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

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[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Leon Pedraza and his nephew Francisco Isidro crossed several states and thousands of miles before finding Clearwater 20 years ago. Today, Pedraza works in the kitchen at ABC Pizza in Tarpon Springs.

Climbing the ladder

Everyone knows him as Rudy - the savvy entrepreneur who speaks five languages and owns two sandwich shops.

Like so many, he came to Clearwater and worked as a dishwasher. He later went home with his savings, married a girl and built a house in Los Remedios. Even though he was caught, jailed and deported repeatedly, the jobs and money in Clearwater kept luring him back. Rudy crossed the Mexico-U.S. border at least seven times, following his cousin, Francisco.

A portly man with an easy smile, Rudy was working at Mr. Submarine when he figured out Greeks weren't the only ones who could make a good gyro. So Rodolfo Isidro shortened his name to an American-sounding "Rudy," joined with his younger brother and rented a Mr. Submarine in Largo.

Now, 19 years after coming to Clearwater, Rudy owns a Florida Subs and Gyros in Clearwater and one in St. Petersburg.

He chats easily with his multiethnic customer base, bouncing from English to Hnahnu to Spanish to Greek and even a bit of Arabic.

Credit the gyro for his language skills. "You can learn a lot in a restaurant," said Rudy, who recently passed the U.S. citizenship test.

His sandwich shops do so well, he's not sure he will return to live in Los Remedios. He built a house there 13 years ago, but never visits. "It sits there," he said. "I don't make any money out of it because I can't rent it out."

Mexican Council president Margarito Perez also found the food business a ticket to success. He started with El Chicanito, a small restaurant catering to immigrants. Then, in November 2001 near Drew Street and U.S. 19, he opened Don Pancho Villa, a Mexican restaurant, market and bakery. The Spanish-speaking staff serves Mexicans as well as a growing non-Hispanic clientele.

Perez also launched La Campesina, a bakery, and La Musica de Pancho, a music store, and last week, a Mexican restaurant in Tampa. But with so much competition among Mexican restaurants in Clearwater, he plans a coin-operated laundry and a pool hall there.

Clearwater has at least 55 Mexican-owned businesses - mostly restaurants, groceries, music stores and the all-important wiring services. On Fridays - payday - the line at Envios Hidalgo trails out the door, as Mexicans queue up to send dollars back to their families in Hidalgo.

One man wants to send $1,000 to a sister in Los Remedios.

Another man walks in holding a Devil Rays cap that fails to conceal a wad of cash.

"Yes," he says, leaning close to the window. "I need to send half to Texas to my sister and the other half to an uncle in Ixmiquilpan."

Mexican immigrants in the United States will send back up to $14.5-billion yearly, according to a recent international bank report. Clearwater's Hidalgans wire back an estimated $2-million to $4-million a month, say two University of South Florida professors studying the Clearwater-Hidalgo connection.

Back home, money from Clearwater puts relatives through school and pays for books, electricity, cell phones and the occasional half-hour at an Internet cafe to exchange messages with friends in Florida.

The money also helps the Hnahnu keep alive a tradition known as the faena, or community task. Residents pool resources for public works projects. Recently villagers built a public library, refurbished town hall and whitewashed walls around the 19th century church of the Virgen de Los Remedios.

Bringing home "the remedies"

Cheesemaker Juan Cornejo is one of the Hnahnu's biggest success stories. He started his business in Ixmiquilpan after spending almost a decade in the United States, including three years in Clearwater working as a cook, in a carwash and in a laundry.

After 12- and 15-hour days, he went home in 1998 with $100,000 in savings.

"I'm proud of what I did there," he said, while standing inside his store, Quesos Reforma, next door to a body shop on the dusty main road out of Ixmiquilpan. "It changed my life."

In the back, 11 men wearing Wellington boots and overalls stir, heat and cut strings of gooey, white cheese. Women roll the strips into twinelike balls, which are weighed, packaged and sold to area pizzerias and cheese shops.

Cornejo, 39, buys 2,600 gallons of milk a day from local farmers.

Ignacio Mejay, 33, worked 14 years at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort and Hotel in Clearwater Beach. The money he earned helped family members through college in Mexico: two teachers, one architect and a psychologist. One brother, Manuel, 29, is an elementary school teacher in El Espiritu, a village near Los Remedios.

"Those are the good things it brought us. We all owe him," said Manuel, who earns $450 a month, one of the best public salaries in the area. He estimates half his pupils have a parent in the United States.

Jose Pedraza, 33, son of pilgrim Leon Pedraza, tries to make the best of both worlds.

He works three to six months in Clearwater, then goes home to Los Remedios to visit family, work on his house and collect rent from apartments he owns.

A U.S. citizen, Jose has no trouble crossing the border. He says he can get a job at any Clearwater restaurant.

"I work wherever the dinero is good," he said, sporting a Clearwater Beach T-shirt, jeans and a cowboy hat during a visit to Los Remedios last summer.

Jose sees himself as an example of how the cultural clash can confuse identities and loyalties. He loves his homeland, the smell of mesquite in the wind, and pulque, the potent moonshine made from the maguey cactus.

But he is also fond of Clearwater and doesn't know where he belongs.

"It's a difficult decision," he said. "Go there ... or come back? It's hard to live in two different countries."

A goal of many Hnahnu immigrants is to return to their villages with enough money saved to build a house. Los Remedios and the neighboring villages of El Espiritu, Orizabita and El Olivo are dotted with new homes, many looking like transplants from Tampa Bay area neighborhoods. Men returning from Florida construction sites borrow floor plans and other design features.

Twenty years ago, the streets of Los Remedios were lined by simple homes with corrugated metal doors, no running water, no telephones or electricity.

Today, electricity and running water are available, but most homes still don't have indoor plumbing.

Telephone lines are being installed. Some villagers have cell phones or use a single, public phone at the corner store.

One of the largest houses in Los Remedios - two stories, arched entryway, Florida-style great room - won't be finished for three years. That's how long it will take, says Benigna de la Cruz, for her daughter and son-in-law to save the money needed to put in windows and finish the interior.

Though de la Cruz, 45, takes pride in the house, the construction has an emotional cost.

She is helping her daughter care for the couple's two children. Her son-in-law, a 28-year-old college graduate and X-ray technician, couldn't find work in Mexico. In Florida, he is a gardener and plumber.

The young man is desperate to come home to his wife and two small daughters, one of whom was only a few months old when he left. He calls home almost every night.

"He says he can't take it anymore. He wants to leave now," said de la Cruz, her 4-year-old grandchild playing at her feet.

To encourage him, she sends photos of the construction progress.

"He tells me the only thing that sustains him is the desire to create a better life for his children," she said.

Pointing to other partly built houses around the village plaza, she says the halted work is evidence of broken promises, even broken families.

"Some of those who leave lose hope because the family doesn't manage their money well back home," she said. "When that happens the children don't come home and they stop sending money."

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