Immigrant embraces, finds strength in faith

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

— Jose Cano was 10 when he began working with his father in Guadalajara, Mexico.

In the morning, he learned how to neatly place ceramic tiles on the fronts of houses. In the afternoon, he practiced reading and writing in school.

The oldest in a family of 11 children, Cano grew up fast.

By adulthood, he was a skilled carpenter. He left home at 6 a.m. to work in construction and returned at 10 p.m. One day, his father-in-law asked him if he wanted to go to the United States.

"I said, 'No,'" Cano recalled. "I don't know anything about the United States. I have a job here. I own my house. I'm working… It's not so bad."

His father-in-law persisted.

He said the United States offered opportunity.

Cano listened. Eventually, he was persuaded to leave behind everything, including his wife.

On Jan. 21, 1990, Cano walked between the cars lined up at the immigration checkpoint at Nogales, Mexico. When no one was looking, he slipped through to Arizona.

He left behind the red-earth highlands of Jalisco, one of Mexico's top three states for emigration during the past century.

"You cannot do that anymore," Cano said, referring to heightened security at the border. "Now, it is very different."

Cano bought a suit and tie at the Salvation Army so he would not stand out at the airport. He and his father-in-law traveled to Wisconsin, where they had relatives.

"I got scared the first time I saw immigration people," Cano said. "I was nervous. My father-in-law was not. We tried to fit in and not look like we had just crossed the border. I came from a big city and didn't know any English. I had no papers. I bought fake green and Social Security cards."

He recalled seeing a custodian at McDonald's.

"I prayed that God gives me a job like that," Cano said. "I just wanted to work, but no one knew I was a good worker."

Eventually, he got his wish.

At first, Cano cleaned and washed dishes at a Fontana restaurant.

Six months later, he sent for his wife, Margarita. She waded across the Rio Grande at Matamoros, with water up to her hips. A man met her on the other side.

"She was afraid because no one told her anything," Cano said. "Someone took her to the border and showed her where to cross. Someone then picked her up by car, and they drove to San Antonio by camper truck. Immigration stopped them, but she was hiding under the seat."

Today, the Canos live with their children in a home in Delavan. A close family member petitioned the U.S. government on their behalf to become legal permanent residents. Now, both are in the United States lawfully. But the process to obtain legal status is often long and difficult.

Cano is a third-shift sanitation worker at a Fort Atkinson factory.

"One guy told me to go back to Mexico," Cano said. "But I have to support my family through school and through college."

He has worked at several jobs since coming to Wisconsin, including one at a poultry-packing plant, where he cut the legs off frozen turkeys on an assembly line.

"I took the bird in one hand while wearing a steel glove," he explained. "If I didn't use the glove, I could cut my hand. It was hard and cold work, but I stayed there because I needed the money."

He and Margarita were living in Whitewater at the time with two other people in a small apartment. They slept on $5 mattresses.

When their pastor visited, they prayed and sang together. Later, they moved to a mobile home, where they hosted church services twice a week.

"We always give thanks to God," 51-year-old Cano said. "My father taught me that. Wherever you go, you give thanks to God for everything, no matter how big or how small."

He and Margarita moved to Delavan in 1996 to be close to their church, La Luz del Mundo or The Light of the World. The church is a Christian denomination, based on Pentecostal doctrine. It has international headquarters in Cano's hometown of Guadalajara. The church's most important yearly ritual is the Holy Supper or Santa Cena, which remembers the Last Supper of Jesus Christ. Members from all over the world go to worship in Guadalajara every Aug. 14.

The celebration is so important to Cano that he crossed back and forth to Mexico in the early 1990s to attend, even though he had no legal documents at the time. Fifteen people in the Cano family traveled to the celebration in August, and 40 people from the Delavan church also attended.

"God is my reason for life," Cano said. "He goes with me wherever I go. If I have a house, it is because God wants me to have a house. If you want something, you have to pray because nothing is free. You also have to work. But if God wants to give it to you, he'll give it to you. Everything we have is because of God."

Margarita, who does not speak English, said she and her husband miss Mexico but stay in Wisconsin so their children will have better lives.

As they spoke, their youngest daughter, 6-year-old Lydia, ran through the living room. Jose fondly refers to her as "Chica," or small one.

"This is my reason to stay here," he said. "We have to give her a better life. When I take my sons to Mexico and stop at a school there, I say: 'Look, guys. You have a real nice school (in Delavan). In summer, you have air conditioning. In winter, you have heat. In Mexico, there is no bus to pick up kids. There is no food like here.'

"They have to understand that life is better here. In Mexico, it is very difficult to go to high school or to the university."

Cano set an example for his children by getting his general education degree from Gateway Technical College in 1998. His wife and children attended his graduation.

"I try to push my family," he said. "If I can get an education, so can they. I don't know much English. It was difficult, but not impossible, especially if God is with us."

In addition to Lydia, four other children live at home: Joab, 20; Karen, 19; Harin, 13; and Haziel, 11. All were born in the United States and are U.S. citizens.

Joab and Karen are students at UW-Whitewater.

Margarita said she is proud to have two children in college.

"When we moved here, it was a great opportunity for them to go to school," she said, speaking through an interpreter.

"Everything I do, I do for them. Everything I do, I do for the family."

Last updated: 1:36 pm Thursday, December 20, 2012

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