Everything is like a root*
There is nothing more truthful than the title of this story, among the first to arrive to Lake Tahoe was Timoteo Ruvalcaba's brother. He's the one who took him over there. After their arrival, migration to Lake Tahoe has become a like root.
Timoteo's brother, José Ruvalcaba, never needed to go to "el Norte", because, in fact, he had a permanent job at a bank where he had been working for almost eleven years; but, on July 1972, he became curious and left to the border, just to test the waters. There, he became convinced that "he could make it." He returned only to quit his job and leave once again.
He first arrived to Watsonville where he stayed for five months, then he passed by Hollister, to "La Casa Amistada." There, for the first time he heard about a memorable place, full of promises, money, and casinos: Lake Tahoe. In José's imagination casino centers resembled great saloons full of pool tables that reminded him of his hometown's casino houses. The hopes of finding a better place and the collapse of the job he used to carry out pushed him to seek the help of some friends and try out his luck in Lake Tahoe. José remembers precisely that first trip: the freeway's number, the bridges they crossed and, above all, the place where he saw snow for the first time: Placerville.
During those years, Lake Tahoe's hotel and touristic centers had barely any hispanics working; and José Ruvalcaba, it seems, was the first jalisciense to explore that region. Soon thereafter followed his wife, their children, and their siblings. Between them all, each one in their own occupation, they opened up a breach and prepared the road for other fellow countrymen to arrive and work in the casinos, restaurants, and hotels; for other children to go to school; for women to work as waitresses and hotel maids; and for others to make up their minds and start a business, build a house, or request a loan.
The seed planted by the Ruvalcaba family became fruitful. After twenty years, Lake Tahoe has become a loved and well-known place among the Mexican migrants that like to call it Little Otavalo, in reference to their hometown and to the great number of paisanos that work there. But also, Mexicans have come to be part of Lake Tahoe's landscape, they've won their place through hardwork and have built a presence by carring out efficiently and responsibly a variety of jobs, tasks, and activities.
* Interview conducted by Enrique Martínez in the city of Lake Tahoe California, during October of 1992.
It is not that because of one, everybody else came, but it's the truth, it's like a root, it grows, it gives out branches and these, in turn, give out leaves; it's the same as talking about a family tree or a family like the town of Amequense.
Like that, some arrived first and then more, later on a lot of people that you don't even know, they come because others have invited them but, they don't know the roots of how we got here; I can say for sure that we are about five thousand Latinos and, from that, I think 80% are from Otavalo, here in South Lake Tahoe. Some are here temporarily, they come and go but, the one that leaves, never arrives alone, he always brings along a friend or two, others are more stable.
I grew up with my grandparents, from elementary school until I started working at the bank, at age 17, where I lasted eleven years. I used to work on and off because it was difficult to obtain a full-time job since I didn't have the military card. They would offer me work for small periods of time from two to three months and, then, they would give me another contract. Sometimes I worked for money, and sometimes not because there were a lot of peope looking for jobs. When I turned 18, I started working formally: assistant to the accountant, secretary, director of the insurance branch, and field supervisor, also as a payer for CONASUPO, with this job I became well known since I visited a lot of communities.
With time I asked for a leave of absence and I came to the United States, on July of 1972. First, I arrived to Mexicali, I realized then, that there was more or less a chance to make it and, so I went back and quit my job.
When I crossed to the other side I went to Watsonville and worked for five months at a canería, then I moved to Hollister and started working in a restaurant called "La Casa Amistada," owned by some Portuguese people. I started as a dish-washer; I lasted three months and a half. From the time work ended at the canería until December, right after, I found a part-time in another canería in Hollister, at most I worked three days a week in each place.
On one ocasion, serving coffee to some clients of "La Casa Amistada," I became friends with two men, Lío López, pocho born in Texas, and Ventame, a Dutch. They were pensioned little old men that lived together, and their only distraction was to travel. They lived in Menlo Park, California, ten minutes away from San Francisco.
Serving them coffee I remember that Don Lío told me:
-Hey you, boy, where are you from?
-No, well, I'm from Mexico.
