Alfredo Corchado: A voice for truth on both sides of the border
The journalist and author returned to Philadelphia to celebrate the release of his new book, which traces the Mexican-American migration story through his own experience and that of three friends he first met 30 years ago.
For many immigrants in the U.S., the concept of “home” is a complicated one. To be part of the country but still feel a sense of belonging to elsewhere. To learn to love a country that at times requires you to cut your ties to your other home, both literally with walls and metaphorically with divisive language and stereotypes.
But Alfredo Corchado, Mexican-American journalist and current Mexico City bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, has built a bridge instead of a wall between his two homelands.
“I’ve always seen my role as a reporter as sort of being, hopefully building a bridge of understanding, guided by facts, guided by what you see, what you know, your perspectives, and always trying to get both sides of the story,” said Corchado.
“If you’re a journalist, you’re a writer, you tell stories, you try to prepare that bridge of understanding and try to tell both sides,” he added.
Corchado is one of more than 36 million Americans who have ties to Mexico — approximately 11 percent of the entire nation’s population. Born in San Luis de Cordero, Durango, near the western coast of Mexico, Corchado said that his parents were always worried that he would “somehow forget” the country where he was born.
“I think the fact that my first memories as a child were from Mexico has always sort of connected me there, and many years later I feel that yes there’s a lot of assimilation that’s happened, a lot of integration, but I’ve also learned to embrace both countries,” Corchado said, adding that from this deep connection to both the U.S. and Mexico came the title of his new book released this month, “Homelands: Four Friends, Two Countries, and the Fate of the Great Mexican-American Migration.”
That “binationality” is also an integral part of the narrative of the United States.
“It’s something that I think makes us richer and stronger, and a bridge, at times,” he reflected.“I say in the book at times that I feel that it’s a broken bridge, but nonetheless, a bridge.”
For all the walls that have been built between the U.S. and Mexico, Corchado’s story and those of many others show how the bridge has been created throughout the decades, stretching over and around any past, present, or future walls between the two countries.
Despite his many ties to Texas and the borderlands of the U.S. and Mexico, Philadelphia has a special claim on Corchado’s affection. It features as the starting point and centerpiece in the story of the decades-long friendship with three other Mexican-Americans which forms the backbone of “Homelands,” released earlier this month. It also was where his illustrious career as a professional journalist first kicked off, spurring a journey which has led him to cover critical stories on both sides of the border, breaking news and investigating drug cartels and violence with a clear-eyed, determined effort to deconstruct and describe the intertwining forces which shape both countries.
Corchado sees Philadelphia as a city where he arrived during “a very critical part” of his life.
“[The city] really formed me and taught me a lot about diversity… It’s a city that’s very close to my heart because it gave me an opportunity as an immigrant to reinvent myself,” said Corchado in a visit to AL DÍA News the day before his book launch in Philadelphia.
But as a young Mexican-American journalist in the Philadelphia of the late 1980s, where he was by far a minority, Corchado’s first introduction to the city was anything but easy.
In the book, he describes his isolation and the “identity crisis” he experienced after moving to Philly in the dead of winter to start his first full-time professional gig at the Wall Street Journal. It was his first time away from home in El Paso, Texas, and he struggled with the rigid, calculated environment of his new office and the colder culture of the Northeastern city, as he writes when talking about his morning subway commute:
“If all of these people were Mexican, I thought, this train would be so loud every morning. Everyone would know each other, all smiles and laughter. Kisses on the cheek and long, familiar hugs. But no, Philadelphia felt sterile and soulless.”
“I was really homesick, I was really lonely,” said Corchado. But before he left El Paso he had been given the name and number of the person who “might be the only Mexican” he would ever meet in Philly — Primitivo “Primo” Rodríguez Oceguera, who at the time was working at the American Friends Service Committee and was in charge of the U.S.-Mexico border immigration issues there. It was at a crucial and busy time, as President Ronald Reagan had just granted “amnesty” to many undocumented Mexican immigrants living in the U.S.
The two friends started meeting regularly at an Indian restaurant on Spruce Street close to where Corchado was living at the time.
One night, though, they decided to check out a new Mexican restaurant in Center City, despite Corchado’s skepticism that it would be a chain restaurant instead of something closer to his mother’s cooking, which he was longing for.
But when Corchado entered Tequilas restaurant that winter evening he found a lot more than simply some solace from home in the form of knockoff Mexican food. That night, he and Rodríguez met two other Mexican-Americans living in Philly: David Suro-Piñera, owner of Tequilas; and Ken Trujillo, Philly-based lawyer, politician, and business owner. From the serendipitous group formed that night, a decades-long friendship was born and an ongoing conversation on identity and Mexican-American immigration began.
