Of Gunfire, Gangs, Blueberries and Cartwheels

Over the past year, the stormy economy has had the effect of an F4 tornado on Rosa Jurado's life. Through the upheaval of two job changes, a move halfway across the country, and the failure of her marriage, four extraordinary sources of strength have given her the will to keep going. Their names are David, Daniella, Diana, and Dominik.

Rosa now works in the employment office of a large corporation based in northwest Arkansas, where I had stopped in just to inquire about whether they had seen many applicants coming from out-of-state. She didn't have to give me any secondhand reports of economic migration, since dismal finances had compelled her own move from Phoenix eight months ago. In the 30 seconds Rosa had summarized a most basic overview of the past year, it became obvious that I was talking to a truly extraordinary woman, so I invited her to meet me after she finished work.

Over ice cream at Dairy Queen later, Rosa told me the whole story. First, some brief background: Rosa, 28, grew up in California, moved to Phoenix for college, met her husband--David, fell in love, got pregnant, got married, dropped out of school. The young couple had one child annually for the first three years of marriage, then after a few more years added little Dominik to the brood. Rosa freely admits that she didn't think about family planning as responsibly as she probably should have: "All I ever wanted was that family unit," she explains. Now with four beautiful children, she would never consider any of them a mistake. The family never lived an easy life, but they got by just fine. They didn't have much money, but they had love, and they had each other--in the optimism characteristic of her youth, Rosa thought that would be enough.

Things began to unravel after David was laid off during the summer of 2007.  David had always worked in auto-body repair, specializing in the restoration of classic cars. Since the leading edge of the recession had already started to deflate Phoenix's housing bubble, fewer people had disposable income to spend on such luxuries. Regardless, David didn't want to get just any job to pay the bills--auto body repair was the only thing he wanted to do, so it took him six months to find work.

Tension in the marriage skyrocketed. Given their financial desperation, Rosa couldn't understand why David refused to search for any job that would help pay their bills. She ended up getting a job as a cashier in a convenience store, working 40 scheduled hours plus any overtime shifts she could pick up from others--not something she wanted to do or enjoyed, but after months of David not working, homelessness had become a frightening prospect. "Most people don't understand how hard it is when your kids are crying and hungry," she says. "If I could get a job cleaning toilets and I had to do it to take care of my kids, that's what I would do."

By the time David finally found a new auto-body job in December 2007, their deep financial hole had already been dug. Once the Jurado's had started to fall behind in their bills, late fees, finance charges, and utility disconnection penalties made it even more difficult to catch up. The landlord got a court order to have their wages garnished for past due rent, which added additional processing fees to the original debt and reduced income needed to make good on other bills. They couldn't afford to repair the family car when it broke down. One month they had no electricity, and for four months over winter they had no gas. So that her children didn't have to suffer frigid baths, Rosa would heat up pot after pot of water over a fire she would light in a pit outside their apartment building.

As they struggled to restore financial stability, the broader economic fallout of the recession started driving up all their basic expenses. It felt like the whole world was conspiring against them. "Nothing was working out," Rosa recalls.

In September 2008, David made a suggestion he thought would improve their situation. David would stay in Phoenix to work, while Rosa and the kids moved to northwest Arkansas. The cost of living in Arkansas is significantly lower than Arizona, particularly because Rosa's parents and sisters there could help out with childcare, thus removing a huge expense from the family's budget. The family of six had been living crammed in a two-bedroom apartment, so the temporary geographic separation was supposed to help them save enough money to buy a home. "He decided we should move," Rosa clarifies. "I didn't want to come out here."

Rosa's mother flew out to Phoenix in November to help her drive cross-country. Rosa had to quit the convenience store, but found a new job at McDonald's within a few weeks of arriving in Arkansas. Then a month later, David was laid off again. Falling into a new chapter of financial strain, their geographic separation quickly devolved into emotional estrangement.

"I was stressed because I was working at McDonald's, but he couldn't lower himself to get such a job," Rosa explains. It was like a re-play of David's period of unemployment the previous year, and Rosa just couldn't handle his irresponsible stubbornness. She would tell him: "Nowadays you can't take the pleasure of doing what you want to do. You do what you have to do." Usually, they wouldn't talk on the phone so much as they would simply argue.

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Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer, and book editor who specializes in national security, terrorism, and war. She also writes for the food blog Feed The Masses. More

Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer and book editor based in Washington, D.C. She specializes in editing books about national security, terrorism, and war, but writes for a broad array of publications, including the popular frugalicious foodie blog Feed The Masses. She is working on a book based on her Recession Road Trip project for TheAtlantic.com.

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