When I left Mexico City for El Norte at the age of 16, I was reaching a goal that I had dreamed of ever since I was a little boy.
This story is part of a new LAist series called Being American. It’s inspired by the success of our year-long Race In LA series, in which Angelenos shared personal stories about how our race and/or ethnicity shapes our lived experience.
"I am going to El Norte," I thought. I had always wanted to come here, just like my father had come as a bracero in the early 1960s.
Growing up, I had always thought of America as it appeared in the movies, as a place where there were rich people, fancy cars, big houses. And of course, like in a movie, I always thought I would meet a beautiful blonde woman and marry her.
Wire fence and helicopters
After a three-day bus ride to Tijuana, the group I was traveling with connected with a coyote, who took us across the border. Crossing in the summer of 1978 was much easier than it is today. There was just a fence made out of chicken wire.
When I first put my foot over the fence and the coyote said to me, “You are in America,” a feeling of peace overwhelmed me. This is it, I thought. I made it. This is my future, and I am not looking back.
At midnight, we made a stop and hid by a pepper tree — a helicopter was coming in our direction. Farther away, you could hear a Border Patrol van moving fast, and lots of screaming. I stayed silent, praying we would be lucky.
After a while, the helicopters left and we continued, walking along a freeway. There was a tunnel we all went under one by one, until we got to the other side of the road.
We were now by the ocean. As we kept walking, hearing the waves, I thought about how I would soon be with my dad in Los Angeles.
Around 4 a.m., though, near San Onofre, our coyote yelled, “Run!” La Migra was waiting for us.
I tried to run under a chicken wire fence to no avail; the officers got me. La Migra sent us all back to Tijuana.
Luckily, the coyote was sent back with us, so we ended up at his house. A couple days later, we tried the same route, but this time a truck met us a little south of San Clemente. Hidden in the bed, we passed the San Clemente checkpoint without incident.
In Santa Ana there was a safe house, where the coyote made phone calls to get us to our destinations.
‘How are you going to find a job?’
One of the calls I made was to my dad, who lived in West L.A. I had not seen him in about three years.
My dad had been waiting anxiously for almost a week, not hearing from me. Within two hours, I had been dropped off at his home. My dad and I hugged, and we were both so happy.
That was the beginning of my new life — the summer of 1978. The L.A. weather was mild and I was going to be 17 soon.
I tried to enroll in high school, but because of my age and educational level, I could not. So I went to adult school to learn English. My English was at zero percent, but I began to learn.
I came with so many dreams: I wanted to go to school and have a serious education, and to help my parents. I even dreamed of learning to fly an airplane.
But by my birthday, my dreams had started getting smaller. My dad asked me to pay rent. He told me that when you come to this country, you have to work.
I realized this was not going to be easy — I was just a teenager, and I now had to work to help my dad with the rent. I asked him, “What about school?” Dad did not want to listen.
The definition of American is elusive. But in this city shaped by immigrants, we know that it does not refer to a race, an ethnicity, or a birthplace. So we’re reaching out again. We’d love to hear your stories as we continue the conversation about Americanness and who it belongs to.
I had no job skills, and I only spoke Spanish. Back then, there was no Home Depot. But there was Sawtelle Boulevard, where people stood to wait for work. So I stood on the street there, and waited to see if someone approached me.
The response was “Jale!” from a truck, and they picked me up. And that is how I got my first job as a landscaper.
I was paid $30 for the day. I was so happy — back then, that was a good amount.
So with my adult school and English classes, going to Sawtelle for work and always afraid of being caught by La Migra, I made it to my 18th birthday.
Tio Nico’s in the projects
I was moving from place to place by then. My dad and I could not get along. I was a man now, and I did not want to take orders from him. At first I moved in with my uncle Nico in the projects on Inglewood Boulevard by Culver City. That is where I learned the word “cholos.”
Sometimes they would approach me and ask, “Que onda ese, quieres un joint?” What’s up man, want a joint?
At first I would ignore them, but after a few times I gave in.
Tio Nico was very nice to me when I lived with him, and he never charged me rent. We had fun together. On the weekends we would drink together, and he treated me like a son.
But when Tio Nico discovered I was talking to cholos, he knew it was time for me to move. I was placing his family in danger, he told me. So I began moving from place to place, staying with different friends in the neighborhood.
