About a quarter-and possibly as much as a third-of the population of little San Mateo, Mexico, now lives in Philadelphia.
"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.
|San Mateo's old houses-occupied by families without immediate relatives in Philadelphia-are built with a sand mixture made from the earth.|
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.)
|Sacaria, a member of the parents' committee working to build the new high school, has a son in Philadelphia.|
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.
|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.|
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.
|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.|
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.
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide