Pilsen’s Mexican-Americans Are Facing Challenges With Economy, Gaining U.S. Citizenship

Audio Slideshow: Chasing the American Dream

By Rima Thompson, Luz Garcia Cubillos and Sally Morrison


Dr. Jorge Partida, psychologist. (photo by Rima Thompson)

These are challenging times for Mexican-American immigrant communities, said Dr. Jorge Partida, psychologist and author of the book “The Promise of the Fifth Sun.” The impact of the economic downturn has devastated some Americans, but even more so in the Latino community.

Hopes of achieving the American dream are dwindling in the reality of immense job loss and home foreclosures, due to the sub-prime lending crisis. Disheartened and defeated by the uncertainty of the future, many have retreated to Mexico. Yet, despite the despair, inspiring stories of hope, resilience and survival are rising from the suffering.

Arlette Gutierrez, 19

“I was born in Mexico City. In 1991 I moved here when I was three years old. We came here and my grandfather filed all our paperwork and we’ve been waiting for everything to happen. We were told when we came here, we would have to wait 10 or 11 years, I believe, and we’ve been waiting, I think, 16 about to be 17 years.”


Arlette Gutierrez arrived in the United States nearly 17 years ago. (photo by Luz Garcia Cubillos)

Arlette Gutierrez came to the United States nearly 17 years ago. Still undocumented, Gutierrez is ineligible for a driver’s license, state identification card and scholarships needed to pursue her career in commercial advertising. After delaying her education for one year, so she could help her parents pay for her sister’s tuition at the University of Illinois, Gutierrez has started her first semester at a local community college.

“It does get hard sometimes because all my friends, they’re American, they’re born here so but I mean other than that, I try to stick through it and stay strong and wait for whatever comes,” she said.

Jessica Orneles, 13

“I want to become a professional swimmer. Being a swimmer, because I need to study hard for that. I think it’s going to be difficult, because if I become a swimmer I have to have papers for [so] I can go to different places like go to the Olympics.”


Jessica Orneles, 13, dreams of becoming an Olympic swimmer. (Photo by Rima Thompson)

Jessica’s family migrated to the United States from Mexico 12 years ago. Swindled by an immigration lawyer who took $3,000 from them and disappeared without filing paperwork for their legal residency, the family remains undocumented. Jessica has two brothers, both of whom dream of attending college, their parents said. One son is an artist, another is a musician, they added.

Jessica’s father earns minimum wage at a company that makes wires and her mother is employed as a babysitter. The family of five lives in the basement of a house that recently flooded.

Dr. Jorge Partida

Partida’s book tells the story of his own journey from a childhood living with his “curandera” folk healer grandmother in a grass hut in the Mexican rainforest, to education and success in the United States. Immigrants struggle through harder times now than when he came here in the 1970’s, he noted.

“I think we as a nation we have a tough time really dealing with these tough discussions about immigration and about integration of people. And so we leave it up to politicians and…[with] the political arena being much more severe, an example is what’s happening in Arizona, that the dialogue is much more hateful,” he said.

Father Nestor Saenz of Our Lady of Fatima Church said many immigrants are driven by strong religious faith and the belief that better times are ahead. Sunday masses at his church are standing room only.


Rosa Perez, food pantry coordinator, said food pantry usage has doubled. (Photo by Rima Thompson)

Rosa Perez, the food pantry coordinator who works with Father Nestor, said more people than ever need help. Perez also runs the church’s food bank. Through tearful eyes, she speaks about those willing to help others in spite of their own troubles.

“I don’t know where it comes from but the money comes in. We have a poor box located in the vestibule, people just donate. You know, I have a lady, I guess she owns the company, in December she donates 100 turkeys, 100 hams plus all the extras. And I told Father, ‘Father, you’re not going to believe it!’ But we never lack food,” she said.

The number of people coming to the food bank has more than doubled in the last three years, according to Perez.

Dr. Partida said the human spirit has an incredible will to survive.

“I think that the resiliency comes from hunger…[and] you get exposed to all of the challenges and…all the barriers and at some point somebody in that family dynamic, somebody in that family system is going to take it upon themselves to push it and push it and push it. And I think it’s these cases of resilient kids that sort of open the door for everybody,” he said.

Interactive Map: A look at some of the larger Mexican-American populations in the United States:
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