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}

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.

Now picture Gerardo standing here at his tortilla factory, Tortillaria Los Comales, nearly two weeks before Christmas 2006. It's the morning of the federal immigration raid. Two-hundred-and-fifty people have been arrested at the Swift & Company meatpacking plant. The business got a new name, used to be Monfort, the same place where Gerardo got his start 24 years earlier. More than a dozen workers have been caught with stolen identification. The others? Many were undocumented workers. Wrong place, wrong time.

Gerardo steps onto the sidewalk. No one shows up for work, no customers come through the door. The refrigerators hum, the kitchen is silent. The parking spaces are empty. Makes him wonder if Immigration is waiting to take his customers. Have they already taken them? Will his customers return? Gerardo is scared—angry, even.

Greeley is at a crossroads and Gerardo Lucero is now stuck at that intersection, wondering what will happen next. A few months after the arrests, the mayor, a Republican named Tom Selders, goes to Washington, D.C., and says the Mexicans are good people, that they're working some important jobs in this town. Gerardo writes a check to the mayor's reelection campaign, stands behind the mayor. Tom Selders says his piece in D.C., then returns to Greeley—and loses the election in a landslide.

So now all these immigrants in town are on edge. But they don't go away. They keep buying their homes and trucks and shops. But, this time, they stick to their neighborhoods even more than before, shop more often in places like Jerry's Market and Gerardo's bodega and his factory—places where they can pick up some chicken and tortillas in peace.

A year and a half after the raid, stand in the doorway of Gerardo's tortillaria on 14th Avenue and feel the heat pouring out of the room. The feeling of warmed dough being cooked into money. See that slim man standing in the middle of the room, with the button-down shirt and the black jeans and the worn shoes? That's Gerardo Lucero back at work, watching the 12 men and women in this shotgun room behind his market.

He rarely speaks. But when he does, it's worth listening. The other day there was a fight between an employee and her husband. The woman came in, sniffling back tears. Brought her man in to talk to Gerardo. Gerardo respects his family, and the workers see the loving way he looks at his wife. So Gerardo pulled the woman's husband aside and told him how important a man is to his family, how his kids would be lost without him. Told the man he needed to set an example for those kids, honor his hard-working wife. The man nodded. Then Gerardo took his employee aside, told her how a mother needs to be strong for her family, how she needs to make her husband feel like the most important man in the world. You don't want your brother raising those kids, do you? No, the woman says, I love my husband.

His workers respect him. Gerardo doesn't yell, his employees say. The farmers yell when you don't pick the vegetables right, when you drop a basket on the ground. Some mornings, immigrants arrive at the tortilla shop looking for work, tell Gerardo his name's all over town, that he's a good boss. Gerardo checks their paperwork, takes a few, then he turns most away. It doesn't seem like they respect work, hard work, honest work. Seems like they want a handout, like Gerardo somehow owes them something. He already has that problem here, probably would have made more money, would have more restaurants and more tortilla factories and more markets if he didn't have so much family around, so many people showing up at the door asking for a job. Too many people in this room don't take pride in their work, use too much flour or water to make the tortillas when a little will do. Treat this like it's your business, he tells them. Manage the product like you were paying the bills.

It's always about money, about taking care of family, about building new businesses. Gerardo bought a new tortilla shop a few blocks away. Thirteen-thousand square feet in an old grocery store. Gerardo will ship tortillas to stores in Denver and in Greeley, to Jerry's Market on 14th Avenue.

But the city keeps telling Gerardo to make more improvements to the new factory, clean it up more, make everything to code, spend more money. Steve, down the street, thinks it has to do with the color of Gerardo's skin. If a white guy owned the store the city wouldn't be making so much trouble. Gerardo isn't sure. All he knows is that he's just trying to make a buck, take care of his family, buy a bigger house, send the kids through college. Maybe they'll take over his business some day. That's American, right? The American Dream?

{C}

A Mexican woman came to Jerry's Market awhile ago, asked Steve Mize to sign a petition supporting immigrants' rights in Greeley, to oppose the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office the feds want to put nearby. We're a majority of your customers, she tells Steve; you don't want to see your customers go away, do you?

It wasn't like this at first. The Mexicans were just happy to have a neighborhood store, a place they could get their tortillas and beans and beef foot and feel safe, like they belonged. Steve was glad to have the business. Dad always told him to know the customers better than they knew themselves; whether they were chicken or fish people, whether they liked their beans fresh or canned.

