This weekend ended the journey he started 25 years ago in Mexico, and the final leg took him only a mile.

In a friend's borrowed pick up truck, Eucario Mondragon loaded his family's belongings and left the squalor of Guerrant Street, the place neighbors call "the baddest hole in Greensboro," where landlord Bill Agapion rented him a cinder block house infested with rats, snakes and roaches. Without looking back on the drab scene, Mondragon now left the place to the dogs - a pit bull and two other strays that roam the frozen mud yards among 13 vacant houses, poking around for scraps.A few minutes away, the father of five found himself on a street where all the houses are new - including Mondragon's $700-down Habitat for Humanity house, a cottage-style ranch where the counters match the carpet and a sponsor had left a wreath and a Martha Stewart Christmas tree still in the box.

It all seemed easy now. Signing the papers at the lawyer's office, shaking off the cucarachas as they packed, climbing the steps of the masonry porch - his porch - and turning the key. Compared with the road it took to get here, almost anything is easy.

His trek began when he set out from Mexico in 1980 - the village of Tamacuaro in the state of Guerrero , where an adobe house with three walls was home to his family - four brothers, five sisters and his parents, who couldn't make enough planting corn and beans to keep him in school past age 12.

He stayed with a cousin in Fresno for the fruit-picking seasons - grapes, oranges, nectarines - one more nameless soldier in a faceless army, working dawn to dusk, going home to sleep, coming back to work.

Instead of an hourly wage, they were paid by the bushel - $5 to $6 for peaches, the crop he dreaded most. Something sticky in the fuzz on the fruit, or maybe the herbicides they used, made any part of his body he touched burn and break into rashes. The more he scratched in the scorching summer heat, the worse it got.

But it was better than Mexico, he hastens to add through an interpreter. Much better. He could even send money back home, which allowed his father to plant more crops.

He worked in restaurants in Los Angeles for a time, then followed the orange crop to Florida, where he lived for six years, eventually joining his brother in Greensboro.

It was one of those happenstance migrations, but when repeated enough times over, it began to empty whole Mexican villages. First, it was all the men but the gray-haired, then women who began to follow their husbands in escaping the poverty of a country where the average worker makes no more than $50 a week.

"Mexicans don't come here because they're hungry," interpreter Arelys Chevalier, a UNCG professor, remembered an immigrant advocate once telling her. "They come here because they're starving."

It was true. If Mondragon were to work the same number of hours back in Mexico as he works as a crew leader at Golden Corral, he might be able to feed his children. But there would be nothing left for extras.

"Like clothing," he says. "Shoes."

So he stayed on, struggling with the language, paying his rent. Then one day, his citizenship papers came in the mail. It was May 5, as it turned out, the Mexican national holiday.

So after a year of saving his down payment and working "sweat equity" at Habitat for Humanity, Eucario Mondragon has arrived. He owns a home. His children can stay in school for as long as they want to study.

Of course, he lost some things along the way, and not just his little village in Mexico. His wife died of a pancreatic ailment when their youngest child was 2. His mother died back in Mexico, and they called at 6 o'clock in the morning to tell him. He got dressed and drove to the airport.

So not all of them will see the first Christmas in his new American house, a long last mile from the slum of Guerrant Street. Sometimes "manana" means a little while. Sometimes it means way down the road.

\ Lorraine Ahearn is a News & Record columnist. Contact 373-7334, lahearn@news-record.com or 200 E. Market St., Greensboro, NC 27401.

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