever they had to go. When the war was at its worst, he made the children lie on the floor of the bus for safety.
“Dad took me to school every day. Sometimes, we would see dead people along the road,” said Ruth, Ana and Manuel’s oldest girl.
Government soldiers often commandeered Manuel and his bus, demanding he take them wherever they wanted to go. This did not escape the attention of the guerrillas who opposed the government. They made similar demands and asked which side Manuel was on.
Eventually, as it had to, the madness came calling at Manuel and Ana Garcia’s front door. It took the form of two masked men with a proposal for blackmail. They gave Manuel a note demanding money in exchange for the safety of the four Garcia sisters–Ruth, Karina, Yeni and Marta–and their brother, Juan. The men gave Manuel a month to come up with the money.
As it happened, Manuel and Ana’s life savings amounted to about the amount the men demanded. It was also virtually the exact amount it would cost to buy seven airplane tickets to America.
So it was that two mornings before the money was due, the Garcias told the children they were all going to visit the United States, where there was an amusement park with many rides and a mouse named Mickey. They dressed the four daughters and one son in matching outfits, each of which proudly featured shirts with the script “El Salvador” embroidered across the chest. They packed two suitcases for the family; each child brought a teddy bear. A cousin drove them down to the capital and the El Salvador International Airport. Armed with tourist visas, they boarded a plane to Los Angeles. Upon arrival, 5-year-old Juan wondered why people talked to him in strange words he couldn’t understand while the family ate doughnuts for dinner.
That was in the fall of 1988. Today, Ruth is about to be a senior at USC, Karina a Cal State Los Angeles junior, Yeni an honors sophomore at Cal State Fullerton. Marta is in middle school, where she was recently honored for finding and returning a wallet with several hundred dollars in it. Juan is a high school junior with his eye on an old Camaro he wants to rebuild.
Becoming American
At some levels, or at one level, anyway, that being the level of a parent, the world is not a complicated place. There’s safety and there’s danger. What does a parent want? It’s simple, right? You choose safety.
Even if it means giving up what you thought your life would be, you choose for the children.
When the blackmail threat was delivered, the Garcias had no choice but to believe it. “Probably it was true. Probably it was not,” Manuel said. “We couldn’t know. We had to make a decision.”
A friend, blackmailed for $200, didn’t pay. He was killed.
“I said to my wife, ‘This is no life.’ That’s when we started talking about coming here,” Manuel said. “It’s something crazy. We don’t even know how to leave.”
“In El Salvador,” said Ana, “you just live day to day and hope that it will get better the next day. Then the next day it’s worse. We didn’t know what to expect when we came. We just go to whatever’s there.”
Manuel had a sister in Gardena; the family camped there in one room of her two-room apartment.
“There was one sofa bed for all of us,” Ruth said.
“We have to start here next to zero. We were sleeping on the floor,” Manuel said.
The vacation myth the Garcias had given their children disappeared when they enrolled them in L.A. schools. Within a year of arrival, Yeni won a third-grade reading contest and Ruth won a trip to Washington, D.C., for an essay on how to make the world a better place. Karina knew exactly how to make her own world a better place: by going back to El Salvador. That was out of the question. As if to repeal history, she refused to speak English for two whole years.
Manuel went to work delivering sofas and chairs for a furniture store. To get more space, the family moved in with other relatives in a small house in Echo Park. Ana worked as a maid and the kids sold homemade tamales on the street.
The first year, the family of seven earned $12,000. Still, within two years they convinced the FHA they could afford a three-bedroom house in Watts.
“Watts for me was good,” Manuel says. “My neighbors would watch my house for me. When my wife would leave, she wouldn’t even lock the door.”
He remains happily perplexed at the ease with which he was able to buy the house.
“In my country, my father filled out long applications for credit. He owned some land. He wanted to borrow $40,000 against it. He went through interviews, filled out forms. After six months he got a letter saying he had been approved. For $1,000,” Manuel said. “In this country here, if you can keep your credit clear, they don’t care how much money you want to spend.”
