Ask an Immigrant

“Hey Siri, call Polloloquillo.” The phone rings. I proceed to order 6 pupusas for myself, my dad, and my then girlfriend to have a late lunch in my hometown of Russellville, one of the only towns in Alabama that is flourishing with Latino culture from Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and even Ecuador.

I picked up my order from Polloloquillo, one of many traditional restaurants in Russellville, and then arrived home to the smell of Colombian coffee brewing and the warm hug of my loving dad ready to sit and enjoy the traditional Salvadoran pupusas, a thick flatbread that is sometimes stuffed with cheese and chicharron, some are mixed and called “pupusas locas” and others with cheese and pork.

We topped them with pink curtido (Salvadoran cabbage salad) on top with the red salsa. Prayer was uplifted before devouring the delicious dish and we joked about how we wished each pupusa was bigger.

When we finished, it was time for dessert. My father peeled some plantains, buttered a pan, and fried them to accompany the Colombian coffee from the pot that brews day and night. Guatemalans know very well the easiest dessert to make is fried plantains alongside fresh Mexican cheese.

This food was not even slightly American, and yet here we sat in small-town Alabama without a care in the world. The comfort of family, a home, and great Latino food makes me feel as though nothing were wrong in the world, but had this always been the case?

Sure, I was raised by my father, and heard stories of his migration from Guatemala to the United States, but curiosity has always stirred me. Finally, I decided to document his story and also separately interviewed Cristino Norberto, who since the date of the interview passed due to COVID-19.

Salvador Blanco-Mendez was born in 1962 in a rural village called “La Maquina” in Retalhuleu, Guatemala. Soon after meeting the love of his life from Mazatenango, Dina Milagro Perello, he knew he had to provide for her, but he longed for something more than staying in Guatemala. In 1986, he migrated to North America. Making his long trek through Mexico, he worked for a year in Jalisco to then cross the Rio Grande, the fourth longest river in the U.S., where he had to navigate a dangerous crossing through violent currents.

Once he crossed, he walked through the Texas until he reached Houston, where he settled and found a job in construction. He developed a routine working construction with other recent migrants, and things started to look up as he landed a higher-paying job in Florida — but he arrived to the Sunshine state only to be arrested, detained and deported. Despite this major blow he would go on to migrate back to America yet again, fighting his way back to the U.S. before a year had passed.

This time, Salvador settled in Compton, CA, where he worked construction, then as a newspaper deliverer, as a courthouse worker, an interstate driver and finally as a truck-driver transporting mulch all over California — all to bring his wife and first son from Guatemala. He gained his citizenship in the mid 90s and began faithfully serving at a Pentecostal church in Los Angeles.

In early 2005, his life changed when a bulldozer tipped a twenty-foot concrete wall over him. He immediately felt his left leg crushed and knew it was detached from him, but he was no stranger to adversity. During recovery his visitors at the hospital would leave encouraged by his joyful suffering. He would joke around and turn his friends’ tears of sorrow into tears of happiness and laughter.

After close to twenty years in the big city of Los Angeles, the Blanco family would move to Roy, Utah, for a more peaceful life. Salvador recovered, served at a church in Ogden and got involved with mission work in different Latin American countries. Through a friend, he heard of a small town in Alabama — Russellville — where Hispanic culture was rapidly growing. He visited and preached at a local church and decided Russellville was he next stop for the Blanco family.

The Blancos moved to Russellville in 2007 and opened a music store/bookstore. Small town Alabama shocked the family, but they were also comforted and drawn by other Latinos settling in Russellville. Adversity would creep again as the business failed, and Salvador’s wife went to work at the local chicken plant. It was at this time that Salvador started a church to minister to the large Hispanic population. Although later he would begin working at the chicken plant alongside pastoring.

Years of working and pastoring in the midst of lack slowly became fruitful. He would become a Human Resources worker for the local chicken plant and helped other Latino immigrants find stable jobs.

I asked Dad what he thought the future of Russellville was with the growing Hispanic population.

“In the next ten years, Russellville’s majority will be Hispanic. Without a doubt.”

One begins to wonder what other stories exist like this one. There are so many who suffer, work hard, and patiently wait for stability to come for their family’s future to be brighter than their own.

Earlier that day, I entered into the most delightful smell of pastries and bread at Polloloquillo Bakery to interview Don Cristino. He was a pillar of the Latino community in Russellville, and this interview has stayed as a word document waiting to be published to honor the extraordinary man and his journey of arrival to the U.S.

Cristino Norberto was from a rural farm in Mexico grew up and quickly settled in Mexico City as an 18-year-old taxi-driver. He fell in love with the city atmosphere, but also with alcohol and soon found himself abusing it. He married his wife in 1976, a union that would last for 45 years. His struggle with alcoholism made his marriage extremely difficult. But he made a promise to get to the U.S. and bring his family along.

Don Cristino arrived to the U.S. in 1986 but continued to abuse alcohol so much so that he couldn’t support his family back in Mexico. One night he ended up so drunk that some strangers put him in a car headed back to Mexico. He was treated by a doctor and was told that he had a week to live.

“God showed up. I was miraculously changed,” said Don Cristino.

Providentially, after 25 years of alcohol abuse, Norberto was invited into a recovery program and began working a local farm in Mexico. He never touched alcohol again. From there he made his way to Tijuana and then migrated to California, crossing the dangerous Rio Grande once more. From California he decided to settle in Russellville in 1996. He gained his citizenship shortly after.

“At the time,” Don Cristino said, “there was not a single Hispanic store in Russellville.”

The first person he happened to meet was another Latino immigrant who abused alcohol but got sober — a story similar to his — after going through a recovery program. Norberto and his new friend opened the first Alcohol Anonymous center called “Nueva Vida” on Jackson Ave. with the support of The Good Shepherd Catholic Church. There are now thirteen Spanish-speaking AA groups around the area.

Considering that 1 in 10 Latinos experience alcohol dependency at some point in their lives (according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism), and more than 33 percent of them will have recurrent or persistent problems, this is significant work done by Don Cristino and his friend.

In 1998, Don Cristino brought his wife and his oldest son Quillo to Russellville. His other five children followed later. In 2006, Norberto bought a building at 115 Franklin St. NE with the goal of opening a Mexican bakery. While there was debate about opening it, they took the risk.

The bakery thrived and he put in a taqueria in the back of it. Just a few years later the restaurant expanded to a larger sit-down restaurant where I bought the pupusas to share with my dad. Since Norberto first came in 1996, eight or more Hispanic-owned stores have opened up, “and the city has been so supportive,” he said. Norberto also added a very successful snow cone stand called “Snowballs Raspados” where on any given summer day you can spot a line of people ordering their favorite flavor.

“Hispanics have gone from being the minority to soon becoming the majority in this town,” Don Cristino said with a smirk. He hopes to see the different Latino cultures remain distinct and yet see unity in diversity.

How does a small town like Russellville, Alabama have something so unusual like this? Only because of Latino immigrants sacrificing their entire lives for the sake of a better life for themselves and families. There are countless stories like these in Russellville alone and thousands more in this country. Stories like these humanize the immigration debate of our day and are worth documenting and being read. They show us that the dignity of every human being means everyone should get a shot at better opportunities. On the last day of Hispanic Heritage Month, stories like these show us that everyLatino immigrant has a story. My wonder grows every time I hear stories from my own family members. What if we asked Latino immigrants their stories? What would that do to our opinions of the border crisis? Or perhaps you don’t the know the story of your own family members and friends that are immigrants.

Ask an immigrant their story.

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