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This South Philadelphia family of five is so traditional and so typical in many ways. They pay their bills, work long hours and take great pride in their home. They push their three daughters to study hard and aim for college, filling their schedules with dancing and art classes. Sundays are for church. This past Christmas, the mother played the role of an angel in the Nativity play. The oldest daughter played the devil.
Now come the differences. Spanish is the family’s primary language. Meals are far from “Leave It To Beaver” meat-and-potato affairs, instead they feature the same Mexican dishes the mother and father grew up eating in Mexico. The parents are in the country illegally. The children, born here, are American citizens. “Grazie a Dio,” muttered Alma Romero when talking about the security her children enjoy. Thanks be to God.
When Romero, 38, moved to the city in 1998, she lived in a row home near the 9th Street Market with her husband and 16 other men. The newly married couple shared a single room with four strangers. “There were no more than 30 Mexicans here in South Philly. I was the first girl,” she recalled recently. “The store, you couldn’t get the chiles.” That seems hard to believe now, as the still-growing Mexican population is evident on almost every block.
There are an estimated 20,000 Mexicans in Philadelphia, but that Census Bureau estimate is believed to be low. Many of them live in a cluster of census tracts parallel to the Italian Market, running from Christian Street down to Oregon Avenue. You just have to take a walk in the neighborhood to see their presence. The Mexican soccer league at the Sacks Playground at 4th. The more than two-dozen Mexican retail business on 9th Street just below Washington. Annunciation BVM Catholic Church, on South 10th Street, offers two Spanish masses to its largely Mexican congregation. St. Thomas Aquinas, on Morris Street, offers one Spanish mass.
The number of baptisms and communions at both churches has at least doubled since 2005, said Sister Maria Lauren Donahue, who is active in both ministries. Community activist Monica Orozco-Cadena said she remembers getting excited when she heard people speaking Spanish on the streets after moving here in 2000. No stores carried Mexican products, and the only way to get familiar treats was from a traveling salesman who played Mexican music as he drove his truck through the neighborhood. “Then came the tortillas, the queso and now they even have candy I remember from growing up,” she said, mentioning a tamarind treat she recently found.
The Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce had about 50 member businesses eight years ago. Today, there are 570, said Varsovia Fernandez, the Chamber’s president and CEO, and a number of them are Mexicans. Mexican business people “are very hard working and dedicated. They are finding success in the retail and restaurant industries,” she said. “We find them very open to learning the American system and adapting to how we do business here.”
In many ways, she said, the story of Mexican immigration and integration in South Philadelphia is a familiar one—much like that of the immigrants from Ireland and Italy who made the neighborhood their home beginning in the 19th century. “This is so rich and so consistent with Philadelphia history,” Fernandez said. “It gives us a great sense of accomplishment to know that soon the Mexican community will start to branch out … into other areas like the others did.
One Philadelphian described watching the growth in South Philly’s Mexican population through this lens: First came the young men, riding their bikes to jobs in Center City, often in the kitchens of restaurants. Then came the young women. Soon, couples were walking hand in hand. A short time later, those couples were pushing baby carriages. Now, these American children are attending city schools. The city’s Mexicans, who began to arrive in force only after 2001, are settling into life in America.
“All of us, every once in a while, we would think we could go back to Mexico at some point. Even me, I’d say, ‘I’ll do this for 3 years and then I’ll go back,'” said Orozco-Cadena, a single mother of an 8-year-old daughter. “Now, talking to the community, they’re still here and they’re established and their friends and families are here. Now, it’s not a couple of years. We have our kids now and we want our kids to have an access to a good education and we’ll be here for a while.”
That’s not to say that the Mexican community has fully integrated, said Yvette Nunez, a vice-president of at Congreso de Latinos Unidos. While the initial large waves of immigrants have begun to find their niches, “the continuous migration still makes it an emerging community,” she said. Her 37-year-old non-profit, based in North Philadelphia, provides multiple social services, including a health center that treats everyone regardless of documentation or income. There isn’t a similar organization that’s as well established and offers as many programs further south.
“There are residents of South Philadelphia who travel all the way up here for services,” Nunez said. “I don’t think the community is yet at a place were the needs are being met locally. That might be the next phase.” The growth shows no signs of slowing down. It happened quickly, but “this is still very new immigration,” Sister Donohue said. “In every way, we can see that the families are growing. They bring hard work and drive and an entrepreneurial spirit along with a sense of community. They want better lives for their families, and when you want that for your own families, it has a ripple effect on the whole society.”
That’s what Romero and her husband, Marcos Tlacopilco, wanted. They went north after hearing “the streets are paved with gold”-type tales. “People say life is better,” said Tlacopilco, 41. “They said, ‘You work one day, two days, three days, and you pay all your bills and that’s it.’ ” That’s why Tlacopilco walked and swam across a river, his clothes in plastic trash bags, why Romero later walked for six hours across desert. “My feet were blistering,” she recalled.
They didn’t find golden streets or easy living when they got here. Both routinely worked 60-hour weeks, he at a fish store and she at a factory. She was paid $4 an hour, she said, and she remembers pleading for a 20-cent raise that she did not get. There were no holidays. The family didn’t take a vacation until two years ago when they went to Disney World.
