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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A soccer match takes place every Sunday near the town center.
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.

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.

The still-active Popocatepetl volcano overlooks the pueblo.
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.

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."

A street scene in quiet San Mateo.
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).

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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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