What happened next?
We went to immigration detention. They give you water and crackers in case you’re dying, you’re dehydrated. It was disappointing after all that effort. Then they put you on the bus and you get dropped off in Mexico close to the border. I think it was Cananea. We stayed there one night. Then I tried from another spot—I don’t remember the name. Sometimes I don’t know how to describe—easy or harder. Easy because we had to swim a short distance. It was a small river. But it was really cold. It was November. Even in October it’s kind of cold. It was only a few feet deep. Some parts were a little deeper and you had to swim. We ended in Pomona, California. A lot of people who tried the first time, they got disappointed, they didn’t try again.
We stayed outside of a house. Six people. Everybody was wet. We were hiding in somebody’s backyard. You cover yourself with whatever you can find. The whole thing to get to the house took three hours. The river crossing was only 20 minutes. We were going by farmland. Someone picked us up late morning. They drove us all day. They dropped us somewhere in the mountains. We stayed there one night. They gave us food and water. The next night, we left. We ended in Pomona, California. We stayed there one day. Then they drove me to the airport and I took a plane to Philly.
Because my brother was here. He came earlier from Mexico City—either early ’98 or middle of ’97. He eventually went back to Mexico. He stayed two, three years.
Did he come in the same way?
Through the same people?
No. You find your way.
How did you go about finding the people who helped you?
It’s a risk. It’s a risk you take. It’s not like you’re going to know who’s going to be bringing you here. You never met them. You’re handing over a lot of money. I think it was two thousand dollars.
Just to get across?
To get me to Philly.
Did you have to pay extra when you got caught?
No, but if you got caught and you lost contact with the person trying to help you, you lost your money.
What was your thought process and emotions, your expectations?
You don’t really have expectations. You just want to make it. You just go. But can you trust these people? I don’t know.
At what point did you realize you made it? When you got through airport security in Philadelphia?
When I got to my brother’s house [laughs].
Did you have other family members here?
What did they do for work?
They washed dishes. They worked in restaurants.
I have a friend who said the same thing you did—that washing dishes was the only job available at first because of the language barrier.
Yeah, [I would see] everybody’s a dishwasher. Maybe in 2002, 2003, I start noticing a few [Mexican] bussers, food runners.
When did you start seeing fellow Mexicans working as line cooks and beyond in the Philly restaurant scene?
I think I knew there were a lot of really good cooks but they had the same problem that I had. I was scared to jump to the next step. Because of the language. I think a lot of my paesanos, they had the same thing. After being here two years [he arrived in ‘98], I saw a little bit of people moving up, becoming line cooks, but after five years it was people moving on from there. Now, you see more.
How long was it that you working over 70 hours a week?
From ’98 to 2003.
After Phillipe Chin’s place closed, you get a little break.
No. Back then, Vetri needed more hours. I used to have a job here and there part-time. Always I had part-time jobs, but never like Vetri.
So, after Vetri, Xochitl is the next place. When was that and what were the hours like there?2007. We were only open for dinner, so we got in at 9, 10 o’clock, started prepping and ran dinner service. We were 6 days a week.
How long did you live at 16th and Moore?
For a year and then I moved several blocks north on 19th.
How much did you see South Philly change over the years?
A lot. I see the change because back then, you couldn’t go many places, but now, you can go here and there, or maybe you get familiar with the city and you know how you’re moving without getting somewhere you can have a bad experience. That’s me, but to me, the city changed.
When did you start seeing the markets and restaurants changing?
2003/2004. Back then there was only one little Mexican store I believe at 6th and Washington, that little plaza. I think at that time, people started opening more taquerias.
What was it like to get your first chef job here while also representing your culture at Xochitl?
I was so excited to do something I really wanted and to have come this far. But everything has to end at some point or another and I only stayed there for three years. I was so happy because for three years we had really good reviews. Best of Philly two years. Ten best Mexican restaurants in the States. I was so happy with that.
Then you went right to El Rey?
I came here in early 2010. I started working with Stephen [Starr] in February after giving my notice at Xochitl. I was looking for something different and he was looking for a chef.
How do the two places compare?
It’s a huge difference. Over there [Xochitl] it was more fine dining, more modern Mexican, but still authentic. We used to bring a lot of ingredients from Mexico. Now here, it’s more like homemade food, more casual. It’s still interesting, but it’s two different things, both with authentic ingredients. Back then [with Xochitl], people were like, oh, you’re going to do fine dining Mexican?! We showed them that yes, you can. Here, it’s casual.
What was it like when you finally finished the journey you started all those years ago?
It was a huge relief. Because getting your green card if you get in trouble or car accident or anything, they can take your green card and send you back—whether it’s your fault or not.
Talk about that. You’re working 60 or 70 hours a week—and then there’s that stress.
My lawyer told me just stay away from trouble. Now, it’s a big relief having my citizenship.
This is the biggest thing you’ve ever fought for, right?
How good did it feel?
Really good. I had my kids here, so….
And how big of a celebration was it?
Just me and my kids. We had a nice lunch, a nice dinner and that’s it. We went and had lunch at Parc and we went and watched a movie after that.
The Minions. [laughs] It was good for the kids. That’s how we did it.
Then you made dinner at home?
No. We ordered pizza.