Meet Raul. Raul is not his real name, but it’s the one he’s been using for the last thirty years. Raul and I met on a beautiful Sunday afternoon at Dolores Park. I shared with him my vision for Shimmering Lights, he shared with me his story. He shared his dreams, his goals, his failures, and heartaches. For an hour and a half, he opened the door to his inner world and unabashedly shared with me the tale of Raul.
Raul was born and raised in Mexico. By the time he had reached sixth grade, he had decided school was not for him and that he would much rather be spending his time working. And so, he dropped out and joined his father and grandfather on the fields of Mexico.
At the age of seventeen, he moved to the United States with his brother in search of that elusive American Dream. For him, that meant finding a good job, buying a house and car, and settling down with a family. Everything was going according to the plan, he says. He secured a job working the fields of Washington and he was saving a decent amount of money. Eventually, the rest of his family joined him and his brother. “ I was happy. I was doing good”. But his life took a drastic turn and never fully recovered when at twenty-three he found himself facing major legal issues.
“You know I never smoked weed until I came to the US. I didn’t smoke weed until I was nineteen years old. I come here and I see everyone is doing it! I figured it was ok. I mean, everyone was doing it!”
“I got stopped by police and they found a small piece on me. So they arrested me. Although, I hear that you have to have a certain amount for it be a felony and I only had a little piece (he measures out the tip of his pointer finger). So anyway, they arrested me and took me to jail and then called immigration. But the thing is I had my papers by then. I had my green card but they called immigration anyway. They made me sign this paper, I don’t know what it was. But they made me sign it and they send me back to Mexico. I stayed in Mexico for a little but eventually I came back here to the United States”.
When I asked him if he entered back legally. He responded, “Nooo, they took my papers! I never got them back. I still don’t have them. You know before, you can go back and forth so easy and it only costs like a $1000. Now it’s like $5000. It’s so expensive. This is why I don’t use my real name. The cops here know that it’s not my real name. But, what can I do?”
“ I wish I can use my real name. I miss it. I feel like something is missing”.
Coming to San Francisco
Although he had lost his green card, Raul would travel back and forth between the States and Mexico several times. Eventually, he met a woman whom he fell in love with and married. Together they settled down in Mexico and had two daughters. Once again, things seemed to be going smoothly for Raul. That is, until one night he had unexpected visitors.
“ I was at home sitting with my daughters when these men came into my home and started yelling and attacked me. They put a bag over my head and took me away. I could hear my daughters crying and screaming but I couldn’t do anything”.
Those men ended up being Mexican Cartel.
“They spent 3 days beating me up. They broke my ribs, beat me unconscious. It was so bad. For three days, all day, I was getting beat. It was so scary. Finally, after three days they said, ‘work for us or die’. I didn’t want to die so I said I would work for them”.
“The first chance I got I ran away. But I had to go into hiding. I couldn’t try to go to the United States right away because they would have found me and killed me. So I hid for three months before finally making back to the United States. Now I cannot go back to Mexico. If I do and they find me, they will kill me”.
I stopped for a moment and reflected on what he just told me. “So you were sent back to Mexico by immigration, came back here illegally. So technically you’re not really here. You also have a hit on you by the Mexican Cartel so you can’t go back either. But you still don’t have your papers and risk the chance of being arrested and sent back anyway”. He simply looks at me and replied, “Yup”.
“After that happened, I was really messed up. I was depressed. I was really afraid of people. I didn’t talk to anyone. I needed help”. But Raul never sought the expertise needed to help him overcome those traumatic events. Instead, he chose to turn to his family in Washington for support; whom, he says, were not of much help.
“They acted like nothing happened to me. They didn’t want to talk about it. They just ignored it. But I was really hurting. I didn’t start to get better until I decided to go out in nature”. And so, Raul learned to turn to himself and Mother Nature for support. He spent weeks going into the woods and sitting by the river watching nature. Slowly, he beat back the shadows of depression and began to re-enter society. Although, he would never be the same again.
