Skinny, stubborn and 26 years old, Ernesto Atrisco arrived here knowing just one word — “yes.” When someone asked whether he was a stupid Mexican, he could only reply, “Yes, yes.”
Months later, when a co-worker at a restaurant said something bad about his mother — that much he understood — Mr. Atrisco asked the Puerto Rican cook to translate.
“‘Mexicano, I can’t do that. I can’t tell you what he’s saying — you’ll kill him. Forget about this guy,’” Mr. Atrisco, now 40, recalls him as saying.
But Mr. Atrisco didn’t forget. He retaliated — with paper and pen. He pestered the cook to translate each new word he overheard, wrote the words down and studied them at night.
With money saved from delivering pizzas for more than a decade, Mr. Atrisco opened a small grocery store in Philadelphia’s Italian Market. Now, he’s preparing to open a restaurant nearby as part of a rapidly growing class of Hispanic entrepreneurs here and in cities from West Virginia to Washington state.
Monica Orozco, director of Philadelphia’s Mexican Cultural Center, barely could find a Mexican store five years ago. Now, she says, there are at least 15 Mexican groceries and restaurants in South Philadelphia, including one specializing in helping other Hispanics start businesses.
Once upon a time, the Italians — and then the Greeks and Asians — were the new kids on the block. Now a largely Mexican population is following in their footsteps.
In the past decade, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Mexican immigrants — many of them here illegally, community leaders say — have settled in South Philadelphia, slowly transforming the landscape.
Taquerias dot the streets, offering soft tacos in place of soft pretzels. Signs in Spanish advertise money transfers. And the smell of smoked Mexican chilies mingles with the aroma of fried onions and steamed meat from Geno’s and Pat’s, the cheesesteak epicenter.
Many of South Philadelphia’s earlier immigrant population, its Italian and Greek families, view the new immigrants as a critical labor force, a godsend, the providers of a much-needed boost.
At Giordano’s Produce, one of the anchors of the Italian Market, Paul Giordano looks on with admiration at a family of Mexican entrepreneurs whose produce stand sits just feet from where his parents started their business in 1921.
His nephew, Wally Giordano, 46, works at the store with his brother, John, 44, continuing the family tradition. But two other brothers are attorneys, and a sister is a doctor.
“Me and my brother are a dying breed,” Wally Giordano says.
In 1991, Mr. Atrisco said, he paid human traffickers $300 to smuggle him from Tijuana, Mexico, to San Diego.
He was among the first wave of Mexican immigrants who were lured here by the city’s economic boom, says David Suro, the owner of Tequila’s restaurant in Philadelphia.
“Philadelphia went from being a dirty, boring town to being a very lively, dynamic city,” Mr. Suro says.
That transformation included a restaurant renaissance. Scores of restaurants opened, creating a demand for busboys and dishwashers, says Mr. Suro, who emigrated from Mexico to Philadelphia with his American bride in 1986.
In 1991, Mr. Suro hired his first Mexican immigrant, a man from San Mateo, a small town in Mexico.
“From there, he called his cousin, his brother, his uncle, and now there are several thousand,” Mr. Suro says.
Mr. Atrisco, whose formal schooling ended when he was 13, followed his younger brother, Eligio, to Philadelphia, where they, too, found work as dishwashers. They settled in South Philadelphia, where housing was cheap and from where it was a short bike ride to the pizzeria where they worked.
Mr. Atrisco says he had wanted to stay in Mexico, but had to support his mother and two younger brothers after his father’s death. He joined the estimated 150,000 Mexicans who annually cross the border.
Working 12-hour days, six and seven days a week didn’t trouble him.
“Just the way I love women, I love work,” Mr. Atrisco says.
Most immigrants plan on working in the U.S. for three or four years and saving enough money to buy a house, farm or business back home, says Peter L. Bloom, the director of Juntos, a South Philadelphia agency that serves Mexican and Latin American immigrants.
Some stick to that game plan, Mr. Bloom says.
Others go home, but return after discovering that family members squandered the funds they sent home, says Hector Contreras, with the Mexican Cultural Center.
“Their families think money grows on trees in America. They go home and realize their family didn’t save that money and they have to go back,” Mr. Contreras says.
In 1992, Mr. Atrisco married a U.S. citizen, which allowed him to attain legal status.
Mr. Atrisco sent money home to his family, but he also banked some for himself — and he learned English.
“So many Chicanos, they don’t open businesses, even if they want to — because of the language,” Mr. Atrisco says. “They know they’re going to have to deal with the city” — notorious for its red tape.
Mr. Atrisco was swept up by the American dream. His boss, the son of a Greek immigrant, had succeeded — why couldn’t he?
For more than a decade, Mr. Atrisco worked at George Markakis’ pizzeria. They became friends. Twice, Mr. Atrisco visited Greece at Mr. Markakis’ invitation.
“They really showed the love they feel for me. They made me feel welcome,” says Mr. Atrisco, who has grown stouter since his arrival 14 years ago.
Mr. Markakis introduced him to restaurant owner George Anni. Mr. Anni, whose father emigrated from Greece, is helping Mr. Atrisco open his restaurant.
Like many first-generation immigrants, Mr. Atrisco, the father of three, hopes his children will one day take over the business and that his Lupita’s grocery store will become a South Philadelphia fixture — like Mr. Giordano’s — with a sign proudly announcing its founding in 2003.
That’s OK with Wally Giordano.
“When I was growing up in the 1970s, people would say how the 1940s and 1950s were so nice, and that South Philly would never be the same again,” he says. “South Philly has always been evolving and changing — since the turn of the century. Lately, the Mexicans have come. It’s their turn.”