Photo: Recycled mattress springs
Mexican immigrant Erika Lopez is known as “the iron lady” because for two years she has scoured the streets of Chicago in search of discarded metal objects, mattresses and all kinds of recyclable material that she later sells to support her four daughters and jobless husband.
Every day between 6:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., Erika drives her pickup along a route of possible suppliers, where besides scrap metal she picks up donations of clothes in good condition and such items as bicycles and toys that she later sells individually from her garage.
“At 6:00 in the morning is when I find the most scrap metal - before my competition gets there,” she told Efe.
“Everything made of iron gets picked up,“she said. “Refrigerators, washing machines, stoves, chairs, fans…”
Sometimes good luck knocks at her door - just this week a neighbor called to offer her some scrap metal and several motors that earned her $700.
Almost triple what she earned weekly working for a temp agency, which required her to be there at 5:30 a.m. to be ready to head out at 7:30 a.m. for the place she would work that day, usually a factory.
“Besides paying less money, temp work kept me from being with my daughters or looking after the house better. I also had to pay $25 a day for a babysitter,” she said.
Erika’s day is exhausting, however. She leaves her kids with her brother at 6:00 a.m. and goes out to collect metals, returns at 8:30 a.m. to take them to school and continues on her rounds until 2:00 p.m.
“I come back to do the housework, make dinner and go out again for awhile, then I pick up the girls at school and take them to taekwondo until 6:30 p.m. Soon after that we’re all at home,” she said.
Collecting and selling scrap metal is hard work and often this Acapulco native ends the day “worn out and needing a massage,” but she prefers this job to any other because “it gives me independence.”
Erika Lopez, 37, has a 20-year-old son who has returned to Mexico. The rest of the family is made up of four U.S.-born girls ranging in age from 6 to 13, and her husband, an unemployed construction worker.
After living in Chicago for 13 years, things got complicated when her husband lost his job and Erika shouldered the responsibility of supporting the family.
When she found that temp work was not for her, she turned to collecting metal, preferably aluminum, copper and bronze, which she sells to different scrap yards around the city.
On every trip she loads her Toyota pickup with the equivalent of $200-$300 worth of recyclable goods, which she stacks in the yard of her house to separate by categories before taking them to the buyers.
“In three days I can collect about a ton, depending on my luck. Sometimes I find nothing, other times I load up the truck in no time,” she said.
This hardworking immigrant has few alternatives because she knows that if she looks for a better line of work “they’ll ask for my papers and I speak little or no English.”