Aniceto Cortes distinctly remembers his days as a young boy, working on his grandfather’s fields in the small village of San Felipe Xochiltepec, Puebla. Whenever an airplane crossed the sky, he recalls, he would run towards a tree, hold on to it and stare at the sky in awe. He wondered what the metallic bird flying through the sky was and dreamed of someday being able to be up high with it.
“I would simply look at the sky and ask myself: ‘Would I someday, when I’m big, be able to be up there?’”, he recalled.
Now, the 52-year-old immigrant lives his dream of flying, traveling by air weekly with a business he set up that allows him to be his own boss.
For over 10 years, Aniceto Cortés has been providing a unique service to people in his hometown and their relatives in Los Angeles. He delivers encomiendas–packages of specially requested goods–to and from his home in Boyle Heights.
Family members often bring encomiendas –which means requests– back to Los Angeles after travel back home to Mexico. That’s how Cortés started, taking and bringing back encomiendas on his trips to Puebla.
“Whenever I went to Mexico, every other year, I would take things like clothes, shoes and accessories to people in town,” said Cortés, a U.S. citizen who has lived in Los Angeles more than 30 years. “When I returned, they would send the requests: peanuts, candies and things like that. But I didn’t charge them for that.”
A lucrative enterprise
What started as favors for friends has turned into a lucrative business for “Don Cheto,” as he is affectionately known, who provides an important service to members of immigrant communities nostalgic for goods from back home and with ties to family there. Many immigrants, who have little trust in Mexico’s mail and other delivery services, prefer to pay “paqueteros” like Don Cheto, who are well known in their territory.
Don Cheto seized the opportunity to turn a profit while helping his fellow poblano immigrants. “That motivated me, and I started doing it because I knew there would be a way of profiting from that.”
Every week, Don Cheto packs all the goods his customers bring to his home in Boyle Heights and sets out on a daylong, complex trip.
He first drives his pickup truck to Tijuana, where he catches a flight to Mexico City. From there the travels by bus to the capital city of Puebla, where he makes his first deliveries. Then he travels on another bus to Izúcar de Matamoros, his second drop-off location, where he gets in a van for his final trek to San Felipe Xochiltepec, a small village of some 1,200 residents.
He repeats the stops on the way back, picking up the encomiendas to bring back to Los Angeles.
Don Cheto’s customers in Los Angeles often send clothes, accessories and footwear to Puebla. In some cases, they send electronics, such as phones, tablets, computers and large TVs–items that are hard to find or more expensive in Mexico.
“We sometimes send clothes, medicines, things like that,” said Guadalupe Rosas, a Boyle Heights resident and frequent customer of Don Cheto. “Things they need and cannot get over there.”
Likewise, his customers in Los Angeles receive items that are nearly impossible to get here–mainly typical foods and treats from Puebla. “I bring mole, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, plums, goat barbacoa,” Don Cheto listed. “I bring lots of candies, typical treats like palanquetas or chilacayotes, which are made from a gourd.”
A taste of home
The most requested item is mole, a sauce made with chiles, nuts and spices used in one of the most emblematic dishes from the state of Puebla. Customers either ask their families to send the prepared sauce or the ingredients to make it here.
“There’s plenty of moles here, Doña María, other brands,” said Cortés. “The truth is you can find it here, but it’s not the same.”
He explained that although the cost of buying foods or treats here and getting it delivered from Puebla may sometimes be the same, people still choose to get them delivered. “It sometimes comes out about the same, but the issue is that everyone has his or her own personal taste.”
Customer Rosas, a native of Izúcar de Matamoros, agrees that the taste is not the same. Her mother sends her mole about four or five times a year. She gets about five kilos with each “encomienda,” which last her several weeks.
.“There it is made the natural way, without machines or anything like that. It’s better, more natural,” she argued.
Don Cheto serves a large population of Eastside poblanos, whose presence in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles is evidenced by the number of restaurants and other businesses that cater to immigrants from that region.
It was because of the large concentration of poblanos that the government of Puebla decided to move its local office from the mid-Wilshire area to Indiana street, right across the street from a restaurant that sells cemitas, mole and other poblano dishes.
The state office, Mi Casa es Puebla, provides birth certificates and other official documents to poblanos in Southern California. Its director, Ricardo Herrera, said that his home state is one of five with the largest number of immigrants living in Southern California. According to Mexican government statistics, Los Angeles has the largest population of Puebla immigrants registered with a Mexican consulate.
Herrera, a recent immigrant himself, says businesses like Don Cheto’s provide a vital service to a community literally hungry for a taste of home.
“I have experienced it myself in the short time I have been here,” said Herrera, recalling his favorite hometown dishes. “All of a sudden you crave the ‘tlacoyos’ made by your mom or grandma.”
When Don Cheto first started his business, he traveled every other week, but as business progressed, so did his traveling. He now makes deliveries every week, and his wife, Ana Maria Cortés, also travels regularly to meet demand.
While not a wealthy man, the Boyle Heights homeowner says the business supports his family and allows him and his wife to enjoy the freedom of being their own bosses and visiting their relatives in Mexico regularly. Cortés refused to disclose how much he charges for his deliveries or how much he profits from the venture, but said he makes enough so that his family does not have to struggle the way he did growing up. One of his major accomplishments, he said, was to be able to build a house in Puebla for his mother, whom he now visits every week.
It has not been without personal sacrifices, says his wife, who leaves her 11-year-old daughter behind when she travels, she stated.
A loyal clientele
Don Cheto’s loyal customers come from throughout Southern California and as far away as San Diego and Fresno. He is not the only one catering to the poblano population in Boyle Heights. Several other
local “paqueteros” who deliver to specific areas of Puebla, and Cortés is aware of at least two others who cover his route.
Customer Rosas explained her loyalty: “We trust him. We know with certainty that he will arrive, and in case he doesn’t, the gentleman assumes all responsibility,” she said.
Cortés says that he follows U.S. Customs regulations on what items can be brought into the country and that he limits his deliveries to the value that he is allowed to carry as a regular passenger. U.S. Customs regulations permit travelers to bring up to $800 worth of gifts and personal purchases home with them. Most fruits and meats are prohibited.
Cortés says he is not big enough to require a license as an importer, but works with one in Tijuana whenever his deliveries exceed the Customs limitation.
Cortés recalled that before he began his business, he had a recurring dream of flying, stemming from his early childhood memory of the metallic bird crossing the sky.
“I only dreamed of flying, flying and flying,” he said. “As soon as I started this business and started to fly every other week, I stopped having that dream. Why? I tell my wife that it’s because my dreams came true.”
Photo above: Aniceto Cortés, known as Don Cheto, shows some of the products he brings every week from his hometown in Puebla. All photos by Jennifer López.