Feature

Pinched

Greeley is at the center of the fight over immigration reform in the United States. Two men on the same street are trying to survive the battle.

August 2008

The air-conditioning is on full blast inside Steve Mize's neighborhood market on 14th Avenue—a rare American-owned shop on this dusty stretch of road in northeast Greeley's barrio.

It's quiet in the windowless front office, where Steve sets to work counting cash, lots of ones and fives from the safe. Nobody bothers him. The only noise is the quiet crooning of George Strait over the speakers. It's late spring, and the storm clouds have moved in, casting a dreary silver-gray streak across the morning sky. Up 14th, the pitter-patter of rain falls on rooftops, like coins on tin—water cascades down sunken, rotting porches. Roosters crow in the distance.

There's a sullen look on Steve's face, the look of a man trying his damnedest to make his dad proud. It's been 14 years since Steve finally took over the grocery from his dad, Jerry, with the intention of making Jerry's Market a family legacy. After two weeks of training his son, Jerry said he was going home to run some errands. Instead, he went to a cabin in the mountains and called a few weeks later: I don't think I'll be coming back, Jerry told Steve. It's all yours.

So here Steve is. Fourteen years of his life spent in charge of 10,000 square feet of aisles and registers. Fourteen years of his life keeping this market afloat, placing ads in the papers, shopping competitors, striking deals on watermelons in the summertime, hiring new help. It's stressful, all that pressure on Steve, with the economy and gas prices and the fact that it's just so difficult to find someone who's willing to work hard for $7.50 an hour these days. He's feeding his family with these 10,000 square feet—keeping that legacy alive—keeping Dad's name on that sign outside.

Used to be that hard work was enough to put a roof over your head and give you a sense of accomplishment that filled your body when you collapsed dead-tired on your bed at night. Generations of immigrants—Germans and Russians, mostly—had come to Greeley looking for that feeling, searching for their futures in beet and onion fields and in the slaughterhouse up the road.

The slaughterhouse is still here, but this isn't the same city. Not by a long shot. Greeley is at a crossroads—what some might say is the battle for America, the battle for the American Way. A year and a half ago, the feds raided the Swift & Company slaughterhouse, took away 250 people, Mexicans mostly. Folks here dug in after that. They voted the Greeley mayor, a Republican who questioned the Swift raids, out of office. But they can't elect away the truth: Greeley's white majority is drying up—a third of the city is Hispanic now.

That's not what troubles Steve, though. He grew up here, saw that change coming. People today get their groceries at Wal-Mart, King Soopers, Safeway—all those big-box stores. Not much left for the little guy anymore. Like the cowboys who used to wander the range here, the family-owned markets are disappearing, and Steve's starting to see himself as a dying breed.

So Steve sits and counts money and worries. About the big-box stores—and that other market up 14th Avenue, the one owned by the handsome Mexican man with wavy salt-and-pepper hair. Gerardo Lucero is his name—sounds like Grrr-ardo coming from Steve's mouth. Gerardo's always been a nice guy, as far as Steve's concerned; always been pretty quiet, not a real conversationalist. A businessman in every sense—keeps things close to the vest. Done well for himself. Real well. And these days, that's what scares Steve, makes him a little angry, even.

Gerardo's market's been humming along lately, got lots of cars parked outside at all times of the day. Got two restaurants, two tortilla factories, including the one in the back of his market—3,000 square feet on 14th Avenue—and a new factory, 13,000 square feet, farther north in town. Gerardo says he's got 12 employees back there, tells Steve that he's making 25,000 tortillas a day and he's selling them all over the region—might produce four times that number each day later this summer. Gerardo's got enough money for a new Saleen truck, black with big, shiny chrome rims that look like windmills spinning on the asphalt. Parks it right next to Steve's grocery.

Treat people with respect, Steve's dad used to tell him; be courteous and fair and you'll have a customer for life. It's how Jerry's Market has survived. But it's so hard these days, especially when Gerardo Lucero is up the street, selling Coca-Cola for a dime less than Steve.

It's 1976 and young Gerardo Lucero is growing up in a dumpy little town in a dumpy little part of central Mexico. His parents have 50 cows, maybe, which means he's not the poorest kid in the neighborhood, but it's not like there's a bankable future for him here. He knows it. The state of Durango, Mexico, has been bleeding out for years—decades—with all those young men breaking for los Estados Unidos, for jobs, for a little money to send home—to buy themselves some snakeskin boots and black ranch hats. Gerardo sees them come home in the winter, in the trucks they bought up north. But he's here, stuck in this ratty town. He's nine years old. He's got the rest of his life ahead of him, and he knows there's a better one somewhere else.

Gerardo's father makes enough to support the family with this little scratch of a ranch, and he gives his son some change on Sundays so he can buy something from the local store, maybe some candy, a cold bottle of Coke, a comic book. But Gerardo doesn't spend it. Every Sunday passes, and Gerardo still has that change in his pocket. He feels bad because it's the only leftover money his father has. So Gerardo gives it back to him. Every Sunday morning before church, Gerardo gets a little change to spend on himself, and every Sunday night he gives it back. He doesn't know why he does it, but he does.

At night, before he goes to bed in the room that he shares with his family, Gerardo sits and prays. He knows God hears his prayers because he is filled with joy. Gerardo Lucero is destined to make something of his life. He knows it. He feels it's part of God's plan.

The rain's been falling steadily since Steve got up, said good morning to his two kids, kissed his wife good-bye, and drove to work on this cold May morning. He opened the double doors at 8 a.m. sharp, flicked on the lights, and gazed upon six fully stocked aisles that have clothed and fed and housed three generations of Mizes. He straightens a few rows of extra-hot habanero pepper sauce. There's a quiet aura about Steve, kind of like his dad. But as he stands in Aisle One, the Impact Aisle, where most of the Mexican food is shelved, Steve knows Gerardo's people opened their market at 6 a.m., and the tortilla factory's been running since three in the morning—while Steve was sleeping.

Jerry's Market has been in the Mize family for four decades. Back when Steve was six years old, his dad opened Jerry's in a Quonset hut on 14th Avenue. Four years later, in 1968, Jerry opened up a bigger store on the same plot of land and added a huge paved parking lot and a red and white revolving sign that shone bright in the night. When that market opened for the first time, white people showed up in suits and fancy gowns and cut a ribbon and cheered.

{C}

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