Ties that bind Mex­i­can vil­lage to Illi­nois sub­urb are frayed

Deeply linked by im­mi­gra­tion, Tonatico’s farm com­mu­nity and small-town Waukegan weigh their grow­ing fears un­der an in­hos­pitable Trump pres­i­dency

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY JOSHUA PARTLOW AND KARI LYDERSEN joshua.partlow@wash­post.com Lydersen re­ported from Waukegan. Gabriela Martinez in Mex­ico City con­trib­uted to this re­port.

tonatico, mex­ico — At this time of year, Mex­i­can tra­di­tions are on col­or­ful dis­play in this lit­tle town lined with cob­ble­stone streets. Ev­ery night for weeks, can­dlelit pro­ces­sions hon­or­ing the lo­cal pa­tron saint set the colo­nial plaza aglow. Fire­works erupt over the church bell tower as mari­achis ser­e­nade the faith­ful.

It is the Amer­i­can­ness of Tonatico that re­veals it­self more grad­u­ally.

You see it in the man cross­ing the plaza wear­ing a Chicago Black­hawks jer­sey. You hear it in the voice of the de­ported stu­dent still strug­gling with Span­ish. The tablets the wait­ers use to take or­ders at Res­tau­rante Re­beca were pur­chased at a Best Buy in Illi­nois; the re­frig­er­ated load­ing bays at the guava ex­port­ing fac­tory com­ply with U.S. bio­haz­ard reg­u­la­tions. One of the ele­men­tary schools that was named af­ter the Mex­i­can rev­o­lu­tion­ary hero Emil­iano Za­p­ata re­cently be­came Es­cuela Pri­maria Henry Ford.

For decades, the defin­ing as­pi­ra­tion in this town tucked in the hills two hours south­west of Mex­ico City has been to leave for the United States, par­tic­u­larly for Waukegan, Ill., a sub­urb north of Chicago. About 6,000 peo­ple from Tonatico live in Waukegan, about half as many peo­ple as re­main in their home town.

Pres­i­dent Trump has pledged to build a bor­der wall, de­port mil­lions of il­le­gal im­mi­grants and change the terms of trade with Mex­ico. His pres­i­dency, how­ever, threat­ens to dis­rupt far more than that. The deeper re­la­tions be­tween Mex­ico and the United States are the bonds of lives, the in­vis­i­ble ex­change of cul­ture be­tween 30 mil­lion peo­ple of Mex­i­can de­scent in Amer­ica and their home towns. The grow­ing fear among Mex­i­cans in Waukegan about Trump’s poli­cies is felt just as keenly here, 2,100 miles away.

“When Don­ald Trump won, I was, like, is this se­ri­ous?” said Saray Rea, a 20-year-old stu­dent whose fam­ily moved back to Tonatico from Waukegan last year. Her fa­ther got laid off when a new owner at his com­pany did not want to em­ploy “il­le­gals,” she said, and her mother could not pay for the mouth surgery she needed with­out med­i­cal in­sur­ance. These days, her friends in Illi­nois post ugly things about im­mi­grants on Face­book.

“The U.S. is my home coun­try. I thought peo­ple were dif­fer­ent,” she said. “And when he won, it re­ally broke my heart.”

Tonat­i­cans in Waukegan

Waukegan is a Rust Belt city with a de­funct ma­rine mo­tor in­dus­try, con­tam­i­nated Su­per­fund sites and a pol­lut­ing coal plant on the shores of Lake Michi­gan. Mex­i­can im­mi­grants have been mov­ing there for decades, and they con­sider them­selves a re­vi­tal­iz­ing force, peo­ple who open small busi­nesses and work hard. Many of their rel­a­tives in Mex­ico live off the money they send home.

Tonat­i­cans run a quinceañera dress shop, a hard­ware store, a bak­ery, an auto shop, a travel agency and at least six restau­rants with names such as An­to­ji­tos Tonatico, El Sol de Tonatico, and Os­tione­ria Briza Azul. While the Mex­i­cans are aware of the anger that some Amer­i­cans have about lost jobs to im­mi­grants, they say they con­trib­ute pos­i­tively to the lo­cal econ­omy.

Two of the Acosta broth­ers run the Briza Azul: Mauri­cio is the chef; his younger brother Leo is the owner. Grow­ing up in Tonatico, Leo used to no­tice the Mex­i­cans back from Waukegan, with their nice ten­nis shoes, bi­cy­cles and cars.

“As young peo­ple we’d look at them, and like every­body, I de­cided to come,” he said.

The busi­ness opened 11 years ago: seafood with a taste of Tonatico. Mu­rals of oc­to­pus and lob­ster dec­o­rate the walls next to scenes of Tonatico and its fa­mous ther­mal springs. They serve lan­gostina “a la Doña Ana,” af­ter their mother’s recipe, in a chile de ar­bol and peanut sauce. Their dish­washer, their wait­ers, their cus­tomers are all from Tonatico. All but one of the nine Acosta sib­lings live in the United States.

The broth­ers now worry that Trump’s threat of tar­iffs will make their in­gre­di­ents — av­o­ca­dos from Mi­choacán, shrimp from Yu­catán, chilies from cen­tral Mex­ico — more ex­pen­sive. A crack­down on un­doc­u­mented la­bor could re­duce their work­force.

A new sense of men­ace has in­vaded Mex­i­can lives in Waukegan. At Leo’s daugh­ter’s high school, “Whites Only” was re­cently scrawled on a bath­room stall door. At the court­house where Leo’s niece works, a white woman told her that she should sep­a­rate the Lati­nos and African Amer­i­cans from the files she was al­pha­bet­iz­ing. “Be­cause Trump won,” the woman said, ac­cord­ing to Leti­cia Rivera, Leo’s wife.

