St. Petersburg Times: Following Francisco (Siguiendo los pasos de Francisco)

Intro | Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4 | Map | Photo Galleries | Guest Book
The church of the Virgen de Los Remedios is the social and geographic center of Los Remedios, which means “the remedies” in English. Jobs are few, which is why villagers join friends and family in Clearwater.

Story by David Adams and Adrienne P. Samuels of the Times staff
Photographs by John Pendygraft of the Times staff

Published April 25, 2004

Copal incense burns as a villager worships in El Nith, near Los Remedios. The Hnahnu long ago mixed Catholic beliefs with their own.
10 News Click here for Tampa Bay's 10 video: Following Francisco
The Hnahnu survived Aztec, Toltec and Spanish domination. “They have been very political in order to survive,” said Ella Schmidt, a USF anthropologist and co-author of a study on the Hnahnu. “Part of their strategy has been to understand the way the system works, and use it. It helped them survive in Hidalgo and now it's helping them survive transnationally.”

LOS REMEDIOS, Mexico - Their music was their escape.

They could lose themselves in love songs when they became Las Brisas del Mar. The Sea Breezes.

It was the early 1980s and seven young men were trying to balance their dreams with eking out a living in the arid mountains of Hidalgo, one of Mexico's poorest regions.

The one who held them together was their drummer, Francisco.

Let's practice, he'd insist. Three times a week.

Francisco also attracted the ladies. He was a joker. And a looker. In a land where most had bone-straight hair, he had curls, and they bounced when he bopped.

The Sea Breezes played a few weddings, a few parties. But music didn't put food on the table.

Frustrated, and with nowhere to turn but alfalfa fields, Francisco Isidro, at age 22, decided it was time for a change.

His uncle, Leon Pedraza, was planning another trip to el norte. Francisco asked to go. He even persuaded two Sea Breezes to come along.

In September 1983, the four set out from Los Remedios, their impoverished village north of Mexico City. They carried knapsacks stuffed with tortillas, spare clothes and extra boots.

They were looking for a better life.

They found it, quite by accident, in a beach community named Clearwater.

Jobs were everywhere. Francisco quickly sent home excited stories of a rich harvest awaiting anyone who could join him.

And so it started. The first pilgrim seeded what grew over 20 years into a mass migration of Mexicans to Clearwater, changing forever the two vastly different worlds at both ends of a remarkably determined human chain.

Thousands left the cluster of villages surrounding Francisco's hometown, Los Remedios, or The Remedies.

With jobs scarce, villagers couldn't resist leaving for the opportunity to work in even the minimum wage and semiskilled strata of Clearwater's tourism industry. They concentrated in a tight, homogenous community near downtown.

In the early years, a wary Clearwater kept its distance from the stranger who suddenly showed up at its door. Eventually, the city relaxed and reached out. Emboldened, the immigrants emerged from the shadows and became a distinctive force in Clearwater's economy.

Nearly 20,000 now live in the Clearwater area, according to estimates.

Family and social networks torn apart back in Mexico are regenerating now in Clearwater. But still widespread is the pain of broken families.

Also in peril is a centuries-old culture. Most of the Hidalgan immigrants are members of an indigenous people known as the Hnahnu (nyah-nyoo). Their ancestors survived conquest by the Toltecs, Aztecs and Spanish conquistadors.

Now, they're fighting a more subtle but no less dangerous threat to their way of life: U.S. culture. As they immerse themselves in Americana, Clearwater style, the Hnahnu risk losing their identity, language and cultural traditions.

Yet they keep coming.

Crossing the desert

The journey began at the bus station in Ixmiquilpan, a few miles from Los Remedios. The four barely had enough money for the 600-mile, 18-hour ride to Ciudad Acuna, an industrial town on the Rio Grande.

Across the river, they could see Del Rio, Texas. They found a shallow spot, waited for darkness, then stripped down to underpants and waded across.

For two days they didn't rest, crossing open range and climbing into and out of rocky canyons. The nails in their boots pushed into their feet.

On the third day, they finally slept, but only when the sun was out so they could watch for scorpions and rattlesnakes.

Their tortillas ran out first, then their water. They resorted to scooping the morning dew from fissures and chewing raw cactus for precious moisture.

Finally, after 11 days walking, the men reached the outskirts of San Angelo, where Pedraza, then 31, had found work on cattle ranches during his previous Texas trips. By now, they had walked more than 150 miles. It was time to break into pairs to avoid the Border Patrol.

Francisco went with his uncle Leon. The Sea Breezes he'd recruited for the trip, Donato Tlanepantla and Francisco Dothe, stuck together. Before saying goodbye, they agreed to keep in touch by writing their parents in Los Remedios.

Dothe and Tlanepantla found jobs with a Spanish-speaking cattle rancher offering beans, rice and a place to sleep in exchange for one month's work.

Francisco and Pedraza separately pressed north, all the way to Chicago, where other Mexicans had found jobs. But the blustery winter was too much. Pedraza was washing dishes one day in a Greek restaurant when Francisco unexpectedly showed up with a plan: A friend would drive them to Florida, where it was warm and jobs were plentiful.

