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¡Viva Mexadelphia!

(<em>Cover design by Sara Green</em>)

(Cover design by Sara Green)

¡Viva Mexadelphia!

About a quarter—and possibly as much as a third—of the population of little San Mateo, Mexico, now lives in Philadelphia.


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San Mateo Ozolco, Mexico—On a chilly January day, smoke rises from Popocatepetl, the active snow-capped volcano that overlooks San Mateo, a tiny, humble pueblo that lies on the edge of a cliff two hours southeast of Mexico City.

Popocatepetl means “smoking mountain” in Nahuatl, the pre-Hispanic indigenous Aztec language still spoken in this isolated region where campesinos have lived off the rocky land for nearly 2,000 years. To the west lies the inactive volcano Iztaccihuatl, which translates as mujer blanca in Spanish, or “white woman” in English.

According to Aztec mythology, this area was once home to an Aztec warrior who was in love with the emperor’s daughter. Hoping to extinguish the love affair, the emperor sent the warrior to war in Oaxaca in the hope he’d die in battle. But instead his daughter died of grief while her lover was away.

The still-active Popocatepetl volcano overlooks the pueblo.

The still-active Popocatepetl volcano overlooks the pueblo.

When the warrior returned, he learned of his lover’s death. He carried her body out and buried it, and the gods covered her body with a blanket of snow. She became the silent, peaceful volcano Iztaccihuatl, while the still smoking Popocatepetl is said to be the angry spirit of the young warrior.

From Cholula, the nearest city, it’s a windy ride to San Mateo, past corn and cactus fields. The white minivan loads and unloads sturdy old women carrying vegetables and flowers back from markets.

When Hernando Cortes occupied this region in 1500, he ordered 365 Catholic churches-one for each day of the year-to be built in Cholula and its outskirts. Although only about 175 churches were built under Cortes, there are now more than 365 churches in and around Cholula.

Many of the pueblos are named after the patron saint of their church. As the van winds in and out of each town-stopping in San Lucas, San Pedro, Santiago Xalizitla and other small communities-the surroundings become more modest and the poverty more pronounced, until it reaches the farthest point and last stop: San Mateo.

Sacks Park, South Philadelphia—On a Sunday afternoon in this park at Fourth and Washington, the city’s Mexican community has gathered to celebrate the spring equinox.

Husband-and-wife teams heat tortillas on an oiled baking tray, chop big chunks of cooked pig into crumbly, meaty bits and refresh containers of shredded lettuce, cilantro and salsa. The line for tacos is long.

Events like this always take place on Sundays, when the city’s undocumented restaurant workers-the dishwashers, busboys, line cooks and delivery men-are most likely to have time off to spend with family and friends.

Sacaria, a member of the parents' committee working to build the new high school, has a son in Philadelphia.

Sacaria, a member of the parents' committee working to build the new high school, has a son in Philadelphia.

Most of the young Mexican men standing around the park wear American jeans, name-brand sneakers and baseball caps. Some have lived here for five years or more. Others only months. Most speak little or no English. Almost all are from San Mateo.

On this day there’s a performance by a native Aztec dance group. Daniel Chico and Brujo de la Mancha formed the group three years ago as a way to keep the city’s growing Mexican community in touch with its indigenous roots while creating new lives in a new country.

Before the DJ begins his mariachi and reggaeton mix, an announcement is made about Grupo Ozolco, a group of San Mateans who are attempting to organize a transnational community. They’re trying to raise $25,000 to build a new high school in San Mateo (the existing school is housed in a structurally unsound building with broken windows and no running water) with dollars earned in Philadelphia.

The hope is to provide an infrastructure that can give San Mateo youth a shot at getting the education and skills necessary to find better jobs when they come to Philly. They dream of a time when San Mateo kids can be educated and attend universities at home so they don’t have to cross the border and live in fear and isolation in an unwelcoming country that accepts their cheap labor but often rejects their humanity.

A family with three children in Philadelphia add a second level to their home.

A family with three children in Philadelphia add a second level to their home.

The first San Matean to come to Philadelphia was Efren Tellez, who arrived 11 years ago. Tellez hired a smuggler to bring him through the desert, across la frontera and up to New York, where relatives awaited him. That much is known.

But stories vary about what happened next. One version has it that Tellez met up with a friend in New York, and together they went to Camden, N.J. But they couldn’t find work, so they came to Philly instead. Here they found jobs at an Italian restaurant at Second and Walnut, where they worked for about a year before switching restaurants.

Another version has it that Tellez’s smuggler never brought him to New York at all and dumped him in Philly instead.

Lost and speaking no English, Tellez wandered the streets of the city until, walking down Locust Street, he spotted a canopy outside a restaurant that read “comida Mexicana” (Mexican food).

