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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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.

But 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.

Two campesinos return from working in the fields.
"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.


"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.

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

Casa in point: 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.
"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."

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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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