Day 5 is a story on the life of Rogelio Perez: Lifelong journey to U.S. citizenship:
In the spring of 1973, Guadalupe Carillo walked her eldest son to a dusty bus stop in Cuidad Hidalgo, Michoacan, a city about the size of Kenosha located between Guadalajara and Mexico City.
He was 17 and about to embark on the most important journey of his young life, one that would take him away from his home’s dirt floors and toward the prospect of a better life.
But first Rogelio Perez said he had to overcome his fear of failure and wariness of those who could rob him as he illegally crossed from Mexico into the United States. He also was afraid he might not live to see his next birthday.
Perez wanted to help his family make ends meet and thus he became the first in his family to enter the United States illegally.
Perez is the second of 19 children, the son of a homemaker and a construction contractor. He had a friend who had relatives in Chicago, so he left Mexico with a little pocket money and $250 his family scraped up to pay the “coyotes” who would help him cross the border. He didn’t intend to stay any longer than he had to.
Before he boarded the bus, his mother handed her son the only physical item she believed could protect him — a St. Christopher’s medal. She would arm his soul with prayers to the Lord.
“My mom walked me to the bus and she was crying,” Perez said.
Perez knew the journey would be risky. The stories of corrupt police officers robbing people stood out in his mind. There were stories of young men who were badly beaten and of young women who were raped.
“It was sad because you left your life, your culture and you go hoping you could perhaps find a good place to stay,” he said.
Perez, now 49, sat in his restaurant, Lupita’s, one cloudy day in April just days before tax deadline, paying bills and working on his taxes. It was almost exactly 32 years ago that he had first left Mexico.
“We were poor. (We had) one room, a little kitchen, dirt floor — we slept on the floor,” he said. “We had paper bags that lined the floor and a blanket to put over us at night when we went to sleep.”
While his friend decided not to take the trip across the border, Perez said he met another man who was trying to find construction work in the U.S.
“My main goal was to find a construction work job for the family and to continue my education — go to college. My goal eventually was also to put some money together and go back to Mexico to do this,” he said.
Perez said that when the group of people on his bus arrived in Tijuana, he was found a “coyote” immediately.
“We did it (crossed the border) on the first try and we only had to walk an hour or two. We jumped a fence and kept on walking and we found the car that was waiting for us,” he said. “They picked us up in a pickup truck in San Ysidro.”
There were six men in his group and the truck driver took them to Stockton, Calif., where Perez found himself picking pears in a family orchard. He and three others stayed in the guesthouse. The owners were friendly people who didn’t ask any questions about immigration status.
“I was part of the family all of the time,” he said. “The guy spoke a little Spanish and he showed me a lot of how to do my job.”
In the beginning Perez said he didn’t have the right clothing to cover himself while he picked the lush fruit in the heat of the valley.
“I still have them,” he said rolling up his sleeves to show the now faded scars where the branches scraped his skin. “The first night I cried when I took a shower.”
Three months later, a man he befriended invited him to work in the peach and nectarine orchards of Fresno. The peach fuzz would irritate his nose because the workers were given no masks.
At this orchard he slept with two dozen others in barracks-style arrangement. The workers woke up at 4 a.m., took showers and ate breakfast. The men and some women were bused out to the fields.
At $2.50 an hour paid daily in cash, he eventually saved $500 in six months, enough to repay his father for the coyote’s advance, to purchase a mattress for his mom and for extra construction materials to lay a proper floor and build a kitchen.
Perez would cross the U.S.-Mexico border four more times, three times successfully. On one attempt, la migra, or the U.S. Border Patrol agents, caught him. After another crossing, Perez was able to find a job, again picking fruit and acquiring a new habit — drinking. For nearly a year he had almost no contact with his family and failed to send home money.
“They thought I was dead … I was drinking and I was gordo (fat),” he said.
On his 18th birthday he decided he didn’t like the life he was living and actually turned himself over to border patrol agents who deported him.
