I Am Here, But My Heart Is There

A Mexican mother’s divided world

By Kathryn Gonzales          

She holds the phone as if her life depended on it. As if the phone call is the only way she can finally breathe.

Te amo mis vidas” [I love you my lives], she says “nunca olviden

[Never forget]. She bids her kids good-bye for today, but seems like forever as the eyes of Maria Juarez close as she ends the call.

It is 6 a.m. on a Monday as she sits at a bus stop waiting. She takes out her wallet where she carries two photos of her kids Martin, 10, and Rosa, 6, in the front of her wallet—the one she brought with her when she left them and the one her mother took of them on Rosa’s sixth birthday. Juarez, 35, stands as her bus stops, she puts the photos away and enters.

* * *

They were barely getting by in their town of Cardenas, San Luis Potosi, Mexico. Juarez’s husband and father of their children had suddenly passed away from a heart attack. He was the breadwinner of the family, as Juarez stayed home to take care of the children. Grief struck her for a short while, but what followed was a wave of worry and uncertainty. She now had to be both a mother and father to her kids. To care and to provide.

The well-being of her children impacted her decision to leave home. The only consequence was a physical separation from Martin and Rosa who were only five and one. The only person to entrust her children was to her mother, Guadalupe Lopez, 55, knowing she would take care of them. It was a decision made only after Juarez was having a hard time financing the living expenses of putting food on the table, paying for the house, and for the kid’s education.

Mexican migrants headed for the U.S. border

                                                     * * * 

Juarez takes Bus 23 from Hunting Park in North Philadelphia to Chestnut Hill, a neighborhood with houses that look like fortresses. She walks to a white-bricked house and uses her key to enter. She is met with the warm hugs of the twin five-yearold boys of her current employer, a wealthy business executive who work long hours. She scoops them up in her arms and twirls them around.

She is their nanny-housekeeper. The twins own parents kiss them good-bye as Juarez begins the day with making them breakfast. She has been their nanny since she came to the United States in 2014 and was connected to the position through another fellow nanny.

“This is the everyday for me, five days a week, cleaning and taking care of the children,” she says “I make much more here than I did when I was home”.

Continue reading

To Be the First

The first to enter a world no one in your family has entered before.

By Kathryn Gonzales 

Ana Fuentes, 17, will be the first in her family to graduate high school, but instead of pride she feels the pressure of success that has been growing as she has achieved more than her parents ever could.

A senior at Furness High School in South Philadelphia, Fuentes was raised by Honduran immigrant parents and is the oldest of her three siblings. At a young age, Fuentes had to become her own teacher when it came to navigate the world of academics.

“I needed to get the grades in middle school and high school in order to show myself I can do it, but also my parents”, she said. “I realized I was weighed down by the pressure to show my parents and my little brothers that it can be done.”

Fuentes is one of many first-generation students from immigrant families to continue the educational journey despite the challenges that are in their way. A 2011 report from the Higher Educational Research Institute at UCLA found that within four years, only 27 percent of the first-generation students earned a bachelor’s degree; in comparison, 42 percent of their non-first-generation peers had received their degrees.

College students who have the shared status of being first-generation and an immigrant are burdened with navigating the college process, finding resources and balancing their dream and goals with those of their family to name a few. These students pursue higher education to improve their family’s socioeconomic status, which makes choosing a career path an important decision.

“It is already hard enough being first-gen but when my parents don’t know what I am going through with the college process then it’s kind of lonely,” Fuentes explained.

For many first-generation immigrant students, it is there sole responsibility to make sure they are on track to academic success, while still providing support for their family.

While these students are climbing the ladder of academic achievement in their families, they are faced with dealing with family obligations, which may create tension as students are torn between the demands of their home and family versus those of their academics. Continue reading

Finding a Home at Lupita’s

A man’s journey to bring a piece of Mexico to the streets of South Philly

By Kathryn Gonzales     

When Ernesto Atrisco walks into his storefront on 9th Street, it feels like home.

Atrisco, 50, and his family opened Lupita’s Grocery in 2003, offering everything from cornhusks for tamales to glass bottles of Coca Cola. The small grocery shop is filled with bright, colorful packages carrying spices, sauces and various Mexican kitchen staples.

The South Philadelphia grocery was not only a way to make a living, but also a testament to the life Atrisco and his family left behind in Mexico.

“You start to remember home. It makes you feel like you are closer to where you were born and raised,” he said. “I want to show Philadelphia locals and even all people food they’ve never seen before. They can come and experience my culture.”

Atrisco hails from Acapulco, Mexico where he lived in a low socioeconomic class in a house that could barely fit all his family members. “It was the hardest decision for my Dad to let me go, but it was what he had to do,” he says.

While acknowledging the physical and emotional risks that came with going up North, he says asserts that “I never thought about the bad things that could happen to me because I knew if I did I would not go; you just go until you are there.”

Settling in South Philadelphia, an 18-year-old Atrisco started out delivering pizzas for a Greek-owned restaurant but he felt alienated and alone. By his mid-20s, though, he had married and gained citizenship in the U.S., creating a life for himself where he could make a living for his family in the States and for his family in Mexico

There was something missing for Atrisco; a piece of culture that he wanted to add to his community.

“I wanted to own a store that sold products that I remember from home,” he says. “Where I can provide a space for people who look like me that could come and not feel as alone as I did when I came to the U.S for the first time.”

Inside Lupita’s

As his wife, Lourdes Atrisco, 45, recalls: “I thought he was crazy, I mean who wakes up one morning wanting to open up a grocery store” but understood that the need was there in her, too.

It began as a modest operation, a sparse, dull small store with little in the way of structural logic. Walls were discolored with shelves that were disorganized and cluttered, while Atrisco and his family members, traded shifts between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. Soon, through the assistance of community members, Lupita’s Grocery became a regular stop for many locals, adding to the growing multicultural experience in 9th Street.

Walking into the grocery store, you are met with the smell of nostalgia. You’ll see Mexican soccer jerseys, luchador masks [fighter masks], candies and many other products that not only come from Mexico but other Latin American countries.

Lupita’s is one of the many Mexican-owned businesses that have brought new vitality to what is known historically as the Italian Market, after the immigrant street vendors who first set up business on 9th Street beginning in the 1880’s.

Continue reading