In downtrodden San Bernardino, immigrants find a place to start

By Joe Mozingo
Photos by Francine Orr

In a town where the cycle of bad news never seems to end, residents resolve to fight back against helplessness and hope to give their children a better life.

Alamilla siblings Anna, 10; David, 14; and Alessandra, 7, play outside their home in San Bernardino.

This year, Jorge Alamilla, a father of six, has sandblasted rust out of oxygen cylinders in Riverside. He has driven a dump truck in San Dimas. He spent part of December on a three-week haul driving for FedEx around the nation, praying that this job would last.

The Alamillas live in a part of San Bernardino where only the younger children bother to hit the floor when they hear gunfire. Where, long before the slaughter at the nearby Inland Regional Center, Jorge’s wife, Yvonne, wouldn’t let them play unattended outside.

Jorge Alamilla

With the lowest median income of any city its size in the state, San Bernardino has become one of the cheapest places to live in urban Southern California. That has given immigrant families like the Alamillas an affordable place they hope will launch their children into America’s middle class.

The terror attack this month drew the president and throngs of national media to a city well known for its failings. Some residents took that tragedy as a cue to remind one another on social media that run-of-the-mill shootings and robberies continue at an alarming rate.

But others found inspiration to sharpen a resolve that has been coalescing since the city filed for bankruptcy in 2012.

Now #SBStrong has become a brand of pride. A resident designed a logo with the hashtag inside an arrowhead — the historic emblem for this 164-year-old city, which sits at the foot of its namesake mountains below a giant arrowhead formation. When T-shirts with the design went on sale to benefit victims’ funds, the first thousand sold out within hours.

Hundreds of people turned out for candlelight vigils, to memorialize the 14 killed but also to fight back against the sense of helplessness that settled into a town where the cycle of bad news never seems to break.

Business and civic leaders, meanwhile, see seedlings of a turnaround not in slogans or rallies or ambitious social or economic plans, but in the schools.

The San Bernardino City Unified School District has all the problems schools have in desperately poor places. But at the end of 2011, new leadership on the school board launched a major overhaul of how students would learn.

Officials began working with the business community to transform the campuses by training students not just for college but for careers in precision manufacturing, medical technology, digital media arts, solar and alternative power — trades in which employers are struggling to fill positions.

“We aligned our educational and training systems to meet these workforce demands,” said school board President Mike Gallo, co-founder and president of Kelly Space & Technology Inc.

The board hired a new superintendent, Dale Marsden, a former Air Force sergeant who had turned one of California’s poorest school systems, Victor Elementary School District in the high desert, into one of the state’s top performers.

Since his arrival, San Bernardino graduation rates rose from 73.5% in 2012 to 79.9% in 2014, close to the state average of 80.8%. The graduation rates for Latinos is 80.2%, higher than the rest of the county. And African American graduation rates jumped 8.1 percentage points, according to the district.

By 2017, officials hope to have every student in a “career pathway.”

Indian Springs High School, host campus for the district’s precision manufacturing academy, is in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city and state.

Almost 97% of its students qualify for free or subsidized lunches. The median family income in the area is around $12,000.

Ron Del Monte quit his job as a senior manufacturing engineer at Circor Aerospace Co. to start the academy. He had grown concerned that no new workers were coming up the ranks, and disillusioned when he was sent to China to build a plant that could have been built in San Bernardino.

Now he sees many of the same students who might struggle in their geometry class use math effortlessly in their own designs. Last week two boys designed “SBStrong” pins that the academy plans to sell for $3 each to maintain and acquire more machines and equipment.

The Alamillas embrace San Bernardino’s increasing pride and improving school district, in part because Jorge lacked such opportunities growing up on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and has struggled in America with his limited education.

His father had owned small shops selling Popsicles, tortillas and sodas.

Yvonne Alamilla

When Jorge and Yvonne were married, he found himself with little means to support her. He crossed the border into Arizona and found odd jobs washing dishes and doing day work at construction sites.

Eventually, he joined his brother in San Bernardino and got a union job at a plant manufacturing roofing tiles. He sent for Yvonne and they started their family.

The job lasted 10 years, then vanished with a corporate takeover. During this same era, the area’s big employers, the Santa Fe Railroad shops, the Kaiser Steel plant and Norton Air Force Base, all closed.

By the time the Great Recession hit, all Alamilla could find were temp agency jobs at the warehouses.

San Bernardino’s leaders had hoped that the product distribution industry would help solve their bankrupt city’s economic woes.

As Asian goods poured into the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in the last 25 years, warehouses and distribution centers sprawled north to the rail yards near downtown Los Angeles, then east along the 60 Freeway and Interstate 10, through Ontario, Chino, Rancho Cucamonga, Fontana and Moreno Valley, eating up vineyards, orange groves and cow pastures.

In the last 10 years, they have arrived in San Bernardino, and for a decade officials have set their sights on transforming the city into the hub of the region.

But for people like the Alamillas, warehouses seem a lot like the lettuce and tomato fields.

The warehouse zone sits mostly on the air base land between the airport and Interstate 10. The windowless white behemoths look as if they landed from another world, their great ventilation systems humming amid weedy fields.

The Southern California Assn. of Governments, which has been advocating for the sector’s growth, says the median wage in warehousing and transport, known as the logistics industry, is $43,000.

But researchers at UC Riverside say that figure is skewed by high-paying managerial jobs that may not even be in the region. They estimate that the full-time warehouse jobs pay around $22,000 on average, and temp jobs pay a median wage of $9.11 an hour — not enough to add up to the $73,000 a year that the nonpartisan California Budget Center says a family of four needs to get by in San Bernardino County.

Because so many people are out of work in San Bernardino and nearby towns such as Colton and Rialto, competition for the temp jobs is fierce.

Alessandra reads at the kitchen table. Yvonne Alamilla tells her children that hard work at school is necessary to improve their chances of getting good jobs.
Alessandra, left, and her sister Anna play with musical instruments at home. The family band, the Alamilla Show, plays Mexican ballads.

Julian Alamilla, 17, studies for finals in his bedroom.

That’s not what the Alamillas want for their children.

Luckily, Alamilla had saved enough to buy the family’s trailer for $8,000, an investment that now allows him to pay only $350 a month in rent for the lot it sits on. Yvonne works only part time — unloading trucks at a FedEx warehouse — so she can attend her kids’ school performances and athletic events, driving an old Chrysler Voyager with a bumper sticker touting “Proud Parent of a Scholar.”

She checks their homework and report cards and lets them know hard work at school is the only escape from the drudgery and anxiety of living on the edge of subsistence.

Their older two received scholarships to Cal State San Bernardino: George is on a business foreign exchange program in South Korea, and Melissa is doing well in a pre-med program.

Their third child, Julian — who is on the varsity cross-country, wrestling and tennis teams at Indian Springs High — has the grades to shoot for a full ride to UCLA or UC Irvine. The younger three are on the same path.

“I don’t want to have my parents working like this forever,” Julian said. “We’re going to put money together and help them.”

Even now, it’s not so bad, Julian said. The family band, the Alamilla Show, plays Mexican ballads at parties and church gatherings. They had a little Christmas tree and wrapped presents.

Before digging back in to study for his physics and AP history final, Julian put in a good word for his hometown.

“San Bernardino is a place for people to start,” he said. “I like this city.”

Contact the reporters Joe Mozingo and Francine Orr.

Alessandra Alamilla holds her kitten, Twinkie, outside her home.

Additional Credits: Digital Producer and Developer: Sean Greene.