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ILLEGAL from Terry Greene Sterling 

Read a penetrating chapter from former Phoenix New Times investigative reporter Terry Greene Sterling's book: ILLEGAL: Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone

Wednesday, Jul 28 2010

Editor's Note: As a staff writer for Phoenix New Times, award-winning journalist Terry Greene Sterling reported for years on the political brawls and human tragedies that have made Arizona the epicenter for the national immigration debate. Sterling is now a contributor for The Daily Beast, and Writer-in-Residence at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Her stories have appeared in The Washington Post,,, and The Nieman Narrative Digest, among other publications. Her first book, ILLEGAL: Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone, from which this chapter is excerpted, tells the stories of unauthorized immigrants stubbornly hunkering down in the Phoenix area, and their friends and foes. Sterling is your tour guide into the shadows, where people hope, live, pray, work, sin and die in the city that begat the harshest immigration laws in the nation.

The book is for sale here and at all major bookstores and

Sterling tweets @tgsterling and blogs about immigration in Arizona at


Mexican immigrants patronized the dollar store. So did crack addicts and a child molester. Why didn't the owners call the police?

It didn't take me long to learn Inocencio was a prankster. One day in the spring of 2010, when I visited his dollar store in central Phoenix, he dared and cajoled me to eat a fried grasshopper.

He had brought a Tupperware tub full of the crisp, salted brown insects, called chapulines, into the store for his lunch, along with tortillas he'd made earlier in the morning. Inocencio was forty-three years old, and had resided in the United States for more than two decades. He knew Anglos didn't eat grasshoppers.

Which was exactly why he wanted me to eat one.

“They are delicious,” he said.

He set the Tupperware on the counter. The large fat grasshoppers, he said, were females, and tasted better than the smaller males. He warned me to pull the legs off before popping the bugs in my mouth because the legs sometimes got caught in the throat, like splinters.

I was going to do this thing.

So, I selected a male grasshopper—less to eat—and put fifty cents on the counter for a cold can of Coke to wash the grasshopper down. With a grin on his face, Inocencio gave me to the count of three in Spanish: Uno! Dos! Tres! I must have had a funny expression on my face when I placed the weightless bug on my tongue and forced myself to chew.

Inocencio exploded into giggles. His wife, Araceli, who rarely smiled, laughed so hard she could barely take my picture with my iPhone camera.

Actually, the grasshopper wasn’t bad. It tasted clean and slightly salty.

Inocencio told me his parents had brought the grasshoppers from southern Mexico during one of their visits to Arizona. The bugs were high in protein and low in fat, ideal for Inocencio, who’d been dieting and had just lost about forty pounds. His once-tight golf shirt and khakis now hung loose on his short frame, and that made him happy.

On this particular morning, Inocencio sat on a stool near the cash register. Araceli puttered in the stock room. I stood on the other side of a glass counter that contained highly-desirable merchandise that might be stolen: Tall cans of spray paint (the kind used on freeway overpasses and freight trains) Hannah Montana toys, men’s cologne, manicure kits, women’s perfumes, CDs by the popular norteño group, Los Tigres del Norte. Other items that might be shoplifted – phone cards, batteries, Tylenol, Alka-Seltzer Plus, prophylactics, pregnancy test kits, CD players, more Hannah Montana toys, makeup, lighters, cigarettes – were displayed behind the glass counter or on the walls above the cash register, where Inocencio could keep an eye on them.

About every ten minutes or so, Inocencio would ring up a customer’s purchase – a Monster drink, a small bag of Cheetos, a couple of packs of Marlboros, a bicycle lock, a bag of white socks, a dozen eggs, a pound of rice.

One jittery man purchased a Bic lighter and a glass tube, which I figured he’d soon use as a crack pipe.

Inocencio wore an inscrutable expression on his face when he took the jittery man’s money. The man hurried out of the store. I asked, but Inocencio didn’t want to speculate about why customers bought the glass tubes. All he would volunteer was that he bought the tubes at Phoenix wholesale houses. “They’re legal,” he noted. He kept them behind the counter. They were made in China, and each held a tiny paper flower, called a “Love Rose.” They are sold in convenience stores and small shops all over Phoenix.

Inocencio charged a dollar for each Love Rose tube that had cost him a quarter. That’s a 75 percent markup.

Crack addicts hadn’t done him any favors. Addict whores promenaded on the street in front of his store in the evenings.

He’d been robbed twice, burglarized once, by people he assumed were addicts.

Once, a Spanish-speaking immigrant pointed a pistol at his chest and stole $160. The thief was never caught.

Another time, when Inocencio’s kids and wife were in the store, an Anglo held a knife to Inocencio’s side and robbed them of $100.

Burglars had robbed the dollar store at night, breaking in through the air conditioning vent and stealing more than $300 worth of phone cards and Marlboros. They were never caught.

Inocencio insured the store against theft and vandalism and considered addicts part of the cost of doing business. He thanked God in heaven that the majority of his customers were not addicts, but immigrant families, oldsters, working people, and students. Inocencio and Araceli had chosen the location of their shop on this busy street because the duplexes and rental houses and apartment buildings in the neighborhoods behind the store were home to their customer base—Mexican immigrants.

About The Author

Terry Greene Sterling


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