Gathering scrap is a family affair.
Sandra Gomez, 39, Francisco Gomez, 40, and their youngest, Dominic, 4, will pack into their old pick-up truck and slowly drive through Hidalgo County colonias.
A familiar honk of their horn will alert residents looking to get rid of what they may consider unusable.
“Even though many will say, ‘it’s garbage.’ For one who needs them, it’s not garbage,” Francisco, known to many as Panchito, said, describing metal scraps which when sold is the sole source of income for the family of six.
Pieces of broken down washing machines, stereos with severed cables, metal cabinet covers of wall-mounted air conditioners, long metal pipes with no discernible purpose formed a small mountain in the bed of their pickup truck Monday afternoon. It was the result of several days of work.
A good day will bring in between $30 to $40, Panchito said.
Then there’s the cost of gas. The pandemic moved people indoors. That means that the Gomezes, who rely on people noticing them pass by, are now having to make more trips and work longer hours.
When they need to take a break or when Dominic — who’s been diagnosed with ADHD — becomes restless, they drive back home to Mission.
Home looks different after Hurricane Hanna.
Panchito pulled out his phone and shared a picture of an old, blue camper submerged in several feet of water after the storm.
They downgraded to the decades-old camper when Panchito was laid off from his most recent steady job — a tire repairman — about three years ago. A relative let them settle it in her backyard, between two trees on a slope, feet away from an orange grove.
It was leaky and had no firm foundation, but it had a closed off bedroom offering the couple some privacy from the four children — ages 4, 8, 17 and 18 — who slept in the front part of the trailer.
Together the family had survived flooding in the Rio Grande Valley in 2018 and 2019, but 2020 felt different.
When the wind started picking up that historic night in July, the father’s instincts set off an internal alarm.
“Come, because this is going to get worse,” he said, warning the kids.
They gathered in the parent’s bedroom and locked themselves up with anything soft they could find.
“Get the covers and the pillows because there can be glass or metal that can cut us,” the father told the family.
Strong, forceful winds rattled the home between the trees eventually warping the walls of the mobile home. The roof above the place where the children normally slept gave in letting in the rain and effectively locking the family in until the next day. All six slept in the bedroom that night.
It was an untenable situation, the parents said. The kids preferred to sleep on the soggy mattress than stay cramped in the room.
They found relief when a family friend who regularly checks in on them felt compelled to visit after Hanna.
“Pancho, I came because my wife dreamt about you,” Pancho recalled the friend saying of the visit. Moved to tears after learning about their living condition, the friend recalled an unused trailer he owned and offered it to them.
“They were like an angel,” Sandra said, adding, “We asked, ‘how can we pay? We can work for it,” but the benefactor refused.
On Monday evening, the family sat on some chairs outside while some pets, including dogs and a white Pekin duck, ran around. The roof leading into a beige and orange-striped, one-bedroom camper was the only original structure that remains.
The new housing doesn’t have a working air-conditioning system, heater, and the restroom is in need of substantial repairs. It’s smaller than the camper they had before, but they remain grateful to have a home at all.
Inside, a queen-sized mattress spreads from one side of the faux-wood panelled wall to the other. At night, the adults and the youngest sleep there. A compact galley kitchen with no stove or refrigerator leads into a living room where instead of a sofa, two mattresses are piled on top of each other. At night, the girls share one of the twin-sized mattresses; the teenage brother will pull down the other mattress on the floor, taking up the rest of the room in that section of the home before the restroom’s door.
Sandra and Panchito use ingenuity to configure their new space.
They have a freezer outside of the trailer, under a sheet metal roof. A refrigerator and stove are inside a shed where they store other goods. The stove is only connected when in use to avoid shorting out the electricity.
Though their sink works, the water is not cold. In the summer, the kids get hot and thirsty. Sandra said they were spending $5 a week on ice bags, until her husband came upon a half-working water cooler. “It saves us a lot of money,” she said.
In spite of the scarcity, the home is not lacking in holiday cheer.
While there’s no room for a full-sized Christmas tree, a small 2D green, tinsel tree about a foot long is mounted on the kitchen cabinet, right above a wire-framed decoration lit up in Christmas lights.
The home may be too small for presents this year.
“I tell my youngest daughter, ‘I’m sorry, Santa won’t come this year, because you’re older and he can give you COVID,’” Sandra said.
“I wish I could have more to give them more,” Pancho said as he stood by the truck full of discarded metal.
A bright orange sunk under an indigo night sky Monday evening. A winter chill swiftly moved in.
Sandra was in a striped T-shirt, jeans, and fuzzy, slipper boots. Her husband was wearing shorts, a polo shirt and plastic sandals without socks.
“I don’t have shoes. I have huaraches, and I sometimes ask my kids to borrow theirs,” Panchito said, adding he’s borrowed his wife’s tennis shoes. Most of their clothes were lost in the hurricane.
As the night grew darker, the younger kids gathered around them. Dominic ran to his father to give him a hug.
“You might lack a lot of things, but the most important thing is there — your children,” Sandra said. The 20 years of their marriage was dedicated to their kids. Soon, they’ll see the reward.
Their 18-year-old daughter is set to graduate with honors from Veterans Memorial High School. She plans to go to college and become a teacher. “You’re my pride,” Sandra has told her.
“Sometimes it’s really hard, but I hope they’re grateful not for what we give them but for always being here for them,” Sandra said.
Donations for the Gomez family, and others, can be made through the United Way of South Texas. They can be reached at (956) 686-6331 between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and inquire about contributing to the Spirit of Christmas campaign. Due to COVID-19, only monetary donations are being accepted for families in need.