'Homelands' author: 'I was born in Mexico … for someone like me, it's heartbreaking'

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Alfredo Corchado, author of “Homelands,” at Philly’s Tequilas Restaurant.

If there were ever a time to be speaking to former Philadelphian Alfredo Corchado, this, painfully, is it.

Corchado’s new book, Homelands: Four Friends, Two Countries, and the Fate of the Great Mexican-American Migration (Bloomsbury Publishing, $27) tells us of four men, feeling like “the only Mexicans in Philadelphia,” who started meeting at Tequilas at 16th and Locust Streets in 1987 to talk about their isolation and displacement.

Camera icon Courtesy of Bloomsbury Press
“Homelands” by Alfredo Corchado

Besides Corchado, there were human rights activist Primitivo “Primo” Rodríguez Oceguera, Tequilas owner David Suro-Piñera, and former city solicitor Ken Trujillo, a longtime champion of Congreso de Latinos Unidos  and onetime candidate for mayor.

These days, Suro-Piñera and Trujillo live in Philly. Oceguera has moved to Mexico, and Corchado splits his time between Mexico City and El Paso, Texas. They still get together several times a year. Homelands traces their various journeys in search of self and place.

Corchado left San Luis del Cordero in the state of Durango, Mexico, in 1960 with his family at age 6. His parents initially became immigrant farm workers in the San Joaquin Valley of California before starting a restaurant in El Paso. He came to Philadelphia in 1987 to work at the Wall Street Journal’s offices here. He told Frank Allen, his boss, that he wanted to be a foreign correspondent, and he followed Allen’s advice to get his U.S. citizenship, “the best thing I ever did.”

He then landed a job at the Dallas Morning News, where he has earned a stellar reputation as reporter, bureau chief (in Mexico City), and authority on U.S.-Mexico relations and migration issues. Among his numerous awards are citations for bravery, withstanding repeated death threats while reporting on the Mexican drug wars. He is now the paper’s Mexico border correspondent – putting him at the front lines at a time of discord and outrage.

When he spoke with the Inquirer on Tuesday, Corchado was in El Paso. He’d just returned from visiting the new temporary tent shelter for unaccompanied migrant children in Tornillo, Texas, built as part of the Trump administration’s policy of separating members of migrant families deemed illegal.

Twenty children were in the camp at the time of the call. The shelter is built to house up to 4,000. On Wednesday,  President Trump signed an executive order allowing officials to keep immigrant families together while in custody. The order’s actual impact on families and children was unclear; matters were still in considerable disorder.

I want to talk about Homelands, but first, I just have to ask you: What is in your heart right this moment?

We’re reporters but we’re also human beings. I was born in Mexico. My first memories are there, my earliest days with my family, my parents, my brothers – and I have to say, for someone like me, it’s heartbreaking. It’s emotionally draining, the images I have right now of this tent city, of interviewing mothers at some of these migrant cities, and the big march in Tornillo today, protesting the new tent city.

What makes it worse is the complete confusion, not only on the ground in the temporary shelters, but from the administration. You’ve had Attorney General Jeff Sessions come out and announce one thing, and [White House Chief of Staff John] Kelly calling it a “security issue,” and [U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security] Kirstjen Nielsen saying something else. It changes every minute or second. You’re constantly trying to figure out what the story is.

It’s especially hard talking to my family about this, and you hear how they question their sacrifice in coming to the United States at all, whether in the end it was worth it.

Homelands is built on two gatherings of friends at Tequilas almost 30 years apart. You ask: “How do we fit in? What does it mean to be American and become part of its diverse mainstream?” For each of your four protagonists, these seem to be even bigger questions at the end of your book than at the beginning.  

A real turning point was the elections of 2016. Primo was already living back in Mexico. And I heard David say, ‘Primo was right: The American Dream is a myth.’ His mood was, ‘I’m going to base my business in Guadalajara. I’m feeling less welcome.’ I think by the time of our gathering at the end of the book, we’re realizing a double truth. The first is that you can’t run away from the U.S. You can’t run away from 50 years of living here. The second, really, the whole concept of the book, is that you have to accept that you’ll always be shadowed by the motherland. And we have to embrace both sides.

The Philadelphia of 2018 is a far cry from that of 1987.

It’s a completely different place. We used to think we were the only four Mexicans in town. I really think that the Mexican community has done a lot to revive Center City, which has a whole different vibe now. Philly has some of the best Mexican food anywhere. When I tell friends in Texas, ‘When you want good Mexican food, go to Philly, man,’ they think I’m nuts.

>> READ MORE: Craig LaBan’s essential guide to Mexican South Philly

I visit three to four times a year to see these guys. We try to see one another either in Philly or Guadalajara or Mexico City. Philly, for me, is one of the homelands. It’s where I came of age as a journalist. And for the four of us, Philly made us more Mexican.

And you write that Kennett Square is particularly fascinating.

In 1987, there was a sense in Kennett Square of, ‘We’re going to get our working papers then head southwest, closer to home.’ But they ended up staying in Kennett Square. And Kennett Square has become a symbol of how communities can come together. I was there just a couple months ago. There are so many more Mexican businesses, and Mexicans are thinking less of going back to Mexico.

The figure of your friend Ken Trujillo is especially interesting.

I think that Ken is the person I want to become. I don’t want to sound corny, but for me Ken is a sort of model of someone who can embrace both sides. In the 1980s, we were really trying to find the Americans we could become. We all looked at Ken and thought, ‘He’s so comfortable, so at ease.’ I have never completely felt at ease in either the U.S. or Mexico.

Ken, he’s gone a long way and has a great outlook. When 2016 hit, he weathered the storm and said, ‘Look, this is our time. We have to define what it is to become an American.’ He maintains optimism: He points to the reaction against Proposition 187 in California [which barred illegal immigrants from public services], which led to a big get-out-the-vote effort, a big Hispanic vote, and a change in that whole state’s political direction. Whether he’s right or not, he sees it as evidence that such things can happen. He helped us see that this is our place.