In el norte, before and after amnesty

In the barrio of Tijuana, Mexico, where Erendira Moreno grew up, chickens scratched around the outdoor tub where she and six siblings bathed. Hanging blankets served as room dividers in the two-room house where her grandmother watched TV reruns of "Lassie" and "Star Trek" while dreaming of life in an Oz to the north.

"My grandmother was in love with Captain Kirk, and the rest of us thought life in America must be beautiful," Ms. Moreno says.

One by one, aunts and uncles, brothers, sisters - and then finally Erendira herself at age 16 - came across the border to escape the penury and squalor.

They used six-month visitor permits to work as fruit pickers, house cleaners, and day laborers. They pooled their money, lived together in an aunt's garage - no plumbing, no heat, no air-conditioning - and enjoyed a life far richer than they had ever known.

But even in this threadbare Shangri-La, they struggled with feelings of alienation in a foreign land - and fear that they could be deported at any time. "I knew perfectly well I intended to stay in America and never go home again," recalls Erendira.

Then one day, after nine years in the United States, the young woman was watching news on a local Spanish TV station when she heard an unfamiliar word: amnestia.

The word, it turned out, represented a ticket for Erendira, her siblings, and 2.7 million other undocumented immigrants to become legal US residents.

"It was my dream coming true," she says. "After so many years of not being able to do many things that I wanted, I felt I could finally be a part of the community and give something back."

The question of exactly how - or whether - such immigrants become "part of the community and give something back" is again stirring debate in Washington and in communities across America.

The 1986 amnesty program was conceived as a one-time reprieve, coupled with a crackdown on employers who hire undocumented workers. Today, at least 4 million illegal immigrants later, President Bush is meeting with Mexico's President Vicente Fox to discuss moves that, while short of a blanket amnesty, could legalize many more Mexicans now in the US.

As he does, critics claim that illegal immigrants are crowding public schools, healthcare programs, and welfare rolls. They accuse the newcomers of taking jobs from working-class Americans.

But supporters say immigrants contribute to the economy in significant ways and enrich national culture in areas ranging from sports to arts to cuisine.

Against this backdrop, Erendira's odyssey - from poverty in Tijuana to employee of the very government she once hid from - sketches a portrait of the travails and triumphs, impacts and evolution, of immigrants who became Americans through the stroke of an amnesty pen.

In the beginning, life in el norte was not Erendira's dream. It was her mother's.

The year was 1976. Both nations were poised to go through leadership changes. José Lopez Portillo was taking over in Mexico. Gerald Ford was on his way out in the US, although he didn't know it yet. The US was still struggling with the residue of Vietnam and Watergate. Platform shoes were big in schools. Businessmen wore leisure suits, and liked them.

Erendira's mother, Martha, was devising a long-term plan to consolidate her family in Santa Ana, a working-class city south of Los Angeles. Two of Martha's sisters had already settled in the area.

Martha had already made one pilgrimage. She had left her husband in Michoa-cán, in southern Mexico, and settled in Tijuana in her quest for a better life. Now she wanted to complete the journey by crossing the border with the rest of her family.

Erendira's own entry into the US was relatively easy. One of her aunts, Margarita, had married a Mexican-American and earned US citizenship. Consequently, Aunt Margarita was able to pick up her niece at the border while Erendira was in the US on a visitor's permit.

Erendira's brother Alejandro had to be more creative. He crossed the border in a friend's Tequila delivery truck. A relative met him at a McDonald's in San Diego.

Soon after, the mother herself and another of Erendira's brothers joined the clan in Santa Ana. Six of them squeezed into the one-car garage adjoining Aunt Margarita's house.

"It was terrible at first, and I was not that happy," says Erendira, who remembered her mother's larger house in Tijuana, where males and females could at least be separated into two rooms.

Erendira quickly found work cleaning houses. She took buses to the homes of mostly white Americans and got paid in cash. No one asked whether she was legal. She didn't volunteer an answer. Neither did she speak or understand English well.

"To be honest, I was mad that I had to clean houses, because in Mexico I dreamt of being a secretary," she says.

Fearful of anything that would get her deported, Erendira didn't try to open a bank account. She would arrive home each day with about $35 in cash and hand it to her mother, who served as family banker. Martha kept a huge aluminum can filled with bills and coins, which Erendira and her brother raided surreptitiously to buy toys or clothing.

While Erendira swabbed toilets, Alejandro, still in his early teens, enrolled right away in school. Though illegal, he was accepted simply by giving his aunt's address. Today, proof of legal residency is required.

