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

Jerry always kept his son involved. Over the years, Steve was a backroom sweeper, a stock boy, and a cashier. Growing up in Greeley, Steve's friends wanted to be Mickey Mantle. Steve wanted to run his dad's store.

Steve got married and, at age 24, moved to Arizona, and knocked around the now-defunct Mini Mart convenience-store chain as a store manager, then as the guy who fired managers at other Mini Marts. Then, in 1992, Jerry called his son and begged him to return to Colorado, to take over the market. Two summers came and went before Steve Mize and his wife finally picked up and moved. When he got back to Greeley, Steve realized that Jerry's wasn't the same store, Greeley wasn't the same town.

The neighborhood had changed. Not for good or bad, but it was different. Gone were the German and Russian families that had settled east Greeley in the 1940s, customers who had shopped Jerry's for years. Their kids moved to the west side of town, to bigger houses and golf courses and safe streets. White streets. Now there were Mexican families on 14th Avenue, with their kids and their tortilla shops and their restaurants. Steve remembers migrant laborers once worked the fields in the spring and the summer, then left after the final harvest in late fall. Not anymore. Like the German and Russian immigrants generations earlier in Greeley, the Mexicans were saving their money and buying property on 14th Avenue—on every avenue and street surrounding Jerry's Market. They were living together, two and three families pooling their money to buy a slice of el sueño americano, the American Dream. They were changing the face of the local economy, forcing businesses to catch up or close up. Even a local bank, which set up a branch inside Jerry's Market, couldn't succeed. The bank wasn't able to reach out to the Mexicans in town—Steve's customers.

Before Steve's dad left for good, he told his son the store needed a new direction, so Steve hired some Spanish-speaking employees, bought some piñatas and hung them from the steel beams. He offered a place to pay bills, put up a big kiosk to buy phone cards. Even bought some Our Lady of Guadalupe candles and put them on sale for 99 cents.

Steve's customers asked for fresh corn tortillas. He put in an order and they sold out in days. They asked for pinto beans and chile pods. Steve put in more orders. They asked for beef stomach and beef feet and tripe. He stocked them all.

There was a change: He could see it coming through that door. One thousand faces a day and fewer of them looked like his. No sense for whites to come all the way to northeast Greeley when Wal-Mart was just a stone's throw from their new homes.

Then, one day eight years ago, Steve got to work early and clicked open those double doors. Steve Mize—the boy who always wanted to run his dad's grocery store—flicked on those lights and stared at the piñatas hanging from the ceiling and the offer to cambio de cheques written on a board next to the customer-service register. Steve Mize, the grandson of German immigrants, realized he was now managing a Mexican market.

A few months later, someone vandalized the revolving Jerry's Market sign that stood tall over 14th Avenue for 32 years. In its place Steve put up a new sign, a red-and-white-and-green sign. It read: Jerry's Market: With a little touch of Mexico.

It's 1982 now. Gerardo Lucero is 15 and his mother is kissing him good-bye. He hugs his younger brother, Octavio. Gerardo has $400 in his pocket, money his father kept hidden from everyone else. Gerardo will use the money to pay his coyote, the man who's going to help Gerardo when he crosses the border, who's going to get Gerardo to a safe place somewhere in California. There are two other friends with Gerardo. It takes nearly three days by bus before they arrive in Tijuana, hundreds of miles under the sun and the moon.

The door opens, and in the distance Gerardo sees a metal fence rising from the brown earth and he begins to run. His friends follow. They all run for that fence. Gerardo had heard stories of other men who got this far, who got to this point and were caught right as they hit that fence. So he runs. He runs so fast and so hard that his lungs start to burn. He's 20 feet away and that fence looks like the biggest wall ever made. He worries that he won't be able to climb it. Gerardo Lucero keeps running and he reaches it. His hand hits the wall and makes the same sound his father's hand makes when he hits the hindquarters of those cows back home. Thwack! He doesn't as much climb that fence as he flies up it. He crashes on the dirt and then looks up. Now he's running again, to a road where a van will pick him up. When the van arrives, the door opens and 22 other men are packed in there, elbow to elbow. Just like Gerardo, they've gone over that wall.

He looks at the weather-beaten faces of those men, and Gerardo realizes that they're men and he's just a boy. He gets in anyway. The door rolls shut. Gerardo Lucero has never been so scared.

That night, he sleeps on the side of a highway near San Diego, and he begs his coyote for some food and water. The man goes to a convenience store, buys Gerardo a bologna sandwich and some Kool-Aid. Tells him to shut up and eat. This is what Gerardo had dreamed of since he was nine years old. Sitting next to the highway eating his bologna, looking at those skyscrapers, the food and the drink have never tasted better. Gerardo feels like he's nine again. He's never been happier.

