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The Undocumented Immigrant Next Door: Nike shoes, jeans and a first taste of the American dream

From the 2017 Person of the Year: West Frankfort's Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco, the undocumented immigrant next door series
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Carlos Hernandez Pacheco Story

Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco's wife, Elizabeth Hernandez, looks through mail before handing the letters to him at the La Fiesta restaurant in West Frankfort April 11, 2017. Until recently, she was a waitress at the restaurant that he manages and the couple met. She is presently working at La Fiesta's Benton location. 

WEST FRANKFORT — It was the summer of 1998 when Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco arrived in Marion. He had turned 20 years old only months prior when the Greyhound bus he took from Chicago dropped him off in Southern Illinois.

Arriving here, several months after he and a friend made their way across the U.S.-Mexican border in secret, Hernandez was shocked to find out how little Marion resembled Chicago, and just how few people spoke Spanish. Having grown up in city with more than 1.2 million people, Hernandez said that Marion, which had a population of about 16,000 people at the time, seemed like not only another country, but also another world.  

But they were out of money and out of food, and a job was waiting for them. So Marion it would be, he recalled thinking. Walking on foot, guided only by the vague directions given to them, the two eventually discovered La Fiesta on Carbon Street. At the time, La Fiesta had only been open for about seven months. 

Carlos Hernandez Pacheco Story

Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco enters the La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant in West Frankfort on Tuesday, April 11. Pacheco has managed the restaurant for about a decade. In his role as manager, Pacheco has hosted benefits at the restaurant for people facing financial hardship and illness, as well as fundraisers for Redbirds' sports teams tied to the Frankfort school district and other community causes. In October, he hosted a Blue Lives Matter appreciation night for West Frankfort and Franklin County law enforcement and other first responders.

The manager gave them a meal and then put Hernandez’s friend to work in the back. He put Hernandez to work in the front of the house, busing tables. "We just fit right in," he said. 

Hernandez said he will never forget the feeling he had when he received his first paycheck in America. It was minimum wage pay, but Hernandez said he had never had that much money at once in his life.

As he promised to do, Hernandez sent some of that first paycheck, and most of future ones, back to his mom, who was caring for his older sister who was in poor health. That was the main reason for this journey. But there was something he wanted to do for himself first.

At the time, he was staying with his travel companion in the apartment complex that sits behind Rural King in Marion. He walked from there to the Marion mall. He had two things in mind he wanted to buy: Nike shoes and jeans.

“I always wanted to have Nike shoes,” he said. Hernandez said he worked as a young teenager in a factory that was a subcontractor for Nike, but could never afford to buy a pair in Mexico. 

Between dealing with the uncertainty of the decision he had made at such a young age — he turned 20 his first year in the U.S. — and the loneliness that sunk in being so far away from his family, Hernandez said that buying those shoes filled him with a sense of strength that he had made it this far, and confidence that he could keep going.

In the proceeding months, Hernandez said he spent most of his time at work. He paid the rent, sent the majority of his earnings back home, and set aside a little of each paycheck for his own savings. He spent his spare time watching movies to improve his English, which was still very limited. It was a frustrating and lonely time, Hernandez recalled. But Hernandez said that each time he heard back from home that his sister was doing better, he felt more sure that he had done the right thing — not by the law of the land, but the one guiding his heart.

The best medicine 

Hernandez said the money helped buy her medication and medical care, first and foremost, but it was more than that. If she wanted a Happy Meal, she could buy one. “If she wanted new shoes I would tell mom to buy them for her.” She went on a vacation and “saw things she never thought she would,” he said.

“I spoiled her pretty much,” he said. “I made sure she got a decent life.”

The best medicine out there, Hernandez said, is to live well. In America, on a minimum-wage salary busing tables at a Mexican restaurant, he could afford to give her that. Hernandez said he has never looked back and questioned if what he did for her was the right thing. He sees it as the only option he had, regardless of the consequences and complications he and his own wife and children now face.

Carlos Hernandez Pacheco Story

Carlos Hernandez picks up his youngest son, Maximus, upon arriving home in West Frankfort Sunday, April 30, 2017. His wife, Elizabeth Hernandez, is behind him and in front of him is his oldest son, Kharloz.

“Once you lose that willingness to live, you’re done. You might not be dying physically, but you’re dying inside, mentally. When people — and it’s horrible to say — but when they have cancer their light goes out. People have different reactions. They don’t accept the fact they are dying,” he said.

“I knew my sister was going to die, I just didn’t know when. She was strong. She fought for many years. The doctors told us she’d live two years, to age 22. But she lived until she was 25. And I don’t want to take credit for those three extra years that were given to her, but making sure that she was happy, going out, going on vacation, not worrying about money — I’m sure that had something to do with her will to live.”

