Philadelphia Metropolis

Metropolis Report


Los Mexicanos de Filadelfia Part Two: Work, Family and Fear

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

and  Daniel Denvir

For Philadelphia's growing Mexican community, life is defined by work, family and fear.

The Mexicans are hard workers say those who know them and hire them. Young men will sometimes work two jobs, the better to save money for the oft-stated (but often unrealized) goal of returning home. One estimate is that 80 percent of the city's 
Mexicans work in the restaurant or food trade.  The others work in construction and or variety of other jobs.

5764550516_75a5772d86_z.jpgDionicio Jimenez, the Mexican who is executive chef at Stephen Starr's El Rey restaurant, was asked: Is there any restaurant in town of a decent size that doesn't have Mexicans working?  He paused, thought for a moment, and said "No."

Mexicans who work in these establishments often are invisible to patrons. They tend to work in the kitchen, as dishwashers and line
chefs, some work as busboys.  A few -- like Jimenez -- have made it to the top of the business. Others, like Juan Carlos Romero, have opened their own small restaurants.  Romero's is Los Tacquitos del Puebla on the 11-hundred block of South Ninth Street, famous for their tacos al pastor (marinated pork tacos).  There were three Mexican
restaurants in the neighborhood five years ago.  Today, there are 20.

The Mexicans who began arriving in Philadelphia in the late 1990's often were young, single men. They came to America to work and left family and sweethearts behind. They tended to concentrate around the Italian Market area, sharing apartments
and riding bicycles to work in Center City.

When Jimenez arrived in 1998, he lived in a two-bedroom apartment at 10th and Moore Streets that he shared with 11 other men.  "We slept six to a room," he
recalled, with a "What can I say?' shrug. "I paid $80 a month."

Today, there is evidence the Mexicans are settling in. The men have been joined by girlfriends. Couples are getting married and having children. On Easter Sunday, at a Mexican Carnival at Sacks Playground at Fifth Street and Washington Ave., men still outnumbered the women, but there was a sizeable contingent of women with strollers, toddlers and children, though there were few Mexican teens.5763984379_d24494f2c6_b.jpg

The Rev. Orlando Cardona, a Vincentian priest who arrived six months ago to tend to Latino Catholics, said he has performed between 120
and 150 baptisms since he arrived. Most of them were Mexicans. There are 300
children -- again, most of them Mexicans -- enrolled in catechism classes, a
number so large no single church hall can hold them. The classes are divided
among four South Philadelphia parishes.

Continued migration and a baby boom have resulted in a tripling of the Mexican population in the city in the last 10 years.  The U.S. Census Bureau counted 6,200
Mexicans in 2000.  There were 16,200 as of 2009, the bureau estimated. Others put the total at closer to 20,000. Mexicans are now the second largest Latino group in the city, though small in number compared to the city's 122,000 Puerto Ricans.

All but a handful of the Mexicans in Philadelphia are undocumented.  They crossed the border without the necessary papers.  They are not citizens, nor is it likely they will be allowed to become citizens, unless the political climate changes over the next 10 or 20 years. They can be -- and have been-- deported, especially if they run afoul of the law, even for minor offenses.  In Part One, we went into detail about the fate of Mexicans who have fallen into the hands of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents (ICE) as part of the controversial Secure Communities program.

Fear that they will be discovered by ICE and "whisked away," a phrase we heard from a number of Mexicans, makes this latest community of immigrants to South Philadelphia keep a low profile. It does not mean they live in constant fear, but as Jimenez put, "they look over their shoulder."

"You can have a decent life," he added, "but with such limitations."

Thumbnail image for 5763984401_95ec1c513c_z.jpgZack Steele, executive director of Juntos, a Latino social service and advocacy group, said Mexicans face myriad stresses in addition to their legal status.  Many arrive not knowing any English. The older they are the more difficult it is to learn.  Many of them are from rural
areas or small towns and city life comes as a shock. So do our cold winters.

"It's the same with anybody who has to adjust in a completely different environment", Steele said. "Over the last few years, the culture shock issue has decreased a little because now there's kind of a self-sustained community to self identify with, but we see people still
who are traumatized by the migration process. There is still some amount of
isolation and depression...but people understand the structures of the city

The epicenter of Mexican Philadelphia is Ninth Street and Washington Avenue, in the heart of the Italian Market. Mexican owned and run businesses have filled many vacant storefronts, especially south of Washington, reviving what had become a dead zone.

