Home Isn't Where the Work Is: Why There's Casa Marianella

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So long as there is a great disparity in wages between North and South and a labor shortage in the North, they will find a way to come and work. And, when they arrive in Austin with no place to stay, Casa Marianella offers them a sanctuary.

Lindsey Eck

Issue #54, March 2001


On a typical side street in the Latino East Side of Austin stands a middle-sized, unassuming house. Inside there is bustling activity and several simultaneous conversations in Spanish. Residents go in and out; children are playing; working men are having a bite to eat. This is Casa Marianella.

I have come with an interpreter to interview people drawn to the United States by the promise of a fair wage for hard work, people who have left families behind, begun new ones here, and who sometimes oscillate between their native countries and Austin, where the work is. The men with whom we spoke were all doing construction, most often painting but also carpentry, tile work, remodeling, and hanging sheetrock.

These are the voices of soldiers in an army of laborers without whom the explosive growth of Austin would be more of a whimper than a bang. I was struck by the frank acceptance of the institution of illegal immigrant labor by all concerned. In Austin, it seems, the police are not quick to turn you over to la migra if you're not causing trouble, even if you don't have all your papers. The Catholic Church helps to house this population without asking too many questions about what they're doing in a country whose language and culture they barely understand. Social-service agencies get them on Medicaid and hand out food stamps.

casa marianella Someone who really wanted to stop unsanctioned immigration would begin here, by busting the small contractors who employ these workers on a contingent basis. Instead, everyone just winks at the practice. After all, Texas has a labor shortage. Just across the border are thousands upon thousands of poor, especially men with dependents in need of support. So they trek across a border that remains easy to traverse, if you know how, in the long tradition of men who work far away from their families, send the money home, and visit when they can catch a break.

So long as there is a great disparity in wages between North and South and a labor shortage in the North, they will find a way to come and work. And, when they arrive in Austin with no place to stay, Casa Marianella offers them a sanctuary.

We begin by talking with a staff member, Patti McCabe, about what Casa is and who it serves, followed by three interviews with Casa residents.

Patti McCabe, staffer

McCabe: Casa Marianella is a homeless shelter primarily serving Latin American immigrants and refugees. This house was founded 15 years ago when many people were coming up to the United States from Central America during the wars. Somebody donated this house and they started housing the immigrants that were arriving.

BS: A private party donated it?

McCabe: Yes. And they donated it to the Catholic Church under the idea of having it run as a homeless shelter for Central American immigrants. So today people aren't refugees from Central American wars, but they're still arriving here as immigrants and being homeless when they arrive.

BS: What countries are represented here?

McCabe: Primarily Mexico, and next Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, and then a few from Nicaragua and then other places.

BS: So does it still maintain ties with the Catholic Church?

McCabe: The Catholic Church continues to own the house, but it is maintained independently.

BS: There are donations?

McCabe: Yes.

BS: Do you get government money of any kind?

McCabe: Yes, we get government money through the Emergency Shelter Grants.

BS: Is that federal?

McCabe: Federal, which then is redistributed, I think, city-wide. I mean, it's federal money and then the city is who you apply to for it.

BS: How many staff do you have?

McCabe: There are six of us now. Three full-time volunteers and three salaried staff.

BS: How many are full-time?

McCabe: Everybody works full-time. The volunteers are stipended volunteers who receive room and board.

BS: How many residents are there?

McCabe: We can fit 30-ish but we run a little more normally and comfortably at between 20 and 25. When we have upwards of, you know, 30, it's on these couches that you see, different floor space that we can manage, and filling up the women's room, which usually isn't full.

BS: Why is that?

McCabe: For one thing, because the aim is to be serving people who are not only homeless but disoriented as far as Austin, the United States, without other connections to the community. Most women who immigrate to the U.S. come with more of a support system than men do. So, in that regard there's higher demand from the men. In the other regard, since the house is primarily men, we kind of discourage it from being a place for women just by the nature of lots of single men around it's not the most comfortable environment for women and the house isn't childproofed and things like that. But, as you see, we do have two women, a baby, and a little girl.

BS: Who was Marianella?

McCabe: Marianella is Marianella García Díaz. She was an Italian attorney in Central America -- in El Salvador in particular -- during the wars and was working to defend the human rights of people who were abused during that time. And she was murdered.

BS: What's the outlook for the future?

McCabe: We want to keep serving homeless immigrants in Austin in ways that can further build respect.

BS: Do you offer services on an out-client basis, that is, do you offer services to people who don't live here?

