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'Breaking Bread In McLean County' Highlights Local Immigrant Stories

Breanna Grow
Yesenia Navarrete talks about growing up the child of Mexican immigrants during the first installment of a new virtual speaker series, "Breaking Bread in McLean County."

Constantina Navarrete grew up helping her father farm corn, beans and squash in southern Mexico.

She grew up poor, she said, and everyone around her had the same dream: to have a better life in the United States. She never dreamed she’d someday have her own business there.

Navarrete and her husband, Adolfo, own El Porton Taqueria in Bloomington. Navarette shared the story of their journey to the U.S. and their struggles to open the restaurant Tuesday night during “It’s All in the Salsa: Mexican Stories of McLean County.”

The virtual event was the first in a new speaker series from the McLean County Museum of History called “Breaking Bread in McLean County,” exploring what it means to be an immigrant through the lens of food.

Museum Director Julie Emig said the series’ title hints at the way people relate through food: “a common staple we share across cultures, while also recognizing important and distinct variations.”

Carolyn Nadeau, Byron S. Tucci Professor of Spanish at Illinois Wesleyan University, recorded the conversation with Navarrete, who also answered audience questions in real time Tuesday evening.

Arriving in Florida in 1987, Navarette said she and her husband found work harvesting strawberries. Farm work took them to New York, and then Illinois in 1988.

Nadeau said Latin Americans have been living in McLean County since at least 1870, primarily as railroad laborers. Waves of migrants have been coming ever since.

Around the time the Navarretes arrived in Illinois, the U.S. passed legislation offering amnesty to undocumented immigrants, with a majority of the 2.6 million naturalized citizens being Mexican immigrants. Local media began covering the Latino community in earnest, Nadeau said--from reviews of Mexican restaurants to human interest pieces on the struggles of families living countries apart.

Living in Peru, Ill., factory work sustained the Navarettes for nearly a decade.

“At the time, my brother-in-law would always tell us how delicious the food was that my husband and I cooked,” she said. At her brother-in-law’s urging, and with his help, the Navarretes decided to open a restaurant in Bloomington in 2002.

“We liked the idea of Bloomington because there weren’t many Mexican restaurants there,” said Navarrete.

The couple struggled to raise three children and open the restaurant--all while  also working nights at the Archway Cookies factory in Wenona.

“We would arrive home late, bathe the kids, and then the next morning get back here in time for school,” said Navarrete.

Soon the restaurant gained customers--enough to quit the factory. Navarrete said she can’t believe they’ve spent 18 years in the Twin Cities. She’s still in the restaurant every morning, making sure they have everything they need to open.

Navarrete said like other immigrants, she returns to Mexico and her family whenever she can. She sees the influence the two countries have on each other manifested in food.

Striving to make authentic Mexican food, El Porton has catered to some American tastes over the years, adding Tex-Mex dishes like burritos, chimichangas and quesadillas. Ironically, when she travels to Mexico to visit family, she now sees the same items popping up there, too. And it makes her happy to see how much her American customers love spicy food, Navarrete said.

Her daughter Yesenia said growing up, the Navarretes tried hard to preserve their children’s Hispanic roots, from speaking Spanish at home to returning to Mexico as often as possible.

“But it was really easy for us to adapt to American ways because that’s all we were surrounded by, especially in LaSalle-Peru,” said Yesenia, adding her siblings divided their time between the restaurant and school, navigating separate cultural realms.

Still, Yesenia characterized Bloomington-Normal as accepting toward Hispanic residents. She sees the restaurant as an opportunity to share her culture with the rest of the community. Teaching moments present themselves whenever a customer doesn’t recognize something on the menu as “real” Mexican food, for example.

Yesenia said they’ve been lucky to have the community’s support throughout the pandemic as well.

“They’ve really made sure that we stayed in business,” she said.

The next event in the virtual Breaking Bread series, “Johnnycakes to Paddycakes: Irish Cookery” will be at 1 p.m. Saturday, March 13.

Other organizations supporting the series include The Immigration Project’s BN Welcoming coalition, Not in Our Town/Not in Our Schools, West Bloomington Revitalization Project, Mennonite Church of Normal, First United Methodist Church of Normal, and Design Streak at Illinois State University.

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