Carlos’ Amigos Are Gringos

In the small town of West Frankfort in southern Illinois, friends of Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco flocked to support a restaurant manager threatened with deportation to Mexico. His case illustrates what can happen when neighbors build bridges across differences in race, ethnicity and class.

I know West Frankfort. My family traces its heritage to this small town of 8,000 that lies deep in the heart of coal country, though production has drastically diminished since its peak in the mid-20th century. In early 2017, Hernandez Pacheco, known as Carlos to townspeople, was threatened with possible deportation. Yet Carlos had friends. These amigos, nearly all of them gringos (or non-Hispanic), publicly defended this business owner after he was arrested for violating immigration law.

For a decade Carlos has served as manager of La Fiesta, a Mexican restaurant in West Frankfort. After his arrest, friends and townspeople, including a number of city officials, spoke up to say that Carlos, a Mexican immigrant, had given far more to the city than he received. He greeted people warmly when they dined at his restaurant. His three sons were active in the schools. Carlos had once offered meals for firefighters battling a fire. He had hosted Law Enforcement Appreciation Day at the restaurant. He took part in the Rotary Club, and participated in cancer fund-raisers, cleanup days and for the high school sports teams. One resident admitted that, in this part of the world, reaching across ethnic boundaries was not exactly second nature. Audrey Loftus, a bartender at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, said, “I hate to use the word rednecks, but this is southern Illinois. This is the definition of a good old boys’ club, and you don’t have a lot of people of different ethnicities that are in this area. And then there’s Carlos. “You will not find a single person that has anything bad to say about him.”

After Hernandez, thirty-eight years old, was arrested by immigration officials, the community reacted with hue and cry. Townspeople and officials, including the county prosecutor, the former postmaster, the car dealer, the Rotary Club president, and the mayor, wrote pleas for leniency. The high school athletic director wrote, “I am all for immigration reform, but this time you have arrested a GOOD MAN that should be used as a role model for other immigrants.”  Hernandez had arrived from Mexico in the late 1990s, yet friends said that his efforts to acquire legal status had stalled somewhere along the way. (His wife became a legal resident in late 2016 and his three sons are all US citizens.) Detained for three weeks after his arrest in early February, his legal status is, as of this writing, unresolved. In June 2016 community supporters held a fundraising event to assist in his legal fees associated with the attempt to remain in this country.

Whatever opinions one may hold about immigration policy, this account provides an excellent example of bridging, a term used by sociologists to describe creating a strong relationship or link across racial, ethnic, economic or any other kind of cultural difference.   In the case of Carlos, despite his ethnic difference with his neighbors, as the years went by, they got to know and love Carlos and his family. When faced with losing him from the community, they raised an outcry. As his friends readily point out, Hernandez himself played a huge part in building bridges across difference, making it easy for them to decide to help out a neighbor in need. His case illustrates what can happen when neighbors build bridges across differences in race, ethnicity and class.

What would happen if congregations learned bridging practices in relating to the community?

Source:  Monica Davey, “He’s a Local Pillar in a Trump Town. Now He Could Be Deported,” The New York Times, Feb. 27, 2017.

Photo: Carlos and Elizabeth Hernandez.


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