“Imagine that,” says Guillermo, who owned the Mexican restaurant Tellez had somehow stumbled upon. “This was 1995, and in Philadelphia there were no Mexicans, so for him to find that sign it was like an oasis in the middle of the desert.”

Guillermo recalls Tellez as shy at first. “He was very afraid. He was very lost. He was kind of disoriented,” Guillermo says. “He didn’t know what to ask for-if he should ask for a job or food or money or help or what.”

Tellez was in luck. The restaurant needed a dishwasher, and he was hired on the spot. But when he walked into the kitchen, another surprise awaited him.

“Where are the Mexicans?” Tellez wondered.

Today the undocumented Mexican community of South Philadelphia is about 12,000 strong.

If Tellez were alive today he could walk into just about any restaurant kitchen in the city and find fellow mexicanos hard at work.

Efren Tellez died of exhaustion three years ago. He left behind a wife and three children in San Mateo. His son, the oldest, is about 17. He arrived in Philly just more than a month ago.

Popoca-Tellez stands on the roof of his new home, which he built with money earned from working as a busboy in Philadelphia for the past five years.

Popoca-Tellez stands on the roof of his new home, which he built with money earned from working as a busboy in Philadelphia for the past five years.

Although it’s a difficult population to track, community leaders estimate there are anywhere from 750 to 1,200 San Mateans now living in Philadelphia, most of them men age 18 to 45. The population of San Mateo as of two years ago was 2,600.

That means approximately a quarter-and possibly as much as a third-of San Mateo’s population now lives in Philadelphia.

After Tellez spent his first two years living and working in Philadelphia, he went back to San Mateo to visit. There he spread the word about Philly-there were restaurant jobs, and they paid well. He soon rounded up about a dozen men-including two brothers-in-law, two cousins and some friends-and he brought the men back to Philly with him.

Once in Philadelphia, those men began telling their brothers, cousins and friends about Philly too. Soon Tellez was making regular trips to San Mateo, bringing as many as 20 more men back to Philadelphia each time.

Mario, a cousin and one of the original dozen to come back with him, estimates Tellez had brought about 200 San Mateans to Philadelphia before he died. He’s remembered as a good guy, someone who wanted to help others find the same opportunities he’d found. Sometimes he charged them the coyote fee, sometimes he didn’t.

For Philadelphia restaurant owners, the arrival of this new immigrant community was a blessing. For one thing, it coincided with the city’s restaurant boom, which was then having a hard time finding reliable workers to take the low-end kitchen jobs.

And there was an added bonus: These new workers had already been trained in the food and restaurant business. Many of the San Mateans had worked in upscale restaurants in places like Cholula, Puebla and Mexico City before coming to Philadelphia.

Two campesinos return from working in the fields.

Two campesinos return from working in the fields.

And along with their labor and restaurant experience, the community also brought history, culture and values.

“They’re very professional and very disciplined,” restaurateur Guillermo says of the San Matean workers. “People who stay out of trouble.

San Mateo's old houses—occupied by families without immediate relatives in Philadelphia—are built with a sand mixture made from the earth.

San Mateo's old houses—occupied by families without immediate relatives in Philadelphia—are built with a sand mixture made from the earth.

The three main roads in San Mateo run parallel. Small houses line either side. There are no bars, restaurants or cafes. On a side street two young women sell roasted corn spread with mayonnaise.

The streets of San Mateo are mostly unpaved. As the minivans roll in, unloading San Mateans from their jobs in neighboring towns, the air becomes thick with dirt. Jeans and shoes get a thick coating of dust.

The town’s gray concrete-block homes are splashed with graffiti painted by teenagers to represent local rival gangs: the Sex Pistols, the Cobras, the Ducks and the Shalacas (a Nahuatl word for scorpions).

Though gangs are a growing problem, San Mateo remains safe. Kids stay out late at night, hanging out on the basketball court in the town center. Even in the pitch black night no one fears for the children’s safety.

San Mateo has many children, and many women and old people too. Young men, though, are pretty rare.

soccerBut on Sunday afternoons, in the dirt field behind the high school, whatever young men are still left in San Mateo come together for the weekly soccer match. On this day almost all of the assembled-some 50 young men-have lived in Philly for anywhere from one to six years. Some will return in another year or two, when their money runs out. Others are here for a short time-to visit friends and family-and will return to their Philadelphia jobs once the weather warms.

Watching a dusty soccer match in this tiny, tranquil village that sits on the edge of a cliff at the bottom of a mountain are several dozen members of Philadelphia’s undocumented restaurant community-dishwashers, busboys, prep cooks and barbacks from Audrey Claire, Twenty Manning, Davio’s, Smith & Wollensky, L2, Five Spot, Pietro’s, Rouge, McCormick & Schmick’s and other spots.

