Saturday, June 05, 2004

The New York Times: Illegal Alien Dreamers | Crossing the Border Into the Middle Class

The New York Times > National > American Dreamers | The Waitress: Crossing the Border Into the Middle Class

June 3, 2004
Crossing the Border Into the Middle Class

AS VEGAS - Here are a few of the startling, improbable, only-in-Vegas apparitions that can be seen in and around Las Vegas Boulevard South, also known as the Strip: an ersatz Eiffel Tower. A Venetian palace. A miniature Brooklyn Bridge. An Egyptian pyramid that, once darkness falls, sends a towering shaft of light into the black desert sky.

Here is another: a petite woman with a jet-black ponytail driving to and from the pyramid in a white Dodge Ram pickup.

What makes this vision extraordinary is less what this woman looks like than who she is, how she got here and how well she reconciles a jumble of seeming contradictions in her hard but happy life.

She is Graciela Diaz: upwardly mobile waitress, Mexican immigrant soccer mom, middle-class striver, former undocumented sweatshop seamstress and now satisfied suburbanite, living with her husband and daughter in a two-story, four-bedroom stucco house with a two-car garage in a gated community north of town.

Thanks to a relentlessly booming economy and an unusual collaboration between labor and industry, Las Vegas has become a paradise for people like Ms. Diaz: unskilled newcomers, many of them immigrants. In Las Vegas, unlike most other American cities, dishwashers, busboys, hotel housekeepers and hotel janitors can easily gain a foothold in the middle class.

In Las Vegas, not only do these workers often obtain the emblems of middle-class life - a house and a car or two, good health insurance and a pension - but they have the opportunity to climb ever higher.

For Ms. Diaz, 32, a native of Jalisco, Mexico, it is no easy matter juggling the life of a low-skilled immigrant with that of a suburban middle-class mom. Ms. Diaz, who works as a waitress at La Salsa, a Mexican restaurant in the giant Luxor hotel casino, is learning, for example, that it is impossible to be the perfect parent, always there for her 8-year-old daughter, Cecilia, as she struggles to grab her piece of the American dream. But after coming so far, she is not giving up.

Until recently, Ms. Diaz was on the go seven days a week. Five days she bused tables at La Salsa, putting out tortilla chips and salsa, fetching drinks, removing dirty plates.

On Wednesdays and Thursdays, her days off, she took a six-hour-a-day course that would elevate her to waitress. For five months, she studied the fine points of the food server's trade, like how many pancakes are in a short stack and the difference between fettuccine and farfalle. She was enrolled at the Las Vegas Culinary Training Academy, which gives courses in jobs at all levels of the hospitality industry: grease-trap cleaner, hotel housekeeper, sommelier.

"I want to jump another step," Ms. Diaz said. "I want things to be better for my family. I don't want my family to miss anything. That's why I sacrifice for."

A Gilded Ladder

The academy is the brainchild of an enlightened labor union and a hotel and restaurant industry that needs a well-trained work force.

"Our union's goal and the training center's goal is you can come in as a non-English-speaking worker, come in as a low-level kitchen worker, and if you have the desire, you can leave as a gourmet food server, sous-chef or master sommelier," said D. Taylor, secretary-treasurer of Culinary Local 226, one of the nation's fastest-growing unions. "We want to have a situation where the only limits are your own ambition."

With the food server's course now under her belt, Ms. Diaz has made an impressive leap in status and income. Busing tables, she made $500 a week, or $25,000 a year, but as a waitress, her wages and tips total about $20 an hour, or $40,000 a year.

Ms. Diaz is doing so well that her husband, Manuel, a burly six-foot construction worker, says he jokingly tells friends: "She'll be earning so much that I'm going to be able to quit my job and take care of the house. So when she arrives home, there will be steaming food on the table."

Two years ago, the Diazes paid $125,000 for their house on Gold Sluice Avenue. Their gated community, called Sutter Creek, was built in the desert 10 miles north of downtown and is so new that none of its trees are taller than 12 feet.

Mr. Diaz said they wanted a gated community because they were unhappy with their previous neighborhood. "People from Mexico - I call them paesanos - were burning tires," he said. "They played radios real loud. I was afraid of Cecilia playing outside, that someone would run her over. Here it's quiet and safe for her."

With a sheepish grin, Ms. Diaz said her parents could hardly believe how she lives. She and her husband have a 48-inch television, satellite dish, gleaming kitchen with track lighting, and his-and-hers pickup trucks. His is a dark green Ford 150 with a "Bad Boy" decal.

Manuel and Graciela Diaz have come a long way since 1994, when they met in a Los Angeles sweatshop. She was a seamstress, he bundled garments, and they both earned about $30 a day, or $7,500 a year.

Smitten with Graciela's broad smile, lustrous hair and easygoing manner, Manuel, clinging to Mexican tradition, asked her parents for permission to date her. They refused, partly because he had once lived with another woman and partly because he was not exactly raking in money.

But love trumped parental objections, and within a year, they were living together and Ms. Diaz was pregnant. With a baby on the way, they grew frustrated at their station in life, earning sweatshop wages and living in a rundown apartment.

"Everything is much harder in Los Angeles," Ms. Diaz said. "The pay is bad, and everything is more expensive."

Mr. Diaz persuaded his wife to move to Las Vegas, lured by his sister's tales of riches there for the taking, and she wasn't referring to the baccarat or blackjack tables.