I asked him if he considered seeing a professional to help him through the healing process. “ I didn’t really know of anyone like that. But I knew I could take care of myself, it’s just that when you have someone there who cares about you, it makes it easier”.
“Eventually, I just told my brother that I was going to leave and be on my own. I told him:
‘ I want to know how the homeless people feel so I’m going to be homeless’.
” I went down to Stockton,California, where I worked a little and saved some money”. From Stockton, he walked to Tracey, twenty miles away. Raul had every intention of walking to San Jose from Tracey but he got about four to five miles down the freeway before he was stopped by the police. “They told me I couldn’t walk on the freeway, so they took me back to Tracey”.
Back in Tracey, he found a man willing to give him a ride. Except, this man didn’t think Raul should go to San Jose. This man felt that San Francisco was the better choice. Raul, not feeling like he had much of an option in the matter, agreed to San Francisco. And so, two years ago, Raul arrived in San Francisco; where he has been ever since.
Settling Into A New City
“He dropped me off at Ceasar Chavez Street. By the bridge, where all the tents are. That’s a bad area. I fell into the wrong group of people when I first got here. People who do drugs or bad things. I don’t like to do bad things. I like to do good and help people and make people smile. But I had no one and that’s not a good area to be in. I’m thinking of moving from over there”.
Raul walks the streets of San Francisco, recycling cans and bottles and cleaning as he goes. He makes most of his money from canning, but sometimes someone will give him money when they see him cleaning the streets of their neighborhood. Raul doesn’t clean in hopes of receiving money, though, he cleans because he enjoys it.
“ I like to clean. It makes me feel good. I always go all over and clean. Most of the time people thank me for cleaning. But sometimes someone will get mad at me for cleaning. Or someone will say to me, “Why are you doing this?!? It’s just going to get dirty again!” Sometimes they even call the cops. But I don’t care. I keep doing it. I like to leave the place cleaner than before. It makes things look nice. You just feel good when things are clean around you, you know?”
“Sometimes, when I’m in a neighborhood for a while and I keep cleaning it, I start to notice that other people start to clean too. They pick up after themselves or pick up garbage off the floor. So that makes me feel good. That was what happened in Bay Shore. Some people say they see no change, but I do. It’s much nicer and cleaner than before”.
“ There is this one lot in Bay Shore that was filled with garbage. It was so bad that people
would use it as a bathroom. It smelled so bad that you would have to hold your nose as you walked by. The owner told my friend and I that we could stay in the lot if we clean it. So we spent three months cleaning it. We got rid of all the garbage and cleaned up everything. The day we finished, the owner calls the cops on us. But I still go back and check up on it. I’m happy to say that they have kept it clean”.
Raul doesn’t have many friends out here and hasn’t spoken to his family since coming to San Francisco. When he first arrived he fell into a bad group of people and as a result picked up a heroin habit. “I’m not a bad person. I like to do good for people. I don’t hurt anyone, ever. The only thing bad I ever really did was drugs. But I know I can stop it. I want to stop it. I have before but when you have no one you have no motivation”.
“One time I was walking around in a neighborhood when the police came. Once the officer saw me, she said, ‘Oh, it’s just you’. That make me feel good because she knows I’m not a bad person and I’m not going to do anything”.
“ The other day I was over by Golden Gate park. I walked from Golden Gate park to Folsom Street cleaning as I go. I like that area. The people there are nice. I see a lot of families and they say hello to me as they walk by. People where I am now, don’t do that. I think it’s a good idea to go over there, I have to get out from where I am now. It’s no good”.
“I know I can be better and can do a lot better”.
The Homeless Life
When I asked if he knew of any available resources that can help him, Raul quickly reaffirmed the fact that he chose this lifestyle.
“This is easy for me. This is the easiest life I have ever had. I work when I want. If I want to eat, I go eat. If I am tired, I stop and rest. I do what I want. This life is easy. I know there will be a day when I no longer want to be homeless but that’s not now. I like this”.
He is a proud man who finds the hard laborious lifestyle soothing to his soul. Plus, his current way of life allows him to get plenty of exercise . That is why at 53, he says, he looks and feels so good. “ I know some people in their forties, and they are so lazy and look so old. My grandfather is 87 and still working. I love to do this work, it keeps me young and strong”.
