Editor’s note: This is one in an ongoing series of stories about local immigrants and their journey to New Bedford.
NEW BEDFORD — Working behind a steamy cloud from the hot plate in front of her, Petronila Morales darts between orders and preparations. Her hands quickly swipe a loaf of masa, a soft dough made from corn flour and warm water. She squeezes it into a ball, mashing the dough with her fingers. Then she fills it with cheese, bean batter, and pork.
Her eyes scan everything from the size of the dough balls to the vegetables on the griddle — watching her employees as well as the waiting time for customers in line.
Morales, 37, and her husband Martin Ordonez, 43, are two of the roughly 1,500 foreign-born Guatemalans living in New Bedford. Today the community represents more than half of the city’s Central American population, according to the U.S. Census.
Morales is one of only about 10% of Guatemalans in the area who have obtained American citizenship in the past 20 years. Not only is she a naturalized U.S. citizen, but she also opened her own business — the Tortilleria Guatemalteco — on Acushnet Avenue.
As with many undocumented immigrants who have arrived in the United States, Morales’ journey began in her Central American hometown, more than 20 years ago.
In a small village in El Quiche Department — the poorest region of Guatemala — she mastered her cooking skills, working in her mother’s restaurant and shop while still a little girl.
Despite earning barely enough to live, she said she loved working with her mom. Cooking meals at the restaurant, filling the shelves with new products for the store, and taking care of customers gave her fulfillment.
But the business that kept her and her mother afloat was about to change.
Family was terrorized by local gangs
As a rebellious 16-year-old, Morales was both curious and irritated by mysterious men draining her family’s money every month.
“What do they look like?” she asked her mother once. “I want to ask them why they take our money.”
“Cállate. Tú no tienes voz. [Shut up. You have no say],” fumed her mother. “You can’t discuss it with them because they’ll kill you.”
Months before, a man entered their store holding a piece of paper with a phone number on it and they knew what was coming. Minor Guatemalan gangs, lesser known than the international drug trafficking cartels, demand monthly payments from local business owners and often engage in torture and even murder to intimidate extortion victims.
“My mom had no choice but to call them,” Morales said. “They told her we had to give them a monthly payment in exchange for their protection.”
But the payments were actually the fee to avoid gang violence. According to Al Jazeera, gang-related murders in Guatemala are estimated to be around 1,750 per year and represent one of the highest violent death rates in the world.
Some days, when her mom ran errands, Morales was left by herself running the small shop. Once, while stocking shelves, she saw an elegant turquoise car stop in front of the entrance.
Five armed men jumped out and started yelling at her through the screen door. “Dónde está la señora? Abres la puerta. [Where is the lady? Open the door].”
Morales said she froze, in shock. And the longer she stood there, the more aggressive the men became.
They broke in, yelling: “La señora está haciendo la loca, no ha pagado. [The lady is fooling around, she hasn’t paid.]” Morales said they swiped the barrel of a gun across her forehead.
“I ran up the stairs to the terrace and told the neighbor to call the police,” she recalled. “Within five minutes the police were there.”
About 40 minutes later, police came back with two gang members handcuffed and sitting in the back seats. They told Morales that she no longer had to worry; they would put them in jail.
“What did you do?!” her mother yelled when she came back home. “I couldn’t tolerate it anymore,” Morales responded. “You were working for them, not for yourself.”
Before she could say another word, a friend ran into the shop and told them he had seen the police release the two gang members, Morales recalled.
“Your daughter must run away,” the man said. “Now.”
“My mom looked at me as if I was already killed.” Morales said. “I will never forget it.”
Morales flees, and the journey begins
Morales’ mother gave her $10 and told her to take the first bus she could find, and to not call her on the phone for at least two days. They could not know when the gang would be back. Wandering alone in the streets of an unfamiliar village, her stomach was in knots, she said.
Late that same night, the turquoise car returned to the store. “Where is your employee?” the men yelled. That’s when Morales’ mother realized they had no idea Morales was her daughter.
“She returned home to her family,” her mother told the men. “She will come back tomorrow.”
When the men left, Morales’ mother pulled down the shutters of the store, grabbed what little money she had in the register, and ran away. She would never return.
Three days later, Morales learned that her mother was staying in Esquintla (near Guatemala City) with Morales’ uncle. “My mom told me ‘you have to make a decision, my baby girl.'”
They knew the journey to illegally enter the United States through Mexico would not be easy. But it would give her a chance. “Puede ser que pases. [Maybe you can get through].”
Obtaining a U.S. visa was never a consideration. The visa process for Guatemalans takes time, documents and a web of requirements that only a few can meet, Morales said. In 2020 the U.S. Visa Office found that 2,300 Guatemalans have been granted immigrant visas. During that same year, 47,243 were apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
For Morales, the journey seemed like the only choice. With gang members still a threat and no more restaurant and shop for income, her family would be facing financial collapse. Leaving for America would give her a chance to find a job and send money to her mother to start over.
Perilous days on the road
As Morales tells the story, by the second day of walking along the desert’s sun-scorched ground, her feet were covered with blisters. With cracked lips and a dried tongue, she dragged herself along, one step at a time.
The so-called “coyotes” — people who smuggle immigrants across the U.S. border — allowed the group to stop only for breaks of 30 minutes — even at night. A 17-year-old girl asked the group to stop because her father, a slightly overweight man, could no longer walk, and she was refusing to leave his side. The group left them both behind.
“Whether you walk or die in the desert, they don’t care,” said Morales. “They only care about the money.”
When the group left, Morales said she turned back to look at them still sitting in the dust, until they became dots under the horizon. “I never knew what happened to them.”
On the third day, U.S. military helicopters appeared on the horizon. “Drop to the ground and hide!” the coyotes yelled.
