Concepción Caballero Antonio is chopping squash in the kitchen of Los Yaquis Salvadorian and Mexican Restaurant. The massive knife she’s using is about the same size as her arm. She’s very small, and grins a lot.
Concepción’s happy about her job as a cook and dishwasher here. She proudly points out the fish she’ll be frying later today.
Concepción came to San Francisco from El Salvador in 2013. She makes $248, working 20 hours a week. She says she tries to keep her spirits lifted, but there’s a heavy sadness that lingers.
“There was a massacre in my country,” she tells me. “They killed the love of my life.”
Back in El Salvador, Concepción had been a vendor selling goods in a market. She lived in the same town with her three daughters and six grandchildren, and they mean everything to her. But after her partner’s death, she knew she wasn’t safe in El Salvador. She says she’d made eye contact with a gang member fleeing the scene of a murder.
“They would kill me because I was the only one who had seen it,” she says.
Concepción grew up during the civil war in El Salvador that started in the 1980s. But the violence hasn’t really stopped. The country’s overrun by gangs and considered one of the most violent countries in the world, with about one murder every hour.
Concepción says she had to run. With a single dollar in her pocket, she headed toward Mexico.
Crossing the border
She begged for rides on the backs of trucks, and for money. She traveled by foot, car and train. Finally, she got to the border near McAllen, Texas.
“I arrived really bad, in a very dark place mentally. I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “I walked, I crossed the river. And then they caught me.”
She stayed in a Texas jail for three months. Then she made it here, to San Francisco. Within a few months, Concepción’s oldest daughter, Claudia Martinez, also arrived in the United States.
Claudia originally landed in Las Vegas. When things didn’t work out there, she joined her mom in San Francisco. They moved in together with roommates.
“It’s a lot, because when we first came to San Francisco we paid $500 between the two of us, and there were five in the same room. Yes, five – and it was smaller than this,” she says, pointing to the room she rents in the Excelsior neighborhood, one of the neighborhoods that’s seen an increase in Latinos lately. Some analysts believe that families splitting up and moving into separate housing is why overcrowding in housing units is actually lower these days.
“Living in San Francisco is a little expensive,” Claudia says, “but there’s a lot of opportunities. You just need someone to lend you a hand to help you find work.”
The Mission in San Francisco has a history of being a place where many Latinos have settled, finding community and solidarity. San Francisco is also a sanctuary city, a place that offers those migrating to this country a chance to start a new life without the threat of immediately being turned over to immigration and customs enforcement for not having papers.
Although it is possible to find work without papers, Concepción and her daughter have no credit background, something that’s required by most landlords when it comes to signing a lease. So, while Claudia has fewer roommates in her new place, she’s paying $250 to share a very tiny bedroom with two other people.
Over in the Mission, Concepción also shares a room in a very small apartment, where boxes are stacked high in every corner. On the lower bunk is her Guatemalan roommate, Orlando Fernandez Cruz. He’s stretched out, wearing a neck brace.
“I was riding my bike on 13th and Van Ness, and a car hit me. I was unconscious – I woke up and went to the hospital,” he says.
Cruz has documents that allow him to work. He’s been employed at a car wash for the last seven years, but he can’t work right now. He’s used up all of his sick and vacation days since he’s been injured. And while he hasn’t been fired, he’s not getting paid. Still, he says, although it isn’t easy living here, he’s had a lot of support.
“My dream was to come to the United States. I had a friend here, and this friend gave me a helping hand. I struggled and struggled -- he was a good friend to me. When I came here, he welcomed me and found me work.”
Cruz says this network of support made him want to stay in San Francisco. Now that he’s out of work, friends have been chipping in to help pay the rent. When he first arrived eight years ago, it was much cheaper.
“A room like this would be like $400 or $500 dollars,” he says.
Cruz and Concepción now rent this room for $800 a month.They keep their rent receipts taped to the wall. Concepción removes this month’s receipt to show me, when her phone rings. It’s one of her daughters calling from El Salvador.
Concepción smiles, listening. “I appreciate you,” her daughter says. “Always supporting us, and being mother, father, friend, and being a beautiful mom. Being a marvelous mom.”
Concepción thanks her daughter and hangs up the phone.
When I’m about to leave, she grabs my arm and asks if I know of a less expensive room she can rent. Something nearby, because she wants to be close to work and her local clinic. I tell her that I don’t know of a place. Concepción nods, hands me a piece of chocolate and gives me a kiss on the cheek.
“Que Dios te bendiga.” She smiles. “God bless you.”