But he needs a job. No use coming to America if he's not going to work. Gerardo kicks around doing odd jobs, then finds out that one of his aunts lives in a place called Colorado. He can pick beans and beets there, Gerardo's told, make a few bucks, enough to scrape by for now.

Gerardo also hears there's a meatpacking plant in Greeley, good money. So he signs up for work at a place called Monfort, one of the biggest slaughterhouses in the United States. Name's Gerardo—Air-are-doe—he says. Grrr-ardo, the people say. He doesn't correct them because he needs this job more than anything he's ever needed in his life.

He learns how to saw a cow's midsection, how to cut it tenderly without slicing himself open. Grab that saw hanging from above and start slicing, around the ribs, then right through the bone. Get all the meat you can. It's rough, smelly, sickening work. One of his friends tries it. Too dangerous, too hard, he says. He doesn't last a week. Gerardo does. He cuts himself really good, three times, all that blood, stitches and tetanus shots. Gerardo doesn't like tetanus shots, but he's good at this job. His boss is hard on him at first, no tienes huevos, the boss says to Gerardo. You have no balls. But he sees how hard Gerardo works, how much potential he has, and eventually el jefe comes around. After a while, Gerardo's offered a promotion to be a night manager.

Gerardo Lucero is making $200 a week working the graveyard shift, sawing cow through the night, but he's happy. His friends drink at the bar, get smashed, pick up pretty ladies and bring them back to their apartments. They take the money that's left and buy expensive jeans, maybe some snakeskin boots, a new cowboy hat or a new truck. Not Gerardo. He sends his money back to Mexico, to his mother and father. Sometimes he sends half his check, sometimes he sends it all.

He goes to the store and buys some beef—maybe the cow he cut up yesterday—and makes burritos. He eats burritos for lunch and for dinner. Then he goes to slaughter some more cows, cutting through those ribs, tearing out that meat, staring at those insides. Gerardo spends some money on English lessons. The rest of it? He puts it under his mattress. He counts that money every week. After a while, Gerardo Lucero is sleeping on $4,000.

In a short time, the boy who returned his father's change on Sundays learns how to manage a business, watching a cousin who runs some Mexican restaurants down South. Four thousand dollars becomes $15,000. After some time, Gerardo gets a green card. Got letters, three of them, from former employers proving he'd worked at their businesses and took them to the Office of Immigration. This is well before 9/11: no lawyer, just the letters. After about a year, the green card shows up in the mail.

And once he has that little piece of green paper, it's like Gerardo's whole again. He's no longer a ghost, he says, he's free. He decides to go into business for himself and opens a clothing store. He sells all $6,000 of his merchandise in a few weeks and now has $21,000. Twenty-one grand becomes $25,000. He does this month after month, year after year. He opens a small concrete business, gets some jobs helping to build new homes, then sells the company for a profit. Soon, he's sitting on his own little gold mine. He starts wearing some nice clothes, buys a new Dodge and goes to a dance. He meets a woman named Patrisia, and he falls in love. Soon Gerardo is married. He's got a son, Avery—sounds like A-bur-ry coming from Gerardo's mouth. More kids are on the way.

Eventually he'll open a tortilla factory, bring his parents, his brother, and his sisters up from Mexico. He'll care for them all, get them a house, a job, a better life.

But Gerardo has even bigger plans: He wants to open a Mexican restaurant in Greeley, right in the heart of his barrio. So 16 years after he hopped that fence and slept on the side of the highway in San Diego, he's driving his Dodge up and down the streets, scouting places for his future restaurant. He turns onto 14th Avenue, looks to his right and sees Jerry's Market. There is a sign in the window, where the neighborhood bank once was. The sign is big. It reads: For Lease.

One morning a few days later Gerardo meets Steve Mize. The two don't talk much during that first meeting, but there's an unspoken understanding that they need each other. There's an agreement and a handshake.

Gerardo cleans out the space that was the bank, puts in a grill, some tables and chairs, and opens his restaurant, Taqueria Los Comales, in 1999. Menudo and corn tortillas all day, a big, heaping beef burrito for $4.50. Says it's "Authentic Mexican." Rich guys from Denver come up and eat there, white guys in suits slumming it in Greeley's barrio. Steve makes fun of them. Gerardo counts their cash. Got enough money to open up another restaurant 30 miles north in Fort Collins a few years later; decides to open a tortilla factory up the street and has enough room up front for his own bodega, stocks it with Mother of Guadalupe candles, pastries, Coke in glass bottles.

Coke always tastes better in a glass bottle, Gerardo thinks. Better than the plastic bottles at Jerry's Market.

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