McCabe: Mm-hm, especially since the house is full of people who have such a similar life situation and Latin people who already have a culture of community, so it becomes a community that forms here. So it often happens that people who move out find housing in the area and they keep coming back and so they become, like, the next step in the community that we serve -- people who used to live here but now don't.

BS: So people sort of graduate from Casa into the community?

McCabe: Most people, the majority of people who leave here find housing and it's mostly in the greater area.

BS: What's the immigration status of the people who live here?

McCabe: [hesitates slightly] The majority of people don't have documentation.

BS: Are you putting them in touch with people who could help them achieve that?

McCabe: [flatly] No.

Araceli Rodríguez, Casa Marianella resident. Home: Monterrey, Mexico

She is minding a little girl who is playing happily as the interview proceeds.

BS: When did you come to the United States?

Rodríguez: Three months ago.

BS: Were the reasons economic, political, or both?

Rodríguez: My husband and I were working in Monterrey, and things weren't going well, and we came here. And the little girl was born here. We were both working and we weren't making enough money.

BS: What were you doing for work in Monterrey that you weren't making enough money?

Rodríguez: I worked in a grocery store, and my husband worked in a little house where they sold hamburgers.

BS: And so what are y'all doing for work here?

Rodríguez: My husband is an electrician; he does all kinds of repairs. Tile, carpentry, sheetrock. All kinds of construction -- remodeling restaurants and houses.

BS: Are you originally from Monterrey?

Rodríguez: Yes.

BS: What made you come to Austin in particular -- why Austin and not San Antonio or Laredo?

Rodríguez: Because it's safe for the child. Because there is vandalism, but it's better controlled than in Houston or other cities.

BS: Do you have any other relatives in this area -- in Texas?

Rodríguez: No.

BS: You don't speak much English yet.

Rodríguez: My husband does.

BS: Did he learn it in Mexico?

Rodríguez: No. He was born in Monterrey but three years ago he went away to Florida, to Boynton Beach.

BS: Do you have plans to learn English?

Rodríguez: Yes.

BS: Are you taking any classes now?

Rodríguez: Not right now because it's been very cold for the little one, and the classes are at night when it's so cold.

BS: There aren't any classes here [at Casa Marianella]?

Rodríguez: No, they're about 5-6 blocks from here.

BS: Have you had any help from the United States government?

Rodríguez: Yes.

BS: What kind of help have you had?

Rodríguez: Medicaid for the little girl, Food Stamps, and we live at Casa Marianella!

BS: Your little girl will grow up with U.S. culture -- Barbie dolls and U.S. television. How does that make you feel?

Rodríguez: She's going to learn two different cultures, U.S. and Latin American. And that will be good for me and my husband both.

Armando Alferez, resident Home: Querétaro, Mexico

He is around 40, somewhat stocky, with a ruddy face that suggests Indian origins.

BS: When did you come to the United States?

Alferez: Nineteen years ago. [We express our surprise.] Here [in Casa Marianella], a week.

BS: Where were you before that?

Alferez: I go to Mexico [repeatedly] and return.

BS: What part of Mexico?

Alferez: Querétaro.

BS: I hear that's a very pretty place.

Alferez: Very pretty.

BS: What was the reason you came to the United States?

Alferez: For the benefit of my son, who is sick with a kidney problem.

BS: How long has he been here?

Alferez: No, he's not here. He had surgery in Mexico City. He's 17 and they operated on him on December 5.

BS: And that's why you went back to Mexico [most recently].

Alferez: Yes.

bricksAlferez has spent the whole of his son's life sneaking back and forth across the border, staying 10 months in the States and two months in Mexico with his wife and four children. Recently he was in Detroit and was seized by the local police on no offense except lack of documentation. He claims to have a document from a court allowing him to work in the United States permanently. Having no special place to house immigration detainees, they threw him in a jail cell. He was told he could wait some three months to see a court, but if he consented to deportation he'd be gone in a week. He did so, then promptly slipped back across the Rio Grande.

He makes over $8 an hour painting interiors and exteriors for various contractors, five and a half days a week. That's pretty typical of the wage scale cited by the men we spoke with. Of course, when you're undocumented there are no benefits and no insurance.

Juan Ortiz, resident. Home: El Salvador

Young, wiry, and good looking.

BS: When did you come to the United States?

Ortiz: In 1995.

BS: And where are you from?

Ortiz: El Salvador.

BS: Were your reasons for coming economic, political, or both?

Ortiz: Economic.

