I’ve been back from Mexico for over a month and my experience haunts me. It haunts me because the drug war is in the news almost every day, it haunts me because I remember faces and names of people who are struggling or scared, and it haunts me because I am back in Minnetonka and so everyone asks about the Morenos.
The Morenos are the family of Mexicans I worked with in high school. Santiago and his brothers, Manuel and Jose had worked at Lakewinds, a local natural foods store, for nearly ten years before I started in 2003. Their cousins, Joel and Araceli, her husband Jorge had followed and also worked in the kitchen.
When I first came to work at Lakewinds, Manuel was the person I wanted to impress. He wasn’t my boss and he had no official title in italics below his name on his name tag, but everyone knew that he was the one who ran the kitchen. Manuel was shown the food before it went to the deli to be sold, Manuel made the food for the Christmas parties, Manuel had the last word. The kitchen worked like a finely oiled machine – everyone came to work on time, the food was beautiful and perfectly cooked and it was a wonderful place to smell.
I’d purposefully do dishes in front of Manuel to try to show him that I wasn’t just another white girl earning mall money; I’d try to ask him about Mexico and show an interest in his past. But he never really showed approval or opened up.
I became good friends with Santiago, his younger brother, because we worked the night shift together.
I got to know Araceli, who had a lot of energy and usually made me laugh, and befriended her just as she got pregnant with her third child. During her pregnancy, I’d ask a lot of questions about what she was feeling and, one time, I went over to her and Jorge’s house to meet her older two children and have dinner.
Time went by, and I really got to know the Moreno family. Manuel started to at least laugh at my jokes and acknowledge my pathetic efforts to prove my worth. Through Araceli and Santiago, I was gradually told a little bit about the part of Mexico the Morenos are from: a little puebla outside of Queretaro named Bernal, famous for its gigantic rock.
One day, I found out that the Morenos were illegal immigrants and had been fired from Lakewinds. There was no threat from outside; the human resources manager for the company had returned from a week vacationing in Cancun paranoid about their status and decided to get rid of them.
Work was never the same. Lakewinds burned through managers and the turnover was incredible, the food didn’t look right and I felt strange walking through the kitchen. I left for college but kept Santiago’s phone number and called him when I was home for breaks.
Joel, Araceli and Jorge went back to Mexico because Joel and Araceli’s mother was dying and Araceli wanted her children, who had been born in the United States and had never traveled outside its borders, to meet their grandmother in Bernal.
Manuel cleans houses in Minneapolis and Santiago does landscaping.
Jose, their brother, went back to Mexico to try to help on their family farm.
More time passed, memories of the Morenos subsided as I went through college.
I graduated from college in May and decided to spend the summer after graduation studying emigration from Mexico. Each time I was pressed to explain my interest in the issue, I’d think of the Morenos but would only sometimes explain my relationship to the family and how affected I was by what happened to them. They were always in the back of my mind but the thought of seeing them again was more fantasy than feasible.
About a week before I was to leave for Mexico, Manuel called. He had heard from a friend of a friend of my mother that I was going to be in Mexico for the summer. He wanted me to visit his mother. He hadn’t been home in nearly twenty years and he wanted to send a visitor.
I accepted the task wholeheartedly.