Three Tales of a City

By María Luisa Paúl (‘21)

Editor’s Note: This is a collection of three original opinion pieces, telling three stories from South Bend, Indiana.

1: A Full Belly Leads to a Happy Heart at Taqueria Chicago

Ay, ay, ay, ay canta y no llores…” 

Arguably the most popular Mexican ballad to ever be created, Cielito Lindo is a call to sing rather than cry.

“…porque cantando se alegran, cielito lindo, los corazones.”

According to Quirino Mendoza y Cortés, author of the beautiful verses that make up the song, “by singing, my sweetheart, hearts rejoice.”

The song’s melancholic melody, a product of the guitar’s stringing and velvety trumpet sounds, is enough to transport anyone to Mexico. It is the epitome of the country’s culture: the fixation with romance, the longing to return to one’s land, the flamboyant mariachis

At Taqueria Chicago, the ballad plays from the restaurant’s boom box, which is tucked behind the glass counter displaying all sorts of Mexican candies and snacks. If it were only for the music, the mind would be capable of fooling anyone into believing they are at a typical taquería, or taco restaurant, in Mexico. With the Spanish words floating around the atmosphere and a myriad of pictures depicting Mexican cultural figures plastering the walls, it is hard to believe the restaurant is located at 2920 W Western Ave.

“I want a taco with car-nee-tah, please.”

Ah, there it is.

The English language makes you come back to reality and realize that Mexico’s turquoise beaches and majestic pyramids are thousands of miles away. 

In a fairly small restaurant featuring fifteen tables or so, half of the customers are actually American. Despite the nation’s devotion to Taco Bell and Chipotle, which are not – and I cannot emphasize this enough- authentic Mexican food, people at Taqueria Chicago seem eager to put away the sour-cream monstrosity that defines Tex-Mex fast food, and enjoy the traditional tastes of Mexican cuisine.

“Most of my customers are güeros (Caucasians) and morenos (African Americans). I think they are fed up with the fake Mexican food they offer around town,” María Arellano, the restaurant’s owner said in Spanish. 

Arellano arrived in 1994 from Chicago with big hopes and dreams. After working at a taco stand in the big city, she ventured to South Bend in order to open her own establishment. In the place that eventually developed into “Little Mexico,” as the area where the restaurant is located is known, Arellano hoped to share the recipes she acquired from both her previous job and her native home of Guerrero.

“I used to do all the cooking, but, no mi amor, I am old and I have arthritis. Now the boys do the cooking,” Arellano said as she motioned over to the kitchen with her mouth. “I taught them everything, and they have learned the art through the decades.”

And art it truly is. 

The waitress arriving with two white plastic plates is a sight that can awaken any heart. No sour cream, no hard shell, no stringy Cheddar cheese; only meat, onion, cilantro and a lime wedge. Perfection was embodied in the tacos de carnita (pork simmered in oil) and tacos al pastor (spit-grilled pork) she laid on the table.

The greasy streak left on my chin by the carnita taco was a telltale sign of delight. Though both were amazing, the taco al pastor was the winner of the day. Its chewiness, saltiness, and sweet undertones accounted for an explosion of flavor. Simply dressed with a squirt of lime juice and a spoonful of salsa verde for that extra, spicy kick, it tasted just like the tacos you can find in Mexico, and their price was roughly the same. Worth $4.25, the feast epitomized the three most important B’s in the Spanish language: bueno (good), bonito (pretty), and barato (cheap).

Even though the restaurant is best known for its tacos, other Mexican staples such as chilaquiles, enchiladas, mole con pollo, tortas, and menudo – “para la cruda (hangover), of course,” Arellano said – are offered. 

For $4.50, one can find a whole meal carefully packaged into a sandwich. The tortas, typical Mexican sandwiches, can be filled with an array of protein options – including steak, pork, roasted pork, and chicken- and are served with beans, cheese, lettuce and tomato. One torta is all it takes to invoke memories of Mexican street markets and the joy they bring to the heart and belly.

Taqueria Chicago truly is a piece of Mexico in South Bend. Opened every day from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., young or old, American or Latino, anyone can come inside and delight in the melting pot of cultures that defines the city’s West Side.

Not to contradict Mendoza y Cortés, but at this food establishment if one thing is sure it is that singing is not the only way to rejoice a heart. After all, as they say in Mexico, barriguita llena corazón contento, or, in English, full belly happy heart.