-Yes, but where from?
-No, well, from Guadalajara.
-Well, tell me how much are they paying you here?
-No, well, here they pay me 1.80 per hour.
-Oh! they're stealing from you, how come they are paying you that per hour? No, well, at 1.80 they are stealing from you, no, no, go to Lake Tahoe, there immigration won't go after you that much.
He told me that because at that time I didn't have documents, besides my wife was already here. I asked him for his address and he gladly gave it to me.
-No, no, whenever you want we'll take you to Lake Tahoe.
-And, what's that?
-I didn't know English and I said:
- Lake Tahoe, what would that be?
-No, it's called South Lake Tahoe and that means "Sur Lago Tahoe," it's a place where there are casinos, just like in Las Vegas.
He was telling me casinos and I imagined those were the places where people play pool, billiards.
-Well, so many people go there to play that.
Time passed by, and in February, I ran out of work at the canería and, at the restaurant, the migra started bugging with that it was going to check...that it's coming tomorrow...and one's fellows with bad intentions, a lot of times because of envy or just because they don't like you, they tell you to be careful because the migra is coming on such and such day, and since I didn't have documents, they could take me back to Mexico.
Luckily, the day the migra showed up was my day out; the following day when I arrived to work they told me:
-Imagine! Yesterday the migra came by and it took one person away.
-Damn it! I told my wife, this is getting dangerous, if we continue here, well....and it's so tough to get in! Looking at the situation we both got afraid and said:
-No, it's no good to continue here anymore. Remembering that man, don Lío López, I told my wife:
-I'm going to see this man.
She was always afraid and would tell me:
-What are you going to do with those little old men? In the end, there are going to be all lies, you've told me they smelled like alcohol.
-No, no but he was talking to me very sincerely, I am going to get in touch with him.
- When I called him, on one ocasion, I didn't find anybody at home, the phone rang and rang. Afterwards, I called again, and then, the third time, I was lucky he answered the phone, I told him as in the song:
-I am the one you met that one time
-Okay, okay, shuffle it a bit slowlier, who are you?
-Well look, I am José Angel Ramírez (I carried this name in my Social Security from 1972 until 1977), remember, you met me as a busboy in "La Casa Amistada," in Pacheco Park, a Portuguese-owned restaurant and, you asked me how much they payed me, and he said:
-They're stealing from you.
In fact, aside from that they're stealing from me, the work is over and my wife is also here, and we don't know whether to stay or already go back to Mexico, because it is very difficult to stay here without documents, everywhere they're scaring you.
No, even after that, the man answered:
-Look, when you're ready, you come here, this is my address.
-I am ready.
-Well, then come.
My wife didn't want to, but finally we came, her and a friend of mine called Juan López, from Tolola, Michoacán. It was at the beginning of March, 1973.
We went to Don Lío López's home and he was ready, the only thing he asked from me was:
-Buy me my medicine.
I said, ah caray! So Don Lío is sick; on the way he told us what medicine. The thing was a little "pachita," a little bottle of brandy, we bought it for him.
I had a little Ford '58, all discoloured, the transmission all screwed-up, the first gear wouldn't go through, it would only start on second, and then when we would get on a steep hill we had to change into first, it would make a fuss that machine, a "tracatiza" and that's how we were coming.
This trip was a novelty because I saw San Francisco and other places in California, without even wanting to, he was guiding me, I didn't know well how to drive, I didn't have a license, finally I arrived to San Francisco, we crossed the Bay Bridge, the bridge that divides Oakland from San Francisco, we passed it and we continued 'till we reached Sacramento, we continued, we arrived to Placerville through freeway 50, passing by Placerville was when we started to see piles of snow, the closer we got the more snow we saw, and the car without heating, so we were getting colder; at last we arrived to South Lake Tahoe and we looked for a little hotel to spend the night, but the man, since he was such a gambler, I tought he was sleepy because he was nodding all the way here, but no, as soon as he got here he said:
-I'll be right back.
-He left for the casinos, later on he arrived very broke, he had lost everything.