He alludes to an earthquake about a month ago.

Ortiz: Following the earthquake, people are even poorer there.

BS: But you've been here some five or six years.

Ortiz: Yes. I want to go back. Because my mother died around three weeks ago.

BS: Not because of the earthquake?

Ortiz: No, it was her heart.

BS: Do you have any other family there?

Ortiz: Mm-hmm.

BS: Do you have any family here?

Ortiz: I have a brother in California who arrived about six months ago.

BS: What made him come to the U.S.?

Ortiz: For the money.

BS: What type of work do you do?

Ortiz: Painting.

BS: Several of the men here in this house do painting.

Ortiz: I don't really know anybody here. I've only been in the house for three months, and I'm out painting.

BS: Indoors or outdoors, or both?

Ortiz: Outdoors. Right now it's cold out, so I'm painting indoors.

BS: Do you have any children?

Ortiz: Yes. Here.

Two little girls are staying at Casa; we have already met Araceli Rodríguez's daughter and the other, Juan tells us, is his.

BS: Are you planning to stay here and raise your baby in the United States?

Ortiz: Yes, I plan to stay here if I can arrange my papers, only on terms allowing me to visit my family.

BS: And where is your wife from?

Ortiz: She's from Colorado, U.S.A.

BS: Does she speak good Spanish?

Ortiz: Yes.

BS: How did you meet your wife?

Ortiz: At a dance.

BS: A dance! In Austin?

Ortiz: No, in the state of Kansas.

BS: But she moved with you down here.

Ortiz: Yes. We've been together almost a year.

BS: But she grew up here in the States.

Ortiz: That's right.

BS: Your little girl is going to grow up with U.S. culture, right?

Ortiz: Sure. When she's bigger we're going to put her in school.

BS: How do you feel about that? The fact that she'll be mostly English-speaking --

Ortiz: I'm happy.

BS: So that's a good thing.

Ortiz: That's the reason I'm carrying on the struggle, working hard, because I want to take care of my daughter. I want to take care of her and give her advice.

BS: Has the U.S government been of any help to you?

Ortiz: A little bit. They're giving us Food Stamps and paid the hospital bill when my daughter was born.

BS: Does she get Medicaid?

Ortiz: Yes.

BS: The people in El Salvador -- how do they feel about the United States? Do they have any ideas about the United States that turn out to be different from the reality?

Ortiz: Yes.

BS: Could you give me some examples?

Ortiz: [paraphrase] The image is that you can come to the United States and make money and you don't have to suffer as in El Salvador where the life is so hard.

BS: But that's turned out to be true, right?

Rather than answer directly he segues into a discussion of the difficulties of crossing the length of Mexico to reach the United States.

Ortiz: In Mexico it's much worse because the immigration authorities beat people and rape the women. If you're from El Salvador or Honduras, Mexican immigration may beat you or [even] kill you. To get here I had to pass through Guatemala and Mexico.

BS: I've heard Guatemala can be a dangerous place.

Ortiz: No, Mexico is more dangerous. A lot of people from Central America die in Mexico [trying to get to the U.S.].

BS: Why does Mexican immigration kill the Central Americans?

Ortiz: Just because they don't like them. That's the reason. So the people who do come here from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador suffer a great deal along the road. So the coyotes [smugglers of immigrants] charge $5000 to bring somebody here from Honduras or Guatemala. They leave you in San Antonio.

BS: So, when people in Mexico see you and hear you talk can they tell right away you're Salvadoran and not Mexican?

Ortiz: Yes, they know you by the way you talk. That's true.

BS: Can you give us an example of how the dialects differ?

Ortiz: Because the Mexicans, when they talk, it's almost like singing. And we don't speak like that. But I know how to speak that way sometimes because I've spent a lot of time with Mexicans.

After I stop the tape he casually mentions that he orignally left El Salvador with a female companion from Honduras but she was caught by Mexican immigration. They raped her, took everything including her clothes and left her naked. She returned home but Ortiz pressed on and made it to the Land of Opportunity.

As we are getting ready to leave, Armando Alferez agrees how bad it is for Salvadorans crossing Mexico to get to the United States. Soon he is in animated conversation with Juan Ortiz. They are talking about immigration issues. Who ever said politics isn't a good conversation topic when you're first getting to know somebody?

Lindsey Eck is a writer, composer, and scholar living in central Texas. Jill Jarboe gave invaluable assistance as translator during these interviews.

Copyright © 2001 by Lindsey Eck. All rights reserved.
 

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