But he had unfinished business and he and a close friend, Jaime, were again to cross. Days before they were to cross into Tijuana and meet up with his friend’s relatives in Chicago, Jaime was shot and killed at a party in Mexico.
Perez went anyway with Jaime’s brother. Danger continued to follow him into the Tijuana mountains.
“This time we were running from the cholos (robbers). We got together with the coyote and we were running. The bullets were whizzing by my ears,” he said. “After I escaped, I said that this was the very last time I cross the border. That is when I made a commitment to stop doing crazy things, get established in a place and create a better life.”
In the winter of 1978, 21-year-old Rogelio Perez moved to Chicago to start a new life, and saw snow for the first time.
His first priority was to break free of the drinking habit he acquired two years earlier.
“I needed to find a smaller city and pursue my goals,” he said.
Several weeks later, he caught up with a friend from Mexico who happened to be living in Kenosha. During that time he stayed with his friend and found a job at Martin Band instruments, polishing brass instruments for the next five years.
Perez said while the task was mundane, he looked for ways to challenge himself to be the best at what he did. At one point, he’d asked about the record for polishing brass instruments in a single day.
“There was trombones and 42 was the record and so I polished 60 in a day. When I saw I broke a record I went to my boss for a raise. Of course his answer was no,” he said. “And I was not a citizen yet.”
A year later, Perez found acceptance at St. James Parish where the Latin American Center was once located and Mass, as well as many social activities, was conducted in Spanish.
There, he befriended Teresa, a young woman to whom he has now been married 25 years.
For three months they knew each other before they started dating, yet he never formally asked Teresa to be his girlfriend.
“She felt comfortable, safe with me. And I went to church. I wanted to change my life. I wanted to learn a new way of living and I was fighting it,” Perez said. “People there were giving me the opportunity to be close to them and to be a leader of the youth group.”
Perez eventually gained the trust of others, becoming a leader in his new-found community.
Perez was worried that Teresa might not accept his proposal to marry her because he was an illegal immigrant — at this point he had not told her of his status. Teresa and her family had emigrated legally from Mexico and were permanent residents.
When he finally told her, she was surprised because he didn’t handle himself as though he were “illegal,” according to Perez. By that time, he had taken in American culture and knew some English.
“That was a big relief she accepted me the way I was. She got all the family together and we talked to them and expressed our intentions. They were really happy to see that I had good intentions,” he said.
But the day of his wedding, he was anything but sober. The night before he had gotten drunk with his brother.
“I kept drinking because I needed something. I went to church and I was a little late and she was wondering whether I would even show up,” he said.
Earlier the couple had argued about a loan they had secured for a honeymoon, which Perez insisted should be in Mexico.
Teresa, however, feared that because he was still undocumented, she would lose her new husband to immigration authorities. They ended up saving the money for a house and went to Wisconsin Dells.
After their wedding, Teresa became a U.S. citizen and then requested permission for her husband to become a legal resident. Within six months, he had.
“Even though I wasn’t so crazy about getting papers, it was an excellent feeling,” he said. “Now I could just go back and forth without a problem.”
Although he had cleared one hurdle, Perez had literally yet to wean himself from the bottle. And that would take many baby steps — 12 of them.
Perez had heard about Alcoholics Anonymous, but wasn’t ready to come clean. At the first few meetings he would talk about how his father had a drinking problem, but wouldn’t admit to his own until he was called out.
“The only way I was going to help my father was for me to stop drinking,” he said.
This is a wonderful success story, but today's question-
Do the ends justifies the means? Is it okay for a person to enter this country illegally, if they have big dreams and have the best of intentions?
“The law is the law and I’m responsible for what I did — you don’t have to come and tell me I broke the law (to come here)… But to many of us, we can also think positively and create beautiful things for our families, communities and our environment. It’s my heart they want. Not my legal status,” said Perez.