They live among us, hiding but in plain sight.
They mow our lawns, mind our kids, cook our food, clean our homes.
They are Mexicans, living and working on the Main Line.
Some, of course, work under the table.
Others receive paychecks, have payroll taxes withheld, and file yearly U.S. tax returns.
Just like us.
But in many ways, not like us at all.
Because they are here without papers and have little reason to believe they’ll ever get them.
One such family – living in a rented, single-family home on the western Main Line – asked us to share their story.
They wanted us to put a human face on the immigration crisis.
But, of course, we cannot.
At least, not literally.
Instead of their faces, the couple had us photograph two sombreros and two flags – symbols of a family caught between countries.
Half of the family – the couple and their oldest child, born in Mexico 17 years ago – are here illegally; the other half – three children born here – are American citizens.
They want us to know that they came to America only out of desperation. And they’d love nothing more than to become legal, to step onto that fast-fading path to citizenship.
Twice, they saved enough to consult an immigration attorney.
Twice, they were told no, they would not qualify for green cards.
After living here 16 years as husband and wife, they’re used to dashed hopes, they say.
Once, a while back, the father marched buoyantly in Philly with Latino friends, convinced that amnesty was at hand.
But 9/11 happened.
And with it, the family’s door to citizenship, cracked open in the late 90s, slammed shut.
So for now, they wait, living quietly, cautiously, the rising panic of recent weeks hidden behind smiles dropped only in the dark of night, after the kids are asleep.
Their precautions are simple, scrupulous and necessary.
Before heading out to work each day, each checks the other’s car for broken headlights and taillights.
With more than 200,000 miles on their engines, keeping their cars running is challenge enough.
But a busted brake light, a fender bender, a traffic ticket, a breakdown – anything that brings the cops – could be the beginning of the end of their lives here. Inspection and insurance papers, they could produce. But a driver’s license?
Careful for years, the two these days are on high alert.
Their kids feel the change, too.
The two teenagers, who attend public school in one of the Main Line’s well-regarded districts, bring home stories of classmates belittling them, insulting their Mexican heritage. Only their names give them away. Unlike their parents, all four speak English without hint of an accent.
“My kids just ignore it, but I know they’re hurting,” the father confides. “My wife and I know we don’t belong here, but how about them? This is the only country they know.”
When the family shops at Walmart, security guards and clerks follow them, they say. “We see other shoppers grab their pocketbooks when we’re near them,” the dad says.
Times are tougher at work, too.
In recent weeks, clients – people they work for at their respective jobs – have demanded to know how they voted, mocked their accents and suggested that they learn better English.
They explain that they’re improving their English as quickly as they can.
Each has engaged a volunteer tutor from a local literacy group.
They want us to know, too, that they “try hard to be good citizens” even if they don’t have and likely will never get the documents that say so.
“We pay our bills on time. We pay our taxes,” the man says. “We’re trying to speak the language. I got my GED. We are decent people.”
Regulars at Sunday Mass, they profess gratitude to God for what they have.
But, pressed, they admit “many obstacles.”
Their eldest has a 3.5 GPA and is a student athlete.
“But we can’t go to the bank and ask for money to send our child to college. We can’t go to a car dealership to buy a new car because we don’t have valid licenses and social security numbers. We can’t go to a regular doctor or get health insurance.”
The undocumented half of the family relies on a free clinic for health and dental care. Even one hospital stay would bankrupt them, they say. The three younger children qualify for Medicaid.
Both parents often work six days a week – they can’t afford to turn down extra hours. In sixteen years here, they have never taken a vacation. Not one.
No, life isn’t easy here. But life was darn near impossible in Mexico, they say.
The man was the first to cross over.
He finished high school in Mexico City, drove a cab and sold tacos in the street to support himself and help his parents.
He had no plan to leave his country until a cousin told him about the chance to work for a living wage and live among family in suburban Philadelphia.
Excited, he sold his cab and hired a human smuggler (“coyote”) to guide him across the border in Tijuana. He slipped under a border fence, walked for four hours, then shared a ride to LA in the trunk of a car. He brought nothing. The only thing in his pocket: his cousin’s phone number in PA.
“It’s scary; you don’t know who you’re dealing with,” he remembers. “The coyotes are like the Mafia: they pass you from one person to the next.”
