These new immigrants arrived in a new country possessing little more than what they could carry on their back. They were challenged in many ways including their legal status, yet were able to make significant social, cultural, and economic contributions. This paper will discuss the lives of these undocumented workers during the 1980's and present the dynamic changes that resulted from their arrival. It will present the view that the cultural and demographic landscape of Los Angeles was shaped by these illegals, and has had a continuing effect on California as well as the United States.
The life of an illegal immigrant began as soon they approached the United States and prepared to cross the border. Often they would be met by angry mobs, riots, gunfire and chaos (Custred). Once across the border they would continue to confront racism, exploitation, and a hostile political environment. Though they would be outcast socially from mainstream society, there was an emerging labor market eager for cheap and reliable workers. It was no coincidence that the rise in illegal immigration during the 1980s coincided with a rise in the demand for cheap labor during the same period (Morales and Ong). Because the undocumented workers were here primarily for employment, their lives centered around and were greatly influenced by the work they performed. These jobs were almost universally at the bottom of the pay scale in unskilled occupations such as household help or farm worker. With no legal status, limited English skills, and no formal education, these illegals were destined to the life of poverty and hardship that they were trying to escape.
The immigrants would most often settle together or would be herded into a group by social necessity. Farm workers would band together to share expertise and form groups that would follow the crop that currently needed planting or harvested. They would work the lettuce fields, the vineyards, and fruit groves as the season demanded. This constant travel was especially rough on the children. Forced to move from school to school they were able to obtain at best a sub-standard education. Often they were needed in the fields when not attending class and the simple pleasures of childhood were not available to the child of an illegal migrant worker. Sometimes the missed pleasure would be as simple as being able to sleep late on the weekends.
For the immigrants that worked in the domestic business, the canneries, and the processing plants, life was more stable. Yet with this stability came a new set of problems. Unable to escape the poverty of low wages, they would endure cramped quarters, high rent, and substandard conditions. Acuna tells of the mounting stress of living as he tells of a child's experience living in these conditions.
"Ten year old Yuri de Paz wakes up each morning in a cramped Pico-Union apartment she shares with eight other family members, and walks to school through a Los Angeles neighborhood that is so dangerous that police have barricaded it to keep drug dealers out..." (291).
The difficulty of raising a family under impoverished conditions while struggling to earn a living was only one of the challenges that faced the undocumented workers. The inability to speak and write English presented another obstacle to