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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"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 least one business caters specifically to the Mexican people from San Mateo. One enterprising San Matean now runs a paqueteria, a package delivery business that makes trips back and forth between San Mateo and Philadelphia. Every few weeks he drives his van across the country and across the border, delivering clothes and gifts to family members in el pueblo, and returning with needed documents, like birth certificates and school diplomas, and even samples of San Mateo food and other reminders of home.

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.
Even the youth gangs that claimed their small sections of the pueblo back in San Mateo have transplanted themselves to Philly. The Shalacas, the largest and roughest of the bunch, have more members living in Philly than in the pueblo.

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.
Even the Sunday afternoon soccer matches that take place each week in the dusty field behind the high school in San Mateo have relocated to Philly. Ricardo Diaz, the primary organizer of the "Day Without an Immigrant" event back in February, runs a Latino soccer league with several Mexican teams.

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.
"I know everyone is here for the job, for the money, to take care of your family," Ruben tells the dozen or so San Mateans gathered at Casa de Soles, an organization hub for the South Philly Mexican community. "But I know everyone wants to go back. But when you go back, you have nothing there. We have a chance here in America to do something for people there-because I know everybody still has family there."

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.

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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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