Every day at 7:00 a.m., Mateo (names in this article have been changed to protect the immigrants) wakes up next to Maria, his longtime girlfriend. Most mornings, he hops out of bed, throws on his workout clothes, stretches, and goes out for a three-mile run. Sometimes he'll attach weights to his ankles and include a big hill or two for more of a challenge. When Mateo gets home to their one-bedroom apartment in Normal Heights, he showers and has a light breakfast with Maria and their five-year-old daughter Carla. Then he's off to take English at a local language school. Mateo speaks English fluently but still attends classes three or four times a week. Today, he learned the present perfect tense: "By the time I go to school, I've already eaten breakfast."
After class, it's off to work. Mateo's a busboy at two of the better fine-dining restaurants in San Diego. He wears a vest, apron, and bow tie for seven shifts at one venue (four nights and three days) and sports more or less the same outfit for two dinner shifts at the other. Mateo makes coffees and iced teas, crumbs and clears tables, serves food, pours water, and cleans, but he's also learned about fine wine and fine cuisine over the years and is able to interact with the clientele more than most busboys.
After work, about 11:00 most nights, Mateo drives his "baby" — his good-condition, golden 1977 Camaro LT — home to his family, and he goes to bed.
Other days, Mateo plays soccer in the Ocean Pacific Soccer League, where he's a top-notch defensive back. Or he'll take his daughter to Chuck E. Cheese or to the park. He details cars on Wednesdays with a friend for a few extra bucks.
Mateo works 55 hours a week and brings home close to $1000.
A Guatemalan expatriate, Mateo's lived in San Diego for the past nine years. For most of that time, he's wired money to his family back home. Mateo estimates that he sends about half of what he earns back to Guatemala. By now, in the rural southwestern part of that country, this young man owns 140 acres of fertile grazing land, three houses, two bakeries, an apiary, and 78 head of prime beef Brahman cattle, all of which he purchased with money from busing tables.
Mateo's Guatemalan compatriots back home earn an average of $80 per week. They drive taxis and serve street-side sodas and change flat tires and pick mangoes. They wake up in clapboard houses with corrugated metal roofs, walk out across littered dirt lots, hop on rusted bicycles or into dilapidated trucks, and ride over potholed roads to net a pittance at best.
It's not difficult to see why Mateo wanted to move to America.
And now that he's here, he's become a model citizen: paying taxes, donating to charities, going to church, and making it a point never to break the law or cause trouble. In fact, Mateo is one of the most dependable, kind, hard-working, easygoing, humble, and friendly young men you'll ever meet, with never a bad word for anybody.
Mateo's also here illegally.
Mateo is the middle one of seven brothers, aged 36, 34, 29, 28, 25, 22, and 18. "Growing up in Guatemala," Mateo told me, "we had just a little wooden house that my dad built, and sometimes water was coming in and stuff. We slept all nine of us in the same two rooms. t wasn't bad, but one of my goals, my dreams, was to come to this country and send money back to buy a nice, big house for my dad. That's what I did the first three years I was here, was send money back for a new house for my family."
Nine years ago, in April of 1997, Mateo was the first member of his family to leave Guatemala. He was 19. "Ever since I was 10, 11 years old, I knew that I wanted to come to this country," he said. "I just knew it. I remember hearing that American dollars were worth twice as much as Guatemalan quetzals, and I thought, 'Wow, dude, where is that country? That means you can work as many hours and make twice as much money.' Of course, I was just a little kid, so I didn't know anything, really. All I'd heard about the United States was the money and the cars. So I wanted to come here right away, but my dad told me to finish school first, and then I could do whatever I want."
Mateo went to a private school in Guatemala, where he learned how to be a mechanic, and he graduated in 1996. Then he applied for and got a job, and he worked on cars and saved quetzals for seven months.
Eight hours in a garage brought Mateo 30 quetzales a day, about the equivalent of $5. "My dad didn't believe me that I was going to go away," Mateo said, "because I was working in a good place as a mechanic. But after a few months, I went to him and said, 'Okay, it's time to go.' And he got mad, and my mom started crying. But I told them it was my fate, you know. I had to come here. And they were trying to tell me that I could be successful in Guatemala, that I didn't have to leave my country. But I told them the numbers that I was making, the money, that it was only 30 quetzales a day. And I had to go."
Mateo had put together a savings of about 700 quetzales. "I had asked some people how much they thought I needed to travel from Guatemala to the United States," he said, "and they all told me, like, 500 quetzales." And then Mateo added, under his breath, "But that wasn't true." He went on: "So when one of my brothers saw that I was about to leave, he said, 'Okay, listen, here's another 500 quetzales,' so I had 1200, and I thought that was really enough."