As executive director of the Little Village Chamber of Commerce, Jaime di Paulo can talk at length about the Mexican neighborhood that draws visitors from all over the city, suburbs and other parts of the United States.
Storefront vacancies are down to 10 percent, he told me. Close to 40 bridal shops in the neighborhood are welcoming customers from neighboring states looking for quinceañera dresses. Like the Pilsen neighborhood, Little Village boasts numerous Mexican restaurants in close proximity, something you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in the Midwest.
For di Paulo, working in Little Village and living in Pilsen are the next best thing to living in Mexico. “It’s incredible,” he says. “It’s like they took a town from Mexico and put it in Chicago. It’s segregated, but it works in the economic piece.”
Like many who come from Mexico, he’d really rather be living there. But he knows firsthand that it’s too dangerous. He learned it the hard way when his wife was kidnapped.
“Everyone in Mexico knows someone who has been through that,” di Paulo said of kidnappings.
Other Chicago residents have shared stories with me in the last several years about kidnappings. In my own family, an uncle in Mexico who inherited and sold a tiny piece of land was kidnapped, held for ransom and released after another relative delivered the payment.
Di Paulo was raised in Guadalajara, Mexico, until he was 14, when he began attending high school in the U.S. The dual citizen of Mexico and the U.S. received college degrees from universities in both countries.
After working in community relations and marketing for nonprofits in Colorado, he landed a job in 2009 in Mexico City with a San Antonio-based nonprofit. He couldn’t pass up the opportunity to return to Mexico with wife Laura and their baby girl.
“I always wanted to go back,” he said. “We were happy there. … It was a dream job. It allowed me to go home and still come to the United States.”
Eventually di Paulo opened his own business to guide Mexicans through the U.S. foreign investor visa program. His wife taught at a university. They visited his mom and relatives often.
On a day that began like any other, his wife hailed a taxi and became the victim of an express kidnapping by men posing as taxi drivers.
“They grab you, they drain your ATM, they let you go,” di Paulo said to explain “express” kidnappings.
She was held for hours while her kidnappers spent her cash and went shopping with her credit cards. Di Paulo says she feared she would be killed.
Increased violence in Mexico in the last decade is attributed to drug cartels and crime syndicates but there are also copycats making money in the kidnapping trade.
After her release, di Paulo’s wife promptly fled to the U.S., he said. He eventually joined her. No police report was filed, which is often the case when people don’t have confidence in the authorities.
The family recovered. They still visit Mexico but don’t alert too many people of their travel plans, which is not unusual.
The traumatic event couldn’t wipe away their love of country. “Mexico has good people,” di Paulo said. Later, in an email he wrote: “I don’t want people to think it is all bad.”
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