From Mexico to Cincinnati: Angelica Perez
This is part of a three-part literary nonfiction series about the immigrant and refugee women who took a chance on a new life in Cincinnati. Check out From Syria to Cincinnati: Mariam Alzoubi and From Nepal to Cincinnati: Budhi Lamichane.
The OTR street is bustling with people whose lives I know nothing about. Some of them cluster together in motley crews, mothers stroll by pushing their children, and a few elderly people amble past with their canes, smiling up at the sun. It’s one of the hotter days we’ve had so far, and there’s energy in both the people and the bees that float in the air. Angie and I stand in front of a gray building, taking this all in while we wait for Angelica to open the apartment gate.
Angelica greets us with a smile and a toddler on her hip. The little boy, who I later find out is named David, keeps tapping her cheek as we climb up the stairs. I marvel at her ability to balance the active toddler and climb three flights of steps. By the time I reach the top, I’m sweaty and very thankful that I chose to wear white.
Her apartment is bathed in brilliant reds, deep greens, and cerulean blue. The hallway opens to a living area, and another adorable little boy dances about to “Sesame Street” and smiles at us. We plop comfortably into the chairs, Angelica turns down the TV, and then we begin.
Angelica’s journey to the U.S. began 15 years ago. Two accidents and two resulting trips to the hospital had left her father unable to pay a growing pile of bills. So after discussions with him and her mother, Angelica decided to move out of Mexico City to Cincinnati in order to work in the U.S. and pay off the debt.
When I ask Angelica about the move, she says it wasn’t an easy one. She had just graduated high school and was planning to go to college. The day before she left, she said goodbye to her then-boyfriend, Jorge.
“I think I cried a lot,” Angelica says. “We finished our relationship because I said, 'I don't know how long I'm going to be in the U.S.' We’d dated for almost four years, so I said, 'I don't know if I'm coming back, so you're free to date anyone you want.'”
The two had met through one of Angelica’s friends, Tony. Angelica had studied English and computer programming at the same high school where Jorge taught English, but Tony had Jorge as her teacher. One day, Angelica and Tony were walking to the subway with their friends, when among the bustle of people, Tony spotted Jorge.
“My friend said, ‘Oh, look! Here comes my teacher; his name's Jorge! Let me introduce you to him,’” Angelica says, “I said, ‘Sure!’ So then we met and then we were like, we'd like a drink, so we all went together with him.”
From there, Jorge often tagged along with Angelica’s friend group, becoming one with the crew. Soon, the two became friends, and their friendship grew into a relationship.
We all laugh as Angelica then confides, “Later on, she [Tony] told me she liked him, but I said, ‘You never said anything!’... I was like, ‘Well, you never mentioned it, so too late!’”
Girl code, in this case, can be excused: Angelica and Jorge have been married for 15 years.
I wonder how this whole love story happened, especially after Angelica, leaving for America, told Jorge he could date other girls.
Angelica begins talking about a call she received after she moved to Cincinnati. “My mother-in-law said, ‘You know what, I don't know what you did to my son; all he's talking about is 'Angie, Angie, Angie.' You're the main topic in our conversations,’ she would tell me. And I said, ‘Oh my goodness.’ She told me, ‘He lost a lot of weight. He's not eating well. He's really suffering for you.’ Like what, really? ‘Yepp, he's really missing you a lot.’”
I chuckle at this moment in the conversation, at the atypical high school sweetheart romance that girls secretly wish for when they draw initials in their journals surrounded by hearts.
Jorge hears us talking about their relationship and joins the conversation. He mentions being upset with Angie for leaving, but a friend convinced him to call her. I imagine Jorge sitting next to the pay phone, the coins shimmering in his sweaty hand as he waits for the line to clear up. Jorge gestures as he recalls the memory of Angie’s father not caring for him. First, because of their different religions, and second, because he’s a little older than Angie.
“So I say, ‘Well, if he answers, that means no.’ As we say in America, ‘I'll go on with my life,’” Jorge says. “‘But if she answers, that means that there's hope.’”
That moment seems monumental. It’s the scene in romance movies that carries the most weight. The conversation went something like this:
“Where are you?”
“I'm in Cincinnati.”
“In Ohio? You're supposed to be in California! Texas! Maybe Nevada, but what are you doing beyond the Mississippi?” A pause. “You know, I love you.”
“I love you too.”
“Well, uh, would you like to marry me?”
“Yes, but you have to come.”
“It's another country: You have to come back.”
“No, you have to come.”
They were over 2,000 miles away from each other.
“So I came,” Jorge says, smiling. “And we got married, and we had five babies, and we're here.”
Angelica looks at Jorge, then looks at us. “Life.” She laughs.
