Staff Reporter

Blanca Martinez never had it so good.

Five months ago, she got a 30 percent pay boost, from $5.75 an hour to $7.40 still not much for the 32-year-old single mother to support herself and her two sons, but enough to make a big difference in her daily struggle to live on $15,000 a year. That's under the official poverty level of $16,500.

"I felt very happy when this happened," she says. "It made me feel good. I know I have a good job."

That's all a matter of perspective. Martinez is a maintenance worker at the Wilshire Courtyard office complex and her job involves sweeping floors, emptying trash cans and cleaning 28 restrooms several times a day (including the private bathroom of TV mogul Aaron Spelling).

Martinez, an employee of American Building Maintenance, also cleans windows, doors, desks and kitchens in various office suites on all 10 floors of the complex.

"It's no problem doing what I do," she says. "I've been doing it for five years and every tenant is always nice to me."

Martinez says she would never use food stamps or go on welfare, unless "I absolutely could not work." She also has never sought child support from her ex-husband, and says she wouldn't accept it even if he offered. ("I don't need his money and I don't want it. My family helps me now," she says.)

Still, it's a tough road. Benefits are only available for herself; when her sons get sick, she takes them to the hospital and pays cash. Martinez, who emigrated from her native Honduras in 1989, lives in a government-subsidized apartment in downtown L.A., and her sons qualify for free breakfasts and lunches at school.

She pays less than $700 a month for the two-bedroom, one-bath unit. Her recent raise means that she will pay more of the rent herself, instead of leaning so much on her mother. Every dollar makes Martinez feel that much more independent.

"My dream is not to have a lot of money," she says. "I will never get a lot of money because I don't speak good English."

Yet she wants to make enough so that her sons never feel the hunger and hardships that she faced in Honduras. That includes daily hikes of several miles to fetch buckets of water from a nearby river.

Today, it's a far different routine. Every weekday, she wakes up at 5:30 a.m. and prepares her sons Wilson and Wilfer for school. She drops them off at 7:50 and hustles to punch in by 8 a.m. for work.

For the first two hours, she concentrates on the usual janitorial duties swabbing restroom floors, refilling toilet paper, seat cover and paper towel holders. After a 10-minute break, she tidies up an outdoor eating area in preparation for the lunch crowd.

After lunch, she wipes away remnants of crumbs and discards leftover trash, apple cores and potato chips. She then repeats the morning routine and treks back to sweep, clean and restock the restrooms, kitchens and loading dock.

At 5 p.m. she clocks out and rushes home to help her kids with their homework and prepare dinner. With the boys in bed by 9 p.m., Martinez spends an hour alone, preparing the next day's schedule. By 10 o'clock, she hits the sack.

During weekends, Martinez shops for groceries and every Thursday night she does laundry at the coin-operated machines in her apartment building. Rather than shopping at supermarkets, Martinez does her shopping at La Liborios, a market on Pico near Alvarado that caters to the Latino community.

"Everything is much cheaper there. I get a lot of rice and beans for less money," she says. Buying generic corn flakes rather than a name brand also saves money. When the kids need new clothes or if she wants a new blouse, she hunts for garage sales and accepts hand-me-downs from friends. If she can't find what she needs at yard sales, she heads to the Pic-n-Save or 99 Cents Only store.

Although she drives a beat-up '89 Nissan with close to 160,000 miles a gift from her siblings that cost around $1,200 she makes sure not to go further than six miles a day. "I only drive my kids to and from school and then I go to work," she says.

It was Martinez's mother who first settled in L.A. and became a housekeeper by day and a mail clerk by night. (Her father had a drinking problem, prompting the mother's flight.) Martinez and her two brothers and sister stayed behind in Honduras, living for eight years with their aunt.

During this time, she fell in love, married and had the first of two sons. Then, in 1989, her mother sent enough money for Martinez, her then-husband and son, as well as her two brothers and sister, to move to Los Angeles.

She didn't know a word of English, never having made it past the fifth grade. During her first three years here, she worked as a housekeeper during the day and a janitorial worker at night, earning $5.75 an hour.

During those years, she was one of seven family members who shared a one-bedroom apartment on Western Avenue. In 1992, Martinez, her husband, their son and a newborn son moved into their own apartment a government-subsidized, one-bedroom unit downtown. To help cover the $675 monthly rent, they took in a cousin, who slept on the couch. But less than a year later, she discovered that her husband was having an affair with the cousin. She took the kids, moved back with her mother and filed for divorce.

She doesn't mind being a single parent, nor does she feel the desire to marry again or enter another profession. "My only dream is that my sons are happy and successful," she says. "They have a better opportunity here. The future is definitely here not in Honduras."

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