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The Forbidden City, Part I

When the night is cold in the canyon, Aron and Eugenio Flores can see their breath while they lie on the bed they fashioned from wooden tomato stakes. Sleeping in their work clothes, the two brothers often huddle together to keep warm, fighting off the bitter night with their closeness.

That the tiny hut in which Aron and Eugenio sleep is a 30-second walk from a million-dollar home doesn’t enter into their minds.

They came seeking work and a better way of life. For the last three years, the men have been living in a six-foot by six-foot ramshackle hut in an a hidden community in a sage-scented canyon in Carmel Valley. Their life has become a monotonous seesaw of work and sleep, rocking in a rhythm that is rarely broken by such niceties as entertainment or comfort.

The Flores brothers came to San Diego from their home state of Oaxaca, Mexico, by way of Tijuana.

A two-day bus journey took them from their small pueblito to the border city, a journey that cost them close to $100 each. From Tijuana, they paid a coyote – an illegal guide – $700 each to shepherd them through the dangers of the border. Once in the United States, they walked for two days straight to get to the bare patch of mud that would become their home.

Aron is 27, Eugenio is 24.

The Forbidden City

As the immigration debate spills out into the streets, inciting high school students to protest en masse and volunteer brigades to patrol the borders, San Diego could well be considered ground zero in the nation’s struggle.

But often lost in the flurry of statistics and emotions are the details of the very lives that are being debated. Voice staff writer Will Carless spent five days living with a group of undocumented migrant workers in a Carmel Valley canyon.

To many San Diegans, including those who live comfortably only steps away from the encampment, the Flores brothers are little more than a blurred vision seen from a car window: hooded figures at the side of the road, waiting for work. To some, they are fire risks or potential criminals or simply the newest in the nation’s perpetual waves of immigrants. They are two of the faceless millions of undocumented migrants who are so often talked about and so rarely talked to.

Men like the Flores brothers are the reason that thousands of the nation’s schoolchildren are walking out of classrooms in protest. They are the reason that armed vigilantes have spread out across the country’s southern border. They are the reason the country’s lawmakers are beginning to acknowledge what some see as America’s new civil rights movement.

But their life isn’t a movement or a cause. It isn’t defined by laws or debate or studies. It’s just a life, a day-by-day struggle for survival in a foreign land far from home.

Neither brother has designs on living the American dream.

The brothers are part of a larger family of economic migrants that has survived in the dusty canyons of otherwise-affluent northeastern San Diego for decades. That community is, in effect, a pawn on a political chess board that stretches from Tijuana to Washington.

Over the past few years, the men have been squeezed further and further into the valley. Now, they are cornered. The small patch of land where they currently live is bounded to the east and the south by protected city parkland, to the north by a freeway and development, and to the west by land they have already been evicted from.

Inside the camps, about 200 people – nobody knows for sure how many – are living in conditions that can only be described as Third World. The migrants have no running water, no electricity and no permanent structures to shelter under. They wash their bodies and their clothes in the same sulfur-yellow stream that carries the run-off of farms and houses down the valley. Most simply go to the bathroom behind the nearest bush. When they are sick, they suffer. When they are drunk, they lament.

“They live in inhuman conditions, but these men don’t care about their suffering, as long as their family is not suffering as badly as they are,” said Jose Gonzalez, an advocate and translator who works with the migrants.

Their makeshift community is a tangle of packed mud, plywood, plastic sheeting and trash. Spreading out from the fingers of a nearby tract home development, the migrant camp has become a vibrant community with its own customs, its own support network and even its own church. It’s a community that is as hidden as it is obvious, as stark as it is secret.

On either side of the steep canyon where the camp is based, blue and black tarps can be seen through the foliage. Almost every large bush and tree has a hut nestled underneath it. The ground is littered with trash, from beer cans to bicycle parts, and old clothes are hung up everywhere to dry.

Within a mile of the camp, there are at least a few thousand residents – new homeowners who have flocked to the area’s booming housing market. Perhaps a handful have ever stepped into the world of the migrants, even less have ever engaged them in meaningful conversation. The two communities remain segregated, only interacting when the migrants are needed for their sweat.