"In those days, they didn't ask any questions," says Alejandro. "They just accepted you."

Despite establishing the semblance of a new life, Erendira felt the tug of her homeland. At one point, she fled with a friend, hoping to return to Tijuana. Martha foiled her daughter's plot, determined to keep the family together.

Gradually Erendira lost touch with Mexico, but life in her adopted land was often lonely. The language barrier, the fear of deportation, the strange culture - what was this theme park called Disneyland, anyway? - all kept her from making many friends.

Then there were the tensions building in her neighborhood.

Santa Ana in the late 1970s was on the cusp of a transformation just as dramatic as Erendira's own.

Set in the twinkling shadow of nearby Disneyland, Santa Ana was a city of people trying to get a leg up in American society. This was especially true of those who lived south of 17th Street, the line of demarcation between the city's wingtip and work-boot denizens.

The neighborhoods south of 17th are packed with small, unassuming bungalows, like the one where Erendira's family congregated. It's easy to find a certain anonymity here - just the sort of nondescript place to suit illegal immigrants wanting to avoid detection.

And so, like South Central Los Angeles 40 miles to the north, Santa Ana became a magnet for new immigrants from south of the border. Most were poor, eager to work, but unable to speak much English. It would prove to be a recipe for tension - even hostility - between the newcomers and the area's existing residential base of African-Americans.

Erendira still remembers the overtones of fear - intensified by the rising dominance of youth gangs in the early 1980s.

"When we went to the public pool or the basketball parks, there were no whites, Hispanics, or Asians around," she says. "We were afraid to go in there."

The conflict spilled into her own home. Erendira recounts one day in particular, when the family was having an outdoor birthday party at Aunt Margarita's. Half a dozen young black men surrounded them at the front gate as they bade farewell to friends, demanding that the Mexicans leave the neighborhood. As the confrontation escalated, she says, the family ran inside, closed the doors, and called police.

The cadre of black youths left, but the family was unsettled by all the police questioning, given that so many of them were in the US illegally.

Later, Alejandro says, he was beaten up in a confrontation with a black gang member, but he washed the blood off with a neighbor's hose rather than go to a medical clinic or call the police.

Part of the resentment of the black community was rooted in the fact that the immigrants - willing to work for less money - were nabbing some of the area's good jobs. Unwittingly, Erendira herself may have contributed to that simmering animosity, landing a job in 1979 on an assembly line at American Zettler, an electronics firm with a plant in nearby Irvine.

The job paid more than house-cleaning did. To get it, she used a Social Security number her mother got from a friend.

The ploy was a common one. An illegal immigrant seeking work would find someone of the same age and gender who was not employed, and then pay that person a fee to use the number. This meant taxes were deducted, but it also gave Erendira medical coverage - a benefit she would later tap during the birth of her first child.

The factory job also opened the way for her to learn more English than the little she had picked up cleaning houses. There, Erendira befriended an English-speaking manager who wanted to learn Spanish. They made a deal to teach each other and set up regular meetings to do so.

The better job, the ability to communicate with the larger society - all this contributed to a gradual improvement in Erendira's life. She was no longer so lonely. Even the neighborhood hostilities had defused, with fewer and fewer Mexican-black clashes as time went on.

"I guess as more of us moved in, more of them moved out," she says. "I never really noticed it while it was happening."

The first time Erendira heard the word amnestia on TV, she didn't understand. She had to ask friends what it meant. Upon hearing the explanation, "I jumped for joy," she says.

Right away, Erendira scrambled to apply for amnestia. She needed proof of steady work over five years - no problem, given her tenure at American Zettler. And she needed to show she did not have a criminal record - also easily done.

In 1986, the same year she applied for amnesty, Erendira returned to Tijuana for the first time since coming north. She was taken aback by what she saw. "I forgot that we all had chickens in the yard," she says. "None of my old friends were there, and I felt totally alien."

If Erendira was no longer tethered to Mexico, she still felt adrift in America. She'd lived in Santa Ana for 10 years, but she hadn't been able to shake the sense that she was living life on the lam, outside the system, and she yearned for legitimacy.

On a personal level, though, her roots here were becoming more entrenched.

Brother Alejandro had introduced her to her husband-to-be, a Mexican illegal who worked at another electronics firm. The two had started dating, going first to the two Spanish-language cinemas in town, then to English movies, and eventually to Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm. The excursions exposed her to US culture beyond the confines of Santa Ana, broadening her sense of possibility.

The young couple had married in 1984 and put all their savings - $10,000 - toward a down payment on a small house in the city's Henninger section (on the "poorer" side of town, Erendira says). Their first son was born, and the family seemed to be creating its own modest version of the American dream.

