The Star’s editorial board recently heard the stories of two Hispanic brothers, German and Juan Carlos. Their family first came to St. Helena and the Napa Valley in the 1970s and 1980s; later, though, seven brothers started coming to St. Helena permanently in 1999.
German said, “A lot of people from our town (in Mexico) are working in this town, in the restaurants, in the vineyards, in hotels. Before we came here, we heard this was a beautiful town; we heard there was work there.”
German was the first to come to St. Helena. He and Juan Carlos (the Star is not using their last names to protect their privacy and immigration status) spent three years living with their cousin. It was harvest in September; both got work in the vineyards, despite not knowing anything about vineyard work. As German said, “They gave us our knives and gloves and said, ‘Here you go.’ Oh, my God, what do we do? It was like 5 o’clock in the morning.” They went into the field, learned as they went along and after the harvest was over, they worked as construction laborers.
Their brother was working in a restaurant, washing dishes. He was paid some $6.50 an hour, while Juan Carlos was making $10 an hour as a construction laborer. But, his brother convinced him to work in the restaurant: “They give us food, give us water, give us a lot of things.”
The shift started at 7 p.m. and ended at 5 a.m. Juan Carlos said it was hard work, really hard work, especially when there were lots of customers.
German’s shift at the same restaurant was from 9 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. He was responsible for cleaning the walls of the kitchen. After work, he went home, slept for an hour and a half and went to work in construction. His co-workers picked him up at 5:50 a.m.
Juan Carlos said, “I came here to work. I could barely make it and one of my co-workers told me there must be something wrong with me, because as soon as I got into his truck, I would fall asleep.”
One time, he was sent to do some work in the basement, an hour later, his co-workers found him asleep.
Juan Carlos came to St. Helena when he was 20. One of his co-workers opened his lunch pail and saw six Cokes in it. That was it, he said, adding he didn’t have time to make lunch.
On the construction job site, his boss was trying to teach him how to cut wood, how to lay tile, but he said, “I couldn’t do it, because I was sleep deprived.”
Both brothers were working seven days a week. As Juan Carlos said, sometimes people come to the United States to go to school; sometimes they come here to learn English. Not he and his brothers, though they didn’t learn anything for three years, because they were just working.
After German worked in a local restaurant for a year, the two brothers decided they needed to learn English, in part, because the restaurant’s chef didn’t like workers who didn’t speak English. The two decided to spend the morning learning English through an ESL class at Napa Valley College and working in the evenings. It was tough, because they had to drop a job that paid $10 an hour in favor of one that paid $6.75.
Little by little, they started learning English, although it was two years before they used English in the restaurant.
Before too long, all seven brothers were working in the restaurant. And, they rented a house together because they were able to use the restaurant’s name as a reference.
Today, Juan Carlos and his wife have had an application to rent an apartment at Hunt’s Grove for years and are currently paying $1,500 a month for an apartment in St. Helena. They thought with paying so much, they should buy a house or a trailer. They went to the bank and spoke with a loan officer, who told them, with their income, they could borrow $300,000.
The rest of the conversation is instructive: “OK, we would like a house in St. Helena.” They were told that was not possible. “How about a small house or a piece of land?”
The loan officer told the couple that for that price, you can get a house in Vallejo. Then a series of further questions: “How long does it take to get here from Vallejo? I start work at 6 o’clock in the morning; I would have to get up at 4. I could quit my job here, but it’s not easy to start over again.”
German’s housing tale is similar; he rented an apartment that allowed just three people, instead there were five people living there. Today, he is the manager of a large house, he collects rents and although he said he is making more money than before, he has to pay more in rent. It’s a tough struggle.
Both German and Juan Carlos are learning about credit – in Mexico, everything is paid for in cash – bank accounts and living in today’s society. They are just one family of many and all have similar stories.
At first, they came to work and work hard. They didn’t come to study or go to school. But somehow, they found out they were doing more than just working; they stayed to build a life.
Both Hispanics and Anglos are drawn to St. Helena and the Napa Valley for its beauty – and both find similar challenges. How to make enough money to make a living and, if you’re working in St. Helena, you have to live in Napa, Calistoga, Lake County, Vallejo, American Canyon or Santa Rosa and drive in.
We are all building lives here and trying to contribute positively to the networks in the community that support each other. Without housing, however, it’s going to be difficult to create those networks.