Road Trip: An Immigrant’s Struggles to Survive in Vegas

December 12, 2020

LAS VEGAS — The casino has been closed for months. The hotel rooms are empty. Out front, the three-story sign that once beckoned to gamblers with $1.99 margaritas now advertises a food bank in the parking lot every Thursday.

"8 a.m. until all food is distributed," says the sign at the Fiesta Henderson.

It wasn't supposed to be like this in America.

"I came here to conquer the United States, to say 'This is the place where I want to be, where I'll build my empire,'" says Norma Flores, a Mexican immigrant who spent two decades working as a waitress at the Fiesta before COVID-19 descended and she lost her job.

Right now, her empire is a concrete block house crowded with six grandchildren, most of them doing school online. She dreads when she overhears a teacher asking what students had for their lunches and snacks. She rarely has enough food for both. 

To be an immigrant in Las Vegas is to see the coronavirus economy at its worst. 

Visitors to the area plummeted by more than 90 percent in a little over a month as the pandemic spread. The state's unemployment rocketed to 28 percent, the worst in the nation and a level not seen even during the Great Depression. Every day, thousands of cars lined up at emergency food distribution centers, the lines stretching for block after block, past pawn shops and casinos and law offices. 

Across the U.S., immigrant workers suffered disproportionately after COVID-19 struck. But their outsized presence in Las Vegas' hospitality industry, where they form the working-class backbone of countless hotels, casinos and restaurants, meant a special kind of devastation. 

At night, Flores often lies awake, worrying about paying the rent, buying gas, getting enough food. Like millions of other people across the U.S., her unemployment benefits run out the day after Christmas. She's terrified her family could end up homeless. 

"I'm scared I might wake up tomorrow and I won't have anything," she says, sitting outside her little house.

A block away, traffic rumbled past on the six-lane road that cuts through town. "I'm scared to be there, you know?" 


Three of us — a reporter, a photographer and a videographer — came to Vegas on The Associated Press' road trip across America, a journey that has taken us to nearly a dozen states, talking to people who are wrestling with the seismic shifts of 2020. 

A single line in a newspaper article brought us here: More than half the members of Las Vegas' powerful Culinary Workers Union were still unemployed more than eight months into the pandemic. Most of its members are racial minorities or immigrants.

For decades, the working-class neighborhoods that circle Las Vegas called out to foreigners. Beckoned by an ever-growing city with a seemingly endless appetite for workers, they came from Ethiopia and India and the Philippines and dozens of other countries. But they mostly came from Latin America, especially Mexico.

They changed Las Vegas, and Nevada. 

One in five of the state's residents are immigrants, according to the American Immigration Council, and one in six are native-born citizens with at least one immigrant parent. 

Now those working-class immigrant neighborhoods, where languages spill over one another in countless dirt yards, are home to armies of unemployed housekeepers and cocktail waitresses and small business owners.

There's the Filipino hairdresser let go by his salon and desperate for money to get his diabetes medicine, and the Cambodian who had to shut down his little restaurant. There's the Honduran housekeeper running out of money. 

There's Olimka Luna, who came from a small Mexican city and spent 20 years in a Las Vegas casino, first as a dishwasher and then as a cook, before being laid off in March and fired in May. Today, her focus is purely on her house, and the $1,300 monthly mortgage payment. 

"We are not going to lose our house," she says. Then she repeats herself: "We are strong and we are not going to lose it."

And there's Norma Flores.

Flores, 54, hasn't worked since March, when Nevada's casinos were ordered closed as the pandemic spread. While many casinos reopened in June, hers did not. She gets $322 a week in unemployment after taxes, but is helping support a son, a daughter and six grandchildren who moved in with her as the state's economy collapsed. 

Her life has become an ongoing battle with the mathematics of personal finance for the impoverished. Is there enough money for the $831 rent? How late will the landlord allow her to be? How much food is left in the refrigerator? Can she afford some sort of treat for the kids? 

She calculates to the dollar how much money she has left until the next check arrives.

