Daily News of Los Angeles, July 14, 2008: Migrants see lives improve in U.S.

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By Tony Castro, Staff Writer

Article Last Updated: 07/14/2008 11:22:49 PM PDT

SUN VALLEY – Even before 2-year-old Natalie Pineda was born, home for her family was a tiny dwelling that resembled the haunting misery and rural poverty of poor Southern sharecroppers during the Depression.

Crowded among other hovels – some with portable potties serving as outhouses – the shack in a dilapidated trailer park is surrounded by a neighborhood of vehicle-wrecking and salvage yards.

“We want her to be happy,” Natalie’s 19-year-old mother, Araczy Rocha, says of her daughter. “We’re sacrificing for her, and we live where we have to live to make a better life for us, but especially for our children.

“When we’re able to, we’d like to move to a nicer home, but right now we’re here, and this is home.

“Andamos buscando el sue o Americano.” – “We are looking for the American dream.”

The shack that Natalie and her family until recently called home is like much of Sun Valley as a wave of immigrants from Central America and Mexico cram into the region in search of a better life.

Even faced with the squalid conditions, they pack themselves into trailers, garages, tiny apartments and houses – often risking environmentally unsafe health conditions.

In Natalie’s living room, an old calendar image of Jesus Christ offers a forlorn sort of hope, as do crucifixes and other religious icons often found in the homes of Central American and Mexican immigrants.

But a discarded political sign against a wall of


a room in the home Natalie’s family temporarily shares with several other families might be a more fitting mantra for immigrants:

“Yes, We Can!” reads the Barack Obama poster.

“Is it true he’s the son of an immigrant?” asks Natalie’s young mom.

Assured that Obama is, she smiles as tears almost well in her eyes.

“Entonces hay esperanza,” she says. “Then there is hope.”

Immigration challenge

For whoever becomes America’s next president, immigration and all the related issues – poverty, health care, housing, deportation raids – loom as the biggest domestic challenges after the economy.

While a debate rages about whether immigration’s effects have been positive or negative, what is undeniable is the poverty and poor living conditions in which many Central American and Mexican immigrants find themselves.

“Sun Valley,” says Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents the area, “is ground zero for the county’s underserved and uninsured populations in the eastern San Fernando Valley.”

More than 70 percent of Sun Valley’s estimated 46,000 residents are Latino – and at least half are undocumented. They often fall through the bureaucratic cracks of census and city statistics, but make up the bulk of the one-in-five residents living in poverty in the area.

And the poverty rate among Latino immigrants might be even worse than the one-in-five statistic. According to a report from the Inter-American Development Bank, up to 60 percent of immigrants are “working poor” or “lower middle class,” with annual incomes of less than $30,000.

Worse still is a report that as they increase in population in the U.S., the share of all Latinos in poverty has doubled from 12 percent in 1980 to 25 percent in 2004.

Unemployment in Sun Valley and adjoining Pacoima is as high as 14 percent in some neighborhoods, and one-third to one-half of adult residents have not completed high school.

Forty percent of Pacoima’s youths live in poverty, more than 40 percent of Pacoima’s families earn less than $15,000 a year and 75 percent have no health care.

Pacoima and Sun Valley residents also represent a disproportionately high percentage of residents in the area who received food assistance, according to food banks that work with the Valley’s needy.

And beyond the Sun Valley wrecking yards that surround the home where Natalie was born are a slew of landfills and factories, including dangerous chrome-plating facilities.

No fewer than 33 facilities in Sun Valley have permits as waste-transfer stations, open or closed landfills and solid-waste vehicle yards.

A UCLA survey found that asthma is the single-most serious health problem in the community. And a Woodbury University report substantiated residents’ long-standing complaints that the facilities and presence of other environmental hazards have negatively affected their health.

If those complaints are correct, a child like Natalie could be looking at becoming the next Rafael Ceja, a fourth-grader at Fernangeles Elementary School in Sun Valley who grew up in the area and has been diagnosed with acute asthma.

“When I do my work, when I blow my nose, I go like this,” Rafael says, showing that he is momentarily disoriented. “Usually, I don’t know what I do next.”

