Until December of last year, 51-year-old Jaime Nieto made $10 an hour working for a construction company "doing their ironwork needs. That's my trade - security. Window-guards, rails, gates, fences. But that company works on bids; they bid on projects. I guess by the end of the year, they didn't get anything. So, I'm waiting for them to call me." Meanwhile, Nieto, a graying yet hale man with a strong jaw and a musing look in his eye, is collecting $260 unemployment every two weeks.
That comes to $520 a month; not a lot when you consider that Nieto has a wife and five children to support. First, there is the payment on his two-bedroom, one-bathroom house in Valencia Park near Skyline in Southeast San Diego, which he has owned for ten years. The house is worn white stucco with royal blue wood trim along the roof and white iron bars over most of the windows. A fuchsia-flowering hedge separates one side of the front yard from the one next door, and a circular rose garden, sectioned like an orange by brick edging, blooms in the yard's center. Most of the houses on this broad street are similar - pale stucco with contrasting trim, hedges at yard's edge, bushes hugging the houses, and short but voluminous trees obscuring the mass of wires overhead.
"When I moved in," recalls Nieto, "the back yard was weeds that would cover you up. So I bought the house real cheap, because I offered to clean it up." Also, because it was small, "nobody wanted to buy a house like that. One bathroom is tough with a lot of people." Not to mention two bedrooms. "The garage, we use it for another bedroom; the older ones sleep there. The little ones in one bedroom, and my wife and I in another." The Toyota wagon, which is paid for, stays in the driveway.
Nieto put $4500 down on the house, money he borrowed from Parking Company of America. "I worked there doing maintenance, cleaning all those lots by myself. They lent me the money, and I paid them back with vacations. I never took a vacation. I worked there for ten years." Now he has a $648 monthly house payment, a payment he would not be able to make without the help of his son Everardo, who is 24, recently out of the Marines and living at home while he studies engineering at City College. "He makes the house payments while I am unemployed," Nieto tells me, from the $627 a month he receives from the Marines. He gets this money "to keep him in school." Everardo also makes minimum wage, plus tips, working food prep at the Brigantine restaurant in La Mesa, five hours a day, four days a week. He does this so he can pay for his education and that of his younger brother, who is studying commercial art at the same school. It seems like a lot for a son and brother to do. It's not as if he's the family millionaire, dispensing gifts to his poorer kinfolk. But as Nieto describes his family, Everardo's generosity becomes less surprising.
"The main thing is to keep the family together. We go to a Catholic Church. We are very united. When they get married [as two of his children have done], we see that they get a good wife or a good husband. We check the person. When they turn 15, I try to keep them here as much as possible, because I know that's when they meet bad friends. I never let them hang around gang members. My wife talks to them all the time. We try to talk them into being nice to the family, to the little brothers and sisters." Part of one living room wall is covered with 8 x 10 photos. An end table is devoted to framed photos of babies and small children, another to adults and weddings.
The baby table is made of oak, with curved legs and a zigzag pattern across the top. The wedding table is identical, and both match the large coffee table and a gilt-edged sideboard. The coffee table rests on an azure oriental rug, which rests on darker blue wall-to-wall carpet. The wallpaper, peeling in one or two places, is an expanse of sprigs trimmed with vines above and flowers below.
Large windows are set in the front and back walls. The front window is covered with lace; the back looks out on a large yard, home to five dogs, several old ducks, some cockatiels, and others I can't hear the names of over their screeching. Back inside, white plaster statues of women holding baskets stand in two corners of the living room. The baskets contain pots of vines, which creep along the top of the walls. An ornate gold-rimmed mirror hangs above the sideboard, lending the room an Edwardian air. An incongruous statue of a bum and another of three urchins playing cards stand on the sideboard. Below is the shoe that housed the Old Woman. Other knickknacks include oriental dolls and a forest scene on velvet. "Whatever is here, we got it through ten years," says Nieto. "We buy them at swap meets. Sometimes I get them from neighbors, for cheap or free. My wife likes to have plants and decorations."
As we speak, Jaime's wife Irene begins moving quickly about the kitchen, starting pots of water boiling. "My wife has to stay here," he states, "cooking and taking care of everybody. When they come home from school, she has the food ready. Everybody comes real hungry."
What do they eat?
"I go grocery shopping at these Iranian stores. I look for cheap stuff, specials, like when they sell soaps for 8 or 10 for $1. I spend about $150 a week on food. Chicken, ten pounds for $4.90. That will last two or three days. My wife has different ways to prepare it. Five pounds of ground beef for 99 cents a pound, two or three days. She cooks pots of meatballs. Things you can [make a lot of], instead of buying steak. Beans every day, ramen noodles every day. We get lettuce and celery fresh from the Good Neighbor Center [a local charity organization]. Loaves of bread too."