March 10, 2010 News & Features » Cover Story


Blurring the Lines 

Meet the new faces of poverty: young, Latino, out of work and living in the counties.


ON SOME DAYS, Abel and Reyna's modest home on Genito Lane feels like a small mansion. The rustic, arched entry to the dining room features embedded stone and two mounted deer heads that peer over a piano next to a giant-screen television. There's a small playhouse for their Disney-perfect 4-year-old girl, Solangel, and the family's protective poodle, Fuffi.

While Solangel bounces around the house, Abel and Reyna talk of the future, and their faces light up with pride. Reyna attended the University of San Carlos in Guatemala, and worked for two years as a journalist in her native country from 1996 to 1997. She spent two months in the United States learning English, and married Abel in 1997.

Abel convinced Reyna to come with him to Richmond, where two of his brothers worked in the construction business. The opportunity was rich: The housing market was exploding and building contractors were eager to hire immigrants, particularly Hispanics, because of their reputation for hard work and willingness to take low wages. Abel made enough to send money back home to care for his mother, 13 brothers and six sisters. In 2000 he bought the house, and used leftover materials from his construction jobs — he specializes in vinyl siding and window installation — to build an addition.



With her husband, Abel, out of work, Reyna, left, says her family's best hope is to sell the house and move into a trailer. She fears that moving back home to Guatemala is too dangerous for their two children, Solangel, 4, and Jordy, 11.

Just when it seemed life couldn't get any better, it did. After years of living and working in the United States illegally, Reyna became a U.S. resident in 2006; Abel got his papers a year later.

Then the housing market collapsed and the country fell into recession. The construction work dried up almost overnight and Abel was forced to shut down his business, AL Contractor, and lay off his only two employees. Now he's lucky to work two or three days a month. Reyna is now the household's primary breadwinner, bringing in $250 to $300 a week cleaning houses part time. But it's not enough. They've been unable to pay the mortgage for the last two months and are in jeopardy of foreclosure. 

Abel and Reyna are part of a disturbing trend that's relatively new to the area. It's no secret that Richmond has an enormous Latino population, in part because of the region's once-booming residential market and low cost of living. But today many Latinos are out of work and living in poverty. In 1990, about 8 percent of Latinos who resided in and around the city lived in poverty, defined by the federal government as households that bring in $22,000 or less in yearly income. In a three-year survey from 2006 to 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau found that 24 percent of Latinos in the Richmond area lived below the poverty line.

There is now a higher percentage of poor Latinos than any other ethnic group. According to Census figures, 20.7 percent of black families in the metro area were living in poverty in 1990; in 2008, the number was 16.7 percent. About 11 percent of Asians were living in poverty in 1990, compared to 7.7 percent in 2008. Poor white families saw a slight percentage increase during the same period, from 4.7 percent to 5.8 percent.

Latinos, however, represent the fastest-growing population in the state, according to the most recent Census figures, growing at an annual clip of 4.5 percent. In the metro area, the Latino community has been exploding: In Chesterfield, the Hispanic population skyrocketed 135 percent from 2000 to 2008.

John V. Moeser, an urban studies professor at the University of Richmond, says hidden in the numbers lies an important trend that few have recognized. Fueled in large part by the rising number of poor Latinos in Chesterfield and Henrico over the past few years, for the first time there are now more people living in poverty in the suburban counties, 47,180, than the city of Richmond, 43,595. 

“People have kind of associated poverty with the city, because it's so dense,” Moeser says. “It's always been the vast proportion of the poor live in the city. Now, this high-density poverty is moving into the suburbs.”

And the numbers are likely to get much worse. “This predates the crash of the economy,” Moeser says of the 2006-2008 Census survey. “So that makes these figures even more stark.”



The bills are piling up while Reyna works to obtain her G.E.D, in hopes of getting a better job. Abel, a construction contractor, is lucky to work two or three days a month. They've been unable to pay the mortgage for the last two months.

For Reyna and Abel, the options are limited. She's studying to get her graduate equivalency diploma, taking night classes at Manchester Middle School, with the hope of obtaining a better job. Abel's simply waiting for the construction business to pick up. 