Because airline security was much looser 20 years ago, he flew from LA to Philly, where his cousin and a landscaping job were waiting.
His future wife would cross a few years later.
She was born, one of seven, in a rural village in one of Mexico’s poorest states. Her father was a subsistence farmer.
Home had no electricity, no running water, no beds. Her wardrobe: two dresses. After her education ended in sixth grade – the village school went no higher – she helped her father in the fields and her mother in the kitchen.
At 14, she moved to a nearby city to become a nanny to twins.
When she was 20, her aunt invited her to join her in the U.S. “I saw how hard my parents were working to survive,” the woman says. “I thought if I made more money in America, I could send them more.”
Eager to help, her boss paid the coyotes.
She crossed at Tijuana in the trunk of a car.
For three months, she trimmed grapevines in a California vineyard, then flew east to join relatives in Philly’s western suburbs. Like other migrants, she gave a false social security number to a factory and received her first American paycheck.
After she met her future husband, the two returned to marry in Mexico near their parents and siblings. They stayed on in Mexico City; the man resumed driving a cab. A year later, they had a baby.
One day, the man stopped home for lunch. “My wife asked me for money for diapers and milk for the baby and I looked in my pocket. There wasn’t enough money to feed the baby.”
That night they decided to return to the U.S.
Crossing this time – with a 14-month-old and a five months-pregnant wife – would be much riskier.
The baby went first.
“We had to hand our baby to strangers and cross through the desert. They told us it would be a better place,” the man recalls.
Again, they journeyed penniless, carrying a gallon of water between them for what they were told would be a three-day walk.
But, after a nightlong trek, their guide inexplicably abandoned their group of eight.
They jumped a six-foot fence at the Arizona border and flagged down a minivan.
“Help us, please,” the man beseeched. “I need to get my wife to Phoenix because my baby is there.”
The driver agreed to take only the four women. “First, I gave my daughter to a stranger, then I gave my wife to a stranger. I lost contact with her for three days.”
With the women on their way, the four men turned themselves in to U.S. authorities. They were handcuffed in the back of a pickup truck, driven to Tucson and put on a plane to El Paso, where they were escorted back over the border (to Cuidad Juarez, Mexico).
Officials intentionally drop you at distant, unfamiliar crossing points so you’ll be less likely to attempt another crossing, the man explains.
Desperate by now to find his wife and baby, he was undeterred.
He took a long bus ride back to the original crossing point in Arizona and tried again.
This time, he walked across, at one point ducking into bushes to avoid a guard.
He eventually reunited with his wife and baby in Phoenix.
Because airlines now required IDs, the family crossed the U.S. in a minivan, rejoining their cousins in Philly’s western suburbs.
Sixteen years and three more children later, they’re still here.
Forever grounded, each missed a parent’s funeral in Mexico a few years ago. “We’re caught in a cage,” says the father. “Here, we are able to feed our kids and send them to school. But we can never give a hug to our parents or see how they’re doing day by day,”
Would a wall have kept them out?
Not likely, the couple says. “People in my country are hungry. When you’re hungry, you go where the food is – even if you have to jump higher or go under. There’s a lot of corruption in Mexico and I don’t see when it’s going to be better. If it were, we wouldn’t have risked our lives to get here.”
Tighter border security is already “pushing people to cross in dangerous areas now, where there are narcos and criminals,” he says.
After the November election, the couple began preparing for the worst.
They arranged for an American friend to raise their three American children should they and their oldest be deported.
If only the father is sent back, he fears whatever job he finds in Mexico wouldn’t pay enough to support his family back here.
And if DACA is repealed, their eldest “dreamer” child would have “no chance at all” to go to college, they say.
“We’re afraid at any moment that something is going to happen, but we can’t tell our kids,” the father says. “We have to live like nothing is happening. They are happy kids.”
More tentative than her husband, his wife adds softly: “At the end of the day, we say, ‘Thank you, God, and please take care of us. Please keep us together.’”
Switching gears completely …. Louella is on the move again.
The popular women’s fashion boutique with stores in Wayne and Malvern is expanding to Bryn Mawr, taking over the Sara Campbell space at 1012 Lancaster Ave.
