Mi Casa, Su Casa

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

By Kate Kilpatrick
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted Apr. 5, 2006

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Photographs by Kate Kilpatrick

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.

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

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.

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


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."

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1. Anonymous said... on Jul 6, 2009 at 09:35AM

“Great article!”

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2. hine nic mati nochi nowihki said... on Jun 30, 2010 at 12:31AM

“I would like to say something but not in english_porqe encustan a personas jovenes sobre la Historia del pueblo ? Puede qe sepan s obre la primera persona qe arribo en philadephia pero no sobre cuantos anos tiene el publo : eso solo lo saben las perspnas de mayor edad y encuanto a las historias presentadas sobre las personas
a mi punto de vista me parese absurda porqe se enfocan en los grupos de gangas de muy mala reputacion y ay mas personas qe llegaron antes qe efrain tellez ;soy de california y ese es mi comentario y porsierto shalaca no sicnifica escorpion sino ormiga rojisa qe vive ose oculta debajo las rocas con umedad y si como dise la comunidad qe no abla ingles porqe ponen un articulo en ingles si nadien lo entendera y los qe io entiendan creo qe no comentan del tema .”

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