By J. G. Robinson
As I said in my last column, Latinos in our community have been among the groups most affected by the foreclosure crisis. In the next two columns I tell the story of one Latino family and what foreclosure has meant to it. I found this story moving, and it is one of the strongest indictments I know of the politicians and business people who have done so little to help people facing foreclosure. In this first installment I will look at what led up to the foreclosure for this family, and in the following column I will examine what happened after the foreclosure took place. This is the story of someone I will call Jose.
Jose was not originally from San Diego, but rather from a small west Texas town. He was brought to San Diego, like so many others, by the military.
..[M]y family lives in a poverty portion of the state of Texas. We live out in West Texas, a small farming community called Salinas View. In order for a youth to have a good job there it is hard cuz it’s so small. There are only two gas stations, one grocery store, one high school, one elementary school and they are all on one single block. That’s how big the community is. Half of the population is on Section 8, welfare. So the only job that was good paying in the fifty mile radius was at the Rio Grande Electric Co-op, but they have a policy that if you have a family member working there, then no one else can work there. So that’s why I ventured out of the state. I felt that I had no option. My parents couldn’t send me through school, and they said you’re going to go work as a ranch hand and do hard labor in the fields and provide for the family and so that your younger siblings can pursue a better life. I felt that that was unjust, so I decided to go and enlist in the Marines.
While Jose only spent a few years in the Marines, it colored how he saw the world. His hair was close-cropped in the military style, his language was clipped and peppered with military terms and metaphors. Throughout my interview with him he spoke quietly, with the ‘yes sirs’ and ‘no sirs’ of someone who had spent time in the service. His story was heart-breaking in many places, but he his voice never broke or changed tone—even when his emotions overcame him. He would stop for a few seconds, collect himself, and then continue.
Jose had done well in the Marines. “I was an infantry assault man, and then I made it into a special operations team which was tactical rescue of aircraft personnel. I was point man for the alpha team.” What the Marines didn’t do for him was give him practical work experience. Combat training didn’t translate well into the skills needed by the San Diego workforce that he found when he separated from the service in 2001. The aerospace industry, the part of the San Diego economy most directly related to the military, wasn’t hiring in any numbers during this period, but healthcare was expanding and he decided he would give that a try.
I went to United Educational Institute [a private for-profit technical school], and went through the Medical Assistant program. It was a 9 month program. Eight months into the program they had us start doing office training- teaching us how to do a job interview. They asked me if I was willing to do an interview. They told me it was a potential hiring position, and so I said sure. I went out and got the job the same day. I didn’t even go back to school.
He was employed in a podiatry clinic, which largely serviced elderly people on Medicare. “I became the office manager after three months after I started at that job.” He was hard working, polite, and with his military discipline, punctual. His salary was good, the work was steady, and his employer liked him. Jose and his wife felt secure enough to think about buying a home:
I got tired of renting. I proposed to my wife that we make a purchase, first and foremost because it would secure equity for the future. I have a son who was born in 2002, and my whole thing was to build up equity for him so that when it was time for me to retire or pass-on I wasn’t going to leave him without anything.
This was a recurring theme for Jose throughout the interview: the responsibility he felt for his family and especially his son. He was the commanding officer of this little platoon, and the responsibilities of command sat heavy on his shoulders. It was also clear that he did not want his son to experience the kind of poverty that Jose knew as a child in Texas.
Besides the cultural and military roots for his sense of family responsibility there was also the situation of his wife: she was undocumented. Born in Mexico, her parents had brought her to California when she was eight. Like the hundreds of thousands of other Latino’s that laws like the “Dream Act” are supposed to help, she came to the U.S. through no choice of her own. The irony was that her parents had eventually become citizens, but by then she didn’t qualify:
…[H]er parents applied for citizenship back in the 1990s and at that time my wife had already turned an adult at the age 18, so she could not apply for citizenship. So she is the exception. The other children in the family all got citizenship because they hadn’t reached their mature date for their application, but because my wife was the oldest, she got the raw end of the stick.
Jose said they were applying for citizenship for her as his wife, but…
It’s a long process for people from Mexico, a whole lot longer than it used to be. You have an overwhelming number of applicants. And the American consulate informed us [that it takes] anywhere from ten to fifteen years.
Because they were going through the legal process of getting her citizenship, they could not risk her working in the meantime. Jose was afraid that if she were caught working illegally it would jeopardize her chances for citizenship. That meant that the only source of income for their family was from his job. As he put it, “So I’m doing it all by myself in the meantime.”
This wasn’t a problem during the early 2000’s with the economy in full swing, but once the crash came things changed dramatically.