Life has certainly been a whirlwind for Angelica, from the beginning. Her childhood home sat in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico, and she describes it fondly to me.
“I tell my kids that it was the best childhood ever because we had fruit trees. We had mango trees, banana trees. My house, we had four guava trees,” she says, grinning. “And we had all kinds of animals – chickens; we had turkeys; we had ducks; we had rabbits, pigs, a couple sheep, so I loved my childhood. I tell my kids that I climbed the trees, you know, got the fruit, ate from the fruit. It was a lot of fun. I have a lot of siblings, so we never felt like we were alone.”
Six siblings, to be exact, and Angelica is the second oldest. As she talks about this colorful home, I picture five young girls and two boys running through the trees, scampering up the branches to play hide and seek, sneak some fruit, and maybe toss a guava or two back and forth to see who drops it first.
When Angelica entered fifth grade, her family moved to Mexico City. She lived there all the way through high school. Although the city was probably vastly different from their life in Chiapas, I’m sure the fun never stopped, with so many siblings and places to go. Or at least, when Angelica tells me she worked at an old bookstore every day before school, I know my life would have been complete – having all those books within arm’s reach.
However, Angelica worked there, not to sneak books to read during the slower hours, but to help support her siblings. Although school is free for everyone in Mexico City and books are supplied to students, other school supplies, such as pens, pencils, notebooks, and clothing, had to be bought. So as the second oldest, she helped her parents by working.
Angelica calls Mexico City a “noble land,” and as I think of her working every morning and then heading off to school in the afternoon to learn English and computer programming, it seems fitting that she lived there.
Angelica mentioned earlier that she and Jorge never planned on having five kids, but as I hear Angelica talk about the size of her family with lively animation, I’m not surprised that they do. To me, it seems like a side effect of being surrounded by so much love.
While she describes her family, I can’t help but relate them to mine. Angelica is so clearly fond of all of them, as her face lights up while she talks about everyone.
“My parents are really good parents,” Angelica says. “They never drank; they never smoked, so we never learned that. They were always – you know – my dad was very strict 'cause he was in the army, so it was like, 'Don't take naps. Don't do this. Do this, this way.' So it helped us, 'cause it formed us… None of us smoke; none of us drink.”
All seven of them graduated from high school, and four of them graduated from college. Angelica mentioned earlier that she and Jorge never planned on having five kids, but as I hear Angelica talk about the size of her family with lively animation, I’m not surprised that they do. To me, it seems like a side effect of being surrounded by so much love.
Their oldest, a daughter, is 14, and from there, they have a 12-year-old, a 10-year-old, a 4-year-old, and David, the 20-month-old.
Suddenly, a resounding thump echoes through the room, breaking the conversation, as David falls to the floor, clutching a pencil in his tiny fist. He breaks into a wail, and Angelica hurries over to scoop him up. Immediately, David presses his face into her shirt to cry. For a few minutes, Angelica murmurs, “Hush my love, you’ll be all right.” She glances at the pencil and up to the desk shelf where the cup of pencils has toppled over, “Oh,” she tsks, “that pencil was worth it?”
Angie, the photographer, and I chuckle, and Angelica tells us that David loves grabbing the pencils his oldest sister uses for school. No matter where they try to hide the pencils, David always manages to find them, often pulling out drawers and shelves to climb. I laugh at that, as I use to do the same thing to reach the chocolate on the highest shelf of my mom’s pantry.
As Angelica continues to comfort David, Isaac – the 4-year-old – runs into the room. He checks on his brother and moves closer, eying the four of us sitting there.
“He’s fine, my love, he’s fine,” she says to Isaac, then turns her head to us. “He worries a lot. Somebody’s crying; he comes and comforts you. He hugs you; he kisses you.”
Isaac is adorable: He has Down syndrome, and you can tell it builds upon the already existing wonder he has about the world. When Angelica talks about Isaac, she does so fondly. “You know, they're beautiful,” she says of all her children. “With Isaac, it's been hard, sometimes, because of his health. He had open-heart surgery, but he's a tough little guy. You see him running all over the place. He still takes speech therapy because he's not able to speak yet, but he says a few words like mama, dada, you know. He speaks with sign language.”
And Isaac truly is energetic. After David is consoled and the crying settles down, Isaac motions with his arms, and Angelica looks at us. “He wants to play ‘Ring Around the Rosie.’” Angelica gets up to play with them, and then Isaac motions to Angie and me. “He wants you both to join us, too.”
Life is short, Mom. We need to be nice to each other.
So we join hands and sing “Ring Around the Rosie,” and the whole time, Isaac giggles and smiles. When we fall to the carpet, he claps his hands together and laughs. His childhood innocence contradicts the things he’s experienced at such a young age. Like the song “Ring Around the Rosie,” Isaac’s life, along with the rest of his siblings’, has been plagued by racism.