Yeni, the third daughter, said that in retrospect moving to Watts seems “kinda weird. We moved from El Salvador to get away from the war and end up with gangs shooting each other out on the street in front of the house.”
In telling this, Yeni takes on a serious, furrowed look. Then she brightens and, as if to say it wasn’t really so bad, adds, “There was only one day we actually saw a dead body on the ground.”
Manuel and Ana never intended to stay in the U.S. permanently. One year, maybe two, until things calmed down at home. But things never calmed down.
“I discussed it with my wife and with Ruth,” Manuel said. “I said, ‘We have to decide where we’re going to be–here or there.’ ”
The Garcias chose here, they said, solely out of fear. They made that argument to the U.S. Department of Justice in a request for political asylum. The request was denied. Like many refugees of the period, they were caught between their own desires for safety and the foreign policy goals of the American government, which supported the Salvadoran government and refused to acknowledge there might be reason to flee.
The Garcias filed a second application for asylum. It slogged through the government bureaucracy at about the same rate the war dragged on at home. With the assistance of a local immigrant-rights group, they made other applications under other programs. If one failed, they tried another.
Their application package contains a collection of documents describing a family almost too good to be true. The file is stuffed full of letters from bosses, co-workers, teachers, students, neighbors and grocery store checkers. There’s a card identifying Manuel as a member of the Los Angeles Police Department’s 77th Street Division Police Boosters Assn. There’s a certificate of congratulations from President Clinton right next to a letter from the neighborhood Avon lady. One typical letter says, “Mr. Garcia is responsible, dependable and a good person.” Another concludes, “They are a very charming and conservative family.”
“My family is very close,” Manuel wrote, arguing that whatever happened they must all stay together. “Each of us would suffer extremely were we to be separated. They are my life.”
There is not in a three-foot-long box of documents a single negative fact. The government nonetheless drew its own conclusion.
“The events you describe do not constitute past persecution,” the Justice Department said, denying one claim. “You did not establish the guerrillas have the inclination to harm you today should you return to your country.”
The only way to establish that absolutely, of course, would have been to return to El Salvador and be harmed.
The Garcias stayed instead in a sort of limbo, not knowing when they might be told to leave. They made the best of it. Manuel took English and driving classes. He moved on from the furniture company to a trucking job. Then he decided to risk it on his own. He scraped together enough money for a down payment on a small truck. He worked and saved and traded the small truck for a bigger one. Then the Freightliner.
The only vacation he’s had in 11 years came when the truck was stolen and for a week he couldn’t work. When it was recovered, he went right back on the road. The truck–unlike the family’s health care–was insured.
Ana gave up working and, with Manuel gone so much, devoted herself to the children, hauling them to and from their various schools, cooking and counseling. With magnet programs and study preferences, the older children all ended up at different high schools. Just driving them around is nearly a full-time job.
The children prospered. Even Karina. She eventually gave up her English boycott and became the most outgoing of all the Garcia sisters. She scandalized the family by wearing makeup, then dating.
At some point in all of this, the children quit being children and, long before their parents, quit being immigrants.
They have inexorably become American. And they act it, too.
When Ruth, the most traditional of them, gets a grade she doesn’t like, she challenges it. They go dancing, to the movies and the mall. Juan studies hot-rod magazines. They earn scholarships to college. They teach catechism classes at church; when children in class talk about troubles at home, Yeni gets their parents on the phone and scolds them.
They have kept, however, some of the wide-eyed innocence of the new. They celebrate birthdays without embarrassment at Chuck E. Cheese, Dad’s treat. They picnic together on the banks of the San Gabriel River. Everybody goes. Nobody complains.
The Cities In-Between
There are famous L.A.s. There is the L.A. of earthquakes and another with fantasylands and theme parks. There is Hollywood and its hinterland, the places with the brightest names and most lurid lights. There’s also the place with the darkest, scariest nights, the city of gangs and guns and drugs.
Each of these L.A.s has its niche in the national consciousness. Collectively, they add up to a definition of the place, at various times one or the other putting the most colors on the page. Always obscured in the process is the place where most Angelenos spend their lives–away from the famous and infamous places, in that great flat anonymous sprawl in between.