That night we stayed at a hotel that is next to the Tahoe Motel and, the day after, Don Lío López took us and introduced us with that hotel's manager; he seemed to be a client because we started working the very next day, my wife and myself, making 3.50 per hour.
We stayed only one night, I had brought little money with me, we rented a cabin that fit only one bed, a stove, and a little bathroom, that 's all it had, my wife and myself slept on the bed, the other guy slept on the floor.
We started working and, the first fortnight that we hooked a check, I told my wife that we should go to Watsonville to visit my brother, since we didn't have a phone, or a P.O. BOX where he could write to us and, I came without knowing his address. He was very happy to see us, he wasn't very happy all alone, so he told me:
-Hey bro, what, wouldn't I be able to get a job there?
-Oh, sure, there's a lot of work there.
And yes, in reality at that time Lake Tahoe was virgin, there where nothing more than a few Cubans, one or two Puertorricans, and a family from Zacatecas, the Aramillo family, there was another woman from Puebla. That was it.
I brought my brother from Watsonville with me and, no sooner said than done, when we arrived we found him the same job as ours, as a maid, that is cleaning the hotel rooms, changing the bed sheets, cleaning the rooms, watering the gardens, sweeping outside the rooms, only jobs that are the usual among us, Mexicans.
When I noticed I was making good money my only illusion was to bring my entire family, I had left five children in Mexico; everybody arrived in June of 1973, so that for my Saint's day, in July, I had my whole family, it was necessary to rent out a three-bedroom apartment.
When my children arrived they went to school, we were the first family with Mexican children at a school in Lake Tahoe. For them, the first days of classes were difficult, they would laugh at them because they had never heard spoken Spanish, they would come saying:
-Dad, we're not going to school anymore, they don't understand us.
They couldn't communicate, nowadays it's not strange for gringos because there are so many Mexicans, but at that time they found it strange, they would make fun of them, they would come home crying, now it's a different reaction that Americans have when they see Mexicans that don't speak Spanish, that only speak English, it's astonishing for them!
After having worked for one year and four months as a maid, at the Tahoe Motel, I went to work at the Sahara casino where I started as a sweeper for three months, then I switched to busboy for three months, then I moved up to waiter, for about half a year and, as I was always trying to earn better, they offered me to be the chief of all busboys at a world-class theatre, where the world greatest artists would perform, there I had the opportunity to see Elvis Presley 150 times and other famous artists like: Diana Ross, Tom Jones, Dean Martin. All of the artists that became famous performed there.
As a supervisor I had to hire people of all races and nationalities by law, I was in charge of more people from Majorca and Otavalo than from any other place, under my supervision was an African, an Eskimo, several Cubans, Puertorricans, Colombians, Brazilians, Argentinians, Spanish, and French; I lasted there nine years. On average I managed to have 22 busboys, in total they were 110, aside from having substitutes for rest days, in case they got sick, etc.
I worked until 1983, the year they closed the theater and turned it into a buffet, I had to leave because it wasn't worth it to continue, I was already tired, I already wanted to try other places, I had been 11 years in that casino; I switched to the Caesar's where I worked for two years and, other two at the Harrah's, then I quit because I started a business, I couldn't keep up with two jobs, with the two commitments at the same time.
I have defended a lot of people that were kicked out or that the migra would take away, I would lend them money or I would go get them in Tijuana, without charging a thing, only the gas. Others that would come looking for work, I would find them a job, I would give them the chance of living in my house while they settle somewhere, the majority of my enemies, people that would find me unpleasant, they knew I had a good job at a theater, where they also wanted to work, but there wasn't enough for everybody, at that time there were already two hundred or three hundred Otavaleños, I could only have 20, so I needed to fire some to get others in, because those were jobs that would make 100 to 150 dollars daily. However, they would start as I started, dishwasing or sweeping, for 25 or 28 dollars per day, while they knew one was making 100, 120, 150 dollars everyday, they also wanted a little piece of the cake, but that wasn't possible.