According to a count done last month, there were 27 Mexican businesses in the Market. The list includes seven grocery stores, a record shop, two hair salons, nine restaurants, a music and clothing store, a bicycle shop and Envios de Paqueria a Mexico, a store that specializes in sending packages and wiring money back home. 
Mexicans are assiduous about sending money to parents or relatives in the old country. 

Though they can be found in other neighborhoods, the largest number of Philadelphia's Mexicans are concentrated in an area that runs from Christian Street on the north to Oregon Avenue in the south, and Broad Street east to about Fourth Street. The Market has become, de facto, their commercial strip; the place where they go that reminds them of their birthplace.

Many of Philadelphia's Mexicans come from San Mateo Ozolco, a town of 2,000 in the mountains about 100 miles south of Mexico City in the state of Puebla.

The saying is that there are more San Mateons in Philadelphia than there are in San Mateo and those who have visited the town tell how the population seems divided between the very old and the very young.  The young adults of the village
has traveled north.

El Rey's Jimenez is from San Mateo. He describes the "una cadenita"  -- the little chain --that brought so many San Mateans to Philadelphia.5706374589_91038a7958_o.jpg

"My brother came up first," he said. "He told me to come up.  I told my parents 'I will be back in a year.'  It's now been -- what? -- since 1998.  I
have been here 13 years."

Romero uses similar language in describing how he came to Philadelphia, though he hails from the Mexico City.

"I came here because my brother was here," said Romero. "He came here because my cousin was here. I brought three brothers, and two
cousins. And those cousins have brought other people that I don't even know."

Many Mexicans who first migrated to New York City ended up in Philadelphia after the 9/11 terrorist's attacks in 2001 caused that city's restaurant economy to sink. Edgar Ramirez is one of the New York émigrés, who arrived here five years ago and stayed. He has a consulting business for Mexican clients and does print and radio advertising for them. "It's calm," he said. "New York keeps you running. It's chaos -- like
Mexico City."

Despite the legal and language barriers, Philadelphia's Mexicans are beginning to build the community structures Steele mentioned.

The organization Puentes de Salud operates a health clinic at Eighth Street and Snyder Avenue.  La Casa Monarca, a Mexican arts and child care center is at 17th and
Dickinson, run by Dalia Gorman, a Mexico City native who has lived in
Philadelphia for nearly 13 years. (When she first arrived, Gorman said she had
to drive out to Kennett Square, with its Mexican farm worker communities, to
buy the food she liked. "Tamales, tacos," she says. "All the things that we
didn't have at the time.")

Mexicans attend two Catholic churches in South Philly: Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary at 10th and Dickinson Streets and St. Thomas Aquinas at 17th and Morris Streets. Both have Masses in Spanish. Father Cardona, who last worked on Long Island, is part of a Catholic Church outreach effort for new Latino immigrants, which includes not only Mexicans but also a number of recent arrivals from Central America.

In the sanctuary of Annunciation B.V.M., next to the eighth Station of the Cross, hangs a large painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, patron saint of the Americas. Next to the Virgin, stands a smaller statue of San Mateo, patron saint of the people of Ozolco.

At Palumbo Rec Center at 10th and Fitzwater, the gym is reserved one evening a week for a Mexican men's indoor soccer game. A number of amateur soccer leagues have formed, including one for women. The woman's league
plays Mondays at the park across from Geno's. Others play at parks at Fifth and
Washington and Broad Street and Oregon Avenue.

Ruth Bull runs the International Soccer Seven League, which runs leagues for children, women and men. During the winter, they play indoor soccer at Furness High School.

Ruth, 42, who has been in Philadelphia for eight years, was a professional soccer player in Mexico. "When I was young," she says, smiling, her face set to an expression of mock exasperation. "Now, everything hurts."

Jimenez said the carnival has been held every May for several years to celebrate the victory of the Mexican army of independence over the occupying army of French solders and Turkish mercenaries at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.

For the parade, Mexicans in masks, dressed as soldiers, carrying mock wooden rifles, marched down Washington Avenue from Casa Monarca to the playground at Fifth and Washington. In previous years, it drew several hundred people, Jimenez recalled.  This year, there were about 600 marchers and 3,000 people at the festival in the playground over the course of the day. 

Most at the celebration were Mexicans, but they are no longer simply that. They are now also la gente  de Fỉladelfia. Philadelphians.


Cormac Ferrick contributed to the reporting of this story.

Photos by Peter Tobia

Metropolis has prepared a special photo essay about the Easter Sunday Mexican carnival and parade in South Philadelphia.  To view it, click here.

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