This work that he loves so much also allows him to provide for himself and earn an honest living. In fact, he recently bought a car for $600. Unfortunately, he found out after the fact that it doesn’t actually run. And even though he has no experience in mechanical work, he has been toying with the idea of going to the junk yard and finding the parts he needs to get it working. “ I know some people who have some mechanical experience. But not me, I always worked the fields and was a handy man. I didn’t finish school so I don’t know about that stuff. But I think I can get some people to help me”.
But life on the streets is not without its obstacles. Theft and acts of aggression are not things that are unheard of. He recalled how he had $900 stolen from him a few months ago and how he recently had his backpack full of personal items stolen while tending to the streets. “ I was by the firehouse cleaning when someone stole my backpack. When I went to the firehouse to ask them to call the cops they said that all the police are busy and I would have to go to another part of town to report it”.
When I asked him if he normally files reports with the police, he replied: “Not really. The police don’t make me feel safe. They are always so mean. This morning when I was walking down the street with my cart and not doing anything to anyone, this cop pulls up next to me in his car. He said something to me but I didn’t really hear so I asked, ‘ what, I can’t hear you?’ and he just says, ‘yeah, I can’t hear you either’. And then just speeds away”.
“This other time, I got stopped by two cops because they thought I stole a bike. Except I had just bought the bike but they wouldn’t believe me. Finally, they call the guy I bought it from to prove to them it’s my bike. But the lady cop got so mad. She started yelling at me and going through my cart and stuff. I was just standing there not doing anything when she walks up to me, puts her foot behind me, and then pushes me down onto the floor. Then she gets in my face and starts screaming and yelling. I got so scared, I just curled up in a ball and started shaking. When she did that, I just went back to that time in Mexico. She left me alone when she asked her partner to go through my backpack but he said no and told her to leave me alone”.
“ After that happened, I went to a really bad place. I went to my place in the trees and I just stayed there for weeks. I didn’t talk to anyone or leave or anything. I was really afraid of being around people”.
“I am now finally starting to feel like myself again. I think I may say something to her. That was really bad what she did. I don’t do anything bad to people. I just want to help and make people smile so I don’t understand when someone does something so mean to someone else. I want to tell her what she did to me because I don’t want to go back to that bad place”.
I asked him what is the most difficult part of being on the streets. He stopped a moment to reflect, “Having no one to care about you or talk to. It’s hard being by yourself”.
Dreams And Messages Of Hope
As our conversation developed, I found Raul suggesting ideas for things he could to improve the quality of his life. At first, it was the simple acknowledgment that he should consider finding a way to get his green card back. Then, it was the idea that he should move away from Cesar Chavez Street. Slowly, he started to formalize a plan of action that would help him transition from his current lifestyle to one that is a little more mainstream.
“ I think I will go this week and ask about my green card. I’m going to use my real name too. I don’t care what they do, I’m just going to tell them. I’m going to save up some money and I’ll call my family in December. I haven’t had a Christmas for two years now, I think it would be nice to call them for Christmas. I’ll go back to Washington to save some money and then I will come back here because I really love this city and there’s more I can do in this city”.
“ If I had some money and my papers, I would start a business cleaning the city. I know I can make this city even nicer but it’s a lot of work. But I am a hard worker and I know I can do it. It’s easy to smile and be happy when everything around you is nice and clean, that’s why I like to clean”.
“ You know, the other day I went down to Mission Street and I decided that I was going to count how many people it takes to see a happy person. Guess how many people I counted before I saw someone smiling? One hundred people! Can you believe that?! Everyone was walking around looking sad or angry but finally after one hundred people I see this old lady laughing and smiling. When I saw her, I just thought, this is how we should be. We should all be happy and smiling. For me, when I do good for other people, it makes me happy. That’s why I do it. There are too many people that are not happy. There are too many people who do bad things to each other. We shouldn’t be doing that. We should just help each other and smile”.
“My message to everyone is just to be happy and smile. Do good and be happy”.