Life on the Minimum

“I don’t like nothing free,” she says. A smile crosses her face, but the eyes remain fierce.

Her dark hair is pulled back in a smart bun, and her lipstick is a confident cherry red. Four of seven piercings in her right ear are filled with studs, and another is centered in her bottom lip.

“How can I eat something if I don’t earn it?”

Mariluz Rangel Huerta looks over old family photos in her apartment on Sunday, March 9, 2014 in Tucson, Ariz. (Photograph by Ryan Revock)
Mariluz Rangel-Huerta looks over old family photos in her apartment on Sunday, March 9, 2014 in Tucson, Ariz. (Photograph by Ryan Revock)

Mariluz Rangel-Huerta answers herself: it was for her kids. For her kids, she pursued the American Dream— a brighter future and greater opportunities. To make it their reality, she left behind everything she knew of her life in Mexico.

“In those days [it] was easy,” she laughs. “Just… pull it up and come on through.” She lifts up an invisible curtain and ducks under.

She is a grandmother now, and far away from her beginnings in Mexico City: not far enough, however, to outlive the nickname that originated there. Her name is Mariluz — but most everyone calls her Flaca : the pretty, skinny woman.

The tan dust of South Tucson whips gently around the feet of her armchair— a big, cushioned, living room chair bleached and eroded by the constant sun that comes with sitting outside all day, every day. Birds call from the palm trees. Old truck engines growl up and down 25th Street, the familiar hum of  ’60s-era American  power in their throats. Clotheslines ring the faded backyards of the neighborhood.

A few feet away, a line of people stretches from a small house onto the sidewalk. The house is the Casa Maria Soup Kitchen, and Flaca has been coming here for more than 23 years, both to stand in line and work behind the counter as a volunteer.

“I like to work for my things,” she says. “I like to [set] my table with the food and say, ‘I work for it.’”

Flaca is a part of a steadily growing number of Americans known as the working poor: the people who work full-time yet still live below the poverty line.

Mariluz Rangel-Huerta has been volunteering at Casa Maria for over 23 years. (Photograph by Ryan Revock)
Mariluz Rangel-Huerta has been volunteering at the Casa Maria Soup Kitchen for more than 23 years. (Photograph by Ryan Revock)

They are the people who make your burgers, bag your groceries and greet you from behind the counter at the gas station. And this morning, many of them stand in the line that stretches down the sidewalk.

In 2000, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated there to be 6.4 million working poor, and by 2010 that number jumped to 10.6 million. For many of these workers, a life of minimum wage keeps the American Dream out of reach. Around the nation people have begun calling for a change, including President Barack Obama, who pushed the idea of a drastically higher minimum wage at a governors’ conference in early March.

The call for a higher minimum wage has been made, not only by President Obama, but through a movement that started in the greasy, back-room kitchens of America’s favorite fast-food restaurants. Now, that movement has taken to the streets of New York, D.C., Chicago, Detroit, and right here in Tucson. The local initiative began when protestors picketed outside of McDonald’s on the corner of Speedway Boulevard and Alvernon Way in early December, demanding an increase in the minimum wage to $15  an hour.

“For the Tucson area…it actually requires about a $22-an-hour wage to make ends meet,” says Maya Castillo, president  of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Arizona Local 48. “And that’s basically, pay your rent, buy your groceries, not be on public assistance.”

The union played a major role in organizing the December protest, citing the growing disparity between the minimum hourly wage, which is $7.90 in Arizona, and Tucson’s living wage, which is about $22.14 for a full-time worker with one child, according to the Economic Policy Institute’s Family Budget Calculator.

A sandy-coated mutt wanders over to sniff at Flaca’s feet, probing for scraps. The hair on his back is coarse like broom fibers, the desert breeze doesn’t move it an inch. Flaca glances down to acknowledge him, and continues on.

“Today I’m not a mom, I’m the dad!” she says. As an immigrant single mother of three, Flaca’s American life has consisted of minimum wage jobs, playing mom, playing dad, and busting her ass every day to make it in her crazy new world. With a grimace, she remembers talking about AIDS, pregnancy and condoms with her sons, miming an unrolling motion in the air. “No, never trust a girl! Never!”

And then there were the bills. Bills. Bills. Bills. Usually, they left her with $25 to survive on, and support her family, until the next paycheck. There was never more than just enough, she recalls, even when she was fortunate enough to get minimum wage raises in the past.

“The government give you 10 cents more, OK? Raising 10 cents. But the next day you go to the store— the milk is 25 cents more, the tortillas, the basics— is more.”

Today, she still works fast-food, and the job hasn’t gotten any easier.

With the wage basically the same, and her employers now cutting her hours down to 30 a week, double employment is the only option for Flaca. She works at both Carl’s Jr. and Wendy’s.

Fellow Casa Maria volunteer Cesar Aguirre is not, unfortunately, surprised at Flaca’s circumstances.

“Full time employment here [in this neighborhood] is almost unheard of. Everybody I talk to, they’re working part-time and usually working two jobs,” says Aguirre. “The problem is that these people are working and they still don’t make enough money to get off welfare.”

Mariluz Rangel Huerta looks at an old photo of two of her sons, Omar and Fernando, and herself in her apartment on Sunday, March 9, 2014 in Tucson, Ariz. (Photograph by Ryan Revock)
Mariluz Rangel Huerta looks at an old photo of two of her sons, Omar and Fernando, and herself. (Photograph by Ryan Revock)

Even as fast-food workers everywhere scrape by, many fast-food corporations and their CEOs enjoy increasing profits and huge benefits. Over the last four fiscal years amidst a recession, McDonald’s has reported a 130 percent profit growth. It paid out $4.1 million last year to its highest paid executive.

These profits are not trickling down far past the CEOs, says Todd Stewart, the owner of numerous Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises throughout Arizona (and the former owner of a few in Tucson as well) says. Raising the minimum wage out of the blue to $15 would be “catastrophic” in his mind, putting countless small business owners like himself instantly out of business.

“The margins are so slim in fast food, because it’s so competitive,” Stewart says. He adds that with banks holding long-term loans over many small franchise businesses, the owners themselves are not free to maneuver with pricing or wages much for fear of the banks recalling the loans, and forcing them out of business.

As Maya Castillo says, “The only one that’s winning in this is the corporations… That’s where the money goes. It’s going to the pockets of the 1 percent and that’s it.”

Crows-feet appear on Flaca’s features as she smiles in the yard of Casa Maria. Her eyes are warm now, her happiness infectious. The sun is peaking in the sky overhead and the line on the sidewalk has dispersed. She laughs at what she says next, as if to joke, but truly, she is proud. Her eyes tell it all.

“My kids say, ‘You’re the best mom in the world.’” She smiles once more. “So that makes me feel like I’m okay, you know?”

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