Can-Do Spirit

updated 06/18/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/18/2001 01:00AM

A little after 2 a.m., in a dimly lit alley in Venice, Calif., 51-year-old Yolanda Garcia digs through a Dumpster with a long stick. Pushing aside wet garbage and worse, she deftly uses the hook at the end of her pole to fish out half a dozen aluminum cans and glass and plastic bottles. After stashing the recyclables in bags hanging from the handlebars of her bicycle, she hurries to another bin behind a nearby restaurant. "Night after night, you just don't stop," a dishwasher who happens to be outside says to her admiringly. "We can't afford to stop," replies the mother of three. "Every cent helps our children. It's what we live for."

Dumpster by Dumpster, 13 hours a day for the past eight years, Garcia and her husband, Rogelio, 53, have braved derelicts, drug addicts, vermin—and the occasional overzealous cop—to collect enough recyclables to keep afloat their family of five. It takes about 45,000 cans and bottles a month for the Mexican immigrants to pay for their small slice of the American dream. There's $513 in rent on a one-bedroom apartment in a working-class area of Los Angeles, food, gas and clothes. And then there's the $200 they send every month to each of their children in college—Adrianne, 19, a junior at UC Riverside, and Rogelio Jr., 20, who just finished his junior year at MIT. "With the little they have, they're doing something positive," says Guy Costecalde, who saves recyclables for the pair from the apartment building he owns. "I can't say enough about this family's strength."

The Garcias came to the U.S. separately in 1978 as illegal immigrants but got green cards under a 1986 amnesty law and are now U.S. citizens. Married in 1980, the couple held a series of menial jobs—he mainly as a dishwasher and meat cutter, she as a housecleaner and factory worker. The Garcias lived so frugally during their first decade together that they managed to save $25,000, out of which they made a down payment on a modest duplex. But after Rogelio was laid off his meat-cutting job in 1993, the bank repossessed the property. Then the couple was swindled out of $20,000 by a stranger who had befriended them. "That was money for our children's school," says Yolanda. "I cried for months."

The couple turned to bottles and cans in 1993. Despite the physical demands and low income, the Garcias liked the flexibility the pursuit gave them in supervising their children, who occasionally accompanied them on weekends. (Rogelio still takes breaks from work to drive his youngest son, 14-year-old Angel, to and from Venice High School.) Although Rogelio Jr. didn't mind scrounging for cans, it hurt when classmates "would walk by me and say, 'Hey, trash digger!' " Still, he and his sister say they were never embarrassed by their parents, who used their situation to spur the children on to greater things. Says Rogelio Jr.: "My parents were like, 'If you don't want to work this hard, you should go to school.' "

That's advice he has taken to heart, first at Venice High—from which he graduated with a 4.2 grade-point average—and now at MIT, where his adviser James Kuchar says of the aeronautical engineering major, "I have every expectation that he's going to finish as one of our better students." Sometimes the going gets tough, admits Rogelio Jr., who logs long hours as a tutor to help pay his living expenses. (Scholarships and grants cover about two-thirds of his $33,225-a-year tuition and room and board, with the rest funded through work study and loans.)

This summer he hopes to contribute to the family finances through his internship with the defense, electronics and construction giant Raytheon. His parents, however, say that getting to watch him graduate from MIT next year will be repayment enough. "We work so our children won't have to be like us," says Rogelio Sr. "Our only dream for them is to get degrees and get ahead in life."

Pam Lambert
Ron Arias in Venice and Tom Duffy in Cambridge

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