Marychel Figueroa, a 19-yearold sopho­more at Mar­quette Univer­sity who was in Tonatico for Christ­mas break vis­it­ing her grand­par­ents, men­tioned that some stu­dents avoid sit­ting next to her be­cause her fam­ily is Mex­i­can, even though she was born and raised in the United States. Dur­ing a doc­u­men­tary about im­mi­grants in one of her crim­i­nol­ogy classes, a stu­dent turned around and told her: “This is why we need more walls,” she re­called.

At Tar­get near cam­pus, where Figueroa works, she has no­ticed that Lati­nos are buy­ing fewer ex­pen­sive items — fur­ni­ture, beds — out of fear of the fu­ture.

“Peo­ple are ac­tu­ally start­ing to take the ini­tia­tive of sell­ing their things and mov­ing out and go­ing back to their home­land,” she said.

On in­au­gu­ra­tion morn­ing, Marco Sal­cedo, the 47-year-old owner of Marco Salon in Waukegan, changed his Face­book pro­file to a black back­ground.

“My coun­try is in mourn­ing to­day,” he wrote.

Be­cause of Trump’s vic­tory, Sal­cedo has con­sid­ered mov­ing back to Mex­ico, a coun­try he barely knows any­more. He left Tonatico at age 16 to join his aunt and be­came a U.S. cit­i­zen.

“I’m not sure about the fu­ture now,” he said. “Peo­ple are afraid.”

‘Dif­fi­cult times’

“Did you bring your glasses?” Ricardo Acosta asked his small team gath­ered on the road next to the corn­field in Tonatico. “Your gloves?”

His son — a slen­der, shy young man also named Ricardo — wrapped a red hand­ker­chief around his face and pulled a blue cap down to his gog­gles. He started help­ing in the fields when he was 12. Now, at 19, he works six days a week for $9 a day.

The job this morn­ing was to feed dried corn stalks into a thresher and then bag the mulch, which would be used as fer­til­izer for toma­toes. The men trudged out to the acre-size plot. They fired up the trac­tor and slid arm­fuls of stalks into the whin­ing chip­per. Within min­utes, corn dust coated the younger Ricardo’s gog­gles and ev­ery ex­posed part of his face. He coughed as he filled the sacks.

The avail­able work around Tonatico tends to be of this va­ri­ety — man­ual la­bor in the fields. Most of the crops pro­duced here — toma­toes, corn, cu­cum­bers, onions, pep­pers, limes and guava — are con­sumed do­mes­ti­cally, but some com­pa­nies are ex­pand­ing into ex­ports.

One of them is a com­pany called Fru­tos con Sa­bor a Méx­ico (“Fruit with the Fla­vor of Mex­ico”). Its cin­der-block ware­house — with its high-tech pro­duce-sort­ing ma­chin­ery from the Nether­lands, re­frig­er­ated load­ing bays and wire ven­ti­la­tion screens to keep out ver­min — has been de­signed with the U.S. mar­ket in mind. The com­pany sells to Wal­mart and other su­per­mar­kets, said Ce­sar Sa­mu­dio, a com­pany man­ager.

“Dif­fi­cult times might be com­ing,” Sa­mu­dio said, re­fer­ring to a pos­si­ble trade war with the United States.

For many youth of this town, the al­lure of the United States is as strong as ever. In De­cem­ber, 19-year-old Ricardo Acosta mailed his un­cle, Al­fredo Acosta, an ap­pli­ca­tion to work with him at a land­scap­ing com­pany in Waukegan. (The fam­ily is not re­lated to the restau­ra­teurs.) The com­pany, which em­ploys about 300 peo­ple, the ma­jor­ity Mex­i­can, ar­ranges for tem­po­rary work visas for some of its staff. Ricardo has not re­ceived an an­swer.

Trump pledged to “buy Amer­i­can and hire Amer­i­can” dur­ing his in­au­gu­ral ad­dress. His ad­min­is­tra­tion has warned that it would re­vise the tem­po­rary worker pro­grams.

“They say that Trump is not go­ing to give any more visas. And the com­pany where I work is ner­vous,” said Al­fredo Acosta, who has lived in the United States for 18 years and ob­tained his le­gal res­i­dency last year.

One evening, Ricardo rode his mo­tor­cy­cle up the wind­ing road to the hill with the tow­er­ing cross that over­looks Tonatico. He liked to come alone at dusk and watch the dark­ness set­tle and the lights twin­kle on across the town. He opened a can of beer and thought about his fu­ture in si­lence.

Ricardo’s fa­ther once lived in Waukegan, work­ing in land­scap­ing. Af­ter less than a year, he re­turned to Tonatico, fol­low­ing a woman. The fa­ther knew the fields were fickle. The pay was mea­ger. But to him, the ver­tigo of un­doc­u­mented life felt too un­set­tling.

“As an il­le­gal, it’s very dif­fi­cult. You are al­ways think­ing the mi­gra will catch you,” he said.

Ricardo wants to see for him­self, to make his way in Amer­ica like so many be­fore him. From the hill­top, the bright­est lights came from the church and the bull ring. But he was look­ing north, past the town, to the dark moun­tains sep­a­rat­ing him from a coun­try that each day feels more out of reach.


Clock­wise from top left: A lo­cal band per­forms in the streets of Tonatico, Mex­ico, dur­ing the town’s an­nual fi­esta; a man launches a rocket used in tra­di­tional cer­e­monies in the fi­esta; Ricardo Acosta, cen­ter, and other men work in a corn­field near their house in La Vega, near the town of Tonatico; a pro­ces­sion hon­or­ing the town saint of Tonatico cour­ses through its streets. Un­ease with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s poli­cies threat­ens to dis­rupt the usual flow of mi­gra­tion be­tween Tonatico and Waukegan, Ill.


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