An American Story: Apolinar Sanchez of Le Virtù

Apolinar “Poli” Sanchez of South Philly’s Le Virtù shares his immigrant tale. Among other points, his story is notable in how it relates a very simple fact about immigration today—that it is best for all of us when undocumented immigrants feel comfortable talking to the police [something NPR recently covered]. We talked about his background growing up in Mexico, his life in Philly restaurants, and his role as second in command at Le Virtù. I also spoke with chef Joe Cicala to get a sense of Poli’s importance to the cultural mission of Le Virtù, as well as to put his immigrant story in context with that of countless Italians. The restaurant has been up front about their stance on the immigration issue since the beginning of the year.

Brion Shreffler: Tell me your story.
Apolinar Sanchez: I came here in 1999 and I did the same thing like other people—I just worked and go home. It’s like, you know, I’m a little scared of the police, immigration. They’ll catch you. Something happen—you never know. I was coming back from my work one night and somebody stole my bicycle and I called the police right away because they had a gun. They took my wallet, everything. The police came. We talked about the people who robbed me. The police caught them. The police asked me if I would testify. Because I was willing to act as a witness, they recommended that I look for a lawyer and I should start working on my paperwork for getting a green card. I helped the police, so the police helped me get my papers [green card]. It’s good news for me because I can’t really believe it when the police tell me this. This happened around 2008/2009. Francis [Cretil] and Cathy [Lee] [the owners of Le Virtù] gave me a recommendation, as well as the owner of Paradiso. I wasn’t working at Paradiso at the time, but I still talked to them. They liked me and the way I did my job. Oyster House gave me a letter too. I was also working with them at the time. I still lived in the same house. They asked me if I had any problems with the police or any record.

You were robbed after work?
Yes. I was going back home. I was working at Paradiso on Passyunk. By then, I had already been robbed three times.

You had already been robbed three times?
I didn’t call the police [previously] because I was a little scared.
It’s a little hard because first of all you don’t speak 100% English. Sometimes, you call the police, and you can’t answer their questions in English. You’re scared that maybe they won’t listen, they won’t understand. Or maybe the other people who speak English will say, oh, you lie, that it’s not true. You hear from other people, maybe you call the police, they’ll call immigration. At that time, not that many people call the police because they think you’ll be asked for your papers. Right now, that’s the same thing Trump is getting into. Your hear on the news that you call the police, the police are working with ICE. Right now, it has started happening again like before. For me, I feel better, but now, it’s almost the same because I hear the news that people even with the green card get detained and deported to Mexico. It’s a little scary.

With Trump, people are more afraid?
Yes because you hear on the news that in some states, they’re going after people working in restaurants or on farms. You hear that at airports, they’re not letting you come through with a green card. It’s a little frightening. People are worried about their families being split up, their kids being separated from them. Always, it’s Trump, Trump, Trump.

But with your story, everyone changed once you testified.
After the robbery, I started work on my papers. Found a lawyer. After I get my papers [in April, 2015], I’m feeling great because you can do many things. First of all, you can buy a car and get your drivers license. I don’t feel any more scared about the police or immigration. I felt really good [when the police said they would help me] because I was here at least nine years by that point. I went to court four or five times and served as a witness against the people who took my things. This is a good thing because you help the police and the police help you with the start of the process of getting your papers. You know, I have my family, I have my kids [here]. Also, it does things to help me more because I have my family in Mexico. When I went back to Mexico for the first time in 2015 after I got my green card, I felt very great because I could see my mom, my family.

Right now, I’m getting an organization to help me more. Have you heard of Juntos? Them and other organizations help us to look for a lawyer or help to go to court. Looking for people who speak English and Spanish. It’s a little bit better now.

Do you have any sense of how common it is for people to get robbed in the Mexican community in South Philly?
Not really because it’s just work, go home and I don’t have that many friends. You hear, but maybe I don’t know them. You hear of it.

The staff at Le Virtu

Chef Joe Cicala [center] with some of his staff at Le Virtú. Courtesy of Le Virtú.

Now you’re working on getting citizenship?
I have to apply in one more year or two years more for my citizenship. We have the green card for ten years. You renew it or apply for citizenship. Like I said, because I had it, I was able to go back to Mexico for the first time. It was a very big difference when you come back but not have to worry. It’s great when you can see your family, when you see your mom after a long time. From my experience, I see my mom more older—not the same when I left.

How old were you when you left?
I was 18. My mom was younger. Now when I go back, my mom is older.

How old are you now?
I’m 36.

When you came to the U.S., you came right to Philly?

Because you had relatives or friends here?

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