One incident Angelica describes stands out:
One day, after Jorge had gone to work, she took the five kids for a walk. They meandered down the streets of OTR, David and Isaac in the stroller, and started passing the school where two of her kids go. As they came closer, a woman saw them walking. She picked up her foldable chair, placed it in the middle of the sidewalk, and sat down.
“I said, ‘Scuse me, ma'am, we need to pass. You know, I have this stroller.’ That's all I said. Oh, my,” Angelica shares with us. “She just got up and said, ‘Go ahead you b–,’ and this and that; she called me really nasty names. And, ‘I'm glad Trump is president; he's going to kick you all out of this country. I'm so happy that I'm supporting him, because you don't need to be here. You don't have to be here. You just make this country…’ nonsense things. And I was with all my kids, you know, I was with the stroller. So I just told my kids, ‘Just keep on going.’ But she followed us. She kept following us.”
Angelica called the police. For over 10 minutes, no one answered. Eventually her 10-year-old son, George, said to the woman, “Excuse me, lady, my mom hasn't said anything wrong to you. Could you please stop calling her these awfully nasty names?”
“She was ready to jump on him,” Angelica says. “I said, ‘Okay, this is enough. You've been calling me these nasty names. You stay away, because I'll fight you if you try to touch my kids.’”
When Angelica threatened to push the lady away, the woman finally headed back to her friends, who had stood by and watched the entire time, laughing. Isaac started crying, and Angelica took them all to the library in hopes that they would calm down.
Sadly, this wasn’t a solo occurrence. Grocery shopping also proves difficult for the Garay Perez family. Once, a man approached Angelica and the kids in Kroger and told them, “Trump’s going to kick you out.” Jorge – who the man hadn’t seen – said: “Excuse me, what are you telling my family?” After the man repeated himself, Jorge grabbed the security guard.
“We find it everywhere we go,” Angelica says. “You go to Target; you go to Walmart, you see people's reactions. You didn't see that before. You knew there were some people that were racist, but now you see it even more. And now I feel like they have the freedom to do it.”
We sit in silence for a moment as this settles in. I try to put myself in Angelica’s shoes. However, the only thing I’ve dealt with as a white woman are the catcalls when walking along the street and the resulting, “Bitch!” if I don’t respond. That alone scares me. But no one has ever told me that I don’t belong here. No one has ever come up to me and said, “Go back to where you came from.” If someone did that, I’m not sure how I would react. Maybe I’d burst into tears right then and there. Maybe I’d turn and walk away, with the words still ringing in my ears. Maybe I’d give them a lecture on the decency of what it means to be a human being. I’d like to think that I’d give them the middle finger, but my arms are too weak to throw a punch if it came down to it. I can’t help but wonder how Angelica deals with this, when she’s been living here with her husband legally for 15 years, with her five children that are citizens.
We thank God for Cincinnati, even though it's not been easy.
“Being an immigrant is already hard. Because you're leaving everything behind. You're leaving everything you love, your culture, everything,” she tells us. “I tell my husband, ‘I can take it.’ Sometimes I can't. But when you see it against your kids, that makes it really hard. When you think, ‘Hm. Is this the city I want my kids to be raised in? Is this the city I want my kids growing up in, thinking they're not worth it?’”
“Our kids will grow; they will become grownup citizens, and they will do the right thing,” Jorge adds, “based not on what they're told, but on what they've seen happen to them and their parents.”
However, the plan for the future is to eventually move back to Mexico City to be with their families, as it’s something all their kids want.
“They say, ‘Maybe it'll be easier for us to feel like we belong.’ 'Cause here's been hard for them to be accepted. That's the reason our oldest is homeschooled: 'cause she was bullied in school. And it got really bad. The school wasn't dealing with it. They said they couldn't do too much. So she's been homeschooled since sixth grade.”
Despite the difficulties they’ve faced, and the desire to move back to Mexico, Cincinnati still holds a place in their hearts. Angelica holds a love for the old buildings, the architecture, the green spaces, and the history.
“We thank God for Cincinnati, even though it's not been easy,” she says. “We pray for Cincinnati and we ask God to help us and to help our kids. ‘Cause if it's not easy for us, for them, there's going to be more challenges. Especially in these times.”
I can tell that, although her family has faced discrimination, Angelica is one of those people who remains optimistic when obstacles arise. It’s clear, above everything else, that family leads her life. And I imagine that every day, there’s a moment where she learns something from her children.
Such as the moment when her 10-year-old son, George, said to her, “I notice people, how they look at me, Mommy, but I try to make it easier. You know why? Because life is short, Mom. We need to be nice to each other."
And George is right.