Still, they saved and saved, eschewing banks although there was a constant worry that they would lose their money in a house fire or to theft. When Marcos’ boss offered to hold their savings for them, they thought it was a good idea, a down payment on the 9th Street storefront they wanted to buy. And while the couple did eventually end up with that storefront, they estimate they lost more than $140,000 because they didn’t fully understand the American way of doing business.
They were “ignorant,” Tlacopilco said, not knowing to get legal representation immediately so they were taken advantage of by less savory business people. Still, in 2007, the fish store on South Ninth Street was theirs. Then, it was time to find a permanent home for the family, which at the time included daughters Jennifer, Karen and Alma.
Tlacopilco had learned about carpentry and electrical work from his father while in school in Mexico. He approached a man who owned a run-down row home a stone’s throw from the fish store. Could he rehab the building at his own cost, receiving payment for his work in rent when the project was complete? The landlord was skeptical.
The house was so run down that “the neighbors told us even the rats wouldn’t live here,” recalled Karen, now 13. Her father did most of the work himself, including digging out a basement. The girls helped by picking up debris, mostly rocks. Alma, now 7, happily demonstrated how she dragged a bucket away with both hands.
Sitting in the family’s cheery yellow kitchen, Tlacopilco says the family will live rent-free for at least five more years. He is proud of his home, especially the central air conditioning system he installed. “When it’s hot, I say, ‘Come to my house,’ ” he said. But even with the house and the business, life isn’t any easier for the couple. The store is open six days a week, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. At least once a week, Tlacopilco drives north to pick up fresh fish. The trip takes all night, bringing him back to Philadelphia just in time to open the store. He then works the full day.
In talking to the couple, it was clear Tlacopilco and Romero were tired, their eyes red-rimmed. They juggled taking care of their youngest, one-year-old Michael, with preparing dinner and answering questions in English and Spanish. (Although the couple do speak a fair amount of English, a translator attended one interview to catch the nuances of their speech.) But they were gracious and incredibly proud of their home.
Asked if he ever had a chance to rest, Tlacopilco joked he was resting at that moment, sitting at the kitchen table of “mi castillo.” My castle. Is it ever too hard? No, he said, noting, “If it’s hard over here, it’s even more difficult in Mexico.” Tlacopilco, who ended his formal education with high school, is a natural entrepreneur, and describes different business ideas he has for himself and his family. He’s been inspired, he said, by author Lionel Sosa’s book “The Americano Dream: How Latinos Can Achieve Success in Business and in Life.”
He thinks big, telling his daughters they have a “treasure,” knowing English and Spanish. He tells them, “Thinking is the hardest job. That’s why very few people do it,” paraphrasing automaker Henry Ford. “I try to push and push education,” he said. “We teach them my job, too, to show them how hard it is. We say, ‘Look, if you stay in school, you can do better.…”
The three girls attend Christopher Columbus Charter School. The oldest, Jennifer, will move to high school next year, although it’s unclear which. Last year, Jennifer wrote an essay about her family “With all pride and joy, I say that I am an immigrant’s daughter,” she wrote, even though it requires her to be two different persons: “You go to school and people say, Hey. You come home and mom says, Hola, mija.‘” The daughters recognize the sacrifices their parents have made.
Last month, Jennifer wrote a letter to her father for his birthday: “I love you very much and very grateful and blessed to have a father like you,” she wrote. “I admire everything that you do.… You always keep our family together and you’ve worked very hard all your life to give the best to your family.… It doesn’t matter the age you have, I will always be your little girl. I love you, old man.” The letter, written in Spanish but read aloud by a translator in English, gets her father every time, no matter what language, Tlacopilco said, wiping an eye.
Bigger and better
He would love to see one of his daughters become an architect, so the two of them could work together in the future. She could develop the plans. He could bring them to life. Romero said she dreams that one of the children becomes a doctor, not that any seem so inclined at this point. It’s just that she wants them to “be bigger and better.”
She’s also well-aware of the need for more Spanish-speaking doctors to address the many medical challenges facing the growing Latino community. With American prosperity has come some very American problems like obesity, diabetes and heart disease, she said. She volunteers with Puentes de Salud, a non-profit that provides health services for the Latino community.
But that future is a long ways away. Right now, Romero said, her happiest times have been spent watching her daughters perform traditional Mexican dances. “They love being here, they love this country, but they also love their own culture,” she said, showing off an album featuring photos of the dancing girls.
Describing her neighborhood, Romero off-handedly called it “mi puebla.” My town. She was talking about how her 7-year-old can go to the market by herself and ask for an onion. “Everybody knows her. She was raised with them so they help her and keep her safe,” Romero said. “This is my family.”
Photos by Peter Tobia
This is the second in a series of stories examining the lives of immigrants in Philadelphia. In an earlier piece, contributor Carla Robinson writes about the eight-mile stretch of Roosevelt Boulevard that is home to one in five foreign-born residents of the city. Her piece is called Eight Miles. In an earlier story, AxisPhilly’s content partner Metropolis did an overview of the Mexican community in Philadelphia. You can read that piece here.