Maria Garcia, 37, came to the United States from Mexico when she was 16. She came, as she says, to work. Six years ago she left her husband and started supporting her six children on her own while earning a little more than minimum wage. Garcia’s story illustrates what it looks like to support a family on less than $10 an hour working more than full-time.
The minimum wage in Chicago is currently $8.25 an hour, but recently, the City Council voted to increase Chicago’s minimum wage to $10 in 2015, then to $13 an hour by 2019. However, Garcia is striving for more than just a livable wage. “My dream is to study and have a career… so that my children will be proud of me and so that I can fulfill my dream of being a social justice worker.”
Garcia gets her daughter, Litzy Villalobos, 9, ready to attend school in their Edgewater neighborhood. Garcia moved her family from Rogers Park 10 years ago. It is more expensive where they now live, she says, but it’s safer and the schools are better. “I want my kids to study and have a career and be prepared to survive,” she says.
Garcia drops her son, Bryan Villalobos, 7, off at Helen C. Peirce School of International Studies in Edgewater and then heads in to work at the restaurant. When the family lived in Rogers Park, Garcia saw a heavy gang presence and didn’t feel comfortable going outside with her children. She would hurry home after school because of her fear of gang fighting. “I didn’t want my kids to think that was normal,” Garcia says.
Garcia makes tortillas at Huaraches Doña Chio in Albany Park, where she works as a cook and earns $9 an hour, a bit more than the current minimum wage in the city and the state of Illinois, $8.25 an hour. Chicago’s minimum wage will jump $1.75 an hour next year. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.
Garcia makes huaraches at Albany Park’s Huaraches Doña Chio. In addition to her full-time job, Garcia also cleans apartment buildings about four times a month, and up until a few months ago, she worked at a cinema cleaning up three days a week from midnight to 6 a.m. for $30 a night.
(From left) Shelly Ruzicka, Garcia’s 15-year-old daughter Bianca Villalobos, Garcia, Rev. C.J. Hawking, Luke Sullivan, and Bryan Villalobos make signs to join a labor protest in Skokie supported by Arise Chicago. Garcia joined Arise Chicago, a faith-based workers rights group, in 2011, to get assistance obtaining wages that she was owed from her last job.
Garcia’s daughters, Bianca and Litzy Villalobos, protest with the employees of Golan’s Moving and Storage, who were supported by Arise Chicago during a recent labor strike in Skokie. Garcia encourages her children to participate in Arise Chicago’s activities. “It teaches them their rights as a worker and as a person,” she says.
Garcia looks in the refrigerator of her cramped Edgewater apartment on a rare weeknight off. Without gas in her one-bedroom apartment, it is difficult for Garcia to cook at home, so she often brings food home from work. She normally isn’t home until later in the day, so her older children pick up the two younger ones from school and watch them until she returns from work.
Garcia prepares dinner for her family in their Edgewater apartment using a hot plate. Garcia’s expenses rose when her eldest son, Steven Villalobos, 18, went to college. In order to compensate, she had the gas in the apartment turned off.
Garcia’s older children, Crystal and Javier Villalobos, ages 16 and 17 respectively, sleep on mats in the living room of their one-bedroom apartment. Garcia sleeps on a mat in the kitchen and the three youngest children sleep in the bedroom. “I’m happy because I have my kids with me and I have a roof, but I’m sad I can’t provide them with what they need or deserve,” Garcia says.
Garcia looks at her monthly expenses. With her current two jobs at the restaurant and cleaning apartment buildings, she earns about $1,671 a month after taxes. Rent, $750 a month, takes about 45 percent of her income. Other items on her budget — electricity, Internet, phone, toiletries, toilet paper, laundry, pet food, transportation and baby sitters — total around $500. This leaves about $400 a month for expenses such as clothes, extra school fees for her two daughters, who are in the International Baccalaureate program, school supplies and health care.
Garcia checks in on her children during a lull at Huaraches Doña Chio. But downtime is rare when she’s trying to make ends meet. She wants to move out of low-wage jobs so she can spend more time at home teaching and mentoring her children. “A person wants to make 15 or 20 dollars an hour to spend time on the education of their kids,” she says. “If we don’t have the time or money to educate our kids then nothing will change.”