A place to call home

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Contributing Photographer
Caitlyn Jones/Contributing Photographer
From left, Juan Cadena, daughters Anna and Norma and his wife, Maria, pose in front of the family pickup.
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Vacation brought family to Denton 15 years ago

Juan Cadena, 43, tried to sit up straight while he drifted to sleep in his living room around 7 p.m. His mother, sister, wife, two daughters and a barking Chihuahua sat around him, unfazed by the heavy snoring.

As a plumber for a contracting company, Juan wakes up every day at 4:30 a.m. and doesn’t get home until 5 p.m. Sometimes, he picks up extra night jobs tiling or plumbing at construction sites. He said those days are especially difficult because he gets only four or five hours of sleep.

But for someone who has been living in the U.S. without legal permission for the past 15 years, Juan has accepted his daily routine. The Cadenas first came to Denton from Múzquiz, Coahuila, on temporary vacation visas, and Juan has worked tirelessly to give his family the opportunity they stayed for.

“I wanted my daughters to further their education in the U.S.,” said Juan, who speaks broken English. His 19-year-old daughter, Anna, served as his translator.

Anna and her 18-year-old sister, Norma, are now residents of the U.S. with valid Social Security numbers. But Juan and his wife, Maria, are staying on expired visas. It’s impossible to get an official count, but the Pew Research Center estimates Juan and Maria are among 11 million people living in the United States illegally.

When Republican and Democrats talk about these immigrants from Mexico — and what do do about them — they are talking about the Cadenas.

The Cadenas are also among more than 5,000 people living in Denton with ties to Múzquiz, a mining city about 100 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I was excited to leave [Mexico],” Juan said. “It felt like when you let a bird free.”


Leaving La Mina

Juan is a burly man with years of physical labor under his belt, which he said has loosened a few notches since the days when he worked in Mexican silver mines for $50 per week. The Cadenas originally are from Múzquiz, but they moved to the smaller mining town of Mina — about 165 miles southeast in the state of Nuevo León — when Anna and Norma were toddlers. There, Juan did his work and saw the risks that came with it.

He said at least one miner died in a collapse each year, and some accidents happened to his close friends.

“There were too many accidents,” Juan said. “And the mines were not producing our goal every month. Sometimes they got only 50 or 40 percent of the goal. So those mines were pretty much done.”

Once Juan stopped working in Mina, the Cadenas returned to Múzquiz and stayed with Juan’s parents for two weeks. Juan’s mother wanted him to find a safer job for the sake of his young children, but mining dominates the local economy in Múzquiz. With limited job prospects, Juan decided to secure vacation visas for his family and visit his siblings in Denton, who had migrated there years earlier.

It was nothing more than a vacation, Juan said, though the possibility of staying remained in the back of his mind.

Anna was only 3 years old at the time and didn’t understand the gravity of the trip ahead of her. She remembers only the wilderness of the mountains surrounding her old house in Mina.

“There were lions, bears and there were cows at night,” Anna said. “The bears used to just walk around. It was beautiful over there.”

The animals were left behind for good after Juan hired a driver from Denton to take them across the border. There are several drivers-for-hire in Denton who legally transport Mexican immigrants to and from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, stopping at the immigration checkpoint in Eagle Pass.

During the Cadenas’ nine-hour drive to Denton in 2000, Anna remembers looking out the window.

“It’s basically a ghost town, and you just drive four hours and hours,” she said. “Leaving Mexico to here — once you hit the U.S., that’s when you start seeing more trees and more houses.”

When they hit downtown Dallas, it was the first time Anna had ever seen a skyscraper.



The Cadenas stayed in Juan’s sister’s apartment during their first few weeks in Denton. At first, it was nothing more than a vacation filled with shopping and family visits. Then they had to start considering a long-term plan. The four of them were getting cramped in the small apartment, and their vacation visas were going to last only six months.

So Juan and Maria renewed their visas and moved into an apartment on Stella Street, where Anna said many other Mexican families lived.

“A lot of the friends I’ve met started off there,” Anna said.

Juan started looking for work while Maria enrolled Anna and Norma in prekindergarten at Borman Elementary School. He eventually found a steady job making $8 per hour as a plumber for a Denton company.

“I really liked that job, and I learned a lot,” Juan said.

He picked up a little English from his bosses, and for eight years, Juan had a manageable routine. Then in 2011, the company fired Juan because of E-Verify, a 1996 program set forth by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. It allows businesses — on a volunteer basis — to confirm a person’s legal status in the United States. And if they do not have the proper documentation, like Juan, they get the boot. U.S. Homeland Security data project about 1,400 employers enroll in E-Verify each week.

