July 27, 2002                                                               

Jorge Solis, the son of illiterate Mexican parents, opened the Fiesta Mexicana Restaurant in Rochester in 1992.

 "What's it going to be in my life?"

By Douglas McGill
The McGill Report

The day after Jorge Solis, then an illegal Mexican immigrant living in Seattle, married an American citizen in 1979, he went to apply for a Social Security number. The clerk listened to his story, picked up the phone and called the police, who came and put Jorge in jail. They charged him
with marrying just to get legal immigration status, a violation of U.S. law.

His new bride came down the next day, swore they'd married for love and posted $500 bail. But during his night in jail, Jorge spent hours of sleepless anguish reviewing his life. He thought of the many years in Mexico he'd spent planning and saving and studying English to prepare for life in America. Now, after less than two years, it seemed the dream was over.

"I said, 'I guess I'm going back to Mexico,'" Jorge said. "I'm trying real hard to make a living. But at this point, I still have nothing -- no job, no money, nothing. I thought, 'What's it going to be in my life?'"

Today, as the owner of two of southern Minnesota's most popular Mexican restaurants, the Fiesta Mexicana in Rochester and Red Wing, Jorge Solis has answered that question resoundingly and positively. His days on the run from the Immigration and Naturalization Service are long over -- he employs more than 30 workers and has three children in local schools. He puts in six days a week at the Rochester restaurant, and splits the seventh day between the St. Francis Catholic Church and the soccer field, where he co-sponsors, with Tejano Western Wear, another Mexican-owned business, a B-league soccer team.

Helping others

Most important, though, is Jorge's unofficial position as a role model, a personal adviser and "padrone" -- Spanish for leading male figure -- in Rochester's community of 1,500 Hispanic immigrants.

There are no figures on how many of this group are illegal -- without a valid visa, Social Security number or permanent resident status validated by a "green card." But Rochester immigration attorneys, such as Michael A. York, say their practice helping illegal Mexican immigrants is brisk, and nationally, the INS estimates about half of the total illegal immigrant population in the United States is Mexican.

Not that the United States minds this; in fact, just the opposite.

Before Sept. 11, President Bush was close to granting amnesty for the 3 million to 4 million illegal Mexican immigrants living in America. Lax enforcement of deportation rules against those immigrants is America's de facto guest worker program that keeps inflation low, fills jobs many Americans wouldn't touch and makes U.S. exports competitive in world markets.

Yet the effect of so many immigrants, many of whom take years to learn English, has become one of America's most complex and controversial civic debates. For many years, debates about bilingual education, amnesty for illegal workers and ethnic-related crime and poverty rates have raged in Texas and California, where most Mexican immigrants live.

Now many other states, including Minnesota, are grappling with similar issues as increasing numbers of Mexican migrant workers, such as those who follow the annual corn harvest, settle here instead of moving on. In addition, immigrants who first emigrated to the Southwest are now moving, as Jorge did, to states farther north and east of California to build their lives.

Land of milk and honey

Jorge's story begins in Cuautla, a poor farming village of 2,500 in central Mexico, about 175 miles west of Guadalajara. One of eight children, Jorge's mother had a second-grade education, and his father was illiterate. During the growing season, his father planted, plowed and then harvested corn for a daily wage; off season, he chopped wood and sold it to a local bakery. Beans and tortillas were the family's daily staple, with dinners occasionally supplemented by roasted squirrel or rabbit bagged with a muzzle-loader.

At age 14, in the seventh grade, Jorge came to his first major crossroads and a decision that ultimately set him on a path to the United States. His father wanted an extra hand in the field and encouraged him to quit school. But Jorge had seen a handful of Cuautlanese men who had emigrated to "el norte" and returned to the village bedecked in consumerist glory.

"They came back with nice clothes, driving a car. They could buy some land or a house. You saw those things and you said to yourself 'I want to go there.'"

The avuncular priest of Cuautla's Santo Santiago church saw the ambition in Jorge's eyes, took him aside and warned: "You think you're going to sweep dollars up off the street in the U.S.? No, you'll have to work hard, and you'll need an education. Stay in school. Learn English, then go."

Which is just what Jorge did. Grades seven to nine, he worked the fields in the mornings to pay his school tuition. He learned English words and phrases, and he stayed put when one of his brothers crossed the border and headed to work as a dishwasher at a Washington restaurant.

Hard knocks

At age 18, his brother wired him $300 to pay "el coyotes," the immigrant smugglers who would sneak him across the border from Tijuana to San Diego. In 1977, he made the break -- a 36-hour bus journey from Cuaulta to Tijuana. From there he was taken to the U.S. border, where he climbed a chainlink fence and made a mad dash for a waiting car on Interstate 5 in San Ysidro. The smugglers stuffed him and two other illegals into the trunk where, after two hours of suffocating heat and dark and carbon monoxide, he arrived in Los Angeles.

That was for starters. He spent his first three months in virtual imprisonment in a Los Angeles apartment. The "coyotes" kept him around to sweep the floors and go out to buy pizzas and cigarettes. On one such trip he called a contact whose phone number he'd gotten in Mexico; they picked him up, and he made his getaway.