Every day, the men of Carmel Valley rise before the sun and troop across the county to do the region’s dirty work. Most have never worked side-by-side with white men. They are relegated to do the tough stuff, the stuff that no-one else will do for that level of pay. Sometimes they get paid, sometimes they get ripped off. Sometimes, they don’t get work, and instead survive by begging for credit from the lunch trucks.

The Flores brothers are small, agile men. Their nut-brown faces look much older than they are and have the flat noses and wide dark eyes of the indigenous people of southern Mexico. Tough and wiry, Aron is the quieter of the brothers. His brow is often sliced by a knife of concern into deep furrows. His younger brother Eugenio is more open, smiles more often and seems to view life through a softer lens.

Eugenio left a wife and four children in Oaxaca. He sends them money when he can, which these days isn’t often, because work has been so hard to find during the unusually wet winter.

Aron split with his wife a few years ago and is now something of an anomaly in the camp. He isn’t ashamed of showing himself a good time every now and then.

One night recently, he returned home late, grinning, gripping a McDonalds bag. As the other migrants clucked at his extravagance, he devoured three cheeseburgers and an extra large portion of French fries.

Aron never completed his secondario – middle school – education. He cried on his first day of school, and said that the experience got worse from there. His world is the fields and the physical buzz of manual labor, he said. He twirled his finger in a circling motion beside his head as he explained:

“I can’t think straight, it all gets mixed up.”

One cold morning, waiting for work at the side of Carmel Valley Road, Aron refused to stand with a group of his fellow workers. He said their bad language upsets him, and that he’d rather keep himself company. Both brothers are regulars at the weekly Catholic service that is arranged by a local church.

Aron recently landed a steady job helping a woman redecorate her house, so, this winter, he hasn’t had to hit the streets too often in search of work. Eugenio is a different story. For three months, he has been standing at the side of the road, desperately hoping that someone will pick him up and offer him a day’s work cutting grass, clearing debris or laying tile. His brother has been keeping him alive, buying his food from the lunch trucks that visit the camp.

The men eat two meals a day; usually little more than a bread roll for breakfast and a micro-waved burrito or a couple of pieces of fried chicken, bought from the lunch trucks, for their dinner.

Ask them why they put up with the mud, the cold and the constant fear of deportation and the brothers will tell you there’s nothing for them at home: no work, no future, no prospects. Here, in California, they can earn in a day what they would earn in 10 days at home. There’s little work here, but there’s almost no work in Oaxaca. Go to their home town, they say, and you’ll find hardly any men.

“Nobody stays there. There is no work,” Eugenio said. “Why would we stay there when the chances of making money are so much better here?”

It’s as if the thought that they could become part of the mainstream society that buzzes around them has never really crossed their minds. Asked about their plans for the future, the brothers elicit only the vaguest responses. They know their current situation is so precarious that it’s foolish to plan too far ahead. Better to simply wake up and face each day.

Both men are simply trying to make enough money here to improve their lives at home, they said. Aron has already built a small house in his home town. His mother and father live there at the moment. “Now all I need is a woman,” he joked.

For Eugenio, the camps are a stop-gap. He hopes one day to save enough money to return home to his wife and children. At $8 an hour, he knows that’s going to take a while, but he’s prepared to struggle through, sending home a transfer of money whenever he’s been lucky enough to find work. Every year he makes the long trek home for a few weeks with his family. This year, he probably won’t get to see them.

At night, the huge pylons that rise above the camp crackle and hiss as the wires carry electricity to nearby homes. Below that buzz of power, the migrants read by candlelight or listen to Mexican radio stations on small battery-powered radios.

The camp is silent by 8 p.m. apart from the constant hiss of traffic from the freeway. The stars, un-shrouded by light pollution, stare down on the clusters of huts. Around the camp, men cough or cackle with laughter. There is no feeling of insecurity. There’s nothing to steal in the camps and the brothers of the canyon know they are locked in the solidarity of their poverty.

Nearby, the neighbors plug their cell phones in to charge and choose from a selection of imported wines to enjoy with dinner. Then they settle down into their high-thread count Egyptian cotton linens for a long, peaceful sleep.

Outside, as the cold starts to creep up through the ground, Aron and Eugenio take off their boots, say their prayers and climb into their rickety bed, alone, illegal, but secure in the knowledge that, at least, they have each other.

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