A Chef’s Journey: From El Salvador To Philadelphia With Jorge Chicas of Red Owl Tavern

Are your parents in D.C. now?
They live in Maryland.

How difficult was it when you started moving around with all the different hotel groups you were working with?
Every month I was traveling back and forth, seeing them and seeing my family. I always make the effort to make sure the connection is there.

How many hours are you working here?
50/60 hours.

What about when you were thirteen?
About forty, fifty hours.

You started out washing dishes. You were first a chef at eighteen?
Yeah.

How many hours were you working then?
I would say about the same: 50/60 hours.

What was the process like then of getting your citizenship?
The entire family was together here in Virginia. Sixth months after we got here, all the papers for the green card came through. So we had to travel to El Salvador to do the interview at the Embassy.

Was there worry though that, having been drafted before, if you go back….
No. At that point, they didn’t keep tabs that well on any of that stuff. So the entire family went to El Salvador [in 1986]. We came back with the stamp for the green card. I had the green card for ten years and then I applied for my citizenship. Actually, I applied for my citizenship after five years.

They didn’t hit you with any penalties for coming in illegally?
No, because back then they didn’t have that many laws in place. I think that everything just evolved to get it to that point. It wasn’t as complicated.

Not as it is now.
If you come in illegally [now], you have to ask for forgiveness. You have to apply differently. You have to go through this whole different process.

I know a couple people who are waiting for amnesty. It’s basically people who have done the same thing. Then they apply and it’s like, no.
I’ve been married three years now. I waited two years for the green card for my wife, for her to be able to come here [from El Salvador]. Usually, it should only take six months.

How have you seen that process change for other immigrants?
I think I’ve seen it evolve and change, but the thing is that everybody that comes from…I’ve worked with a lot of Latin Americans, whether it’s from Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico. And the plan is, everybody that comes to the States, they come with the mentality that they’re coming to work a couple of years, save some money, and go back. The thing is, you come and you work and you think you’re going to be making easy money. Yes there’s opportunities. There’s opportunities for you to save money and to make money if you work hard…but it’s not what you think at the beginning. You end up staying five, ten years and the thing is I’ve known so many people who have been here for ten years and they haven’t even made an effort in getting their green card or an effort to try to get a permit to be legal in this country. And that’s the part that I think that a lot of people—that makes it hard, especially now with the way the laws are. It’s gotten harder and harder for people to actually come forth and say, you know what, what do I need to do in order to be able to fix my legal situation here. And at the end of the day, it takes a lot of money. You need to have at least $10,000 in your bank account in order to go talk to an attorney and get everything fixed. That’s hard.

When you talk about people not trying, why do you think that is?
I think that they’re afraid. It’s hard. It’s not easy when you’re here by yourself and you’re feeding a family in your country. Most come with the idea of I’m gonna work, save money, and go back and do my own thing over there. I’ve known people who have gone back. They’re there for a year and then they’re coming back again and trying to figure out, okay, I need to get my entire family over to the states because the opportunities we have in El Salvador are not the same as you find here in the states.
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