2: How Many Black Marks Do We Deserve?

Black lines sketched in the wall, 48 of them to be exact. Each one of them marked the amount of hours he had spent in the house without his parents.

The lanky, 13-year-old boy, whom we will call Carlos for security reasons, was alone in the house his parents had called “home” two days prior. They had left without a hug or kiss. They said they were going to buy groceries, but they never came back.

“I couldn’t take it anymore. I hadn’t eaten anything. I had to run away,” Carlos said.

He broke out through the window, and wandered the streets of South Bend’s West Side. Walking without any sense of direction, Carlos met a group of young men who were armed and smelled like marihuana. Feeling utterly abandoned, he decided to join them.

“It was stupid, but I felt alone. I thought they could protect me,” Carlos said.

The young boy was convinced into helping them sell the drugs. He could sleep on a mattress at one of the gang members’ houses in exchange. This agreement worked out for a month, until a police officer caught Carlos red-handed. 

Not only was he in trouble for possessing illicit drugs and being affiliated with a known gang, but, apparently, his parents had made an appearance and told the court that he had ran away without any reason.

What ensued was a myriad of court dates. He stood there as the people who had promised to protect him fought in court against his custody. He heard as his mother and father said they did not want to take care of him. He was present when both of his parents said they did not care if he was sent to a juvenile detention center or rehabilitation facility.

“They just…they just didn’t care. During a break they pulled me by the shoulder and they said they didn’t deserve to deal with my [mess] because they had never planned to even have me,” Carlos said between tears.

Carlos was the product of a drunken night between an ex-convict and a prostitute. He was raised without a doting father and caring mother, and his heart ached for affection.

“Sometimes I would just sit in the park benches to see kids playing catch with their dads. I’d close my eyes and for a second imagine it was me. For two seconds I fooled myself into believing that was me,” Carlos said.

The lack of love took a toll on his mental health. With only 15 years of age, Carlos had already attempted to commit suicide twice, and he had the scars in his arms and wrists to prove it.

“I just don’t see the point anymore. Parents are supposed to love their kids. What does it mean that not even my parents can love me? I’m stuck here, and they couldn’t care less. It would be better if I just…if I was dead,” Carlos said.

The helplessness was too much for him. After ending his term in a juvenile justice program, Carlos cut his life short.

A tale of heartache and bad decisions, Carlos’s story is not the only one of this kind. On South Bend’s West Side, inequality and crime go hand-in-hand, subjecting citizens to this type of grim reality. A marginalized area and a failed justice system are the twin deficits that affect the most vulnerable. 

Instead of giving Carlos and young people like him the help that they need; instead of dealing with the root causes of the problem; instead of pulling them out of an endless cycle of recidivism, troubled youths are left at the edges with a sign reading “menace to society” plastered across their faces. 

The people who proudly exclaim, “We are all South Bend,” are the same who perceive the invisible scarlet letters that spelled out “juvenile delinquent” in Carlos’s face. “We are all South Bend, but not you because you are trouble,” is how the city’s banners should be adjusted. “We are all South Bend, but we will just lock you up before you do any harm,” could well be another option.

At the end of the day, the city failed Carlos. The system failed Carlos. We all failed Carlos.

Locking up people is not the solution. Marginalizing people is not the solution.

The solution is to understand the layers behind someone’s actions. The solution is to cease the cruel judging and engage with empathy with one another. The solution is to not let the young people behind. 

It is easy to shun others based on their past actions. It is easy to say we do not want to deal with anyone’s mess. It is so easy. But are we really going to act like parents who abandon a child?

The 48 marks of abandonment do not do justice to the problem. We have abandoned Carlos and other children like him for far longer.

3: Living in Fear

Beep. Scan. Woosh. Bag. Repeat.

A plastic bag of apples, a bottle of hot sauce and a package of cheese go through the conveyor belt and into a plastic bag that reads “Rosales Supermarket.”

Spanish and English naturally mingle in the air at this corner of South Bend’s West Side. Shoppers and workers converse with one another. A man and woman laugh over coffee. Yet, the exchange between the cashier and the policeman is striking due to its silence.

“That’ll be $9.35,” she says in broken English. She does not look at the man’s eyes, not even for a second. A knife could cut through the conspicuous tension.

The official hands over a couple of crumpled bills and heads to the exit. As soon as the door clicks behind him, the cashier lets out an audible sigh. Her hands are still shaking as she puts the money inside the box.

