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Tucson Salvage

Border crossing, swap meet prisms and the reluctant American Dream


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A dust devil charges down the swap-meet walkway and stirs the shop's neatly displayed sunglasses, silver trinkets, and daisy-happy pillows. A fleeting hippy prism half obscured by dust refracts from a store across the way, and it's gone. Cosmic kitsch on a bizarrely warm day in late January.

Shop proprietor Abelardo "Abe" Caraasco rushes from behind his counter to retrieve sunglasses flung to the squall. "Yesterday I had three sunglasses stolen," he shouts. "What are you going to do?"

A moment later, Abe's conversing effortlessly in Spanish and English, counting change for a customer's new necklace, surrounded by a wall of hats, perfumes, expansive machined rugs and umbrellas. In the last two hours, a few dozen customers of assorted sizes, ages and nationalities strolled in, obliged mild curiosities, and left. A precious few spent cash.

Sunglasses in Abe’s shop. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Sunglasses in Abe’s shop.

Abe began at the Tanque Verde Swap Meet five years ago selling things on a single table from home, then two, and "it grew from there." Now he rents this unnamed storefront and it's stocked full of sparkly goods, either purchased from a California wholesaler, or brought from his Oaxaca, Mexico homeland. His prize ponies are the real silver chains and several handmade rugs. But the business isn't easy, waning alongside swap-meet culture.

"In the summer when this shop isn't making money, when it's hard to make the rent here," Abe says. "The monsoons come. A roof leaks, a tree breaks, so people call me.

"Sometimes I think I am very blessed," he continues. "I talk to all kinds of people, a lot of different countries come here. I have three kids and a wife. But I try not to think about my future."

Earned wisdom from someone who learned to make himself valuable in a city where he's been mostly unwanted and ignored since arriving penniless in 1996. He's a Mexican national with a green card awaiting U.S. citizenship.

Abe got arrested in 2011 for not having his green card, yet the paperwork had been filed. He spent two weeks in jail, and was nearly deported, which would've left his family in a lurch. Trump's anti-humanist position and racist ICE policies fill Abe with worry and tension, but the feeling is familiar.

"They're always watching me," he says. "They know everything about me, my identity, personal history, the taxes I pay. I can't lie about anything. It's like they want to catch you in a lie so they can kick you out of the country.

"And in this country," he adds, "you can't be late on your bills. You can't be late on anything."

Abe bathing as a child. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Abe bathing as a child.

Guided by his young cousin, then 17-year-old Abe left his tiny village in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico and made the long bus ride to Mexico City. He'd never seen a metropolis before. Abe's family was one of maybe 20 in their tiny village near Tamazulapam del Espíritu Santo. The Mexican capital was dirty, loud, terrifying, and he felt alone in the world for the first time. When night came, they got robbed.

Stuck in Mexico City, they starved, slept where they could, and hustled masonry work for cash.

You don't go home, Abe told himself. You die trying.

Two months later he'd saved 150 pesos (less than $100 U.S.), enough to get to Nogales, Sonora, and to begin the journey into the Arizona desert. The checkpoint police between Mexico City and Nogales frightened them, especially in Sinaloa cartel country. They pegged Abe, with his darker skin and shorter stature, as Central American, not Mexican, and made their hatred known. The racism was "worse than here," Abe recalls. "We had to always prove we were Mexicans, otherwise they abused us."

They arrived in Nogales at sunup, 36 hours on the bus. They'd made it to the top of Mexico. Next stop: the border fence. Abe's 21-year-old cousin had real-life experience, he knew where to cross.

A Nogales border gang attacked them on their first attempt. Abe was stripped naked at knifepoint, searched and even stabbed (but not seriously injured).

They spent six weeks in Nogales trying to get over the fence for good. "Every time we crossed we had an incident with gangs," he says. "We were scared but we always fight back. If they had knives we had rocks."

The border patrol caught and arrested Abe five times, and each time he was sent back to Nogales, where he told them he lived. The sixth border-crossing attempt was the charm, so to speak.