Pascual (from left), 23, lived in Philly three years and worked as a cook at New Deck Tavern; Demetrio, 27, was a barback at the Five Spot; David, 25, was a busboy at Susanna Foo.

Pascual (from left), 23, lived in Philly three years and worked as a cook at New Deck Tavern; Demetrio, 27, was a barback at the Five Spot; David, 25, was a busboy at Susanna Foo.

Para el dinero es bueno,” says 25-year-old David Tellez-Sanchez, not taking his eyes off the game in front of him.

These are men who work hard, long hours when they’re in Philadelphia, who sleep in crowded South Philly apartments, who stay out of trouble and therefore hopefully under the radar. They come to earn money to feed their families back home in San Mateo.

Tellez-Sanchez last worked as a busboy at Susanna Foo. He spent six years living in Philadelphia before going home.

For the young men of San Mateo-brothers, sons, husbands, cousins—it’s become a coming-of-age tradition to cross the border and find a restaurant job in Philadelphia.

Even the mayor of San Mateo came to Philadelphia four years ago. Today he works as a line cook at a restaurant on Columbus Boulevard.

A street scene in quiet San Mateo.

A street scene in quiet San Mateo.

“First you cry because you leave your family. You cry one hour, two hours,” says 27-year-old Ruben, dressed in a red-and-blue Phillies ballcap, a crisp white T-shirt, jeans and sneakers. “After that, you’re very depressed, because you don’t want to lose this life you’ve got with your family, your friends, your country.”

Ruben was part of the early wave of San Mateans to come to Philadelphia. It’s been six years since he made the long and frightening trip across the border, led by a coyote he didn’t know and joined by 80 other Mexicans he’d never met. His uncle made the same journey a couple months before him, his brother a month after him.

Ruben lives near Broad and Snyder. He works in the kitchen at a bar/restaurant on South Street, where he spends 45 hours a week washing dishes and prepping food. He brings home about $500 every two weeks. If he were back in Mexico this time of year, still a campesino working the land, he’d be planting corn, beans and ava all day, returning from the fields with no food, no money, no product of his labor.

Before he came to Philadelphia, Ruben attended secundario and preparatorio in neighboring towns outside San Mateo. His uncle (who works alongside him in the restaurant kitchen) had a job in Mexico City at that time and paid for his nephew’s education.

Though Ruben was the only student from San Mateo to graduate from his preparatorio, there were still no opportunities for him in the pueblo. After resisting the inevitable for several years, he contacted a coyote and made the trip across the border into Arizona, then to L.A., and finally ended up in Brooklyn.

In New York Ruben worked a construction job for two months, making $250 a week. Though he shared an apartment with several San Mateans, he missed a sense of community. It seemed everyone cared only about their individual dreams.

“Where is the life?” he wondered.

“The life is gone,” his friends would tell him.

Ruben called his uncle, who told him to come to Philadelphia. “There are too many Latinos [in New York],” his uncle told him. “So there’s not enough jobs. That’s why you make only $250 a week. Come to Philly. There’s like 50 Mexicans here.”

“But what about the community?” Ruben asked. “It’s very important, or else you lose your mind.”

“Who cares about the community?” his uncle said. “Forget community.”

Ruben came to Philadelphia, but still he was depressed. “I can’t live like this,” he told himself.

But things soon changed.

“They started coming-Mexicans, Mexicans, Mexicans-every day, every week,” he says.

And for Ruben, many of these new Mexicans were familiar faces-friends and neighbors from San Mateo.

In the 11 years since Efren Tellez stumbled upon this city, the people of San Mateo have created a transnational community in South Philadelphia. It’s a community that goes beyond the Washington Avenue taquerias and the shops selling tortillas, nopalitos, cumbia CDs, phone cards and money transfers that dot the Italian Market.

A San Matean family sells pulque—an all-natural alcoholic ancient Aztec drink made from the maguey plant—in nearby San Pedro.

A San Matean family sells pulque—an all-natural alcoholic ancient Aztec drink made from the maguey plant—in nearby San Pedro.

At least one business caters specifically to the Mexican people from San Mateo. One enterprising San Matean now runs a paqueteria, a package delivery business that makes trips back and forth between San Mateo and Philadelphia. Every few weeks he drives his van across the country and across the border, delivering clothes and gifts to family members in el pueblo, and returning with needed documents, like birth certificates and school diplomas, and even samples of San Mateo food and other reminders of home.

At St. Thomas Aquinas at 18th and Morris, a Catholic church that serves the neighborhood’s longstanding Italian community, more and more Mexican faces fill the pews. El Charro Negro (so named for his uniform of black sombrero and black cowboy clothes) brought over a small folk art statue of St. Matthew, the pueblo’s patron, and had it placed on a side altar beside the statue of Mary. (It stayed there only a short while, though. The church requested Charro remove the statue and take it somewhere else. It now resides in his home.)

