LOS ANGELES — The barrilero never stops moving.
All day he wheels cardboard barrels stuffed with used clothing through the narrow aisles of the warehouse. He dumps the apparel atop tables for sorters, who separate nylons from cottons, satins from silks, denims from plaids. If a sorter is standing around with no garments, it’s the barrilero’s fault. Supervisors hover nearby.
Tons of old clothing come in every week, and tons go back out, to India and Pakistan, where it’s sold at outdoor markets.
The factory hired the barrilero in September, a few weeks after the now-21-year-old showed up at the manager’s door looking for work. Right away, the manager had recognized him as Anthony, that cute kid who walked his factory floor selling Helen Grace chocolates to workers years ago.
Anthony didn’t say much about where he’d been, or what he’d been doing since. He was polite, upbeat, and his knock on the door still had the soft touch of a child. But his hair was falling out, and there was something unfamiliar in his eyes.
“He seemed sadder,” the manager said, “like he wanted to say something but didn’t know how.”
There were many things the barrilero would keep to himself. First among them: His name wasn’t Anthony.
Luis Luna returned to his hometown of South Gate in May. His arms and legs were scraped raw from cactus needles and his eyes kept blinking, still starved of moisture from his eight-day journey through the Arizona desert the week before.
His friend, Julio Cortez, said it was hard to believe that this gaunt young man with patches of missing hair was the same person he knew at Southeast Middle School.
“I was in shock to see him back and see all he had gone through,” Cortez said. “It made me sad and angry.”
Cortez, a 22-year-old Cal State Long Beach student, took Luis to buy some clothes. Another former classmate gave Luis a cellphone. Luis slept on couches and in spare bedrooms and spent his days passing out resumes filled with the jobs of his teen years: flipping burgers, waiting tables at IHOP. He fudged the dates to account for the 15 months he spent in Mexico after he was deported for being in the country illegally.
Luis had been pulled over three years ago for a broken headlight in Pasco, Wash., where he and his mother lived. He was cited for driving without a license, jailed and ordered out of the country in February 2011.
He had a wife back in Washington, but she had left him, in part because of the long separation. Luis decided to build a new life in Southern California, where he had grown up and where he still had friends.
Weeks after arriving, he was still jobless and borrowing money to eat when he decided his future might lie in his past. He started retracing the route he took as a boy selling chocolates at warehouses and factories. The assembly line workers, truck drivers and managers knew him as Anthony, the name his mother told him to use to hide his identity.
They could vouch for his strong work ethic — that he’d been working for a living since he was 5 years old.
He eventually found the barrilero job, and a place to live. A swap meet vendor who picked through the bins of cast-offs looking for vintage garments told Luis he had extra space at his house.
Luis goes home to a converted two-car garage with no address in a middle-class neighborhood with trim lawns and streets lined with late-model cars. Much of his clothing is stuffed in a battered dark green suitcase that sits at the foot of his bed. The only other furniture is a mini-refrigerator and two lawn chairs.
In some ways, he’s a typical youngster with edgy tastes. He has a sleeve tattoo, wears skinny jeans and earrings, and is part of a deejay crew that plays at house parties. He cheers his beloved Los Angeles Lakers and hangs out in hookah bars, and is constantly texting flirty messages.
But his future is dimmer than most. Many of his friends are planning for life after college. Some are applying for work permits and temporary reprieves from deportation, taking advantage of an Obama administration program, announced in June, to help young people who were brought into the country as children.
Luis was 3 when his mother smuggled him across the border. But Luis won’t be getting a reprieve. His attorney told him that he’s disqualified because he was arrested twice trying to re-enter the U.S. after his deportation.
Luis eventually told friends that his struggles to get back in the country had been chronicled in a Los Angeles Times story that appeared in January. The article had ended with Luis stranded and homeless in Mexico.
A teacher at South Junior High School in Anaheim who had read the story found out Luis was back and invited him to speak to students. The students, some of whom were undocumented immigrants, sat riveted as Luis spoke in a soft but steady voice.
He described days of hunger, homelessness and disorientation wandering through pueblos and cities of Sonora and Chihuahua, the bodies discarded on the streets of Ciudad Juarez, victims of that border city’s drug wars.
It was desperation that drove him to risk his life repeatedly to get back to the U.S., he told them. He rode underneath a freight train once, he said, and almost died from dehydration after collapsing in the Sonoran desert on his final, successful try.
After the speech, children crowded around him and asked to see his scars from the police dog that bit him the time he was caught clinging to the undercarriage of a boxcar.
In a class that in the past had featured Holocaust survivors and Vietnamese boat people as guests, Luis’ tale resonated. All of the students later wrote letters to U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., urging her to support Luis’ effort to gain legal residency.
Luis believes he deserves U.S. citizenship, but he knows his situation may never get better than this. He long ago accepted the limits of living a life in the shadows. But he takes comfort in familiarity.
“I actually have a bed and a roof over my head. I can close my eyes and sleep until I wake up, knowing that I’m going to be alive,” Luis said.
The barrilero doesn’t have time to chat. For eight hours a day, he jumps inside crates, hoists 80-pound bales and digs deep inside barrels, lifting armfuls of clothes onto tables already piled high with garments.
“Do you want more?” he asks one sorter, a young woman barely visible behind the mountain of rags. “Si,” she said.
It’s 10 a.m. and he’s already sweaty and tired. There are several more barrels to move, an empty sorting table beckons, and a large truck outside is waiting to be unloaded.
“This beats being stuck in Nogales,” the barrilero said. He had spent months on the dirty and dangerous streets of the Mexican border town bordering Arizona.
When the warehouse owner who hired the barrilero eventually learned of his past, he had no regrets for unwittingly hiring an illegal immigrant. “He is a decent young man and he never loafs,” he said. “Any businessman wants a worker like him.”
The barrilero has formed a special bond with the manager, a woman who has a son his age. He is in college and she wishes the barrilero could have the same opportunity.
“I’m hoping this is a temporary job,” she said. “This is hard labor and I feel he should be doing more. He’s meant for greater things.”
She still calls him Anthony.
For now, the barrilero grapples with a recurrent nightmare. He is in a desert running from headlights bearing down on him through the fog. U.S. Border Patrol agents are after him. The sand turns to concrete. He is back in Southern California. It is foggy, and there are the same headlights, closing in. He keeps running. Then he awakens.
Luis leads a careful existence. He steers clear of drug users and lawbreakers who could draw police attention. He obtained a driver’s license from Washington state, which doesn’t require U.S. citizenship. Julio, his friend, instructs him to take off his cap in the car because gang members wear distinctive hats, and police might profile him.
Any ill-timed slipup and Luis could wind up back in Mexico.
One recent evening, he drove off in his 1994 BMW 318 to play basketball with friends.
The car had creaky suspension, a missing front grill and a burned-out taillight.