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Illegal Immigrants in the Restaurant Industry

Mexican immigrant Hugo Ortega went from washing dishes to owning Houston's best Mexican restaurant — now he has a few things to say about immigration

The chiles en nogada at Hugo's are the best I have ever eaten — even better than the supposedly definitive version I once sampled at Osteria San Domingo in Mexico City.

The dish is associated with Mexican patriotism. The green chiles, white walnut sauce and red dots of pomegranate garnish are traditionally arranged in the order of the colors of the Mexican flag. Chiles en nogada were created by the nuns of the Santa Monica convent of Puebla in 1821 to commemorate the arrival of Agustín de Iturbide, architect of Mexican independence. Iturbide's celebrity was short-lived; he was crowned emperor in 1822, deposed in 1823 and executed in 1824. So maybe the fiery chiles en nogada should also be considered symbolic of the cruel fate that befalls so many Mexicans.

It's hard to picture the soft-spoken, slender and genteel-in-his-chef's-whites Ortega climbing over a barbed-wire fence with the Border Patrol in pursuit. Like so many others, he crossed the border for little more than the promise of washing dishes and busing tables.

Ortega grew up in one of Mexico City's worst slums.
Courtesy Hugo Ortega
Ortega grew up in one of Mexico City's worst slums.
The chiles en nogada at Hugo's are spectacular.
Daniel Kramer
The chiles en nogada at Hugo's are spectacular.

"My teen years were pretty awful," he says, remembering his struggle to take care of seven brothers and sisters and his decision to cross the border. "My dad was beating my mom and me. He hardly ever came home. When I was 15, I quit school and started working for Procter & Gamble in Mexico City loading boxes of soap into cartons on an assembly line. My family was going hungry. I was buying rice and beans, but that was it. There was never enough. Then my mom had twins and got sick. I was raising the kids and working. It was a bad deal."

Ortega couldn't earn enough to live, no matter how hard he was willing to work. Hope arrived in the form of a letter from a cousin named Pedro (not his real name) who had made it to Houston.

Pedro wrote about the terrible journey. The van he was riding in blew up. He had to walk across the desert with nothing but a couple of tacos to eat. But he made it. He was living in a shotgun shack between Taft and Montrose. "He said he was making $200 a week," Hugo remembers. That sounded like a lot of money."

"I was young. I wanted to do something with my life. And I wanted to help my mom and my family," he says. "What would you do?"

In April of 1983, at the age of 17, Ortega decided to go to the United States. "My mom was very sad and very concerned when I left. When I quit my job at Procter & Gamble, I got 200 pesos in back pay, which was less than $20. I bought a bus ticket to Juárez with the money."

Ortega arrived in Juárez along with an older cousin, who was 23, and three other friends. A coyote met them as soon as they got off the bus and asked if they were going across. "You have to give him a phone number of somebody in the U.S. If you don't have a phone number, they won't cross you. My cousin and I gave him Pedro's number in Houston. Pedro had to agree to pay $500 for each for us. He really stepped up to the plate."

For five days, Hugo and his group stayed in a junkyard in Juárez, sleeping in wrecked cars and eating potatoes and eggs. On the fifth day, they attempted to cross the border.

"We had to inflate a plastic boat by blowing into it. There were 35 people including little kids and fat ladies who could barely walk. We took turns going across in the boat. I was scared to death because I couldn't swim. The mosquitoes [helicopters] came with their lights, and we tried to hide in the bushes. The coyote cut a barbed wire fence, and we ran. We got to a road. It was perfectly smooth, with no potholes. I thought, 'Wow, what an amazing country.' We got caught by the Border Patrol. They tied up our hands and put us in a van, took us to the bridge and sent us back across the border. We crossed again three more times, but we kept getting caught."

'The fifth time, we all split up, and the young guys who could run fast went by themselves. We crossed two fences and got to the railroad tracks where we were supposed to wait. Someone opened the door of a railroad car and then they locked us and two coyotes in there. The coyotes told us if we coughed or made a noise, they would kill us. I believed them."

"They had a special seal so that the customs people wouldn't open the rail car. We were in there for three hours before the train moved. After awhile, we could barely breathe. We took turns putting our faces up to a crack in the floor to get air."

"When we got close to San Antonio, the coyotes had to hack through the railcar's wooden wall with a pickax so they could get the door open. One of the coyotes cut his hand open, so there was blood everywhere. We had to jump out while the train was still moving. Finally we got to a house in San Antonio. People were talking, and it was half English and half Spanish. That was the first time I ever heard English.

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