Even the youth gangs that claimed their small sections of the pueblo back in San Mateo have transplanted themselves to Philly. The Shalacas, the largest and roughest of the bunch, have more members living in Philly than in the pueblo. Although they don’t control any territory here, the gang divisions sometimes represent historic family rivalries, and an occasional fight will spark up seemingly out of nowhere when members from rival families encounter each other unexpectedly on the street or at a baptism party. But most of the men are too busy working, too focused on saving money, and too intent on remaining under the radar of the authorities to cause any real trouble.

San Mateans have even managed to stay connected to their neighboring town, San Lucas. The people of San Lucas have formed a similar transnational community just over the bridge in Camden, N.J. A walk down Federal Street, Camden’s main thoroughfare, will take you past the popular Restaurant San Lucas and a San Lucas food market, in addition to many other Mexican stores and restaurants.

Even the Sunday afternoon soccer matches that take place each week in the dusty field behind the high school in San Mateo have relocated to Philly. Ricardo Diaz, the primary organizer of the “Day Without an Immigrant” event back in February, runs a Latino soccer league with several Mexican teams.

El Charro Negro has helped unify a much smaller league for the women, with Sunday morning practices and the occasional Philadelphia (San Mateo) vs. Camden (San Lucas) match. Women playing soccer would be unheard of back in San Mateo, but over here it’s a much-needed diversion, a chance for the women to get out of the house. The team’s original name was Ozolco, but they changed it to Aguilas (Eagles) to honor both the eagle represented on the Mexican flag and Philly’s own favorite sports team.

And then there’s Grupo Ozolco, using the little free time they have to organize the community so dollars earned in the U.S. can be used effectively to address some of the overwhelming economic and social needs back home in San Mateo.

“I know everyone is here for the job, for the money, to take care of your family,” Ruben tells the dozen or so San Mateans gathered at Casa de Soles, an organization hub for the South Philly Mexican community. “But I know everyone wants to go back. But when you go back, you have nothing there. We have a chance here in America to do something for people there-because I know everybody still has family there.”

Students attend high school in a crumbling building on the verge of collapsing.

Students attend high school in a crumbling building on the verge of collapsing.

The dollars sent back to San Mateo mean new homes, new furniture, even new cars for the people there. But it doesn’t change the fundamental poverty of the pueblo-the lack of opportunities for the youth.

Working closely with Casa de Soles’ director Peter Bloom, Ruben and El Charro Negro formed Grupo Ozolco to determine the community’s needs and how to address them using dollars earned in Philly restaurants.

At that first meeting about a year ago, Ruben invited everyone to share their personal stories.

There were many to choose from. There were issues of local corruption and mass unemployment. The group could raise money to install streetlights, or pave the road to San Pedro, or create recreation programs to give the youth something to do. (San Mateo has a recent but growing problem with bored kids and teens inhaling paint thinner and taking veterinary drugs.)

But the most pressing problem, they agreed, was education. Ruben had graduated from a preparatorio in nearby San Pedro, but guys like Charro had attended just three years of primary school.

And while San Mateo had finally opened its own high school two years earlier, it’s in a crumbling building with three overcrowded classrooms. Its location in the town center means constant noise and traffic distractions. The building is hot, the windows are broken and there’s no toilet. If students need to use the bathroom they either walk to the nearby primary school or go home. Of those who finish (the first graduating class will have 26 students), most of the women will get married and have kids. The men will come to Philadelphia to support them.

New homes are being built on every street in the pueblo. A cement truck sits outside a freshly painted house built with dollars earned in Philadelphia.

New homes are being built on every street in the pueblo. A cement truck sits outside a freshly painted house built with dollars earned in Philadelphia.

When San Mateans living in Philly return to San Mateo, whether for a visit or to stay, they find a very different pueblo from the one they left. New concrete homes have replaced many of the previous era’s homes that were made from a claylike material and sand. Though most new houses are still raw gray blocks awaiting further construction, a few are stuccoed and painted. Splashes of color and modernity surface here and there amid the ancient, quiet landscape.

Over in the Shalacas’ neighborhood-what has historically been the poorest section of the pueblo-El Charro Negro’s new two-story, six-room and two-bath home is getting its final touches.

As the sun goes down and the cold mountain air blows gusts of dirt across the bumpy roads, men and women return from el campo, as they have for decades, even centuries. Stray dogs sniff each other out in the middle of the road. Popocatepetl exhales his smoky breath across the sky. An old man, drunk off pulque, stumbles up the street laughing.

Kate Kilpatrick is PW‘s arts and entertainment editor.