There's no money to send home, either. After one of Abel's brothers was killed in the city 10 years ago — an alcoholic, he got into a scuffle with a Richmond Police officer who shot and killed him on Huth Road — Abel had been sending money to his brother's family as well. But no more. They'd return home, but Reyna fears it's too dangerous. In the past few years when she visited, her family warned her to stay inside the house, wary of robbers. After living in America, back home everyone thinks she's rich. “They don't think I don't have money for the mortgage,” she says.

Reyna's home, and future, is in Richmond. Their 11-year-old son, Jordy, has a learning disability and is finally doing well in school at Crenshaw Elementary. The plan is to sell the house, worth $150,000, Rena says, and move into a trailer.

“The future is here. The dreams for them are here,” Reyna says of her children, a smile spreading across her face. “I understand why I am here: for the future.”

IN THE CITY, poverty has been densely concentrated for years, primarily contained in and around the six largest public housing complexes. Richmond is also much smaller than the counties — only 60 square miles, compared with Henrico's 238 square miles, Hanover's 473 square miles and Chesterfield's 426 square miles.

And the metro area remains predominantly Caucasian, which means there are still more white families living in poverty in the suburbs than any other group, according to Census data — but they are far more disperse.

But the density of poverty in the suburban counties is changing, especially in the corridors of Jefferson Davis Highway and in and around Chippenham Parkway, where Chesterfield abuts the city. This ever-concentrating poverty raises relatively new social problems for the counties: In places where the poor cluster, for example, there's a greater need for social services, public housing and police protection.  

In eastern Chesterfield, this density is due in part to the ever-increasing Latino population — Guatemalans, Mexicans, Salvadorians and Columbians — in which families tend to cluster, often under one roof. They live in trailer parks and aging inner suburbs where the housing is cheap and, subsequently, in disrepair. 

In the Bensley area of Chesterfield, situated just south of Chippenham Parkway and west of Jeff Davis, many of the houses were built in the 1940s and '50s. Julian and his four children — Angelica, 6; Luis, 10; Julian, 13; and Maria, 14 — have been living in a tiny, three-bedroom house on Strathmore Road for two years. Julian, 35, left the tiny town of Gonzalez, in Tamaulipas, Mexico, 15 years ago and found his way to Richmond in 2003. All of his children were born in the United States, making them citizens, but he's living here illegally.

Julian has worked as a mechanic at a nearby shop for five years, but since 2008 his hours have dissipated. He's lucky to bring home $250 a week. The family makes ends meet by borrowing money from a nearby aunt, whose husband owns a roofing business. Julian occasionally picks up side jobs fixing cars, but it's not nearly enough.

Despite the meager income and an uncertain future, the children seem blissfully unaware of their poverty on a recent sunny afternoon. The house is run-down, the carpeting in dire need of replacing, but all the children do well in school. The living room walls are lined with all manner of framed certificates — Super Kid commendations, honor roll, perfect-attendance records — and Julian's face lights up when he points them out.

Luis wants to be a policeman when he grows up; Maria a writer. All are outgoing: Luis immediately bestows nicknames on a reporter and photographer during a visit; Angelica, carrying a small Chihuahua, argues playfully with her father, insisting that he and her mother married in Texas. They didn't, and mom now lives elsewhere, in a nearby apartment, and pays child support.

Julian barely makes enough to make the $850 rent payments and pay the bills, and plans to pack the family up and move back to Mexico. The children don't seem too bothered by the possibility, including Maria, who shrugs off the prospect of leaving her many friends at school behind. “I'll be very sad to leave them,” she says, but figures she can always e-mail and text to stay in touch.

“We didn't plan on being here that long,” Maria says, translating for her father. Julian and two of his brothers came to the United States to make money and send it home — they specialized in roofing — but wound up staying here nearly two decades because work was easy to come by. Now Julian barely survives. “It's gotten hard for everybody,” Maria says.



Julian, holding his younger daughter, Angelica, brings home less than $250 a week as a mechanic and plans to move his family back home to Mexico later this year. Maria and her brother Luis, however, still see their future in the United States. Maria wants to be a writer, and Luis eyes a career in law enforcement.