They got as far as Indiana before their old Grand Marquis skidded and hit a tree. They hopped a bus to Clearwater, where the friend had a contact at a restaurant, the Four Coins on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. The owner hired them to wash dishes and put them up in a small house out back.

Ever the nomad, Pedraza and his savings returned to Los Remedios after two months.

Francisco stayed. He wrote his mother, asking if she had heard from the other Sea Breezes.

She had. Dothe and Tlanepantla were in Texas, she said, picking pecans and cotton. She had given Dothe a number for Francisco. Soon, the two cousins were on the phone.

"He told us about the beach," Dothe said. "He said, "Come here, it's a lot of work, but it's very beautiful.' "

Francisco saved enough to hire professional smugglers - coyotes, who could supply travel documents and avoid authorities - to take Dothe and Tlanepantla to the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, where they bought one-way tickets to Tampa.

Postcards from Clearwater

  Editor’s note

You are reading history.

This is the first story also published in Spanish by the St. Petersburg Times.

In this special report, we examine Clear-water’s immigrant Mexican community, how and why it grew to nearly 20,000 and what changes have occurred both here in Clearwater and in Hidalgo.

As we prepared this story, we knew it would be important for the Spanish speaking community to have the opportunity to read it. So we are publishing this project in both English and in Spanish.

We are interested in your reaction to this project. You can contact us by calling (727) 445-4149 and leaving a recorded message or by writing, in English or in Spanish, to Spanish Language Project Editor, 710 Court St., Clearwater, 33756.

Joe Childs
Managing editor/Clearwater

Back home, Francisco's family, the Isidros, excitedly read his letters and shared them with other villagers. He wrote of Clearwater's greenery, warm weather, paved streets, electricity, indoor plumbing - a far cry from the asbestos-roofed shacks and dusty roads at home.

"He said he had found plenty of work and was earning lots of money," said Nestor Charrez, 42, a cousin who played keyboards for the Sea Breezes.

In 1984, Charrez headed for Clearwater, with a brother and an uncle.

"It was a chain that Francisco started," Charrez said, glancing around Francisco's old house turned corner store, opposite the colonial church in Los Remedios' dusty village square.

"This is where the idea was born," he added, over the cries of Francisco's nieces and nephews playing tag between the shelving. "He helped us to come, we helped others, and they helped still more."

Charrez took the route of the first pilgrims, one that thousands of Hidalgans followed.

Once in Clearwater, the early immigrants snatched up jobs in restaurants and hotels. They could work 12-hour days and bring home $200 a week. Not bad compared with $2 a day back in Mexico.

"It was my American dream," Charrez said. "We were well treated, and we were saving money to send home."

Charrez drove a taxi in Clearwater for several years. He became a U.S. citizen in 2000.

He divides his time between Clearwater and Los Remedios, where he built a house and farms corn and alfalfa.

Francisco continued writing home, often sending photos of his new life. One such postcard arrived from Walt Disney World, where Francisco had taken his new wife, Wilma Sue Race, a waiter at the Four Coins.

Photos taken on that trip are in an album titled: "Frank and Sue. March 13 Disney World." Tattered and wrapped in plastic, it's an Isidro family treasure, one of their few mementos of Francisco's Florida years.

In October 1987, Francisco went home to Los Remedios for the first time, taking Wilma Sue. The couple received a hero's welcome.

Francisco told his six younger siblings about the United States. He taught them how to style their long, thick hair, and he gave them consumer tips. "Even though you're poor, don't buy cheap things," his sister Maria Esther, 26, recalled him saying. "He wanted us to learn everything he had learned."

He also made it clear: Life in the United States was not easy.

The language barrier, racism, long workdays and crowded apartments made for uncomfortable living. Still, he motivated them, saying, Querer es poder. Where there's a will there's a way.

Francisco returned to Clearwater, but dizziness and severe headaches landed him in Morton Plant Hospital. Doctors diagnosed a brain tumor. Lacking insurance, he went back to Mexico.

Francisco endured three more operations and chemotherapy, but the cancer returned. Photos show him hiding his baldness under a red beret bearing the logo of a Tampa strip joint, Thee Dollhouse.

As medical bills mounted, the Isidros needed another family member to go to work in Clearwater. Francisco's sister, Marisol, volunteered.

She and Wilma Sue sent back money for a few months until Marisol let it slip that Francisco had a woman back home. Feeling betrayed, Wilma Sue filed for divorce and stopped her contributions.

Francisco's younger brother Cornelio then quit business school in Mexico City to join Marisol. It was September 1992. Cornelio became a dishwasher at the Four Coins and the family's breadwinner.

Francisco hung on two more years, dying at 33. One day in late May, he gestured to his mother, Delfina, from his bed, as if to wave goodbye. He murmured, "Adios." The family buried him in the church graveyard across the street from the Isidro home because, his mother said, he wanted to watch over the family.

Etched into his elegant stone marker is this epitaph: "Our home is a sad place without your shadow. He departed, leaving us with the nobility of his soul."

But Francisco also left an impressive legacy in Clearwater. By the time he died, hundreds of Hidalgan villagers worked in the city's restaurants, hotels and construction crews.

© Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.