But sometimes, her heart makes that calculation.

On a chilly autumn afternoon, as Flores stands at a supermarket cash register, the cashier asks if she wanted to donate to a food bank run out of a nearby church. 

"Not today," Flores said. 

She reaches into her big red purse, pulls a handful of notes, and carefully counts out $17 for her groceries. Then she looks at what she has left — and hands the cashier $1 for the food bank.

It's a kind of payback — she often gets help from that charity. 

"I'm going to help them, because other people need them too," she says.


Las Vegas sells itself on fantasies of wealth, luxury and sex, and even the most cynical first-time visitor can come here expecting at least a hint of James Bond playing baccarat in Monte Carlo. 

That would be a mistake. 

Vegas feels more like a mixture of endless mall and Disney-ish resort set to the music of amplified slot machines. Gamblers wear jeans and shorts, not tuxedoes.

A rumpled reporter fits right in. 

"Loosest slots in Vegas!" says a sign on one casino window. "20 percent off for locals," says a billboard for a marijuana dispensary. "Free vibe with every purchase!" says another billboard, for a sex shop. 

But this less-than-glamorous world has lifted tens of thousands of people into the middle class, particularly those who manage to get a union job. 

The average member of the Culinary Union earns $25 an hour when benefits are included. 

For a time, that middle-class life was nearly in Flores' grasp.

Thirty years ago, she left factory work in a small Mexican city to follow her then-husband to the U.S. She found a job in the Henderson casino, first working as a server in a cafe and later in a buffet restaurant. Eventually, they had six children.

But then her marriage unraveled. "I found out a lot of bad things," she says, and leaves it at that. They split up 13 years ago. 

She bought a house, though that didn't last very long. After being shifted to a job where she no longer got tips, she couldn't afford the mortgage. 

She can still tell you the exact monthly amount: $1,935. 

Seven years ago, she moved into a one-story rental made of concrete blocks and covered with peeling white paint. 

In March, as the pandemic spread, she was laid off. Then, in May, she was fired along with many of her co-workers. Most of her children, working in casinos across the area, also lost their jobs. 

The house looks like a bunker. The blinds are nearly always drawn. The sound of traffic is unrelenting. The clothes washer is outside, covered by an overhang just off the side door, and shelves are piled with the children's clothes.

She doesn't let the kids wander far so they play in the dirt back yard, which is partially fenced in with old bed springs. 

The hotel-casino where she long worked as a waitress, a mid-market complex that advertises itself as being "the best value for your gaming dollar," is just a couple minutes down the street. 

But that doesn't matter anymore.

"I feel so much pain to have lost my job, to not be able to pay my bills like I used to," she says. "I feel powerless."

Quietly, she began to cry: "We don't want to depend on unemployment. We want to be called back to work."


Things have gotten better in Las Vegas since the springtime shutdowns. Casinos were allowed to reopen in June, though some remain shut because of the lack of business. Visitors to the city reached nearly 1.9 million in October, far higher than in April but still down 49% from a year earlier. 

Unemployment in the Las Vegas region stood at 14.8% in September, the highest in the nation for large metropolitan areas and nearly twice the national average. 

Still, to a newcomer there seems to be plenty of people at the casinos, even if the occasional fishnet-stocking-clad dealer is doing nothing more than staring into the distance. And there are always people walking along the Strip.

But to the initiated, the city is deathly quiet. 

Las Vegas thrives on crowds, with people jammed shoulder-to-shoulder from the sidewalks to casinos to restaurants. Before COVID, eating at one of the city's best-known buffets, the 600-seat Bacchanal at Caesars Palace, could easily mean waiting an hour or more.

These days, the Bacchanal is closed and across the city, hotel rooms that normally go for $300 a night can now be had for $90.

Those discounted rooms are a bad sign for people like Flores. There aren't enough gamblers to get them back to work. And though she has no great love of the tourists – "I don't think they know how hard we work" — she yearns for their return.

"If they don't come to play," she says, "we don't have money."


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