The capstone on all this, though, was amnesty. She, her husband, two of her brothers, her mother, and one sister became legal residents. For Erendira, her new status was also the gateway to a wider spectrum of opportunities.

"One of the things I wanted to do in my years of being undocumented was help clean up the gang problem in this town," she says. "But I was illegal and couldn't do anything about it."

So she quit her electronics job and began doing social work and volunteering to help defuse gang violence. She intended to raise her family here and felt impelled to help improve the quality of life.

"A lot has changed here in Santa Ana since the amnesty," Erendira says. "Many who lived here illegally all got their amnesty papers and figured, 'Hey, if we are going to stay here, we want to do something for the city.' They didn't like it the way it was."

Erendira decided the time had come to take a stand for her heritage. So one day this year, she pulled out a needle and thread and sewed Aztec pyramids onto the living-room draperies. She wanted to remind her three children of their Mexican roots.

The Aztec iconography stands in sharp contrast to another set of draperies in one son's room. They're covered with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

In the décor lies an obvious message: Erendira's children straddle two cultures. Though the Ninja turtles are in the back room, it's the American culture that is foremost in their lives.

On one level, Erendira shouldn't find it too difficult to help her children explore their Mexican background. Santa Ana is now 76 percent Hispanic.

Much of the children's interaction is with Latino kids and extended family. Erendira, for instance, visits Alejandro and sister Maria several times a week. Her mother still lives just a few blocks away. The siblings have cookouts together and host gatherings of friends.

"If I were to have a birthday party with 30 guests, 20 would be Hispanic, eight white, six black, and none Asian," says Erendira.

Yet in other ways, both Erendira and Alejandro still feel like outsiders and know their children will be forever Americanized. Even though the 100-year-old high school Alejandro's son Eddie attends is largely Hispanic, records show he is the first Latino to ever make the starting five on the varsity basketball team.

"I dare you to find anything at their school that connects them to a Mexican background," says Alejandro.

For a school biography report, Alejandro bought Eddie a collector's edition of Time magazine celebrating 100 top American heroes, from Franklin Roosevelt to Jim Henson. "There was not a single person with Hispanic or native American background," says Alejandro. "Why no Jim Thorpe, Sitting Bull, Cesar Chavez?"

Erendira's kids don't seem to mind. They like to play video games, go to movies, and swim in the public pool. They all speak English better than their mother.

"I'm always asking them for just the right word," says Erendira.

"That's OK, Mom, we're here to help you," says Ernesto, her 10-year-old.

The children definitely consider themselves Americans first, Mexicans second.

The eldest boy, Raul, has written two screenplays based on horror movies - very American horror movies. Ernesto loves to visit the quintessential American franchise Coco's for its pies.

Alejandro's kids' allegiances aren't any different.

"I asked my son if Mexico and the US went to war, whose side would he fight on," he recalls. "He said, 'I'm an American, Dad. If I fight for someone, I'd like to fight for the winning side.' "

Erendira drives around town today in a gold Lincoln Continental. After 25 years in America, she has come a long way from bathing in an outdoor tub in Tijuana.

Yet she is hardly wealthy. She earns $40,000 a year working for the city of Santa Ana community services department. She creates special programs for families. "She is an outstanding employee with a lot of initiative that seems to be driven by the desire to see others make it in life," says Jenny Rios, Erendira's boss.

By her own estimate, Erendira leads a decent, middle-class American life. She's also experienced one other aspect of American culture: divorce. She and her husband split up in 1998.

Erendira would like to move to a quieter community and a bigger house. But she remains in her one-story bungalow because it is a five-minute drive to her sons' schools, all her relatives' houses, and the two offices where she works.

Most of the extended family is involved in civic life - the PTA, arts and community groups. They vote, too.

As might be predicted, they opposed two California ballot measures in recent years: one eliminating school and hospital services to illegal immigrants and one ending affirmative-action policies.

But Erendira and Alejandro disagreed about another high-profile initiative: whether to end bilingual education in the state. She wanted to end it. He didn't.

In an odd twist, Erendira's mother, the matriarch who shepherded the whole family to the US in the first place, now talks of moving back to Tijuana. Erendira and her siblings say that when Martha visits her old house in Tijuana, now occupied by one of her sons, she cooks more, sees more friends, and is happy.

But for now the family stays in Santa Ana because the other children have developed roots here. And they have changed in ways that make moving back problematic. As Alejandro puts it:

"I still feel very Mexican, but when I go back over the border they can smell that I come from the US."

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