So Steve spent years trying to understand his customers. Did some research, stopped ordering lots of fish because these weren't fish people, they grew up in central Mexico, not on the coast. Steve talked to some of his employees, changed that sign. A little touch of Mexico—Steve holds the tips of his index finger and his thumb in a pinch to emphasize the word little.

The customers see Steve's work in the aisles, how he's trying to make the market look more like them, how he's carrying Bimbo bread now, chips with lime flavor. Still, some call Steve bad names, curse at him in Spanish, when he refuses to cash a $400 check without identification. Steve doesn't speak Spanish very well, but he understands when people get mad and say "chíngate," when they look him right in the eye and challenge him to a fight in the parking lot.

Even so, Steve stands by his customers. One day, Steve was invited to a rally, the kind where people stand up and say the Mexicans are destroying their way of life. Steve declined the invitation. Told those folks that he thinks these Mexicans are pretty darn important to our economy. They're pretty darn important to his bank account. Some whites in town started wondering whether Steve was a friend of the Mexicans. And they stopped shopping Jerry's Market.

So here Steve is, back in his office, Chris LeDoux singing over the speakers, sitting at a desk counting money. White linoleum floor, the yellowish hue of the overhead lighting cascading across his desk onto the photos of Jerry, Steve's wife, his son, and his adopted daughter from China.

When Jerry was running the place, the Kreuters and Heinrichs stopped by to pick up their groceries. Steve sees the Archuletas and Gomezes. Hundreds of brown faces each day. Good people, Steve says.

The tightrope, he calls it. Don't want to seem too friendly to either side, but Steve feels like he should be best friends with both. Sure, he'd like to see those Mexican gangs eradicated. But what about the hard-working Mexicans, the Mexicans like Gerardo who stuff money under their beds each week with the dream that someday they can make something of their lives? Steve says it seems like they're more American than some of the Americans he knows.

Yet here he is, feeling pinched, the two sides of the vice closing in on him. There's fear: fear that someday he's going to be forced to choose a side when he doesn't want to, that he's going to lose his customers or his friends no matter what he says or does, no matter how friendly and helpful his market is. There's fear that someday maybe Jerry's on 14th Avenue will no longer exist, and it will all be Steve's fault.

It's been a long morning at Jerry's Market. The phone's been ringing: People wanting to know how much crushed ice costs, whether fruit's on sale this week. Steve's walking the aisles now, straightening the cans of coffee, figuring a way to move the cat food and dog food onto one shelf. No use, he'll get to that later.

A customer he knows just brought in her cousin who'd been working the fields in Wyoming. Could Steve cash some checks? He studies them, then looks at the young man. He'll cash one, the largest, a few hundred dollars. The woman translates Steve's words to Spanish and the young man nods. Steve heads back to his office, behind the customer-service desk. He looks at a photo of his son, Merick, hanging from the wall. Ruffled hair, big smile on his face. Tucked into the corner of the frame is a Jerry's Market business card that his son scribbled on. In pencil, the 13-year-old crossed out his dad's name and replaced it with his chicken-scratch: Merick Mize, it reads, president and manager.

Steve wants to pass the market to his son, hopes that Merick wants to take over, too. Steve's son will sweep the floors, work the cash register, and then, well, who knows?

Up the street at the tortilla factory, two of Gerardo's employees are sitting on the sidewalk. Inside, Gerardo watches the tortillas fall from the chain belt onto another belt where they will be packaged and shipped that day. He's got big plans, maybe hire a few more people this year, buy some more equipment. He'll visit his newest tortilla site this morning, have his kids over to get a look at the new place. Maybe someday they'll inherit it like Steve inherited Jerry's.

And after lunch Gerardo will head to his restaurant inside Jerry's Market. He'll see Steve and the two will stand outside in the sun, talking about their sons and the heat and the parking lot that will get a coat of asphalt soon. They will wonder what things will be like on 14th Avenue when their newest 10-year lease expires in 2018.

By then, maybe the street will have changed again, a new wave of immigrants will have come to Greeley, Colorado, to find a job, a home, a place to eat, a place to pick up some milk and eggs for breakfast.

Maybe that's happening already: Gerardo has seen some black faces in his market. The immigration raid in 2006 created some job openings at the Swift meatpacking plant, and folks from Africa—Somalia, mostly—are now coming to town. They're getting work sawing cow and saving their money.

And they're asking for phone cards. Gerardo bought some, put them up front in his market so all those Somalis could see them. Five bucks for 50 minutes. They sold out in a week.

Robert Sanchez is staff writer at 5280. E-mail him at [email protected].

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