“Until last year we were doing fine, and then half way through last year my employer cut my hours dramatically. So instead of working a 40 to 44 hour week, I ended up working 25 to 30 hours.. …
The reason for the reduced hours was the cuts in state services that have affected so many communities across the country.
..[W]e started going through cuts to the state of California, the Medi-Cal program. It cut into the podiatry field. And so we started to get a loss of revenue…. I went out and applied for a second job, but unfortunately, they don’t want an educated individual flipping burgers. I was over qualified. And it became very difficult. Every time I filled out an application, they would ask me what is your current position; what is your status in your current employment? I would tell them office manager, and it would… I felt I was discriminated upon because of an educated background or a high status profile in an office setting. This guy is a threat to my job.
Jose was in a desperate situation. His hours at work were no longer sufficient to make house payments and pay for food and the day to day needs of his family. With his wife unable to work and with a second job unavailable, Jose looked for any source of income. He cashed in the 401K plan he got through his employer, as well as his life insurance policy, but these were only temporary fixes. The positive side of the cuts in working hours was that he had some spare time. He decided to go back to school to get a nursing degree. This however did nothing for their immediate situation except add an additional bill. Financially, things continued to deteriorate, taking family stability and Jose’s self-image down with them.
[My wife] is emotionally distraught; she is trying to make ends meet here are the house. She’s the one that took care of all the financial responsibilities while I was working, and she was my personal accountant. She told me we’re not going to be able to make payments on the credit cards if we are going to continue to make payments on the house. Then there’s the car loan, and there’s the school for me; and then there’s the school for our son. So it has just become overwhelming. I had to pull her off to the side and say ‘look, it is what it is, its gonna happen, and we can’t get no way around it . I need you to start thinking of a different method how we can continue to make everybody happy’. And so she was watching TV one day and said well, what if we consolidate our bills ? So we went in for debt consolidation assistance. We did that for about six months until all of my assets were exhausted. Then at the summer of this past year, in June, we went and talked to a bankruptcy firm and so we are in the process of filing for bankruptcy. I had to turn around and go to the welfare department, and for me to do that as an individual that is responsible for his family, having served in the Marine Corps—I see myself as a failure [He grows quiet, and after a pause he continues]. But I can’t abandon my family and I can’t let my emotions and feelings show through because if I break down [pause]. I’m the foundation of this family, and if I break down then everybody else is going to fall down with me. I can’t let that happen; I can’t let that happen. [This latter is a mantra he repeats more for himself than me]
Like so many other respondents I interviewed, the stress of these economic problems took their toll on his relationship. Jose indicated that there were problems in his marriage, and I asked if he and his wife were still together:
Yes, we are still together, we’ve gone to our family members and we’ve had long talks; especially with my mother-in-law. She basically told [my wife] that everything else is material , and that what is important is your family. [She said]You’re gonna go through these rough patches, and hopefully you’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel, but whatever comes, comes; whatever is, is. But family is most important. You cannot abandon your responsibility as parents, husband and wife.
But his son was his greatest concern. Maybe because his own family had economically exploited him that Jose felt such a responsibility to his son. Maybe the concern was the result of his sense of male responsibility for his family. But whatever the reason, Jose’s inability to protect his son from hard times had a tremendous impact on him.
Last year we [pause] ; when I had lost my employment, my son couldn’t comprehend why we couldn’t continue to live what he considered a normal life style: going and spending time at the beach, and what have you. I had to sit there and explain to him: ‘right now we’re kinda stretched economically; we cannot go down to the beach because it takes money to put gas in the tank, and it is a ten mile drive out there and ten miles drive back. We can no longer [pause] we can no longer go out and enjoy sports and after school activities.’ He was playing baseball, football, but these programs, again, you have to apply to be into these programs, and it can go anywhere from 50 to 120 dollars application process fee, uniforms, socks, what have you. And we told him he wasn’t able to participate in sports any more. [long pause]. So, this year we noticed that his self-esteem has taken a ride down in the opposite direction. He’s starting to have problems in school and he feels that he’s being picked on by the teachers. Or that most of the students are teasing him and so he’s [another long pause]… it’s taken a toll on ourselves as parents. And we’re trying to figure things out. He was doing so well, so well in school before all this started happening. We don’t know what to do at this point.
An eight year old child burdened by a new poverty. He thought that things were supposed to work the way they did in his family. That if you were nice, polite, and did what you were told, then things would work out. “…but he couldn’t understand why we just couldn’t go up to the bank and ask them for assistance. If that’s the location where all our finances were at, why can’t we just go to our local bank and ask them for help.´ Out of the mouths of babes. Common sense that is all too commonly rare.
While all of this was heart breaking, the worst was yet to come.
J. G. Robinson is a professor at Grossmont College