I still haven't bought a house because of the following: In the first place because it is not possible, I cannot have a business and a house at the same time; when I had the opportunity of buying, I thought:
-Well, these 20,000 dollars that I have saved, what can I do with them? Either I buy a house or I start a business. If I buy a house, then I'll have to work like a dog for the rest of my days, if I don't do that and I start a business and, if God helps me, I can get the money to buy a house.
I thought the last one made more sense, become a slave for life or risk myself to have my own business; that's why I don't have a house, but I will have it, if God wants, because the businesses are now going the way I want, besides I told my children that, God first, it will be in '93 or '94, but we are going to have a house, God willing.
Even though I am a little bit ostentatious, because to buy a house, anybody can do it, but I want a real house, that's my thinking. My family is big, six children, my wife, and myself, that's why I need to buy it at least with four bedrooms, because the day all of my children want to be there, somehow they can accomodate themselves, my illusion is to buy a house in Guadalajara, another in Otavalo, and maybe one in Puerto Vallarta, to have three places where I can spend my retirement, that's my dream, we all have a dream, that it will come true, maybe yes, maybe not, but if I cannot make it come true, oh well!
I opened up a tortillería because of the magnitude of Latinos that live in this place, I started doing the acconuts and I thought that here someone has to take the first step and, that who hits first, hits twice.
It took me a couple of years to get a clientele, at first it was the reaction of the very same Latinos, many didn't like to see me at the top, others would speak to me; I have a lot of friends, very good friends that actually helped me build my tortillería, to make tortillas without a pay, only in exchange for a meal that I would invite them to, or a little party that I would always organize in return for their help.
I started in '84, but we didn't work that year, but until the following year, they held up the permit, I have two employees that are: Don Juanito and a nephew whose name is Sergio Ruvalcaba, it's a family business.
The first trip to lay in a stock of merchandise had to be to Los Angeles, afterwards to Richmond, California, there was "La Misión" a very large tortillería that sold the ingredients rather expensive, but I had to make a trip every two months, I would go get 20 sacks of corn or Maseca in order to make the tortilla, sometimes I made a sack per week; that's why I had to keep working at the casino, in order to support the rent of the tortillería. It wasn't until '87 when I started buying my stocks from Los Angeles, but they bring me the merchandise to Reno, Nevada.
After that everything is the same, work, wake up at five in the morning, go make the tortilla, distribute it, come home, eat, play chess, have a little wine, sleep and, the following day, the same.
In 1986 I had a business and I left the job at the casino in order to go sell firewood, I almost went bankrupt, it was a detour that brought me back to life, because of the adventurer's spirit that I have, of always having to explore, to see whether there's more money here than over there, there's not always money at the casino, life teaches you that "the cobbler should stick at his last" or things of the sort, businesses that one doesn't know, it's better to not get involved.
I had a restaurant, in '90, that was called "La Cocina de Doña Rivera," but, because of city re-development plans, they knocked it over in '91, and I was left without a restaurant, I was left with the tortillería only. It was a restaurant the kind of McDonalds, where you pay, you order, they give you your food, and you go to your table, the only thing one had to do was go clean the tables.
When I came, I kept seeing the man who brought me here, Don Lío López, because it was such a strong friendship that they had with me, and because they saw the growth of us, people who have forged ourselves here, so that later on they moved to Lake Tahoe.
My parents and my children are with me, I don't have much to see in Otavalo, the friends sometimes come and visit me, my compadre Vizcaíno, who was president of Otavalo and, who is the manager of the Banco Ejidal, Humberto Batista, José Garibay, and Javier Rentería, they are all the richest of Otavalo; a lot of people have come, including the current president, Roberto Rubio; also a lot of good friends have visited, aside from that, another number of friends that don't come directly with me; it's beautiful my land, it's where I left my childhood, where I made my first friendships, where I had my first loves, but that belongs to the past, you realize you have a married daughter, another married son, another that is travelling all over the world, that one does as birds do: during a particuar time of the year he comes here and stays for a month. And the entire family gets together to celebrate that one who comes from afar, it's this family's tradition, but now my children tell me:
-Dad, you want to go? Good luck, I'm staying here with my mom, she doesn't want to leave either.
That's what happens nowadays, after so many years ouside my country.