Miguel Herrero is just another Mexican.
Six days a week you might drive by him anywhere in the Carlsbad/Oceanside area. You’d see him building fences, planning drainages, wiring timers, and caring for trees. But the most interesting thing about him is what you can’t see.
In his off hours, Miguel is a community banker, an insurer of last resort, and a fixer of problems. A whole community turns to him for advice, and for money. There are even people deep in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, almost all the way down at the border with Guatemala, who give him a call when they have a personal problem, or when, say, the local church needs re-stuccoing but can’t afford the necessary scaffolding to do the job.
On his best day he might hit 5'6", even counting the virile mass of wavy black hair atop his head. He is a neat dresser. The day I meet him for an interview, he’s wearing a stylish black T-shirt with some kind of heavy-metal-looking skeleton design on it.
We meet at Oceanside’s L&L Hawaiian Barbeque. I have no idea why we’re meeting here, except that my brother, who has known Miguel for a decade and a half and who has agreed to translate, told me to show up at 4:30 on a Sunday afternoon.
The mall parking lot is half empty. Actually, a good part of the mall itself is empty. Not only empty of customers, but of tenants. The old Mervyn’s a few doors down from L&L just sits there, empty, month after month. The frozen-yogurt shop is gone. The Hallmark card shop is gone. So is the car dealership across the parking lot.
All over Oceanside, probably all over America, gaps have formed in consumer society. Dead spots. A lot of people are living through their own private financial hells.
Miguel is standing outside the L&L when I get there. My brother is late, so we go inside, order a couple of sodas, and talk in my poor Spanish and Miguel’s poor English about his financial work.
I ask what this money thing he does is called.
“Tandas [or] cundinas,” he says, “it’s the same thing.”
What word does he prefer?
He explains that, right now, he is in the second week of a 12-week tanda. Its structure could not be simpler — each member agrees to contribute $100 per week for 12 weeks. They will give the money to Miguel, who will hand it each week to one of the members. When the 12 weeks are over, a new tanda starts. Miguel says membership varies from 10–20 people each time.
Before the first week of each cycle, members choose numbers. The number chosen signifies the week the member will get paid $1100 (and will not have to contribute the weekly $100).
Members can buy one week, two weeks, even partial week arrangements such as one and a half weeks.
Some members ask for an early number, “because they need the money right away,” Miguel says. Such a request is perfectly acceptable.
“Some other people can wait to take their money,” he adds. Such a person can ask for a late number. The member might ask to go last, for example, so that each week constitutes, essentially, a payment into a 12-week savings plan.
In an emergency, a member can tell the group that he or she needs the money on any given week, and the group will rearrange paydays so that the member with the emergency can get paid immediately.
In this way, the tanda acts as a system of savings, of loans, and of insurance for emergencies.
Miguel says that, even if a person has already been paid in, say, week one, and they have an emergency in week nine, they can get paid again immediately, so long as they agree to give up their number in the next round.
“You know the people,” Miguel says. “It’s okay.”
Most of the people in Miguel’s tanda live in or near Oceanside’s Crown Heights neighborhood.
The tightly packed quarter is a short walk to the beach, to Oceanside High School, to the strip mall that has stood across from the high school for ages, and even to the new Fresh & Easy market on Oceanside Boulevard. There are plenty of spots nearby to shop and bank at, but a good percentage of the neighborhood’s banking goes on right here, just as a good percentage of the neighborhood’s shopping is done off the backs of trucks that park for hours along Division Street, or around the corner on Grant Street, down by the community garden.
For as long as there has been an Oceanside, this has been “the barrio” — one of those little Mexican hearts that beat near the center of nearly every beach city in Southern California. Once a seedy spot, Crown Heights today is mostly free of graffiti; the streets are clean and the sidewalks relatively busy. But the little houses and apartment buildings are much more crowded than is typical of Southern California.
You can get vegetables, baked goods, beverages, candies — almost the whole grocery array — off of those trucks. And you can get it without venturing out of Crown Heights, which is important if you don’t have a car or much English vocabulary.
Despite its outside reputation for crime, Crown Heights is a family place. Most of the small communities that make up the neighborhood are peaceful clusters of families, each with its own regional flavor.
Miguel’s flavor, like many people in Crown Heights, is Oaxacan. He figures there are probably 1000 Oaxacans in Oceanside.
If it seems odd that so many people from Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s southernmost states, would end up in Oceanside, one only has to understand a phenomenon that migration researchers call “sister communities.”
Dr. Ramona Pérez, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at San Diego State University, has worked in Oaxaca for two decades. She says, “You could go into any community in Oaxaca at this point and ask them, ‘Where’s your sister community?’ And they’ll say, ‘We go to Los Angeles,’ or ‘We go to San Diego,’ or ‘We go to Vista,’ or ‘We go to Chicago.’”