American Consumer Project

American Consumer Project: Alfredo in Los Angeles County

Ad Age Is Following 11 Households to Examine Consumer Behavior. Meet Alfredo, a Cuban Immigrant Struggling with the American Dream

By Published on .

Los Angeles County | Global Roots | Immigration Nation

Starting in October, Ad Age began a yearlong look at the American Consumer. We're working with Esri and the Patchwork Nation to examine the impact of demographic and economic change on consumer behavior. We are tracking 11 households in 11 representative counties to see how their experiences differ. In this piece we introduce one of those households. For more on the project and segments, see

It sounds like the American Dream. Alfredo was born in Cuba. His dad, a sugarcane farmer, got the family out in 1970. They settled in suburban Los Angeles, where some friends were able to help them get on their feet. Alfredo, born on the cusp of the baby boomers, is now 46 and has a family of his own. He went to ITT Tech and works as an operations manager for a logistics company.

Credit: David Flaherty

This is the America our forebears envisioned, the immigrant-to-middle-class story told in movies and reflected in commercials. This is the kind of family you'd expect to be held up as an example. Alfredo's 16-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son attend a charter school that was a finalist in a national contest to have President Barack Obama give the graduation speech.

But the American Dream is harder to achieve now. Hard work doesn't necessarily guarantee success and a relaxed suburban life.

"Seems like everything got more expensive," Alfredo says. "And for me personally, I got the same pay rate that I had five, six years ago. I'm being paid the same, but everything's going up. And the gas prices aren't helping much either."

In talking to the families in the American Consumer Project, one theme that emerges quickly is how the recession is affecting almost everyone in some way. For Alfredo, that has meant redefining wants and needs.

Alfredo has actually trimmed more than he has eliminated. The budget didn't contain a lot of luxuries to start with, but the family has cut back on dining out. Alfredo buys clothes for work only when they wear out and then usually at Sam's Club.

One of the hardest things to deal with is his wife's car. Purchased by Alfredo's sister when Ronald Reagan was president, the Camry was first passed to his parents but then handed down to his wife after his father died and his mother -- now with Alzheimer's -- stopped driving.

"We can say it's been in the family for quite a while," Alfredo said.

He'd like to upgrade his wife's car but just can't afford it. He'd also like to get his daughter a little "starter" car so that she could drive herself to school functions, but she's not in a hurry to get her license. A growing national trend is for kids' waiting longer to start driving.

What she does drive, however, is the cellular plan.

"We've got the family plan, and she used to wear out my minutes," Alfredo said. "I told her, 'You can talk after nine o'clock.' " The family AT&T now has a plan with unlimited mobile-to-mobile with the purchase of an unlimited texting plan.

"I used to get a phonebook-sized bill from AT&T," said Alfredo, who's glad the new plan makes it easier for her to call friends. "I'd rather have her talk than texting. Texting is so informal. So machinist, I guess. There's no interaction."

He can't afford the data plan, so no smartphones for the kids. He suspects that they want them "because they're cool," and he doesn't see the need for them. They all share a desktop computer tucked in a hutch in the living room so that it's out of the way when they're not using it.

The TV is also in the living room. His daughter watches a lot of MTV , while Alfredo's more into sci-fi, and the Discovery and History channels. His son prefers the PS3 gaming console.

Alfredo's wife takes the Camry to her part-time position at JC Penney's. She was a stay-at-home mom while the kids were younger and in elementary school but picked up the job now that they're middle- and high-school students. Every dollar helps.

The state also pays her to help care for Alfredo's mother, who lives in the apartment next door. She does chores and assists with her care for a few hours each day. They're trying to find a way in the budget to get her into an assisted-care facility, but for now she lives in the apartment she has lived in since 1976. It's where Alfredo met his wife. She lived next door and they'd see each other on the sidewalk and around the neighborhood. One day they just started talking.

Alfredo and his wife moved out of the building when they got married, but returned when the unit next to his mother opened up. It's a six-unit, two-story apartment house in a residential area south of downtown Los Angeles. Theirs is a 3-bedroom unit.

Los Angeles County is technically an Industrial Metropolis in the Patchwork Nation but also scored highly in the Immigration Nation segment. These communities are indicated by large Hispanic populations. The county is split about 25% each white and black residents, but nearly 40% Hispanic. The large concentration follows trends we see in other Hispanic areas, which tend to be younger, family-oriented and lower-income. With the blessings of Patchwork Nation author Dante Chinni, we decided to use L.A. County as our Immigration Nation county.

The dominant Esri tapestry is Global Roots, which are also highly diverse areas made up of younger immigrants, many of whom have only recently arrived in the U.S. Like Alfredo, they tend to be renters.

Alfredo also sees the recession in his workplace. This used to be the busy time of year, but between the housing and economic slowdowns, people are buying fewer goods and fewer goods that need moving.

"I'm around a lot of truck drivers, and they're still [low] on hours," Alfredo said. "They're still waiting for everything to pick up. It's steady but it's not going any further than that ." His company is holding its own and was able to avoid layoffs during the recession, but Christmas bonuses and raises have gone by the wayside.

Now, Alfredo is holding the American Dream for his daughter. His family won the school lottery, and she got into a top charter school, where she's thriving. She hopes her hard work and 4.0-plus GPA will get her into an Ivy League school.

Her brother isn't doing quite as well in his charter middle school. Alfredo keeps a close eye on their studies and has had them both cut back on extra curricular and sports activities to focus on their homework and grades.

His daughter takes college-level advanced placement classes and was among a small group chosen for an East Coast college tour, including the Ivys, next spring. They're geographically and economically a long way from home, but that doesn't stop her from hoping. Alfredo's got some money in his 401(k) but hasn't been able to save much beyond that for anything, let alone tuition for an elite private college. It's going to take some serious scholarships to pay for his daughter's higher education, but she's clearly doing some dreaming of her own.

Most Popular