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.

Then one day when she tried to call David, another woman answered his phone. Rosa realized it was time to file for divorce.

"I lost the man most important to me because of money. People say money is not important, but they don't know what it's like to not have any," she says. "We would still be together if it wasn't for money."

Now Rosa is a single mother raising four young children, so far with no assistance from her soon-to-be-ex-husband. The loss of financial support pales in importance to the dissolution of her intact family unit. David was her best friend before he was her husband. They worked together as a team for a decade before financial stress infected their partnership with resentment. Despite everything that has happened, she still loves him.

Rosa clearly struggles under a mountain of regrets. I try to convince her that one day she will look back on the move and subsequent divorce as the most fortuitous twist of fate in her life. Insecurities plague her because David always blamed her for their problems, accusing her of holding him back, nagging, creating stress. From everything she has told me about him--most of which I did not explain in this piece--it actually sounds like her wedding ring took the form of an albatross necklace.

Unlike David, Rosa understands and accepts the requirements of responsibility. The health and safety of her children take priority over all else. For them, she will make whatever sacrifice necessary, work endless hours at any crap job. Pride becomes ignorant arrogance if her children feel hunger.

Rosa's persistently radiant smile appears like an incongruity flashing through such a difficult conversation. But like she says: "If I stop smiling, the only one I'm hurting is myself." Self-pity likewise has no place in her life: "I have no choice. I have four kids. I can't get depressed. I have to take care of them." This may be a difficult time, but she always reminds herself that they're not living in the streets or starving: "I know it could always get worse."

Just in the few short hours I have known her, I can recognize that Rosa possesses a well of strength more profound than she even imagines. Rather than being down on her luck, she appears to be flourishing, even if it doesn't feel that way just yet.

Two months ago Rosa landed what was supposed to be only a two-week temporary office job. She took a small gamble by quitting McDonald's to take it, but the hours, increased pay, and work experience she will acquire in the office setting made it a good move. Afraid of spoiling a good thing, Rosa hasn't asked her boss how much longer the job will last. As a precaution, I agreed not to identify the notoriously media-paranoid company where she works.

The last of our ice cream has melted down to a milky goo by the time we finish talking. Rosa needs to get home to make dinner, and I follow her so I can meet the kids and take a few pictures.

Driving north on the two-lane highway, the roadside scenery transforms into wide expanses of grass as we leave the shopping centers, restaurants, and gas stations of Rogers behind us. A quaint wrought-iron enclosed country graveyard marks the turn onto Rosa's road. A pick-your-own blueberry farm blurs past my window on the right as a long white fence surrounding a herd of grazing cattle comes up on my left.

Pulling into the short driveway in front of Rosa's house, I can see two small children--Dominik and Diana--rolling around in the front yard playing. They probably would have tried to tackle their mother with hugs as she got out of the car, but they can just barely reach her waist. Charged with excitement by the unexpected arrival of a stranger, I'm fairly quickly surrounded by all four.

David tells me immediately that he is the oldest, assuming the mantle of leadership and spokesman for the motley bunch. Three-year-old Dominik can't seem stop zipping around the yard as fast as his little legs will take him. I imagine the sound effects of a cartoon racecar in my head every time he runs past. Vroom....Vroom.... Diana cartwheels her way across the grass, showing off the skill she just recently learned. I get the feeling Daniella has to suppress the urge to cartwheel too, but as the older sister, she's behaves like a little adult in front of company.

David comes across as much more mature than his seven years as he tells me about how he likes Arkansas better than Phoenix: "Especially the blueberries," he says with a wide-eyed smile. Before Arkansas, they didn't know what blueberries were, but now they have bushes growing wild behind their house. The only thing the kids don't like about their new hometown is the poison ivy--all four can now recognize the plant after its itchy rash became another learning experience of adapting to their new environment.

Driving away after the brief photo session turned into a mass of all four children play wrestling on the ground, I think about the way Rosa had described their life in Phoenix. Even with all of them squeezed in a two-bedroom apartment, they could only afford to live in a bad part of town--a place where her children learned to recognize the sound of gunfire and weren't allowed to play outside.

In Arkansas, on sunny days it's more likely they wouldn't be allowed to play inside. Maybe in this new life they can unlearn the lessons of guns and gangs, and fill their heads instead with blueberries and cartwheels.