Rafael is one of an estimated 15 percent of Fernangeles’ 1,175 students who are on daily medication for asthma and live in an area determined to be an environmental “hot spot” by the state’s Air Quality Management Board.

“We know that childhood asthma in Sun Valley is double the national average,” says Joshua Stehlik of the nonprofit Neighborhood Legal Services, who has been involved in helping local residents fight a local landfill’s expansion.

Community activist Edwin Ramirez has tried to change the region through his involvement with various community groups in the area, including the Pacoima Neighborhood Council, of which he is past president.

“It’s just incredible what the human spirit will deal with,” Ramirez says while giving a visitor a tour of housing conditions in the area. “We have all been that far down, but the secret is not staying down in the abyss of life.”

Ramirez and his own extended family immigrated to the Valley from El Salvador in the 1970s. In three decades, he moved from a gardening job to being a businessman.

Then he moved from being a renter to a homeowner, from a stranger in a new land to a community activist who helped build two charter schools to help educate his son, who is now a junior in college.

“What many of them are now confronting, I went through,” he says. “It’s not easy. It has been a struggle. What helped us (make it) through was that we learned to believe in the opportunities provided rather than to live on misery or complaint. None of us have ever been on welfare or unemployment. We paid our taxes, and we’re doing our fair share.

“I think if you examined these people, you’d find that most of them think the same way. They’re not here to live off handouts and welfare. They’re here to improve their lives and, in the process, improve America. They’re what America is all about.”

But it is an America in which immigrants, like Natalie’s family, find themselves packed with multiple families in overcrowded, substandard housing.

Area deteriorating

Ines Acevedo Netkin, a native of Mexico City who immigrated to the U.S. in 1990, is technically part of the most recent wave of Mexican and Central American immigrants, but she bristles at any broad-stroke analyses.

She has campaigned unsuccessfully for code-violation crackdowns on multiple families living in single-family housing.

“It used to be nice to live (in Van Nuys), but it’s deteriorating,” says Acevedo Netkin, who eventually sold her home and moved to Arizona. “We have dirty streets, traffic jams, more crime. It’s not the way it used to be.

“I feel like it’s going to become like Mexico City. Right now, if you closed your eyes and opened them in downtown Los Angeles, you would think that you were in Mexico City.”

In Sun Valley, the rundown trailer park where Natalie was born resembles the colonias atop hillsides in Tijuana.

Natalie was one of four children and as many adults who lived in the two-room shack and often played in the small dirt yard outside.

The trailer park on Branford Street, just a block off San Fernando Road, was home for Natalie’s family for the better part of four years – until last fall when an auto-parts dealer bought the property for more wrecking-yard space.

The extended family was forced to move in with yet other families in a neighborhood nearby, where they now share a home and rent.

Looking back, Araczy Rocha says the trailer park wasn’t that bad.

But then she has a short memory. She forgets that on overcast days, the smell of discarded engine oil, fuel, antifreeze, brake fluid and their fumes from the wrecking yards hovered over the trailers.

On rainy days, soot mixed with oils and debris from the yards flowed in small streams through the trailer park and spilled into the dirt yards where Natalie and other children played.

But as poor as they are, the families say their lives in Sun Valley are better than they were in Mexico and Guatemala.

Like a lot of immigrants, according to Pew Hispanic Center and Kaiser Family Foundation surveys in 2004, Araczy and her extended family don’t feel excluded from life in the U.S.

They are neither on welfare nor food stamps, and the only public services they use are local schools, in which Araczy’s three younger brothers are enrolled.

That mirrors a study from the Tomas Rivera Center at USC that found that Latino immigrant households falling below the poverty line are less likely to receive welfare benefits than their native counterparts.

Stretching their money

Natalie’s parents share their home with Araczy’s mother, stepfather and three brothers and combine their meager earnings from the two families – Araczy’s husband, Luis, collects and sells recyclables, while her stepfather, Miguel Jineda, works in construction.

But to make their money stretch, they also have to cut corners. While Natalie’s family has food on the table, they have to scratch to do so at times.

Members of Natalie’s extended family say the vast majority of their income is spent on work-related expenses and living essentials. And while it might not appear to an outsider that their lives here are better than they were in their homelands, they say they know they are. 818-713-3761

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