Immigrant says US is still seen as land of opportunity

Print Print
Sunday, February 12, 2012

— Maximo Arriaga's youth promised little more than hard living.

He built woodworking projects to help feed his seven brothers and sisters while attending high school in the small city of San Pedro Jacuaro, Mexico. He had nothing left over to buy himself new shoes or clothes.

"There was no future, no thought of ever reaching a goal," the 45-year-old Arriaga said. "I had no dreams."

At 16, Arriaga moved to Mexico City to live with his grandmother and earned $30 a week loading and unloading trucks. Long hours of heavy labor offered no future, either.

"I was just working to survive," the Janesville man said. "It was even hard to think that one day I would have enough money to buy a bike. I dreamed of a car, but it was such a faraway dream."

In 1986, Arriaga's brother, who had migrated to the United States, offered another option. He paid $1,000 for a coyote—someone who smuggles people across the border—to lead Arriaga from Tijuana to the United States.

To Arriaga, the United States seemed like a dreamland of technology and riches.

On the night of his crossing, the young man was not alone at the border. Many others had their eyes fixed on the horizon of bushes on the other side. They watched nervously for their chance to cross into another world.

"It was so amazing to see how many people were waiting for the right time," Arriaga said.

Then, with jaws clenched and stomachs tight, they began to run.

"The coyote let us know when to go to avoid the border patrol," Arriaga said. "You could see everyone going off in different directions, like ants. We had to walk through the night through the mountains, then the desert."

Later, at a rest stop, he met a driver in a pickup. Arriaga crowded into the back with about 40 other people who also had crossed the border illegally. He put up his arms to show how he was packed in, barely able to breathe or move. Another eight people squeezed into the front of the pickup.

"They drove us to a house, where about 100 more were waiting," Arriaga said. "Then we waited for a driver to take us in a trunk through a checkpoint. I almost got burned by the muffler. One of the guys was yelling and screaming because he was lying too close to the muffler and was getting burned. The driver yelled at him to shut up."

The driver took most of the people to Los Angeles. Arriaga, still a teenager, caught a plane to Des Plaines, Ill., to be with his brother.

"It was like a new world to me," he recalled, slowly shaking his head. "I had no friends. I had no one to talk with. I practically was lost. I had nothing, nothing, nothing."

The young man was lonely. He hooked up with people who introduced him to drinking and drugs, which dulled the pain of separation from his family.

"It's like a hole you fall into," he said. "I found out you can get hurt if you don't keep your life straight. I got some counseling. I started to see myself in the mirror."

He washed dishes for three years, often walking in the snow to the restaurant. As he matured, he realized he needed positive goals and positive thinking.

"As I grew up, I knew I needed to get a different life," he said.

Slowly, he learned English by attending night class.

"I started using my brains better," Arriaga said. "I started feeling my self knowledge."

Once, he flew back to Mexico to see his family. When he returned, he paid a coyote to take him across the Rio Grande at Matamoros. Arriaga hung onto a raft with one hand and swam with the other to reach the U.S. border. Others crowded onto or around the vessel.

Eventually, a close relative petitioned the U.S. government to allow Arriaga to become a legal permanent resident. The process is often long and complicated. But today, Arriaga is a lawful resident of the United States.

Like many entrepreneurs, he got tired of working for someone else.

"I asked myself if I was smart enough to open my own business," he said. "I thought the only way to know is to try it. The only thing I can lose is money."

In 1999, he and his ex-wife were among the first to open a Mexican grocery in Janesville.

"Back then, most people had to drive to Beloit or Whitewater to find a Mexican grocery," Arriaga said. "It is exciting when you have an opportunity to own a business. We had a mixed clientele. We did pretty good."

Arriaga has two daughters, ages 16 and 21.

"We taught our kids to speak Spanish," he said. "We also taught them about Mexican holidays and foods, especially the foods. You have to have the tamales, tortillas and flan."

He misses much about Mexico, especially the traditional celebrations such as the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12. In the morning, some people enjoy candlelight processions to mass. They sing a traditional morning song or Las Mananitas. They pray for their families and thank God for their lives. The song also is sung on birthdays, other important holidays or to a special girlfriend.

"You can sing it to someone you love early in the morning," Arriaga said, smiling. "It is the best way to win her heart."

He misses his family in Mexico.

"Even if you have family here, it is not the same as the family in Mexico," he said. "They have a different way of seeing things. In Mexico, you do not have to spend a lot of money. Most people share their food and their homes."

After Arriaga's divorce and separation from the grocery, he wondered if he should stay in Janesville.

Eventually, he found a partner to start a restaurant on East Milwaukee Street. Los Amigos, 2624 E. Milwaukee St., was open two years in November. Arriaga knew it would be difficult to keep the restaurant afloat in the city's struggling economy.

"We knew what we were getting into," he said, while cutting burrito shells on the kitchen counter of his restaurant. "A lot of people don't know that you have to be in the business all day, every day."

He does much of the work himself and is at the restaurant early to late.

"I have more opportunities than most people," Arriaga said. "Many want the same opportunities I have, but they are not legal."

Some Mexicans have gone back to Mexico because of the high cost of housing and food and the lack of jobs in the United States, Arriaga said.

"Most of us come for the American dream," he explained.

"Most of us come for a better life. I am very proud and grateful to be here, but I am just one particle in the sand. I am just one story of many who have struggled."


The U.S. Census Bureau reports the following numbers about the Hispanic population in the United States:

50.5 million

Hispanic people in the United States as of April 1, 2010.

35.3 million

The number of Hispanics counted during the 2000 census.

22.4 million

The nation's Hispanic population during the 1990 census.


The percentage increase in the U.S. Hispanic population between April 1, 2000, and April 1, 2010, making Hispanics the fastest-growing minority group.

132.8 million

The projected Hispanic population of the United States on July 1, 2050. If this projection is true, Hispanics would make up 30 percent of the nation's population by that date.


Worldwide ranking of the U.S. Hispanic population as of 2010. Only Mexico with 112 million people had a larger Hispanic population.

2.3 million

The number of Hispanic-owned businesses in the United States in 2007, up almost 44 percent from 2002.

$345.2 billion

Receipts generated by Hispanic-owned businesses in the United States in 2007, up 55.5 percent from 2002.

35 million

The number of U.S. residents 5 years and older who spoke Spanish at home in 2009. Those who hablan espanol made up 12 percent of U.S. residents. More than half of the Spanish speakers spoke English "very well."


The median income of Hispanic households in 2009.


The percentage of Hispanics 25 and older who had at least a high school education in 2010.

3.9 million

The number of Hispanics 18 and older who had at least a bachelor's degree in 2010.

1.1 million

The number of Hispanics 18 and older who are veterans of the U.S. armed forces.

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

Print Print