Closer to 40 than he is to 30, Jorge Morales (not his real name) knows there is an expiration date on his current Santa Barbara survival strategy. Handsome, outwardly intellectual, and quick with a high-wattage smile, Morales has ridden 20-plus years of experience in area restaurants to a prominent front-of-the-house role at one of Santa Barbara’s more lucrative eateries. In between work shifts, the Santa Barbara High graduate has also earned two degrees from Santa Barbara City College, two degrees from the University of California, Santa Barbara, while becoming fluent in multiple languages — all of which, though certainly impressive, have done little to improve his situation. “This place is my home. I grew up here, but I can’t continue like this. Not here at least. I have a good job, I am making good money, but for how long? You can’t last forever in the restaurant industry, and I am getting older, and things around here certainly aren’t getting any less expensive,” explained Morales over coffee recently, his tone more matter-of-fact than regretful. “And sure, I have these degrees, but I can’t really do anything with them because of my big trouble with the INS. Eventually there will be a line that I cannot cross or, worse, cause trouble for the people I work for. I am not willing to risk that.”
The middle child of five, Morales was born in Puebla, Mexico, near Mexico City. He was 3 when his parents split. His mom, in search of “that whole idea of making a better life for the family,” left shortly thereafter for Southern California. More than a decade later, at the age of 14, he and his little sister followed her. “It’s not easy, man.” He said of his early days at high school. “Learning English and being in a whole new world and, of course, you are a kid — you have serious culture shock, but you don’t know what that is, so you just deal with it as best you can.” Eventually gang life and trouble with the law became a reality. Following court orders, he was sent back to Mexico immediately after graduation. “I was back the next day pretty much. It was easy back then, especially when you spoke English and had a valid high school ID.”
And so it went, working jobs at gas stations and restaurants while chasing higher education through much of the ’90s. “I always saw education as a doorway to something better. That’s just how I was raised,” he explained. While at Santa Barbara City College, he got an employment permit, was given a social security number, and, after a last-minute invite from his mother to travel across the border to meet the father he barely knew, he was caught and deported once again. And, once again, he was back in Santa Barbara “pretty much the next day.”
Immigration authorities caught up with Morales soon after at a border checkpoint: deported for a third time. Less than two years later, while visiting a former girlfriend in Arizona, he was pulled over for a traffic violation and deported for a fourth and final time. It was then, after a judge explained to him that his next arrest would equal actual jail time, that “it dawned on me I was in big shit,” he said. “But what was I going to do? I had grown up here; Santa Barbara was my home. There was nothing for me in Mexico, so I came back and vowed to change my life.”
In the time since, he has completed his various degrees and language studies, paying his own way working in popular S.B. restaurants. Two years ago, he returned to Mexico on his own with hopes of applying his education for the greater good of his native land, but the current violence there left him heartbroken. Like most adults struggling to figure out their next move, he swallowed his pride and returned to the only place he has ever really considered home, Santa Barbara.