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A Mexican immigrant artist found ‘paradise’ in the West Philly punk scene. Now, he’s giving up his oddball American dream.

To Brujo de la Mancha, who is undocumented, life under current U.S. immigration policies is becoming increasingly untenable.

Brujo De La Mancha, Khristina Acosta (center), and Mandy Katz (right) make bean tamales in West Philadelphia.
Brujo De La Mancha, Khristina Acosta (center), and Mandy Katz (right) make bean tamales in West Philadelphia.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

When a 21-year-old punk from Mexico City known as Brujo made his way to West Philadelphia in 1998, he found a thriving creative community amid the DIY music venues and improvised artist studios, and a place to live in a once-abandoned house known as Squirrel Squat.

“I found a paradise in West Philly,” he said recently. “It was like 2 a.m., and people said, ‘Brujo, do you want pizza?’ I said, ‘Really? It’s 2 a.m.’ They said, ‘Yeah! Let’s go to the dumpster!’ ”

After living in poverty, he was dazzled by the city’s decadent abundance, which provided not only food when he was hungry, but also art supplies for his early work in the form of papier mache and “found objects,” items that in Mexico would never have been discarded. “Philadelphia," he said, "gives you so many beautiful trash.”

In the 20 years since, Francisco Javier Hernandez Carbajal — who goes by his artistic name, Brujo de la Mancha — has become a pillar of this West Philadelphia community, known for his weekly radio show; his nonprofit, which teaches Mexican indigenous arts, including dance, instrument-making and cooking; and his work as an artist and teacher.

Now, he’s seeking to leave all that behind.

To Brujo, who is undocumented, life under current U.S. immigration policies is becoming increasingly untenable. Though he’s received Pennsylvania Council on the Arts grants, been invited to teach in Philadelphia schools, and even been included in an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he has no way to regularize his status. The only hope of doing so would be to apply from outside the country.

At the same time, policies seem to be growing more restrictive. He worries that the implementation of Real ID will make working in schools impossible.

“I don’t want to leave the country, but my worry is, what will I do? I’m getting older,” Brujo, 41, said on a recent afternoon, taking a break from making tamales ahead of one of the fund-raising events he’s been hosting to raise the money it would take to have a shot at immigrating to Canada. This one was at a West Philadelphia venue called the Mothership, accessed by climbing a steep flight of stairs and descending another to end up back at street level.

It’s a long shot; he was already rejected a year and a half ago, having needed to provide more evidence of his financial situation and prospects as an artist. If he makes it this time around, he said, he’ll then apply to return to the United States.

So, for now, he’s laying low, making art and tamales — a skill he picked up as a child worker, mixing large vats of cornmeal and then selling the tamales on the streets of Coyoacan starting at age 12.

“Cooking has been part of my life as survival,” he said. “I didn’t grow up with the family structure. I grew up with a broken family. That made me independent.”

He described a neighborhood where the threat of violence was constant, and the economic hardship felt insurmountable. If he hustled, he could make $3 a day, he said, by cleaning windshields or silk-screening T-shirts for punks and protesters.

There was also official oppression. He was mestizo, of mixed race, so he never quite fit in anywhere, and his heritage made him a subject of discrimination: He felt he was targeted for long hair, his indigenous features, his style of dress.

“In Mexico City, if you have long hair, they connect you with witchcraft,” he said. That’s how he got the nickname Brujo, or witch.

When he was 17, he participated in a demonstration in memory of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, in which 2,000 protesters were jailed and dozens of students and civilians were killed by police. Afterward, he and others were taken into custody by federal officers, who he says kicked him, took naked photographs, and forced him to hold a squatting position for hours. After that, he said, he was stopped and questioned again and again by authorities who made notes of his tattoos and told him they knew where he lived.

He says he fled the city, but wherever he traveled in Mexico his appearance marked him as an outsider, subjected to periodic harassment and detention by officials. So, when he met an American woman who offered to help him immigrate and settle in Philadelphia, he went for it.

“I hoped to find another way to live,” he said.

He described a three-day walk to cross the border illegally, the strangeness of eventually arriving in West Philly in the ’90s. “It was looking like they went to a war, a lot of abandoned houses — something we never see in Mexico,” he said. But, for the first time he could remember, he felt safe.

He started making gorditas and tamales for friends — substituting lard for a mix of vegetable shortening and coconut oil for the vegan crowd. And he began making art — with a freedom he had never felt in Mexico. He won grants to bring in master artisans and dancers so he could study and share their art. He started a nonprofit, Ollin Yolitzical Mecac, to share Aztec dancing, and began making traditional instruments, gnarled clay flutes and drums from hollowed out tree trunks, and playing music with them. He started a weekly radio show, too, currently on 106.5 FM and online, called Nikatalka, a bilingual show about indigenous music and cultural issues.

But over time, he began to realize it wasn’t the paradise he’d imagined. He’d get sick, but he couldn’t acquire medical insurance. Or, he’d be carded at a bar and have to pretend he’d forgotten his wallet. He began paying taxes more than a decade ago, hoping that would help his case; it has not.

“You think you’re going to leave the problems behind, but then you have new ones,” he said. “I live like an American. I act like an American. But I’m not an American. Who wants to be like that all the time?”

As he spoke, friends filtered in to help make tamales. Brujo instructed them to hold the banana leaf over the flame until it changed color. Then, spoon in the cornmeal and “roll it like a joint.”

Khristina Acosta, 34, and Mandy Katz, 42, set up an assembly line, and spoke about how they met Brujo and watched him try to make a difference in their community.

“I admire that he’s being really open about his situation,” Katz said, “because there are so many people in his situation who are not at liberty to be so open. I’ll be sad if he leaves, but I’ve seen him suffer and struggle for a long time in Philly. I want to see him able to feel stable and safe.”

One friend started a GoFundMe that’s raised more than $10,000, money Brujo said will go toward legal fees and to show the Canadian government he has the resources to support himself.

Brujo said if his application to go to Canada is denied again, he may have no choice but to return to Mexico in the hope things are different and he’ll no longer be a target.

“For the last 15 years, everything I did — make this art, do that project — I thought it would help me establish myself in the United States," he said. "But all of it was for nothing.”