Owner Maria Delany tells SAVVY she’s “super excited” to open her third Louella in the heart of the Main Line, citing the eastern Main Line’s reluctance to cross the Blue Route to shop.
“Bryn Mawr is in the middle of a renaissance; there’s really good energy there.”
(Judging from the jammed lot at the new Bryn Mawr Village, we tend to agree – although it would be nice to see fewer vacant storefronts on Lancaster Ave.)
Louella Bryn Mawr will carry many of the boutique’s tried-and-true labels, including those eye-popping baubles from local gal, Lisi Lerch.
Also on order: new contemporary lines.
Prices, in typical Louella fashion, will run from reasonably low to reasonably higher.
At one end, trendy tops and jeans for well under $100. (Hear that, ’Nova students?)
At the other: preppy-with-punch designers like Trina Turk and Alice + Trixie.
After repainting the outside and spiffing up the inside, Louella III hopes to open in late April.
Meanwhile, Sara Campbell’s manager says the store may relocate on the Main Line.
In other shopping news – this time, bittersweet: Tuesday, March 14 is your chance to support the Devon Horse Show AND celebrate what would have been Polka Dots’ owner Susan Randels’ 61st birthday.
The Paoli fashion boutique is donating 20 percent of the day’s sales to the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair Foundation.
A huge horse show supporter and an equestrian herself, Susan tragically passed from a ruptured retroperitoneal aortic aneurysm on June 1, 2016, Ladies Day at Devon.
Her store, and her memory, live on.
Time to upgrade your flat screen. Or get that second fridge already.
Electronics retailer HHGregg in Berwyn is closing.
No surprise – The Swedesford Road store on the company’s hit list of 88 weak-performing stores.
Look for big liquidation sales into April.
First Circuit City, now HHGregg. Another big box gone bust. Ugh.
But at least the old Nordstrom Rack in KOP has a taker.
Fashion discounter Saks Off Fifth will open near the Regal Cinemas in April.
Meanwhile, the Best Buy next door is hanging tough in the midst of a company-wide reorganization after ho-hum holiday sales.
Fun times in downtown Ardmore.
After a decade of acrimony, construction of the $60 million, mixed-use, mixed-review One Ardmore Place has begun.
Good news for potential renters of the Place’s 110 luxury “loft” apartments with la-di-da amenities and underground parking.
Not so good news for drivers accustomed to parking in the Incredibly Shrinking (And Soon Disappearing) Lot on Cricket Ave.
Constructions crews tell SAVVY the lot will be closed completely in three weeks and the whole eight-story project – two below ground, six above – will take two years to finish.
Looking to swerve off the fast lane for a few days?
You’re invited to stop and smell the roses – or whatever’s blooming in late April – at a new-to-the-Main-Line event in Malvern.
(Sorry, guys. This one’s for only for the ladies.)
Life’s Patina at Willowbrook Farm, host of those cool barn sales, is hosting a whole new kind of gathering, a “Soul Restoration” retreat, April 26-29. Created and staged by Brave Girls Club, the retreat is billed “a creative art + soul + life journey.” Seems Owner Meg Veno attended the same retreat and loved it so much, she’s bringing the Brave Girls here.
The idea is to immerse yourself in peace, quiet and beauty (and we know Willowbrook’s got all three in spades) as you unlock your hidden gifts with “soul crafting” art projects, journaling, nourishing food and a new friend or two.
The end game: A brave new life path.
Only thing missing? Oprah. But we hear retreat leader Kristen Hansen’s a darn fine stand-in.
An unexpected SAVVY find: Cedars Café BYOB in ho-hum strip center in Frazer.
Dull décor but tasty, scratch-made Middle Eastern fare. Family-owned, too.
Get in spring spirit (the weather sure is) and order the marinated lamb kebob with hummus and house salad. ($22.99). Apologies to Lourdas in Bryn Mawr, but Cedar’s got you beat on this one.
A SAVVY shoutout to Fox 29 “Good Day Philadelphia” host Mike Jerrick, who just came clean about why he’s been AWOL for the last few weeks.
Witty and exceptionally affable, Mike announced on Facebook that he suffers from depression that’s been building over 13 years. He left town to get professional help at a wellness retreat in Southern California.
Which only goes to show you: Even the sunniest of souls battle inner storms.
Bravely done, Mike. Get well soon.