Whether they're able to return to Mexico is an open question. If they manage to make the trek back, they'll be among the lucky ones. Chesterfield has an Latino population of 20,500, or about 6.5 percent of the county's total population, says Juan Santacoloma, the Chesterfield County government's Hispanic liaison. The actual number is nearly double that, at least 40,000, Santacoloma says, which would represent about 12 percent of the county's total population.

“Many of them don't have documentation,” Santacoloma says. “Many of them don't want anybody to know they are here. Many of them don't ask for services.” But with the collapse of the housing market and the recession, that's changing. Five years ago, he says he rarely if ever got calls of desperation, Latinos seeking money, food or shelter. Nowadays he averages 30 to 40 such calls a week. “Many families are asking for food, health services, clothing,” he says. “Right now, it's unbelievable.”

For most, leaving Richmond really isn't an option, says Michel Zajur, president and chief executive of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “This is their life. They have their children in school, they have their lives here now,” he says. “They are too established here. So they are here to stay.”

Richmond, for the better part of two decades, largely has been an outpost for middle-class Latino families, says Debra J. Schleef, a professor of sociology at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg and co-author of “Latinos in Dixie: Class and Assimilation in Richmond, Virginia,” published in October.

“If you are Latino, you don't move to Richmond unless you plan to stay,” she says, adding that Richmond-area Latinos largely were middle class until about five years ago. As more moved into the area looking for work, and the economy collapsed, it left some Hispanic communities mired in poverty. “I think the more frightening possibility is that you see a lot more family disruption, more families living under one roof,” she says. “I think you'll see it more in Richmond, where it hasn't been a problem.”

Politically, it's difficult to see solutions on the horizon. That's in part because it's not just Latinos who are struggling, but people of all socio-economic classes. While Richmond has emerged from previous downturns relatively unscathed, the recent recession devastated the local economy like never before. Many of the biggest corporations went bankrupt or out of business — including LandAmerica Financial, Circuit City Stores and computer chip maker Qimonda — and the dip in disposable income has fundamentally altered the retail landscape for the worse.

Among the enormous ripple effects, thousands of people have been laid off, and many are losing their homes. Local nonprofits have mobilized in response, such as Area Congregations Together in Service, or ACTS, which combines the resources of 40 religious organizations in metro Richmond to assist people in jeopardy of foreclosure. The group's distributed $388,000 to 490 families to help them keep the lights on and stay in their homes between August 2006 and December 2009.

The program was designed to help families during temporary bouts of underemployment and financial crisis, but ACTS has been forced to loosen its requirements and assist people for much longer periods of time, says Nancy Warman, its leadership director.

“It's overwhelm, overwhelm, overwhelm,” she says of the calls that churches receive seeking help. “On any given day, we cannot accommodate the number of calls coming in. This, I believe, is the hardest it's ever been.”

While the group focuses on emergency assistance, of late the problems have become much more severe — and there appears to be no relief in sight. “There are not clearly mapped-out solutions,” Warman says. “Now you've got people coming in and they don't know if there is a job out there for another year. We've gotten calls from people who are absolutely frantic.”

For reasons that Warman can't explain, very few calls for help come from Latino families. Most are white or African-American, she says. Often calls come in, and the organization can't get them to them quickly enough. So Warman says it's impossible to know how many people are still searching for help. “In terms of the number of people seeking assistance,” she says, “Lord only knows.”

THE ENORMITY OF the problem and its effects on all ethnic groups and across socio-economic classes means it's unlikely that the disproportionate poverty among Latinos will be addressed politically anytime soon.

“The really scary thing is that there are these needs out there right now but the counties are so strapped for cash,” says Gary T. Johnson, professor emeritus of urban studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Everybody's in dire straits. It's going to be very difficult to address those problems in the short term.”

As for the counties, dealing with the substandard living conditions and lack of public housing for the poor, particularly Latinos, seems unlikely. The city, which has for years been burdened with the greatest concentrations of poverty, is ramping up to redevelop many of its largest public-housing complexes. For example, plans to rebuild the 783-unit Gilpin Court into a mixed-income community means many of the poorest residents will be left without public housing.

