FONTANA, Calif. – Jose Villarruel is a man of routine.
4 a.m. Wake up and get dressed.
4:30 a.m. Car maintenance, check fluids and battery.
5 a.m. Prepare oatmeal and coffee at a nearby gas station.
5:30 a.m. Freshen up in the bathroom of a local grocery store.
6 a.m. Call home to Mexico, and decide how he would spend the rest of the day.
It’s a routine he built over the past eight years, after he decided to move into his beat-up turquoise 1997 Ford Thunderbird LX and live out his car while he sent monthly payments back to his family in Mexico.
“My only expenses were my car, gasoline, insurance and gadgets that allow me to do my work,” he said. “I perfected my routine.”
Villarruel, a former substitute teacher in Fontana, Calif., known as Mr. V by his students, was well regarded throughout the school district. Unlike other subs, his students knew, he would always say your name in Spanish.
Before Villarruel moved into his car in 2013, he had a long and established career in education.
He migrated with his parents from Ocotlán, Jalisco, 65 years ago, and has spent the years since migrating back and forth between countries. He worked as a chemistry lab instructor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) for five years.
In the U.S., Villarruel became a substitute teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. But when the requirements to be a substitute for LAUSD became stricter, Villarruel, who had stopped short of receiving a teaching credential at California State University, Los Angeles, was soon forced to find work elsewhere.
His journey led him to Fontana, where he became a substitute teacher in the district. The change extended his commute and cut short his paycheck.
Driving from his apartment in Los Angeles to Fontana became a hassle, he said. Soon, the solution came to him: Villarruel decided to cut his personal expenses in half, rent a storage unit and move his essentials into the trunk of his car. What he saved on rent, he put into the remittances he sent back to his family in Jalisco — the majority of his $1,500 monthly paycheck.
Villarruel’s story mirrors that of many immigrants in the U.S. who work to sustain themselves and their families back home.
But the past year put many in a position of having to choose between their own expenses and sending financial support to loved ones. Countless people lost jobs and income amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and remittances to Mexico sank, according to the World Bank.
The U.S. has the world’s largest immigrant population and, according to the World Bank, has been the top remittance-sending country for many years. As the COVID-19 pandemic surged across the globe, remittances from the world’s nearly 272 million immigrants were expected to fall by 20% last year alone.
Villarruel knows what it feels like to make tough choices. To sacrifice yourself to continue to support others elsewhere.
On the first night in the Thunderbird, Villarruel sat alone in a McDonald’s parking lot and said to himself, “I’m working my way through. I don’t have a room, but I have my job so whatever I need will come.”
It is this same fervent belief that has kept him moving forward all these years.
Before the novel coronavirus surged across Southern California, shuttering businesses, closing schools and ravaging entire communities, living out of his car was considerably more comfortable for Villaruel. He relied on the high school where he taught for accommodations like air conditioning and Wi-Fi, and was able to take breaks and do work in the teachers’ lounges.
But last year, living out of his car became unpredictable and exhausting. Something as simple as finding an open public restroom became a daunting task.
Still, he refused to return to the way things once were. Little by little, Villarruel found ways to survive.
In March 2020, Villarruel decided that his best option would be to quit his job as a substitute teacher and live off of his pension while continuing to send remittances to his family back home. Instead of sending $1,000 monthly, Villaruel has for the past year and a half sent $700.
“Mr. V’s story reveals to us how far our Mexican immigrants in the United States are willing to go to continue to send money to their families,” said Geneveva Dávila Roldán, professor of political economy of development UNAM who specializes in the topic of immigrant remittances. “Remittances are salaries. They allow families abroad to pay for rent, food, electricity and education amongst other things.”
Despite the World Bank’s dramatic prediction, Roldán said, remittances fell by closer to 2 percent last year. Though a much smaller deficit, Roldán said, that 2 percent loss could still mean billions of dollars.
In Latin America, remittances sent from abroad account for about $108 billion in extra income, the UNAM professor added.
Mexico, the recipient by a large margin, rakes in more than $40 billion in remittances from the U.S., he said, followed by Guatemala with $11.3 billion and the Dominican Republic and Colombia with $6.9 billion each.
The reason these money transfers did not slow down quite as dramatically as the World Bank expected, experts said, is partly because many immigrants did not stop working amid the global public health crisis.
“Mexicans and Central Americans are located in jobs that are essential, that were essential during the pandemic and that are essential in the recovery process of the United States economy today,” said Roldán.
“The fact that remittances went up is an artifact of immigrants having the labor force that’s been disciplined, and socialized to generations of capitalist development, to work no matter what, no matter the condition,” added Professor Alfonso Gonzales Toribio, chair of the Latino and Latin American Research Center at the University of California, Riverside.
In March, just days before his 77th birthday, Villarruel’s life changed.
Like always, he rose before dawn, opening the hood of his car for what seemed like the thousandth time when a young man approached him.
It was a former student. Steven Nava told his former teacher that he wanted to help.
“He felt like a grandpa figure to me,” Nava said.
In just a few days, Nava was able to raise over $27,000 through a GoFundMe campaign that gained traction on Twitter and TikTok.
On Villarruel’s 77th birthday, students, city officials and reporters gathered to present Mr. V with his gift.
A week later, Nava raised $29,362 more.
“My family still cannot believe it, ” said Villaruel.
He took the donations as a sign that he could afford to do more.
Villarruel now lives in a modest hotel that charges him monthly rates. He is using the money to pay off his debts, and he plans to move his family from Puebla City, Jalisco, into a more peaceful community in Mexico.
He said he hopes to continue his lifelong commitment to teaching by creating a website where he can offer his students free tutoring on demand. But his main goal remains the same as it has always been: To be close to his family one way or another.
“All of my struggles have been for my family,” he added. “Despite all of this that has happened, when I would go back to my bedroom on wheels, at times I was cold and wet from rain, I always got satisfaction knowing that my family was safe and comfortable.”
For Villarruel, whatever pain or struggles it takes to help the people he loves has been worth it. Like the wheels on his Ford Thunderbird, he said, he plans to keep moving.
Laura Anaya-Morga is a recent graduate of the University of California, Riverside, where she studied media and culture. She is a metro intern at the Los Angeles Times and is pursuing a career in print journalism. Reach her at lauraanayamorga [at] gmail [dot] com and on Twitter @lauraanayam_.