Abe grew up with no shoes. His parents and grandparents were born into abject poverty, from generation to generation—it was like disease. The family home was a dirt-floored adobe hut with a tree-branch door, built by his father. He was 11 years old when electricity arrived. Forget plumbing; trees doubled as outhouses, rivers as baths ("there's a certain dirt that made your hair soft," Abe says). He'd learned to work, hard, pretty much from the day he slipped from his mama's womb, and helped raise six younger siblings. He quit school in 9th grade to help.

Planting and harvesting, the family lived solely on food they grew, or that from their cow and chickens. Hunger (and logic) taught Abe how to live with no money, taught keen survival habits. He learned to hunt with rocks, mostly rabbits and doves, but there was the occasional bobcat. ("You don't know how mean they are when they are hurt, but we never ate coyotes."). The one-room poverty showed his mother's pains—from menstrual cycles to miscarriages. "She couldn't afford pads. I saw her lose babies. A kid my age, I thought she was dying."

He imagined young a world where his siblings wouldn't starve, a place with running water, and maybe a refrigerator. A refrigerator would be riches.

You don't go home. You die trying.

It's a miracle Abe didn't die the first time he crossed over to Arizona. He collapsed in the desert south of Tucson, crippled by dysentery and dehydration. The group who crossed the mountains and desert with him left him to die. But his cousin stayed, and saved his life. "I walked almost seven days in the desert, ran out of water after three days," Abe says, adding, "It gave me a good lesson."

He knew if he could make it to Tucson he'd have a place inside a toolshed in someone's yard, where king snakes hunt mice, where his bed would be a blanket and a plywood board atop dirt, alongside other undocumented migrants. He'd have hard-labor jobs no one else would do. If he could just make it to Tucson.

You don't go home. You die trying.

He and his cousin made it to a Circle K on Tanque Verde Road on foot, Nogales to Tucson. And for three years Abe lived with others in that tiny windowless toolshed. He paid $2 a day for it. He bathed in a bucket, pooped in a Porta Potty.

"Wintertime was tough," Abe says. "Summertime was OK, we'd be in our underwear. We slept on plywood. Earned $2 an hour to landscape, lay concrete, build fences, do odd masonry work."

Harder than that, he says, was not knowing the language. "I'd have no idea where to go or who to ask for help. I was so scared. People would get sick or hit on their bicycles, and their bodies would be shipped back to Mexico. I was scared. So I learned English. I'm still learning."

He speaks English in a percussive, formal way, with an attentive air; concentration in lieu of verbal theatrics. He's more confident speaking Spanish. His wide brown eyes convey what words don't—they're expressive, kind.

In those years Abe gleaned rules of construction and craftsmanship. "If somebody said, 'Put a wall here,' I'd put a wall there. When I started welding, it was one man who said, 'Oh, I'll teach you,' and then I learned to weld."

His autodidact nature fueled plumbing, electrical, construction, driving tractors and forklifts. He learned "how to just work with people," especially wealthy ones, who'd see nothing wrong with hiring dirt-cheap Mexican labor, then work their asses off, offer no raises, much less tips, all the while micro-managing, pulling out digital levels and such to measure their work, and so on.

Abe has crossed the border illegally, and then legally when things improved. His siblings now all live in Arizona, his mother too. He recently purchased a house, works and supports his family with the shop and occasional masonry side gigs; hard work as a show of love. The antiquated American dream, down to family/work binaries. It feels heroic.

At home with Abe, wife Yadira and son Leo. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • At home with Abe, wife Yadira and son Leo.

The family home is clean, bright and comfortable, familiar-feeling, nothing arranged for show, aside from many framed family photos. There's two cars, a trailer. A laundry room with washer and dryer, and a spacious backyard—modern conveniences in beiges and browns and off-whites, a newly purchased modular home in central Tucson.

"Sometimes we're down to beans and rice," Abe says. "That's good enough for us."

Their three children, all born in Arizona, have decidedly English- and German-sounding names: "They're names so they can move around easy here," Abe says.

Leo, their 4-year-old, is bilingual and shy, instinctively speaks to me in English, shows off his plastic dinosaur and shark pillow. Their middle daughter, Brittany, is autistic, and is off at the International School of Tucson. The eldest, Emily, is a sophomore at Salpointe Catholic High School, with a 3.97 GPA.

Abe crushed on his wife Yadira back in middle-school, but he was too shy and poverty-shamed to talk to her. He didn't have a chance; she's an only child whose father had a government job. She had shoes, pretty dresses.

