Editor’s note: The following interviews were conducted in and translated from Spanish.
At first sight, Burrito Factory in Dobie Mall does not seem to be any different from any other traditional Tex-Mex fast-food joint. Juan Perez, however, points out one major difference.
“Here, everything is 100-percent Mexican, even the cooks,” Juan said.
Juan and his brother, Burrito Factory owner Jose Luis Perez, are natives of Mexico — and until a few years ago, they were undocumented workers living in the United States.
Jose Luis grew up in the ‘70s in Ciudad Hidalgo, a city in Michoacán, Mexico. He woke up at the crack of dawn each day to help his mother make breakfast for the family. Then, before and after school, he would help his father at the family carniceria, or butcher shop.
Those were regular days for Jose Luis back home — days that have not been the same ever since. Mexico in the ’70s was a distinctly different place than it is today, he said.
His brother Juan remembers a time when children could play outside, now only a memory because of the drastic rise in crime.
“It makes you feel sad as a Mexican citizen to see your people fighting amongst themselves,” Jose Luis said.
Their mother died when Jose Luis was 16 and Juan was 10. The two men are now 41 and 35, respectively. After completing elementary and middle school, Jose Luis abandoned education in favor of joining the workforce. Jose Luis was aware of the poor economy of his state, and he knew he had a small chance of finding a good job that would provide for his family and his future.
“Here [in the U.S.], no matter how bad the economy is, one always manages to survive — over there, no,” Jose Luis said. “In Mexico, one has to work a month to buy shoes or a pair of jeans.”
At only 19, driven by thoughts of his family and his future, Jose Luis made a life-threatening gamble: He would look for work in the U.S. Crossing the California border with the help of a coyote — a person who makes a living smuggling immigrants across the border illegally — Jose planned to stay for three years to earn enough money for his family and then go back to Mexico.
When he arrived, Jose Luis went to work illegally for his uncle’s chain of Mexican taquerias in Chicago.
He worked tirelessly in Chicago for five years, saving his wages with the intention of opening a restaurant of his own.
In 1995, he opened Nene’s Tacos and ran it for 10 years. As business began to grow, Juan came, also as an undocumented immigrant, from Ciudad Hidalgo to help his brother.
“More than anything, I wanted to save money to help my family and make a family of my own,” Juan said.
Their hard work paid off.
Six years ago, Jose Luis decided it was time for a change. He moved to Austin and opened Burrito Factory soon after.
With the profits from Burrito Factory and Nene’s Tacos, the brothers bought their own cars and Jose Luis bought his own house. For Jose Luis, the U.S. was home. It kept him safe, and it allowed him to provide for his wife, whom he met when he was a waiter in Chicago, and their two children. He did not think about going back to Mexico, at least not permanently. Juan, however, still yearned for his home country.
As the brothers lived their dreams in the U.S., circumstances in Mexico went from bad to worse as drug cartel-related violence spiked.
“They will find any reason to get money out of you, even if you don’t have a hole to die in,” Juan said.
Back in their hometown of Ciudad Hidalgo, Mayor Jose Luis Avila-Franco was accused of allying with drug cartel La Familia Michoacana, according to Central Noticioso Mexicana.
The reality of Mexico’s situation became personal when one of the brothers’ uncle in Ciudad Hidalgo received a phone call from the cartel, which asked him for money in exchange for sparing his life.
Although their uncle moved to the capital, Morelia, to seek more protection, the brothers were cut off from their family and their country, unable to return for fear of the cartels.
“I told my father I was thinking about going in December, but I was scared,” Jose Luis said. “They think you have money because you have a business in the United States, and then they’ll kidnap you. If you take your kids over there, there’s a danger that they’ll do something to them, too.”
For Juan, the realization was crushing. In essence, the brothers had the American dream: a house, a car and a business. Yet they lacked the most important thing to them — family.
“I feel safe here,” Juan said. “But what Mexican wouldn’t want to go back to his own country? As a Mexican, I feel real bad because Mexico is coming off as bad at a world level.”
For the brothers, all they can do now is wait.
“It’s the irony of life,” Jose Luis said. “When I was in Mexico, I couldn’t come to the United States because I didn’t have papers. Now that I have papers, I can’t go back to Mexico.”