Cálmate, mija. Relax. You do know the police will not take you away, right?” the woman at the supermarket’s pharmacy desk said to her.

“I know, but I still feel afraid,” the cashier said as she shrugged.

Valentina, who requested that her real name not be used out of fear that it could jeopardize her asylum application, arrived in South Bend two months ago with her children. She fled from El Salvador looking for greater opportunities than the ones found in her violence-ridden country. Valentina packed her life into a bag and left everything she knew behind after her husband threatened to kill her.

“I’m happy here. The community has helped out a lot. The people here are definitely very kind, but I live in fear. I’m scared ICE is going to come knocking at my door and send me back to El Salvador,” Valentina said.

She sometimes wakes up screaming in the middle of the night. Haunting memories from the month she spent at a detention center in the Southern border still bring her to tears. These fears, however, are not unique to Valentina, as undocumented immigrants residing in South Bend’s West Side face them everyday as well.

Back in July, rumors of impending immigration raids in the city swept through this part of town. As a result, businesses shut down for days and people began seeking refuge at the local church.

Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg – now United States Secretary of Transportation – recalled this episode in his memoir, Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future. “Parents had grabbed their kids from Harrison Primary Center and small shops closed for the day.”

According to Buttigieg, the event prompted his office to verify this was a false alarm and to create a system that would warn at-risk residents if this ever were to happen. The result was the creation of a phone tree to alert local families if ICE raided local businesses and homes.

Protecting immigrants was at the core of Buttigieg’s policy. Running a city with a growing immigrant population under a president who has made the deportation of millions of undocumented people his signature issue, Buttigieg found creative ways to navigate the system and integrate immigrants into the city’s fold.

Despite the president’s anti-immigration rhetoric; despite the horrific images of separated families; despite all the raids, Buttigieg recognized the importance that immigrants have in society.

“Immigrants can and should be essential players in the growth of our economy, and it’s time we start recognizing that when we expand our lawful immigration system, everyone benefits,” Buttigieg’s policy paper read.

During his term as mayor, Buttigieg instituted a “Community Resident Card” program to help undocumented South Bend residents open bank accounts and fill prescriptions.

As a presidential candidate, he proposed the creation of a location-based “Community Renewal visa” to encourage working-age immigrants to relocate to U.S. counties facing a shrinking population as part of his policies intended to strengthen rural America.

Regardless of his efforts, however, there is only so much a mayor can do when it comes to immigration policy.

Even in a city where the police force is told not to enforce federal immigration laws, people like Valentina live shackled to their fears. Their life is one consumed with anxiety and filled with prayers asking for just a little compassion. 

Leaders accuse them of stealing jobs. People shun them for their “otherness.” The law sticks them in a framework of “us versus them.” 

They forget that immigrants are not leaving their countries to delve into a life of crime; they are fleeing from persecution, violence, and unbearable conditions. They make great contributions to the economy. They increase populations. They enrich local cultures. The list goes on and on. 

A prime example of immigration’s benefits can be seen in every corner of South Bend. Once doomed to becoming a ghost town, the city has ultimately recovered itself. Once culturally homogeneous, now restaurants offering a myriad of flavors from around the world pop up all over town. Once facing a shrinking population, South Bend’s population has increased, with 59 percent of such growth coming from immigrants. 

It is a shame that our leaders ignore their contributions. It is a shame they choose to pitch them as enemies to satisfy their political agendas. It is a shame that Valentina and her children must live hoping that they are not taken back to the hellhole our border has become.

Until our government recognizes that this country was built under the principle of “liberty and justice for ALL,” the one thing we can do is to continue supporting our community. South Bend must continue setting the example, coming out stronger and closer to each other from an experience meant to tear everybody apart.

María Luisa Paúl is a Political Science and Economics major with a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy at the University of Notre Dame. Her articles were originally written for Professor Jack Colwell’s JED course, ‘Persuasion, Commentary and Criticism.’ After graduation she will be interning at the Washington Post’s General Assignment desk, where she hopes to give a voice to the people and continue encountering extraordinary stories in the most unassuming of corners.

Though we may be accessing this site from around the world, we acknowledge our affiliation with the University of Notre Dame and thus our presence on the traditional homelands of Native peoples (even if virtually) including the Haudenosauneega, Miami, Peoria, and particularly the Pokégnek Bodéwadmik, who have been using this land for education for thousands of years, and continue to do so.

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