At 18, I was struggling with my life. My brother Rafael, who was living in Pomona, took me in. I was glad to go. My life in the projects was not going anywhere.
I knew that if you want to make it in this country, you have to work hard and you have to be disciplined, and all of that was already in me.
What I was doing at the time was not why I came here. The cholos were not what I came here to be.
So life gave me another chance. My brother Rafael was quiet and very serious. He was two years older than me, and he said that in his house, everyone pays rent. I asked him to give me a few weeks to find a job.
The house was small, with only one bedroom and a large living room. My brother slept in the bedroom, while nine of his friends and roommates, all from our town in Michoacan, slept in the living room. Every week, we would all put our money together and buy food for the week. I kind of liked being there on the weekends — we would all drink beer and tequila and have a good time. But Monday, it was back to work.
A couple who lived there told me about a place in San Dimas that was hiring strawberry pickers, and asked me if I would be interested in going with them. I had never picked strawberries before, but I was a little desperate, so I agreed.
That Monday we arrived at the strawberry field at 7 a.m. We checked in with the manager, who gave us each a box and a cutter to cut the strawberries.
“This is so easy,” I thought. I was going to get paid 25 cents for every box of strawberries. There were about 50 pickers, and it was a beautiful morning. By 8 a.m. I had picked four boxes already.
Then I heard someone screaming, “La Migra!”
‘Someday, things will be different’
Everyone started running, and I did not make it far. We were surrounded by immigration officers and had nowhere to go. They put me in a van, where I sat for four hours until they got everyone. It seemed like forever.
The officers drove about 12 of us to a building in downtown L.A. It was a tall square building, more than 10 stories high. On the bottom floor were jail cells.
In each cell there were about 10 people, and there were no beds. You had to sleep on the floor. If you had to go to the bathroom, you were escorted. There were no showers.
The guards would always keep an eye on us, and they intimidated us. I met a few other people who were being deported, and we stuck together.
On my third day there, I signed papers, but I did not know what I signed.
The immigration officer told me to just sign the documents so I could be sent to Tijuana. People who did not sign would stay longer, I was told — and the conditions in jail were really bad. So I agreed.
Once I signed, I was put on a bus back to Tijuana. I felt so much anger towards the immigration officers for the way they had treated me. I told myself that someday, things will be different.
I spent one week in Tijuana with no food or money, begging for food and sleeping on the street. I remember going to a supermarket and asking if someone would give me a taco. I stuck with the other people who were sent back. Finally, we found a coyote who would bring us across — this time, hidden with many others in a truck bed. My brother Rafael paid for the coyote. I remember it was very hard to breathe.
After I crossed, I went back to Rafael’s in Pomona. However, I did not pick strawberries. By this time, I was learning English quickly, so getting jobs became easier.
I eventually moved back to West LA. and began working in restaurants, then for a supermarket in the produce department. I began doing well.
A few years later, I even helped my parents buy a house in Venice near Lincoln and Washington — they still live there today.
In my late 20s, I got married. My wife and I had a son, and I wanted to be a good dad. When you come to this country, you want to work hard so you can one day give your children an education and a better life than what you had.
Now, this was my American dream.
My son David went to college at UC Santa Cruz, then went on to get his law degree at Boston University. He passed the California bar exam in 2022.
The day that he was to be sworn in as an attorney, I was excited to go with him to the ceremony, to be held at a courthouse building in downtown L.A.
I didn’t recognize the building at first when I arrived. But when the judge called him in for the ceremony to be sworn in, I realized where I was.
My mind raced back to 43 years ago: I was here, detained, in this same building.
It was here, on the ground floor of this courthouse building on Temple Street, where I told myself — before I was sent back to Tijuana — that someday, things would get better.
Had I stayed in Mexico, I would not be writing these words. From the time I was 10 years old, I had worked to help my parents as one of 12 children, doing odd jobs to earn money. I knew that I was not going to make it in Mexico.
I arrived here with nothing — all I had on me were shoes with holes in them, a t- shirt, old pants, and big dreams.
This country opened the door for me and my dreams. I took advantage of the opportunity I had here by working hard, and I gave my son an education.
I even learned to fly an airplane — but that's another story.
Fernando Orozco is retired after 35 years in the grocery business. He lives with his wife in Riverside and is a proud grandparent. He enjoys spending time with his hiking friends in the great outdoors.
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