Next stop was Tacoma, Wash., to join his brother, but his lack of papers kept him jobless for six months. Then he got a position washing dishes at a restaurant for $1.50 an hour, six days a week, 13 hours a day. Home was an upstairs apartment where his fellow restaurant workers had claimed all the sofas and beds. "I'd go home exhausted and sleep on the floor all night," Jorge says.

"I said, 'God, this is the U.S.? It's too hard. It's too much. This is the dream?' But I stayed. I wasn't going to go back."

The day when all hope seemed dead came in late 1979. In less than a year, Jorge had worked his way up to cook, the most important restaurant job, and he was earning $800 a month. He had responsibility, respect, a paycheck and a fiancee. Then, one evening after the restaurant closed, seven immigration officers swarmed the place. Guns drawn, five of them blocked the doors while two others searched the darkened space with flashlights.

"I jumped under the counter at the bar," Jorge said. "One guy jumped into the garbage. He didn't get caught, but three of us did."

Unable to produce a green card, Jorge and his two co-workers were loaded into a bus and driven south through Oregon and California. At the U.S. border town of Calexico, the U.S. immigration officials dropped them off and watched until they'd walked back into Mexico.

Ivy League, Jorge's way

It was a cat-and-mouse game, and within a few days, Jorge had made it back to Washington. This time, he stayed, and married his fiancee. What saved him was steady work in a network of Mexican restaurants run by Cuautlanese who had emigrated to Washington in the early 1970s. Jorge worked his way up in these restaurants, smallish eateries that sold inexpensive Mexican taco and tortilla meals and which went by names like El Matador, Torreros, Jalisco, Zapatillo, El Toro, Azteca, La Costa and El Marinero.

These restaurants were Jorge's Harvard and Yale. In them he learned the Mexican restaurant business from dishwasher up.

As grinding and difficult as the work was, he absorbed from the restaurants a set of skills that worked in America. In 1999, the Cuautlanese restaurants of Washington employed 10,000 people and had made such an impact on the Washington economy that Gov. Gary Locke, the first Chinese-American U.S. governor and himself a child of immigrant parents, visited the town of Cuautla on a trade mission to thank the town and celebrate its relationship with his state.

By 1992, Jorge and his wife, Annee, had saved $19,000, enough to buy their own first restaurant, La Cabana, in Oregon City, Ore. Only a few months after their opening, however, disaster seemed certain when another Mexican restaurant announced it would open on a street directly between La Cabana and the neighborhood where most of Jorge's customers lived. Despair set in until Jorge realized that a growth spurt in Oregon City would allow him to sell the place at a tidy profit. He was offered $55,000 for the place and he sold, netting a $36,000 capital gain on the property.

One day during this period, a customer came in, sat down, and told Jorge that Money Magazine had just rated Rochester as the best place to live in America. That was all Jorge needed to hear.

After a couple of scouting trips, he found a vacant building on the frontage road of U.S. 52 near Sixth Street Southwest, bought it and settled in. The building will be torn down later this year for the U.S. 52 widening project.

Jorge, having sold the place to the state, is moving the restaurant to a spot in Northbrook Shopping Center. The new restaurant will open in late August.

Becoming American

How long does it take to become an American? For Jorge, more than 25 years. He applied for U.S. citizenship only last summer, and when the U.S. played Mexico in the World Cup recently, he rooted for Mexico.

"I've lived more of my life here than in Mexico, and I know this country has given me more than Mexico, but still, inside, I feel " his voice fades away.

Getting his three children to go to church is a major fault line in his cross-cultural life.

"I have to beg my kids to come to Mass with me," he said, shaking his head. "My mother always dressed me up in nice clean clothes for Sunday Mass, and we sang songs together. Religion keeps a family close. It helps the community and it helps teenagers when they start to have experiences in life. But my kids would rather be playing Sega. And with all these scandals, it's even harder. They say, 'Why should we go? These guys are devils.' I tell them that religion is not about you and the priests, it's about you and God. It's something that nobody can take away from you. It's something I really want to pass on to them, but they're not interested."

The difficulty of keeping the family together is the hardest thing about American life for Jorge.

"The mother and father in America both work, and the kids are raised by day care. Then at age 18, they move out to start a new life. In Mexico, the family is much stronger and more supportive.

"But if you work hard in America, you get ahead. You get a home, a car, have some money in the bank. There are jobs everywhere. If you want to work, there is a job. In Mexico, even if you want to work, there are no jobs."

At Fiesta Mexicana, he is forced to require all employees to have a green card and a valid Social Security number before they can work. But he knows many Mexicans in the United States, especially migrant workers who follow the corn harvest to Minnesota in the summer, have dubious credentials. He was in their place 20 years ago.

He wishes average American citizens, as well as U.S. corporations, were more keenly aware of the benefits that Mexican immigrants bring to this country.

"Most Americans wouldn't touch the jobs that immigrants do -- in the fields, in construction, in restaurants. So I don't think that immigrants are taking jobs away from Americans. They are taking the low-pay, hard-work jobs. They are helping the United States to be strong."

Copyright @ 2002 The McGill Report