Immigrants get creative to survive without credit

Mario Escobar wtih his novel at the post office.

Jose Luis Zelaya with the beanies he crochets and sells to put himself through college.

America runs on credit. We take out loans to buy expensive items like cars or houses. We borrow for little stuff using credit cards. And our credit history determines our ability to simply rent an apartment.

We often take credit for granted. You know who doesn’t? Immigrants. Especially undocumented immigrants living in the shadows. Without access to credit, undocumented immigrants are forced to get creative, even entrepreneurial.

In Alhambra, Calif., just east of Los Angeles, Mario Escobar, 35, juggles multiple jobs. With his two young daughters in tow, he comes to the post office every other day to mail books.

“This one is going to Lowell, Md. And this one is going to Milwaukee,” Escobar tells the postal clerk, handing him two packages.

Escobar runs a small business publishing other people’s books. Today he’s sending off copies of his own novel.

“It’s about the civil war in El Salvador. And the experience of migrating and carrying the personal traumas and how do you deal with it,” says Escobar.

Before he’s left the post office, Escobar gets a phone message related to his other job -- translating. He has two weeks to translate the work of an associate who has a potential book deal with Random House.

Escobar’s dexterity can be traced back to his experience as a student at UCLA.

“When I was an undergrad, I didn’t qualify for loans,” he says.

This was back before he was approved for political asylum, when he was still an undocumented immigrant.

“My grandpa used to say, ‘When people are hungry, they get creative,’” Escobar says.

Escobar was a starving student, but due to his undocumented immigration status, no bank would give him a loan. That forced him to get very creative.

“It went from being a janitor to cutting grass to tutoring,” Escobar says. “I was writing papers for people. People will say, ‘Wait a minute. Did you do that?’ Well, you know what? Unfortunately, we also had our own corner of Home Depot in academia. People didn’t want to write their papers. I needed money.”


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His experiences mirror those of other immigrants, like 25-year-old Jose Luis Zelaya.

“It’s been a very difficult journey,” says Zelaya. “Being homeless in Honduras and not being able to survive in my home country. Seeing my brother pass away because we didn’t have money to take him to the hospital.”

Living on the streets of Honduras, Zelaya saw an old woman doing crochet. He asked her to teach him. But she refused, telling him that it’s "woman’s work." Undeterred, he taught himself to crochet.

Zelaya kept at it even after he moved to Houston when he was 14.

“I had a crazy idea that I wanted to go to college, but I was faced with the obstacle of not being able to work, and being too afraid to work with fake documentation," says Zelaya. "I have never had a loan from a bank. I was not able to apply due to my immigration status. So I relied on crocheting and I started making a lot of beanies and scarves and headbands."

Zelaya sold his crochet beanies at flea markets.

Now he’s a grad student at Texas A&M.

And even though he’s been given a legal work permit through the Deferred Action program, he still sells his crochet online.

“It made life a bit more difficult, not being able to pay for school through loans. Or not being able to apply for a credit card," says Zelaya. "Through crocheting, I have been able to pay for my books. It has also paid for my rent. It has paid for my food. But it has also paid for my sister’s tuition, and all of her books.”

In Los Angeles, Miguel Carvente paid for his education at UCLA by holding raffles and throwing parties with a cover charge.

At the time, he was jealous of friends who got student loans. But now they owe as much as $60,000.

“Now I find myself in the very privileged position of having very close to a Master’s degree and have zero debt,” says Carvente.

Others get around the lack of formal credit by participating in savings clubs. In Mexico, it’s known as a "tanda." In El Salvador, it’s called a "cundina." Either way, it’s the same idea. A group of people agree to contribute a certain amount of money to the collective pool every month. And over the course of a year, they take turns taking home that pool of cash.

Mario Escobar remembers his uncle buying a new pick-up truck for his gardening business. His uncle paid $8,000.

Escobar asked if he paid with credit. His uncle replied, “No, no, no. I paid in full. Now I only need to repay my friends in the ‘cundina.’”

Sometimes, undocumented immigrants get around restrictions on credit through, shall we say, "creative financing."

University of Southern California sociology professor Jody Agius Vallejo studies the Mexican-American middle class.

“They often times take out loans in their own names on behalf of their relatives, so that their relatives -- their parents, for example -- can purchase a car. So their parents can have money to fund their businesses,” says Vallejo.

But it carries big risks for the person borrowing on behalf of an undocumented relative.

“If that person fails to make that payment, or fails to pay you that car payment or the rent, then that is in your name and your credit rating can go down,” says Vallejo. “Your credit is ruined. You may not be able to buy another car. You may not be able to obtain any type of credit at all.”

Some who have survived without credit find it less attractive once it’s finally available.

“I simply want to take it back to the old-school. You have what you earn. And that’s it,” says Escobar.

He doesn’t believe in credit. Or handouts. He even says he’s proud to pay taxes.

“I personally do not believe in the welfare system,” says Escobar.

Welfare for him is similar to credit; he says they both drain a person of creativity. Escobar sees the need to pay the rent as a chance to kick-start inspiration.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.

Jose Luis Zelaya with the beanies he crochets and sells to put himself through college.

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