Passaic, NJ: A Home for Mexicans from Puebla

According to the Consulate General of Mexico in NY, more than 40 percent of Mexicans in the tri-state area are from Puebla, Mexico, the majority of whom live in Passaic, N.J. (Photo by Zaira Cortés via El Diario-La Prensa)

In 1991 Forbes Magazine dubbed Félix Sánchez the “Tortilla King,” but when this immigrant from Puebla, Mexico, settled in Passaic, N.J. in the 1970s, he struggled to open a market that did not exist at the time.

“I went from bodega to bodega explaining to the Dominican and Puerto Rican shopkeepers what a tortilla was,” said Sánchez, 69, who crossed the border at Tijuana hidden in the trunk of a car. “At that time it was a luxury to buy a can of chili. There were very few poblano families in Passaic.”

After working as a driver and a dishwasher, he saved $12,000 and set up a temporary tortilla factory, trusting in the growth of the area’s Mexican community.

“There was potential in Passaic, it was a breeding ground for opportunities,” he emphasized. “I started with used tortilla factories.”

The entrepreneur’s foresight ended up being accurate. In the 1980s, his “Mi Pueblito” tortillas were distributed to 20 states across the country. And according to 2010 Census data, the number of Latinos in Passaic rose from 62.5 percent in 2000 to 68.3 percent in 2009, making it one of the cities with the fastest growing Latino community in the state. In 2009, Mexicans in this city comprised 28 percent of the population.

“Passaic is another Puebla. Many immigrants from Piaxtla, Chinantla and Atlixco live here. The Mexican businesses are thriving and the city grows thanks to them,” said Jesús Delgado, who owns a bodega on Main Street.

The Consulate General of Mexico in New York confirmed that more than 40 percent of Mexicans in the tri-state area are from Puebla, the majority settled in Passaic.  

“A third generation of poblano families is starting to flourish in Passaic. One of the oldest poblano communities lives in this area,” said Hilda Meza, a spokeswoman from the consulate’s office.

“In the last few decades poblanos have fueled this city’s economy,” said Sánchez. “In the 1970s many Cuban and Puerto Rican businesses were closing. There wasn’t a single Mexican restaurant; now there are dozens, mainly on Market Street.”

Mayor Alex Blanco agreed with Sánchez and recognized the immigrant community’s contribution, highlighting that in 2007 Passaic was declared a “sanctuary city.”

“Immigration authorities and raids are not welcome in this city,” he said.

In May 2012, the government of Puebla established the agency “Mi Casa es Puebla,” focused on responding to documentation needs and providing educational and health services. That same year, a monument dedicated to Ignacio Zaragoza, the general who lead the Mexican armed forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, was placed in Pulaski Park.

The big distributors of Mexican products, GROMEX and Oaxaca Products, are an important source of jobs for local residents, but the small businesses give life to the city.

“We keep expanding, more poblanos from New York City are coming to Passaic,” said Jesús Delgado.

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