At the book launch, which was held at Tequilas restaurant on June 5, Corchado, Rodriguez, Suro-Piñera, and Trujillo celebrated their story at the place where it all started. It was living proof of the way in which the bonds they formed had lasted, even as they as individuals wove in and out of each others’ lives, navigating personal and professional challenges against “the backdrop of the biggest demographic shift in U.S. history,” the Mexican-American migration of the past 40 years.
“We sort of gathered around this question...that has followed us for 30 years now as friends, and a question that is very relevant in today’s divisive atmosphere when it comes to immigration,” said Corchado.
Questions that the journalist explores in the book but still do not have clear answers:
“Did we fit in, how do we fit in into this country, and what does it mean to be an American?”
Corchado is now decades—as well as countless awards and accolades—away from the hapless young reporter he describes making his way in Philly in the beginning of the book. But his manner is still unassuming, centered on a certain humility which is no doubt tied to the unceasing curiosity which has led Corchado to uncover countless stories others have missed.
One day not long after his move to Philly, Corchado rented a car to drive out to Amish country, which he wanted to explore, and on his way back he happened to pass through the town of Kennett Square.
At the time, he was still somewhat convinced that he and his three friends were the only four Mexican-Americans in the city, or perhaps the region as a whole. So when he drove through a small town and saw a group of Mexicans hanging out, “the impact was incredible.”
“I really thought I’m crazy, I’m delirious,” Corchado said, describing how his story on the role of Mexican migrants in the mushroom industry of Kennett Square and the revitalization of the small town eventually became a front page story for the Wall Street Journal.
“They pumped in new energy, you have new businesses, you have something like hundreds of students that have graduated from high school and gone to college,” he continued, explaining that now the local business community is very concerned with the fear-mongering that has discouraged immigrants from coming or staying in the town, and made it harder to find people for jobs.
The importance of immigrants in revitalizing small-town America is a nationwide narrative too often overlooked, and is rooted in the history of immigrants from Germany, Italy, Ireland, and other countries who first contributed to the growth of small towns and the nation’s economy as a whole, as Corchado points out in a recent New York Times op-ed.
“This is not an anomaly, this is happening in many other parts of the country. The fear of deportations, the fear of ICE raids, etc., has scared off a lot of immigrants. Today in 2018 compared to 2007, there’s more than 1 million less Mexicans in this country,” Corchado said.
“I’m curious as a reporter...as to why there’s so much resentment, if you will. I keep thinking that maybe it’s misinformation about really our country’s history as a nation of immigrants. I’m speaking here about Mexican immigrants but immigrants from all over the world… We contribute daily to the well-being of this country,” he added, noting that he hopes that the book is accessible to and will be read by people “of all backgrounds.”
In this sense, the journalist said he believes his recent book “really pays homage to the millions of immigrants in this country and people today who are asking the same question: ‘How do we fit in?’”
Corchado is as familiar with the dark side of Mexico as he is with the struggles faced by immigrants in the U.S. In his first book, “Midnight in Mexico,” published in 2013, he details his journey into the underworld of the transnational drug cartels which operate at the border and beyond — a journey which has not come without a price. Corchado has received death threats on multiple occasions, and has suffered the loss of friends and colleagues in a country that is one of the most dangerous in the world for journalists. He feels both gratitude for the ways in which his U.S. citizenship and the protection of the U.S. government have helped him stay safe, and “anger and frustration” for his Mexican colleagues who did not have similar levels of protection and have died.
“On the one hand yes, you’ve been able to write these stories, you’ve been able to weather the threats, but yet so many of your colleagues have been killed,” he said, adding that over 95 percent of the cases haven’t been solved and that so far in 2018 six journalists have been killed.
Corchado said if his first book, as he sees it, “was really about the Mexico de allá,” south of the border, then “Homelands” takes a look at “the Mexico de acá,” here in the U.S., and “how we both intersect, increasingly on a daily basis.”
“Because it’s not just immigrants who are here doing service jobs anymore, but also immigrants that are here creating jobs in this country,” he noted. “So the dynamics of migration have changed, and continue to change.”
And Corchado and his friends are products of that “ambos,” both countries together, that has grown over time.
“I think that we’re like hybrids. We’re a North American hybrid, not as a direct result of NAFTA but as a result of all of the migratory connections,” Corchado said. “There’s an argument in Mexico, too, a debate, are we becoming too Americanized?”
Corchado said that the July 1 presidential elections in Mexico will be important for both that nation and the U.S., and for better or for worse will determine their future relations if the favorite to win the presidency, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is elected.
“That I think is going to be something that both countries are going to be watching very carefully...There’s a lot at stake for both countries,” Corchado concluded.