“Whether or not there is the political will to go the public housing route, I would doubt it,” Johnson says. “No. 1, we have to meet their immediate needs. No. 2, we're coming up in the next few months with the [2010 U.S.] Census. If we can get the Hispanic community counted in the next Census effectively, all of a sudden they have political clout. The near-term strategy is we need to recognize the extent of this problem, to mobilize efforts to get these people counted.”

One of the obvious solutions, and likely most effective, would be national immigration reform, to create avenues for those living here illegally to obtain temporary residency. There is a tremendous Latino labor force in the Richmond area, says the Hispanic Chamber's Zajur, which could become a huge asset in terms of economic development and business recruitment. 

“Latinos have been here because businesses wanted them here. They have been a tremendous economic catalyst for the region,” he says. “They have a very, very high work ethic and they are here contributing to our economy. There needs to be federal, comprehensive immigration reform. …  They are new Americans now. We need to have them so that people who don't have their papers, they are not an underground society.”

Schleef, the sociology professor, says that's unlikely given the political climate. The widespread backlash against illegal immigration that arose a few years ago may have died down, but Schleef says the rhetoric likely would intensify if immigration reform were to dominate headlines again. If many Americans saw illegal immigrants as stealing American jobs four years ago, imagine what the sentiment would be now?

“I would love to see some kind of temporary [residency] status movement,” she says. “I'm less optimistic about that with the economic downturn.”



Delfino and his wife, Paula, with their daughter, Ashley, 1, plan to move out of their trailer on Jeff Davis Highway and back home to Poza Rica in Veracruz, Mexico, later this year. But Delfino says they may be back.

THERE'S VERY LITTLE to be optimistic about, but the bleak outlook doesn't penetrate the mobile home of Delfino and his wife, Paula, both from Poza Rica in Veracruz, Mexico. On Sunday morning, their 1-year-old daughter Ashley navigates the well-kept carpet and speckless furniture while the couple looks on in admiration.

The trailer park where they live off Jefferson Davis Highway doesn't exactly feel like the American dream, a place to start a family. But Delfino is hardly complaining. A plumber by trade, he'd been out of work for most of last spring and summer before landing a job at a local recycling facility in September.

He makes $7.25 an hour, and typically brings home $450 to $530 every two weeks, averaging a $1,000 a month. He barely manages to pay the bills — $325 in rent, $250 in electricity, $50 for car insurance, $100 for a cell phone and cable, and another $125 in hospital payments after the birth of their first child. They eat primarily with food stamps, and he works occasionally at the Belmont Flea Market selling T-shirts, jackets and perfumes.

Three months ago, his brother, who lived with them, moved back to Mexico because the construction work disappeared. Delfino might be able to wait out the housing market, which has shown some recent signs of recovery, but his biggest problem is the trailer park. The landlord has informed all of park's tenants that they must be out by Sept. 30, Delfino says.

“We have to move out of this trailer. My landlord says everyone must leave,” he says. “We don't know where there's another park.”

He plans to move back home to Poza Rica, where his brothers are building a house. The economy isn't much better at home, however. If he makes it back to Mexico, he may never resume his dream in the United States. But he holds out hope.

“Maybe for my baby, my daughter — for the future,” he says.



Latest in Cover Story

Comments (3)

Showing 1-3 of 3

Add a comment

Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-3 of 3

Add a comment

Connect with Style Weekly

Most Popular Stories

  • Off the Beaten Path

    Off the Beaten Path

    A runner and lifelong lover of the James River captures evocative images of the park system in photo book.
    • Jul 27, 2021
  • Museum Makeovers

    Museum Makeovers

    How four Richmond museums are being transformed.
    • Jul 20, 2021
  • Community Disrupted

    Community Disrupted

    Catching up with former residents of Camp Cathy and the mother figure still helping them survive.
    • Jul 6, 2021
  • Deep Dive

    Deep Dive

    A writer attempts to find the best dive bars in town.
    • Jul 13, 2021
  • More »

Copyright © 2021 Style Weekly
Richmond's alternative for news, arts, culture and opinion
All rights reserved
Powered by Foundation