The group remained still for 20 minutes. When it was time to leave again, Morales no longer had the strength to get up. The last thing she remembered was the coyotes throwing her into the back of a truck, like a garbage bag. When she regained consciousness, she was lying beside other people in a house patrolled by armed men.
They had made it to Texas.
Quiet marriage, then chaos at ICE raid
Just a few years later, Morales and Ordonez reconnected in Massachusetts after Ordonez’s grocery store failed back in Guatemala. They got married on the second floor of the Community Economic Development Center (CEDC) in New Bedford, with a bouquet bought at Market Basket. It was a modest, but meaningful ceremony.
“There was no big celebration,” said Morales.
“It was very sweet, very quiet,” said Corinn Williams, executive director of the CEDC who provided some interpretation with the justice of the peace that day.
The CEDC office became a reference point for Morales and Ordonez, as well as for many new immigrants in the city who need help to settle. The support ranges from English classes to job opportunities and practical tips, like how to open a bank account or file taxes.
When Morales started working for Michael Bianco Inc., a leather factory in New Bedford, she said she thought working from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. without overtime pay would be the worst thing about working there. She was wrong.
On the early morning of March 6, 2007, Morales’ eyes jerked up from her sewing machine when her co-workers started screaming. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided the factory, she said, blocking all the exits.
“I thought they were about to kill us,” Morales recalled.
That day, ICE agents arrested 361 undocumented immigrants — including Morales, who was transferred with others to a detention center in San Antonio, Texas.
One hundred fifty-one of her co-workers ended up being deported, and the others, as Morales recalls, were held behind bars under the constant threat of deportation. She said she was detained for 22 days.
The minimum bond amount set by the Department of Homeland Security is usually $1,500. But the criminal records, the risk of harm for the community, and the proximity to the defendant’s family can increase the amount. Despite having no criminal record, Morales’ bail was set at $5,000.
Ordonez got the news while he was at work. “What am I going to do now?” he remembers thinking. Eventually, he found a lawyer and obtained a loan to get his wife out. After returning to New Bedford, she spent weeks at home, explaining that she was terrified of doing anything for the risk of being deported.
Back to cooking … but for new customers
It was Morales’ mother who suggested she get back into cooking.
Working hard in her tiny home kitchen, Morales started preparing chuchitos and tamales for friends in the Guatemalan community. Ordonez recalls people telling him that Morales’ dishes reminded them of the ones their mothers prepared back home in Guatemala.
When she found a job in a grocery store and struggled to continue cooking on top of taking care of her four kids, the community noticed. People started calling her every Friday, asking if she was going to prepare anything over the weekend. The idea of opening her own restaurant began to take form.
Morales admitted she doesn’t remember many exact dates. But one is certain: the day she finally opened the Tortilleria Guatemalteco.
“It was December third, 2020,” she said.
The morning of the grand opening, Morales was all nerves. She spent hours cooking five pounds of guisado, a juicy beef stew, with just as much rice, along with tortillas and other dishes.
Morales and Ordonez were expecting the Health Department Inspector to come at 1 p.m. to give final approval, but at 1:30 when he hadn’t arrived, Morales grew anxious.
At 2 p.m., she was so worried that she started thinking about how to give away the guisado, she said. Just in time for the friends she invited to the restaurant to have dinner, the inspector arrived. Morales was all settled and ready to go.
Ordonez and their oldest son stepped out onto the sidewalk to tempt passers-by. “We just opened. Do you want to try something?”
“We sold everything in a few hours,” Morales recalled. “There was nothing left for our dinner.”
Today the Tortilleria Guatemalteco is a financial success. Morales and Ordonez recently moved to a bigger place on Acushnet Avenue and hired two more workers. Every day, in addition to regular customers, new faces come in to try Morales delicacies.
After 17 years in the United States, Morales said she finally found the courage to go back to Guatemala to visit her family.
With her help, Morales’ mother also opened a Tortilleria back in Guatemala.
Morales says there is no argument who is the best chef. Mom wins.
Email Eleonora Bianchi at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Great story, though hair-raising! I am so happy that some of our neighbors have met with success after so many hardships. It breaks my heart to hear of those left behind, so it is a real pleasure to hear Morales’ story.
Best story ever. Great writing– and a great life story to celebrate. I live in California, but visit relatives in Boston often. I’ll now make a point to swing down to New Bedford to enjoy Tortilliera Guatemalteco’s offerings.
People can call this a great story and applaud the family, but the fact is, she and millions of others came to America illegally, and worked here illegally for many years without paying taxes while putting their children thru the public school system, using the ER at hospitals as way to obtain free healthcare when needed, all at the expense of the federal, state, and local tax payer.
I’m not anti immigrant, everyone in America is here by their ancestors leaving a country with no hope or opportunity, many from Europe like my great grandparents, but they can here legally, they applied for the right pass thru Ellis Island in the early 1900’s and when they arrived, they had to have a sponsor who promised to house feed, and clothe them and cover all other expenses, they went to school and learning English was required, not optional, and they gladly met every requirement, and proudly became American citizens. They also worked hard for their entire lives and we’re never a burden to the tax payer.
Long story short, this family became Americans but they did it illegally, and like most illegal immigrants from central America, they should be fined and taxed for each year they were here illegally, and when they applied for assylum after arriving here illegally, they should have been deported and forced to follow America’s immigration laws and enter legally.
They shouldn’t be praised, they should be prosecuted accordingly and we wouldn’t have the 15 million plus illegal immigrants in America draining our resources, tax dollars, and worst of all not even learning the language.
Where in Acushnet av. This restaurant is located?
We will love to support this business by becoming customers. We went to Guatemala and love the people, their culture and their food.
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