On his last Friday in the United States, Francisco Arellano spent the evening the same way he had spent many evenings for over 30 years: surrounded by his family, drinking some tequila and eating pambazos.
After he bought his home in Brighton Park, it turned into the family hub where everyone gathered for special occasions and holidays. The family is so big that he set up a white tarp canopy in the backyard and connected it to the garage to ensure that the space was large enough for the gatherings.
But the last reunion was different. The usual laughter and chatter were accompanied by tears and hugs as loved ones said goodbye to Arellano and his wife, Teresa Ruiz de Arellano.
The two returned to their beloved Michoacan state in Mexico permanently after living in Chicago for over 30 years. They had crossed the border to the U.S. without permission and could not return — not even when each of their fathers passed away — for fear of losing the opportunity to give their children a fruitful future.
“Despite the pain of being away from my mother and losing my father, it was all worth it,” Arellano, now 55, said in Spanish on a phone call from his hometown, Maravatio, in Michoacan. He is referring to the distance from loved ones, the struggles to settle down and find a good job, living in the shadows for fear of arrest and deportation, sacrificing to save as much money as possible, and “everything that we had to go through to get to this day.”
Arellano said he wanted to make sure he returned to Mexico while still healthy and young enough to enjoy the fruits of his labor. Thanks to his arduous work — which won’t provide luxury, but enough to get by comfortably — he was able to do that.
“I really longed to see my mom, spend time with her, before I lose her too,” he added. “It’s a dream of many undocumented people.”
On Jan. 15, Arellano and his wife departed to Morelia, Mexico, from Chicago’s Midway Airport with no return ticket.
Since immigrating to Chicago, Arellano said he worked toward his goal: to leave his children well-established, build a home in Mexico and save enough money to return to live in his native town and retire. He did it, always with his wife by his side.
Arellano also managed to buy his Chicago home, where he hopes his five children — the youngest 26 and the oldest 33 — continue to host the family gatherings, even if he is no longer here.
“It took a lot of work and a lot of sacrifice,” he said.
While many immigrants who live in this country without permission long to return, few can, for different reasons. For some, saving money and building equity is difficult because they hold low-paying jobs due to their immigration status and often live paycheck to paycheck. Others end up establishing family roots in the country and want to raise their children first.
“I know a lot of undocumented people that want to return but either don’t want or know how to save money,” Arellano said. “Others are fearful to invest, or to buy a house because of their status.”
Arellano bought his house in 2000, after saving enough money for the down payment by working as a roofer for a large company and filing his taxes with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, a number assigned by the IRS to taxpayers who live in the country without authorization.
He managed to get a loan “at a very high interest,” he laughed, and just a couple of years ago he paid off the mortgage. The house is where four of his five children now live. Some with their spouses.
“I left in peace knowing that they’re safe and well,” he said. They will all now help their retired father by paying rent while living in the house.
The couple immigrated to the United States in the late ’80s. Arrellano recalls walking through the hills of Tijuana, Mexico. “Back then, it was easier and much cheaper to cross illegally,” he said.
His wife, also 55, recalls struggles when the two first arrived in the Chicago area with their two older daughters. They settled in the Pilsen neighborhood and barely had enough to pay rent and buy groceries. Arellano first worked at a warehouse, loading and unloading boxes of cigarettes in Des Plaines for $4.25 an hour.
That’s when he realized that getting a car was going to be hard because he didn’t have a license or money, and certainly no proper documentation.
“Mobility was going to be essential to find good jobs and I didn’t have that,” Arellano said. He used the bus for a while until he took the risk of buying an old truck to pick up scrap metal.
But the money was just not sufficient. Finally, about five years after arriving in Chicago, he landed a job at a roofing company that changed his life.
“Me puse las pilas,” he said in Spanish, meaning he reflected and began saving money. “The labor was heavy and it was long hours, but it paid well.”
For several years, Ruiz de Arellano tried to work, but the couple didn’t have family to care for their children and eventually she became a stay-at-home mom.
For their five children, Francisco Arellano is an example that hard work pays off, said his son, Francisco Arellano Jr. Like his father, he learned the roof-repair trade.
Though it was hard to say goodbye to his parents, he is proud and happy that his parents could go back to their beloved town and fulfill their dream of living in Mexico. Francisco Jr. and two of his four sisters plan to visit when they can.
The three youngest children, including Francisco Jr., are citizens; the two oldest daughters have deportation protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. They were brought to the United States by Arellano and his wife when they were toddlers.
Ruiz de Arellano said it was a difficult decision to leave Chicago permanently because “my heart will continue to be broken in two pieces.”
Though she has reconnected with her 80-year-old mother after 30 years of not seeing her, she is away from her children and grandchildren.
“But I’m hopeful that one day we will visit again,” Francisco Arellano said.
Over the years, the Arellano family had held hope that there would be immigration reform that would lead to legalization for Arellano and his wife, but “I couldn’t keep waiting anymore,” Francisco Arellano said. Now they hope that at least there’s reform to permanently fix the immigration status of their two oldest daughters.
“Every president makes promises and nothing ever happens,” Arellano said. He added that their only hope to return is if one of their citizen children can help them get residency.
But for now, they are happy.
In Mexico, his 76-year-old mother, siblings and dozens of other family members welcomed him and his wife with banda music, more tequila and lots of food, just like at his farewell party.
“Chicago was good to me,” he said.