After 25 years of selling tamales in Chicago, undocumented immigrant returns to Veracruz

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After 25 years of selling tamales in Chicago, an undocumented immigrant mother returns to Mexico without her family

Claudia Perez’s children could count on one hand the number of times they had seen their father cry.

The day their mother left was one of them.

Perez had worked her whole life for a dream that did not come true: Save enough money to take her family back to Mexico and live together in the town where they were all born.

Instead, on a cold February day, she stepped onto a bus in Brighton Park and said goodbye. The day had come to make the difficult choice between her loved ones in Mexico and her family in Chicago.

“Don’t leave my love. No te vayas viejita,” her husband yelled as she waved goodbye from inside the bus.

Battling health problems and a ticking clock, Perez, 63, chose to leave the life she’d built for herself and her family over the past 25 years. Though she was a successful street vendor in Little Village, she was in the country without legal permission. And she yearned to return to Mexico to hug her aging siblings, visit her parents’ graves, and see the houses she’d built for her family using the money she’d earned selling tamales in Chicago.

Her husband, Seferino Arguelles, tried convincing her to wait so that the two could go back together. “Just a couple more years,” he would tell her, urging them to leave the business ready to be passed down. But Perez was afraid that if she waited any longer, she would never return. Not alive at least.

It’s a dilemma that scores of families living in the U.S. illegally experience quietly as the community ages. Some are sick or unable to work, and many immigrants want to make the reverse migration to see their loved ones and homelands before they die. But in doing so, they may never be able to return to the U.S. and see the relatives they left behind.

Over the last several decades, reverse migration of immigrants in the U.S. without legal permission to Mexico has been a slow but steady trend, according to the Pew Research Center and other immigration researchers. The voluntary departures have, in part, kept the population of people in the U.S. illegally at a stagnant number of about 11 million, nearly the same as in 2017, according to Pew, despite the increased number of new migrants crossing the southern border, immigration experts say.

But with comprehensive immigration reform stalled in Congress, and a nation divided on how to resolve it, the choice to stay or go becomes inevitable for some.

Perez and Arguelles had been together for 30 years. In 2002, she and their children left their lives behind in Mexico to be with him in Chicago. “A whole life together,” he said. “Toda una vida juntos.”

When Perez finally returned to Coacoatzintla, Veracruz in February, she sat in one of the homes she had built for their family. Outside, the surrounding green hills turned dark and quiet as the day ended, the surroundings seemingly a world away from the bustling streets of Chicago.

Inside, the walls were freshly painted in bright coral, and the couch was still wrapped in plastic. The kitchen had more cabinets than the street vendor could ever dream of using. It was a house meant to be shared with family.

But her family, also in the U.S. without legal permission, chose to stay in Chicago. They said they weren’t ready to go back. They may never be. If they did, they wouldn’t be able to return to the life they’ve built in Chicago with their U.S.-born children and their careers.

In their minds, they were already home.

“I don’t know when I’ll see them again,” Perez said.

Tamales La Leona

She had named her tamales company La Leona because her husband always said she was strong and fearless, like a lion.

When Perez decided to start selling tamales a few years after arriving in Chicago, she only had about $1,000 saved up to begin the operation. And she didn’t know how to make them.

But the factory jobs she and Arguelles had were not enough to support their three children, much less to fulfill Perez’s dream of building a home in Mexico.

So she learned to make them, she recalled as she made tamales for the last time in Chicago.

“My husband would tell me I was crazy; that (the business) wouldn’t work out,” Perez said, wrapping the dough in hundreds of corn husks. Still, he made her a wooden cart to sell the tamales.

She’d get up at 2:30 every morning to make the tamales, champurrado, and arroz con leche from the small, old kitchen in their apartment. Then she’d be out by 5 a.m. to sell. The pork and green salsa tamales were the customers’ favorites, but she also made green pepper, cheese, and red salsa tamales.

Some nights, she didn’t collapse into bed until 11 p.m.

“It was all worth it,” Perez said.

Around 2013, business was so good that Perez moved from making tamales in her apartment to renting a space with a commercial kitchen. She also hired employees to operate six carts across the city.

“It was a profitable business. It gave me everything I have and more to help my family in Chicago and in Mexico,” Perez said. “I loved my job.”

But there were obstacles. Though business took off, she struggled to keep operating because selling tamales on the streets of Chicago was not permitted. Police actively fined and arrested vendors until the City Council pushed for a move to relax the rules in 2015.

Perez became a member of the Asociacion de Vendedores Ambulantes, or the Street Vendors Association…

Click here to read the complete original article in the Chicago Tribune

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