Daily Archives: 14 November 2007

Learning to Trade Envidia for Unity in Chicago

From Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration, by Sam Quinones (U. New Mexico Press, 2007), pp. 210-212:

They [immigrants from Atolinga in Zacatecas, Mexico] became part of a Chicago ecosystem of immigrant nonfranchised fast-food restaurants that included Chinese food, Greek gyros, Italian hot-dog stands, and sandwich and donut shops owned by Indians. Several Atolingan taquerías replaced Polish and Italian hot-dog stands that went out of business.

Atolingans pooled knowledge, shared experiences, aided those in need. For a while, they formed an informal cooperative to buy vegetables and supplies. When one of Salinas’s taquerías burned down in 1998, he reopened two weeks later using equipment from other Atolingan restaurateurs.

This kind of cooperation was a radical concept for men from an isolated Mexican village. Back home, anyone who wedged his way into a small business wasn’t about to help or cooperate with the competition. Envidia was rife and pernicious. Envidia means “envy,” but it also implies backbiting and in commerce, even sabotage. Envidia is behind the common Mexican proverb “Pueblo chico, infierno grande” (Small town, big hell). When discussing envidia, particularly as it relates to business, many Mexicans tell the story of crabs in a pot of boiling water. When one crab tries to get out of the pot, the others pull him back down; if they can’t get out, why should he?

Chon Salinas came to view envidia as a devastating force. He felt it was behind the drug-smuggling rumors with which he’d had to contend.

A significant cause of Mexican poverty in small villages, he believed, was the way people not only wouldn’t cooperate in business, but at times actively tore each other apart. He told the story of Urbano Garcia, a great carpenter in Atolinga years ago, who so feared competition that he refused to teach the trade to his own sons. As Salinas went out on his own and then helped others do the same, he railed often against envidia.

“The loans we eventually gave each other weren’t that important,” he said. “What was important was to recognize the strength of unity, this support, backing each other up, this confidence that we all need. It’s what I learned at John Barleycorn‘s and what other people taught me there. I’d tell those who were starting restaurants that we have to break the pattern of those famous crabs.”

Chicago was a huge market that offered opportunity for everyone. The new immigrants found themselves together in the same strange land, facing the same challenges: the English language, U.S.-born children, business permits, leases, taxes, snow. The envidia impulse withered, and unity came easier.

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Filed under economics, Mexico, migration, U.S.