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Crap Shoot

Mexican immigrants bet on a better life in Wendover. But is there a better payout for the kids?

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Down and Dirty
Rosa Covarrubias is a blackjack dealer who understands a casino paycheck can help give her children a better life. Her friend “Julia,” who requests a pseudonym out of fear that her common-law husband will retaliate, reveals the opposite.

Covarrubias crossed the Mexican border in 1990 to join her husband Phillipe to spend the next seven years picking strawberries, grapes and peppers in California. For each 2-foot bin she filled with peppers, she earned 40 cents. Then, they rented land and planted strawberries. “We worked seven days a week—I almost died,” she says. The most they ever earned was $2,000 for one season’s harvest. “I didn’t see my kid. I took her to a babysitter.”

Philippe’s brother, already working as a casino dealer in West Wendover, encouraged the Covarrubiases to join him. Rosa thought the streets would be lined with tuxedo-clad gamblers. They rented an apartment in Wendover, Utah, for $250 a month. Two years later, they bought a house in West Wendover.

She started as a casino change person. After her gritty migrant-work experiences, her new work conditions delighted her. “I took a shower before I went to work. I put on makeup, black pants and a uniform. It was the best.”

Things only got better. She started dealing cards for eight-hour shifts. While working in the fields of California farms, she often asked God for a job where she would be paid for doing nothing. Standing by her table waiting for gamblers to deal to, she felt her dream had come true.

Covarrubias’ eldest son, 21-year-old Jairo Dario, is assistant to the general manager of a Hampton Inn in Henderson, Nev. His mother talks proudly of the scholarships he won at school and how she once urged him to think big: “You have to go away from here.” His picture is in a frame in a corner of her living room.

But, while young Jairo Dario might well mark the epitome of an immigrant’s success in Wendover, “Julia” is less laudatory of the town’s possibilities.

Julia grew up on a rancho in the poor rural province of Zacatecas, Mexico, from where, Aboite says, the majority of Wendover’s Hispanic population originates. In Spanish, Julia tells how, after her father died when she was 8, she worked sol a sol, from sunrise to sunset, pulling vegetables out of the ground for surrounding farms. For the next 22 years, she worked the fields.

After having three children with one man who eventually left her, her second partner came to work near the rancho. “He treated me well,” she says. “He was responsible, a hard worker.” They lived together and had two children. He went to work in the United States and, three years later in 2000, paid $3,000 for coyotes to guide her and their two youngest children, age 3 and 5, across the border. She recalls the bitter cold as she slept on the desert floor, her arms wrapped around her children.

But, if she thought she was walking to the American Dream, she would be disappointed. Her partner was working in El Pepper—as she calls the Peppermill—and he rented a small trailer. “He got me good papers, but they weren’t mine,” she says. And, furthermore, the man she had known in Mexico had changed. “He got wrapped up in [gambling],” she says. “He was very machista, very hard-headed.”

They argued about everything, especially money, since he spent his wages on gambling and drinking. She cleaned rooms in a hotel for $5.15 an hour, the Utah minimum wage, hardly enough to feed and clothe her children.

“You never forget the first time,” she says regarding when he hit her. She waves at her tear-streaked face with her palms, as if her tears are scalding her cheeks. “He always hit me like he was hitting a man,” she says. “He knocked me on the floor, kicked me.”

Her mother told her she had to put up with it. What a man says, goes. Violence, if she did not want to be alone, was a woman’s destiny.

Julia would tell the children to go away when he beat her. Finally, her 16-year-old daughter called the police. But, after he had to pay for classes on domestic abuse, it only got worse. “He was strangling me,” she says. “I defended myself as best I could.” She clawed his chest, and he let go.

When the police came, he put on a black T-shirt to cover his wounds. “I didn’t report him,” she says. “I was afraid they would lock me up. What would I do for the kids?”

Julia fought back and says her partner learned his lesson. He didn’t lay another hand on her. They broke up a while later over his gambling. “He was using the food money to play the slot machines,” she says. “I told him it was enough, to go away.”

After working in a casino for 18 months cleaning slot machines, she was let go. Now, Julia takes odd jobs wherever she can find them. At times, she thinks of going back to Mexico. But, her nephews in Zacatecas are so poor, all they eat are tortillas with salt. And now, she can’t send them any money.

“I bet on the country of opportunity,” she says. “It’s good here. My children don’t have to work under the sun in bare feet. Here, they have shoes. We didn’t come to rob anyone. We came so our children would have a better life.”

Salt Lake City therapist Eleanor Ulibarri has treated 10 women from Wendover with similar stories. A number suffer from “raccoon eyes,” she says, which occur after a blow to the forehead when blood settles around the eyes. Ulibarri tapes up pamphlets in Mexican restaurant bathrooms in Salt Lake City offering help for victims of domestic violence. But getting word out in Wendover is much harder. “I’m willing to bet it’s a huge problem there that goes unreported,” she says, citing the geographical isolation, fear of the Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), lack of legal knowledge and intimidation by male partners as key factors.

For Aboite, Julia fought back “a little late.” Her children witnessed years of abuse and now her eldest daughter’s five-month pregnancy suggests, she says, that the next generation may be going down a similar road as the mother.

“For women to go alone against [the casino] environment is too much,” Aboite says.

Child’s Play
One sign of how the environment can overwhelm young people lies buried in the hillside cemetery above Wendover, Utah.

At this windswept place, Mormons lie beside Catholics, Hispanics beside Anglos. But what stands out, along with the layers of brightly colored artificial flowers that festoon the Hispanic graves, is that at least four of the recent dead are young Hispanics barely over 20. Several died from drunken-driving accidents. That’s because there’s little for young people—Hispanic and Anglo—to do in Wendover other than drink, some residents claim.

The Boys & Girls Club of Greater Salt Lake donated in 1995 a now battered triple-wide trailer to house West Wendover’s only recreational center. Rec-center director Shawn Gregory hopes to open a new $3 million facility next year, if all goes to plan.

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“Since I was a kid, they’ve been trying to build one,” says skeptical West Wendover juvenile probation officer Jose Saucedo.

For young children, there’s a day-care center called Kids Are People, Too. Until this summer, the privately owned center could take only 65 children and was open only on weekdays from 9 to 5 and closed on school holidays. Being closed weekends is especially problematic since that is when most parents need to work at the casinos. Former employee Rhonda Clark just took it over in September and has extended the hours from 6 a.m. to midnight, Monday through Saturday, with capacity for 85 children.

This is in contrast with Las Vegas, where day care is available 24/7 and where some resorts work closely with nearby day-care facilities and even provide employees with childcare.

Regardless of whether this problem should be tackled by private businesses or the casinos themselves, schoolteacher and restaurateur Rowley asks, “When is there time for the child?” Parents, he says, often pressure their children to apply for work at the casino after the age of 14. “Hispanics don’t go to college,” he says. “They don’t have a background knowledge of the big, old world.”

Juvenile probation officer Saucedo agrees. “It’s 100 percent true that most parents prefer to have their kids work than go to school,” he says.

Utah’s Wendover High School principal John Barrus says that 19 students out of 24 graduated this past academic year. Eight are going to college. When pressed as to how many of those eight are Hispanic, the typically ebullient Barrus mulled over his jotted-down list of soon-to-be college freshmen and said, “A high percentage are Caucasians.”