After less than a year of clearing tables, Hernandez said he worked up the courage to ask his manager for a promotion to waiting tables. Hernandez said his boss, the owner of La Fiesta (who declined an interview for this story through Hernandez), saw something in him and encouraged him. But he also issued a stern warning to Hernandez. “I’ll give you a chance,” Hernandez recalled his manager telling him, “but if you don’t understand something do not try to figure it out. Ask me … Don’t assume they want beans when they probably want rice. Just ask.”

Hernandez said his English was still extremely rough. He was nervous but determined. At times, it was even a bit embarrassing the things he had to do to get by, but Hernandez said he found that most people responded well if he kept a sense of humor about it.

Hernandez said that when he first started waiting tables, if he wasn’t sure if someone wanted chicken or beef, he would ask them to clarify by holding his fingers up over his head like bull horns or by flapping his arms around like chicken wings — and telling the customers to  pick which one they wanted. They would laugh, and he’d get the order right. Things got a little easier every day at work, but those were the lighter moments.

Carlos Hernandez Pacheco Story

Carolos Herandez kisses La Fiesta patron Nita Haney on the top of her head. Haney and Mary Summers were eating at the restaurant Tuesday, April 11, 2017, and say they are regulars. They say they have known Hernandez for many years and knew him when he was first working at the restaurant's Marion location. 

Saying goodbye to his sister

About five years after he arrived in the U.S., Hernandez said, his sister died, on Dec. 5, 2002. His mom called him two days prior and told him that if he wanted to say goodbye, he would have to make it home fast. She was fading and the doctors didn’t expect her to live through the week. He caught a flight out of St. Louis that same day, he said. “If you don’t have documentation you can get home, but not back,” said Hernandez, who traveled with a Mexican passport.

Hernandez made it home the day she died. “I held her hand as she took her last breath,” he said. He stayed through the funeral the next day, and then started trying to figure out how he would return. Hernandez said that being there with her, he once again felt reassured that he had done the right thing.

But he also knew he wasn't going back to Mexico. Hernandez said that although he came here for his sister, and didn't intend to stay, life happened. By that point, he had bought a house, the first he had ever owned. “So now I had to get back for personal reasons,” he said. Hernandez said he didn’t want his home to go into foreclosure and lose it. Plus, he was starting to make a few friends here. He was having success at work, and the money was good.

And this time, he had a plan to cross the border to return to Southern Illinois. Hernandez said he had randomly met a gentleman in Marion a few months before his sister died, who he came to learn was a “coyote” who helped people get across the border. He was walking alone on Main Street, by a music store in Marion not far from the railroad tracks.

“I can spot a Latino person from a mile away,” Hernandez said. Hernandez said he didn’t know it at the time, but later came to learn the gentleman had recently been arrested. Though he was released, his truck was seized. Remembering all the people who helped him along his journey, Hernandez, who had a car by this point, said he felt compelled to pick him up. “He didn’t look like he was from Marion. That was No. 1. I’d never seen his face before. The look on his face was, ‘I’m lost,’” Hernandez recalled. “I told him to get in the car.”

Hernandez said that he put the gentleman up at his house for a few days. He gave him food and extra clothes, and before he left, Hernandez said the man gave him his number and told him to call if he ever needed his assistance. “All I can remember is his name — Jesus — and we called him Choochoo,” he said. Hernandez said he took that man’s number with him to Mexico, and he called when he was ready to return to Marion after his sister’s funeral.

This time, he said, he crossed the border through an American Indian reservation in Arizona. “The Indians from Arizona, they cross the border and can freely,” he said. “They don’t get searched. It wasn’t like a big port of entry. It was like in the woods, in the middle of nowhere. Only certain people know about it," he said. "It was like going to somebody’s farm.”

A door in the fence

Hernandez recalled that there was a door in the fence at the border, and one or two officers stood guard. He said that on the reservation, a Native American woman instructed him to get in a van — “a big square one.” “I climbed underneath the seats and they had two kids with them,” he said. “An Indian lady, I don’t know what kind, from Arizona, hid me under her seat to drive across the border. She took us to her house.”

They made it across the border, but there was confusion on the other side over payment, he said. “She said she needed her money. I said I’d already paid the guy. She said I needed to give her more money.” Hernandez said the woman drove him to Phoenix, where Jesus picked him up and paid her the rest of the payment she demanded. “He helped me out,” Hernandez said. “That’s how it works.”

But about a year later, he decided to make another return trip to Mexico. This next trip, he would not be so lucky.  

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On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​



Molly Parker is general assignment and investigative projects reporter for The Southern Illinoisan.

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