The city of Downey is smack in the middle of the In-Between. So of the middle is it that local guides to the city begin by boasting of its quick access to freeways, telling you how easy it is once you get here to leave for somewhere else. This is perfect advice for Downey, which, like much of Southern California, is on the move.
From its whistle-stop beginnings in 1873, Downey changed little for a long time. It was hardly more than unincorporated cow pasture between the Rio Hondo and San Gabriel rivers. If you stood on your tiptoes, you could see from one end of town to the other. World War II, and especially its Cold War aftermath, remade Downey as a center of aerospace engineering.
Downey swapped one version of iconic America for another. The hamlet was transformed into a crew-cut, All-American suburb, home of industrial ingenuity as well as one of the original McDonald’s restaurants and the Carpenters.
North American Aviation built a plant in the middle of town where for 30 years missiles were designed and built. A few of them were even launched, sending Americans to the moon. At its peak, 35,000 people worked at what became the Rockwell plant.
Today, the town has lost almost all those jobs and with them some of its shine. The Rockwell plant has changed hands a couple of times and most of it is now vacant, looking for tenants.
More than the economic base is changing. The people of the In-Between, Downey included, reflect the rising fourth wave of American immigration. They paint the population in different colors. Manuel, humping produce in his Freightliner, laughs and jokes with everybody he meets along his roads–almost all of it in Spanish. Downey’s population, overwhelmingly white a mere 20 years ago, is now majority Latino.
Demographers like UCLA’s Clark worry that the region doesn’t fully comprehend the scope of change and growth that is occurring. Four out of 10 residents of Los Angeles County were born in another country. Turn-of-the-century Los Angeles is home to a larger percentage of the nation’s foreign-born population than New York City was at the height of European immigration at the turn of the last century. What will happen to all these people? Clark asks.
“It’s an incredibly bifurcated story. There are a lot of people like this family, but a lot of people who aren’t going to make it. Is the California dream still available? The answer is yes. But is it available to everybody?
“No. No it’s not. Not at all.”
The Corner House
The Garcias moved to Downey three years ago. They had no idea they would be part of an emerging majority. They just liked the house, which was a bargain.
The fancier houses are over on the west side of town, by the golf club. Here, in the elbow of the intersection of Interstates 605 and 105, the houses are mainly the small, single-story ranches laid out on strict grids when half the city’s houses were built in that single boom decade of the ’50s.
This one here, though, the corner house, is different, with the odd wraparound building out front forming a sort of rampart guarding a courtyard and beyond, the house where the Garcias live.
Inside they laugh at how Central American the house seems, with its gravel courtyards and birds and dogs. Inside, in fact, they laugh at a lot of things. This spring, the Garcias finally won their last appeal with the U.S. government. They were the first Salvadorans granted permanent resident status under a new law designed to account for the peculiar political circumstances of Central American refugees. They can stay as long as they want. They laugh now at the bizarre lengths to which they went to prove they deserved to be here, all the court dates, all the people they asked to write all the letters of recommendation.
Ana says they’re blessed. Yeni agrees. “Sometimes I think we really are. Whenever we really need something, we seem to get it.”
Manuel says, “When we got our papers, oh my God. I told my kids: ‘If you want to be something, this is the place. You can be anything.’ ”
There’s a warm glow inside the house. Maybe it’s caused by something as simple and straightforward as sunlight through a high window. Maybe. Or maybe it’s less easily explained. Maybe believing the sunlight causes the glow is like believing Manuel’s theory that cheap credit can buy happiness. It’s rational. It makes perfect sense. There is a window and light comes through it. You could measure it; maybe you could prove it. And not get halfway to the truth.
There are people who move who seem never to arrive, people who forever dwell in memories of homes that were, or dreams of homes that can never be. The true gift Manuel and Ana Garcia gave their children has nothing to do with cheap credit and a good house, although what they gave is just as fundamentally American. It is what makes the California Dream possible. The gift they gave their children was the confidence to walk in the world and be at home with themselves wherever they come to rest.