Life in The Golden Cage: A Philly Chef On What It’s Like Being An Undocumented Immigrant

You’ve talked about not being able to travel. You’ve done a lot of traveling, man.
Undocumented immigrant: Yeah, yeah. But thanks to my friends. They’re willing to drive. 12 hours. 14 hours. That’s the only way it can be safe for me to move around.

There’s vacation—go somewhere, take nice pictures & post them to Facebook—and then there’s traveling where you go somewhere and it changes you. That’s what you did by coming here.
Carnal: Yeah, I traveled here and it changed the way I think, what it means to be a human being and care about other people. Philadelphia changed the way I see other cultures and people with different ways of life. People can like the opposite sex or the same sex and it’s ok. People in Mexico at the time [that I was there] it’s not like they were showing the love. People here—there are more liberals. And people were like, yes, I am gay, or I am a lesbian, and it’s ok.

And Mexico City—as diverse, less, or more diverse than Philly?
Resident: Mexico City is a big city and it’s diverse. You see a lot of people, a lot of people from Europe. But also, a lot of people from different states in Mexico, from the north to the south. Definitely, living in Mexico City is a different way to think than living outside of Mexico City in any little town because it’s just life of a city. To me, moving from one big city to another city in a different country—that wasn’t that strange to me. The only thing that was strange was me trying to communicate.

How does Mexico City compare to Philadelphia?
Worker: Philadelphia is small compared to Mexico City. It’s like maybe two, three times smaller than Mexico City.

From what I heard, it’s supposed to be very fucking exciting there right now. Art, music, food scene. Everything.
Fútbol fan: Yeah, combination of different stuff. Definitely now, the food industry is getting better and better.

There’s people from Brooklyn moving down there.
Leader: [Laughs]

They’re saying that it’s better than New York and I believe it. New York is corporate and boring.

Vecino: That’s what it takes in. People come here and do their thing, what they know how to do. And that’s why Philadelphia is open. It’s open, its arms are open to welcome you to be a part of Philadelphia, and to import something to this state, this city. So, that’s when you become I guess part of the city of Philadelphia—a Philadelphian.

What were the emotions on leaving Mexico? It had to have been a mixture of anxiety, excitement.

Modelo: It’s always scary. That was scary to come over here. Now that I’ve been here for so many years, it’s scary to go back to Mexico because when I came here, I left my friends, my family. You go somewhere else, you start a new life and then you make your life over here…after [nearly two decades] you make another life over here. Totally different. When I was over there, I was a kid. Now here, I’m a man. I have a job. I have my friends. I have a family here, another family. And now, just think about it. To move back to where I come from, when already all of my friends, some of them are not there—they moved to different places.

How hard has that been? Not seeing your family and friends.
Community member: In the beginning, that was really hard. Now, just memories and hoping that one day I’ll be able to go over there and visit them and come back over here.

How many people between family and friends have since come to the states? Have you been able to reconnect with anyone?
Jefe: Family—my brother one time for eight months. He was living in Philly. He didn’t like it. He ended up going back to Mexico City with his family. One of my cousins, I met him for the first time here. Many many miles away from our country, we met here for the first time. He was over here for many years. Went back to Mexico and now he’s there.

How many friends do you have here that are in the same situation as you in regard to your immigration status?
Boss: A lot. A lot. So many.

What’s your response to the negativity of a say a Donald Trump? It’s one thing for me to say, that’s my friend, I know him. What would you say when speaking of yourself and your friends to people like that?
Host: The only thing for me to say this person [people like him] is just be yourself. Be you, like me. Just because he make a comment that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop doing what I do. I’m going to do even better, just show him and the rest of the people that think like him, this is me, and I’m importing this to the city and the community and I want to work hard and I will show you that we are not the people that he thinks that we are. We’re working hard. We don’t have to say anything negative about that [comments like Trump’s] we just want to show them: this is us.

It’s people angry at a distorted idea. Not having the human connection, not knowing you or people like you prevents them from seeing it in a human way.
American: They’re welcome to know me. I’ve met more and more people lately. I always offer my house for everybody, pretty much. I even offer my house in Mexico. Yeah, you can go to my house in Mexico and stay over there for whatever. But people can’t know you if they don’t try.

After seeing that Dionicio Jimenez, a chef whom I had previously written about for The Philadelphia Inquirer and for this blog, had obtained citizenship, I started profiling immigrants in the Philly food scene.
Here are the first two profiles:
AN AMERICAN STORY: CHEF DIONICIO JIMENEZ’S JOURNEY TO CITIZENSHIP
A CHEF’S JOURNEY: CHEF DE CUISINE JHONNY RINCON OF CHRIS’ JAZZ CAFE

A CHEF’S JOURNEY: FROM EL SALVADOR TO PHILADELPHIA WITH JORGE CHICAS OF RED OWL TAVERN

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