Deep Roots, Now Less Sure

By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Carlos’ secondhand white van zigzags through his South Philadelphia neighborhood, plastic rosary beads dangling from the rearview mirror.

The Mexican migrant, who did not give his last name because he is here illegally, is on his way to FDR Park with his wife and three children for a birthday barbecue. On the CD player, the boy band B5 pelts out hip-hop:

You don’t know what you do to me

Between your eyes and your smile, girl,

You’re killin me.

It is the soundtrack for a gloriously sunny April Sunday – Carlos’ day off. But the Center City restaurant worker doesn’t understand much of the English lyrics.

He explains, in Spanish: “Es para mi hija.” (“It’s for my daughter.”)

So are the back-to-back shifts – 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday – making pastries at two of Center City’s swankiest restaurants for a total of $600 a week, after he pays taxes.

And so was his dramatic journey across Arizona’s Sonora Desert with a human smuggler in 1998, his first illegal trip to the United States – almost a rite of passage for young Mexican men aiming for a better life.

Carlos had been working in Mexico City as a bodyguard for children of the wealthy, frequent targets of kidnappers. It was a dangerous job. A friend had died doing it, and Carlos’ wife wanted him out, fast.

The way out led to Philadelphia, where his cousins were making a decent living washing dishes in the city’s budding off-the-books economy. Carlos, too, assumed the life of an illegal laborer 2,000 miles from home. It was a workaday rhythm, broken up by occasional phone calls to his family. He would crumple at the sound of his daughter’s voice, so far away.

The separation became unbearable, and in 2002 Carlos returned to fetch his wife and daughter, then 7. There was another desert crossing, this time even more perilous. Bandits waylaid the migrants, stealing their money and clothes. The group, including women and children, were stripped naked temporarily. Carlos was seared by the shame.

But at the end of a four-day trip, crammed tight with two dozen other illegal immigrants in a van from Arizona to Philadelphia, Carlos now had his family with him. He would no longer go crazy with loneliness.

“It’s logical,” Carlos says, “for a man to be with his family. There are consequences if he isn’t.”

At 34, a magnetic man with hazel eyes and a muscular build, he is a leader in the city’s 12,000-strong Mexican community. He is an ambassador for illegal immigrants to the police, meeting monthly with precinct captains since a rash of armed robberies began last summer against restaurant workers walking or bicycling home from late-night shifts in Center City.

“He’s a great guy,” said Philadelphia Police Capt. Joseph Zaffino, commanding officer for the Fourth District. “He shows true concern for the Mexican community.”

“People trust him and come to him with different issues,” said Peter Bloom, an organizer with Juntos, a Mexican community group based in South Philadelphia.

And he is known as a devoted family man.

Once he had his wife and daughter safely with him, Carlos set about growing his family. He and his wife had another daughter, now 4, and then a son, now 14 months old, whose christening Zaffino attended. He found a pink-stucco, three-bedroom rowhouse near the Italian Market to share with another Mexican family – seven people and two breadwinners in all. They split the $850-a-month rent.

Life now has a rhythm other than work, at least on Sundays. He plays with a start-up soccer league that practices near Oregon Avenue. (His team is Los Falcons.) He worships at St. Thomas Aquinas Church.

And, some days, he takes his children to the park, enduring the pulse of his elder daughter’s music.

She is 12 years old, named after him, and a B+ student at a public elementary school in South Philadelphia.

Swooning to B5’s sentimental stylings like any other preteen, she doesn’t carry herself like a girl whose status is precarious and who has to act as linguistic go-between for her parents.

“It’s hard,” she says. “Sometimes, I don’t know a word, and I make it up.”

At FDR Park, she scrambles out of the van, her siblings in tow, to join the party. It is for a little girl dressed in a frilly pink dress. A half dozen children, all either undocumented or the children of the undocumented, chase one another around while brandishing tree branches. Carlos’ infant son, who has been sick, looks on quietly. He hews close to his mother and the other women barbecuing chicken on a grill. Carlos has made several late-night trips to the emergency room with his son. The doctors, he confides, want to test him for meningitis.

The fathers – a construction worker, a factory hand, several restaurant workers – gather in a tight knot at a picnic table. They worry about what Congress plans for them. They are angry they might be branded felons. They are not criminals, they insist, but have only come here to work. They want a chance to stay and become legal residents of the United States.

“Don’t close the doors,” Carlos says. “We beg for an opportunity. This country is about opportunity for all people.”

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