After Abe migrated to Arizona, he returned to Mexico to collect members of his family. When he arrived, he discovered Yadira had been a widow for more than a year, and had a daughter. Her first husband was a cop, murdered on the job. Abe wooed her, and won her. But her parents didn't want their only daughter (and granddaughter) living in the states.

"Her parents weren't happy with me bringing their daughter through the desert," Abe says, his expression softened by a thought that maybe it was pretty dangerous. "She was never hungry crossing over," he adds quickly, "and she didn't have to run from the Border Patrol."

Yadira nods. Says she never dreamed of leaving Mexico. Crossing "took two days. No border patrol. No bad guys."

That was in 2001, and Yadira's daughter stayed behind. That wasn't easy either. "I see her as my daughter," Abe says. "It's her and our three kids." The family visits Oaxaca every year, spending as much time as possible. Gives Abe opportunity to show his children the penury from which he rose. "I think that they think that even having a TV is a normal thing," Abe says. "I want them to see how it can be."

Yadira's cooking inspires Abe says, meals culled from family recipes, passed down. The couple dream of opening a restaurant, starting small, "maybe breakfast and lunch." There's no way they could raise the capital to start anew, they'd have to find a place that's gone under, take over. Anyway, they point out, their special-needs daughter requires extra parenting and time.

Yadira has flowing black hair and beautiful dark features that show a knowing calm, like she could assess everything about me with a glance. She says she's often mistaken for Filipino, Native American, "or Asian. It's funny." Abe's been hassled by border patrol officers in Tucson who let him go because they thought him Native American.

Abe's dad, who's 76, still gets in fights, "still thinks he's young," and drinks like it. Dad lived in Arizona and in California but now stays in Mexico, near water. Abe and his siblings send money home, though Abe's not exactly sure where dad's living, maybe with a woman. "He's the kind of man who didn't mess with his kids' lives. He always said we'd always find food."

Abe inherited the drinking gene from his old man, the only family member to do so, he says. As a kid, he cut agave plants for the juice, to ferment. "That's how we get into alcohol as kids." Abe's boozing nearly blew his family apart, and he slightly cowers talking about it, but says the AA rooms saved him.

"I don't go to church," he adds, "I did when I was a boy. I'm not a very religious guy, but sometimes I pray. I should be more thankful. Sometimes I say, 'Thank you, God.' Sometimes I get mad and say mean things to my wife. I don't want to. I want to be a better man.

"I know that you help those who need it, and the more you give, the more you get. We never got food stamps or anything like that, and I really appreciate that I can work and provide." He lingers. Adds, "It makes me sad that people here think that Mexicans just take."

Shoppers at Abe’s shop. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Shoppers at Abe’s shop.

He and Yadira put in long hours at his swap-meet business. It was all new and so the couple enrolled in business classes to learn bookkeeping, marketing. But Abe's worried he's losing his skills, the purity and tasks of basic human survival.

"I get too much into this robotic world," Abe says. "I'm scared of that. I'm going to be 40. I could be left in the middle of nowhere and still feed my family, but I don't feel like I can do that now. The survival skills—climbing, hunting, navigating lands and waters, animal care, surviving with my hands. When I had no shoes there were thorns and sharp rocks, and we never got poked or hurt. Now if I walk outside with no shoes I'd get poked and hurt. See? Now I worry about having enough money for everything, all the time.

"But I don't want anyone to go through what I went through," he adds. Then he bows his head and pulls his cap off. His strong fingers part his thick black crewcut to reveal a rosy, pinkie-length scar, which he traces with a hint of pride. "A horse kick" he says.

"Crossing now," he continues, "it's different, harder. I'm legal now, but it's still not easy. The poverty in Mexico is not going to stop unless the government steps in. The trees are disappearing too, the wood-cutting ... Thank God we still get rain there."

We step outside to walk Leo to his preschool, a few blocks away. Yadira keeps the boy close to her hip along the street. I try to imagine what part of this Abe might be sensing. The rippling songs of wind chimes, the pleasing brick duplexes and rectangle ranch-style homes, the great palm trees, and still the promise of sweet possibility. It's what's in this damn light.


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