But Juan’s family still has a foothold in Denton County. After getting fired, Juan started to look for day jobs tiling, plumbing and painting. Every morning, he stood on the day labor site on Fort Worth Drive with a handful of his compatriots, waiting for a car to drive up and offer them a job.

The weather was the only thing standing between them and a day’s work.

“It was very hard in the cold,” Juan said. “There were some cold winters. So I worked a little bit here and there, but I mostly worked in tile.”

By 2014, the Cadenas were living in a rented house next door to Juan’s sister and brother. They never planned to live next to each other, Juan said — there just happened to be an available rental house in the same neighborhood near the University of North Texas campus.

The Cadenas can’t buy a house without valid Social Security numbers, so by this time, they had bounced between several rental houses in Denton. The family has since formed their own small community in their neighborhood about a mile from the old Sack & Save on Interstate 35E. They frequently visit with each other, and every Friday, Juan makes chorizo for everyone.

“It’s his specialty,” Anna said.

Juan said being around his family helped him feel more comfortable in the U.S., but his cousin Rodrigo Ibarra truly gave him a sense of relief.

Just as Juan was beginning to worry about getting consistent work, Ibarra, who migrated to Denton in 2007, helped Juan land a job at the contracting company he worked for. Juan still didn’t have a valid Social Security number, but the supervisor ignored it based on Rodrigo’s positive recommendation.

Because of E-Verify, Juan said he and many other undocumented immigrants have to navigate around their lack of a Social Security card to get jobs. Some companies, Juan said, don’t actively check for valid socials. In his case, the word of a trustworthy family member was enough to secure the job, he said.


A place to call home

Juan’s decision to stay and work in the U.S. now completely revolves around his daughters.

Norma soon will graduate from Denton High School, and Anna will start classes at North Central Texas College in the fall. Anna was a member of ROTC all four years of high school, as well as an active member of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a Hispanic civil rights organization.

She said if it weren’t for LULAC, she might not have thought about college until it was too late. The college application process already is a tedious task for many teenagers. Anna said it’s even more confusing for immigrants.

“A lot of white parents know the whole process of college, but [immigrants] don’t,” she said. “We would gather all the Hispanic parents who had questions about college or about how the process works, because I know a lot of people who say, ‘You know, my parents don’t even ask me what I’m going to do for college.’”

The 2016 presidential campaign has highlighted immigration issues. Stump speeches are bathed in partisanship.

Local community leaders such as Tim Sanchez, a Denton High teacher, deal with Mexican immigrants on a more human level.

Sanchez teaches a lesson of individuality and American pride to his students, some of whom don’t know how to get into college or feel out of place in a U.S. high school. But he said many first- or second-generation immigrants “don’t know the rules of middle-class America.”

“Enough can’t be said about being who you are,” Sanchez said. “My kids should be able to love America and be themselves.”

Sanchez is on to something. His students will live through a historic cultural transition if the data are at all accurate. Rice University’s Hobby Center for the Study of Texas predicts that by 2040, the majority of the Texas population will be Hispanic.

Anna went through the process of becoming a U.S. resident two years ago, and she said it wasn’t as difficult as she thought it would be. Although she has researched what it takes to become a full-fledged citizen, it is not a priority for her.

“Honestly, I don’t care,” she said. “It’s just a piece of paper.”

As for Juan, he hasn’t made citizenship a priority either, though he and his wife have started the process multiple times. He said it’s extremely time-consuming, and his main priority has always been work.

He has paved the way for his family by working mostly stable jobs in Denton for about 15 years. At this point, he said he just wants his daughters to finish their education. Then he can start thinking about possibly going back to Múzquiz, where a house he has been building remains unfinished.

“If I could, I would go back and finish the house and help my brother make more houses and sell them,” Juan said. “But the future right now is here, because [my daughters] are here.”

Anna, now 19, eventually wants to live on her own. And as she approaches a stage in her life that most young adults revel in, she reflects on the sacrifices and risks her father took to get her to this point.

“I’m very grateful,” Anna said. “It makes me happy because he was thinking about us the whole time.”

When both girls go off on their own, Juan has considered staying in the Denton area with more than 40 of his immediate and extended family members. But he said he will always miss Múzquiz and the small portion of his family rooted to the city.

Juan knows he must seek out citizenship if he plans to make a career in the U.S. If he does stay, he said he would love to own a plumbing business and a place to permanently call home.

“Every month, we pay rent again and again,” he said. “Maybe one day I can get a house here. It doesn’t have to be a special house.”

On one sunny Saturday afternoon, Juan was back from work early — a rare occasion — and he decided to take a drive with his wife. His beloved black Ford pickup looks as worn as his work boots, and on the back windshield is a small sticker declaring, in Spanish, “I love Múzquiz.”


JULIAN GILL can be reached at 940-566-6845 and via Twitter at @juliangillmusic.

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