In her admittedly imperfect English, Ms. Diaz acknowledged that her husband's hunch was right. "When we came here and see the big changes - the money, the benefits were good - he says, 'We stay here,''' she said. "In California, we never thought of buying a house. We couldn't buy many things. Here's it's more easy."

No Rest for the Casino Builder

Within days of arriving, Mr. Diaz took a job washing trucks. The pay was mediocre, the work unpleasant, so when he heard of a better-paying job removing asbestos, he took it. But after a week he began to realize just how dangerous that work was.

His brother-in-law then told him that workers were needed to build the Bellagio hotel casino, which the developer Steve Wynn envisioned as the zenith of Las Vegas opulence. Mr. Diaz landed a job there and joined the laborers' union. He did grunt work at first, carrying heavy construction materials; his large biceps and chest attest to hard work. His current job is on the latest Wynn dream project, a hotel casino intended to surpass the Bellagio. Now Mr. Diaz works more with his head than his hands, helping grade the land so plumbers and electricians can lay pipe and wire.

"They say Steve Wynn's new hotel will make the Bellagio look like a doghouse," he said, sounding like a major investor in the project.

Mr. Diaz's pay is $23.66 an hour; with overtime, some years he earns more than $60,000.

"I get like 20 times more money than I made in Mexico," he said.

He sounded a little guilty about his immigrant success.

"We don't want to take nobody's place,'' he said. "A lot of people born over here, they don't work so hard because they don't appreciate the opportunities they got. They didn't suffer crossing the border and all that stuff we put up with."

From Mexico to the Strip

Ms. Diaz certainly put up with a lot. After a brother in Los Angeles sent money, she and one of her sisters flew from Jalisco to Tijuana in 1991 to sneak into California.

"It was the first day of the gulf war," she remembered. "I call my mom, and she said, 'You have to come back because the war is starting. It's dangerous.'''

Ignoring that advice, Ms. Diaz and her sister took a taxi to the border, where they had arranged to meet a coyote, a smuggler who would lead them across. But no one showed up. The next day, they returned to the border before dawn. In a creek below them, Ms. Diaz thought she saw someone waving an arm, beckoning them across.

"I see something, but it was just a cow moving the tail," she said, laughing uproariously.

Just as the coyote arrived, a Border Patrol helicopter appeared overhead.

"We try to hide, we waited one hour under some bushes," she said. "It was real scary."

When the helicopter finally left, they sneaked across the border, and her brother arranged for a drive to Los Angeles.

Ms. Diaz arrived illegally, but she eventually obtained a green card and citizenship through her father, who had been granted amnesty. For years, he had worked at a carwash in Los Angeles. Today, her whole family - parents, two sisters and five brothers - lives in Los Angeles.

Once in Las Vegas, Ms. Diaz took a series of nonunion housekeeping jobs that she did not love, at a Best Western hotel, at Binion's Horseshoe Casino, and finally at the luxurious Venetian.

"In the hotels, the hardest job is housekeeping," Ms. Diaz said. "It's really hard when you come, and you don't know the language. You want to be somebody, but it's very hard."

Two years ago, Ms. Diaz learned from the wife of one of her husband's co-workers that there were unionized restaurant openings at the Luxor. Weary of making hotel beds and cleaning bathrooms, she landed a job busing tables at La Salsa. It paid $9.24 an hour, plus about $4 an hour in tips. The health plan was so good that she paid no premiums and made only modest co-payments. But Ms. Diaz had greater ambitions.

After she passed the Culinary Training Academy course, she was immediately promoted to waitress. Now she is responsible for a half-dozen tables in the ocher-colored restaurant, which has the music of a Mexican crooner piped in. She greets customers with her big smile and tentative English, often recommending her favorite dish, the fajita salad.

As her status at La Salsa has risen, so has her pay. Las Vegas's unionized busboys and waiters make the same base salary - $10.14 an hour, the highest rate in the nation. (By comparison, most waiters in New York City make $3.30 an hour before tips.) But waiters make much more from tips than busboys, who must be content with the often-meager amounts that waiters share with them.

Ms. Diaz worries that she has unwittingly become a role model to her 8-year-old. "My daughter says, 'Mommy, let me have your apron,''' Ms. Diaz said. "'I'm going to play. I want to be a waitress. I want to be a waitress because you always have money.'

"I say, 'No, don't be like me,'" Ms. Diaz continued. "My husband says to her, 'You have to learn and do everything the teacher says because one day you're going to be somebody.'''

The Diazes have big ambitions for their daughter: college and maybe law or architecture school.

Relaxing recently after a dinner of rice and chorizo, they boasted of her report card, which says, "With her creative imagination and flair for details, Cecilia has become one of the class's favorite story writers."

Many days a neighbor picks up Cecilia from school because Ms. Diaz normally works from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. But some days Mr. Diaz fetches her from an after-school arts-and-crafts program - he usually works from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Ms. Diaz makes dinner before leaving for work so that her husband can reheat it after returning home.

"We help each other," he said. "I can't push and say, 'I want this, I want that.' I know she works."

Poking fun at him, Ms. Diaz chimed in, "Anyway, I'm the boss."

The affection and respect the two feel for each other are unmistakable. Now Ms. Diaz can joke about the thumb's down her father once gave her sweetheart.

"Now my daddy is proud about him," Ms. Diaz said, giving her husband an oversize girlish grin. "My daddy loves him more than me. My parents look at him - they say, 'He takes good care of our daughter.' They tell me, 'If you're doing good, it means he's doing good.' That's why my parents love him so much."


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