Although they have lived in the U.S. all their lives, Alfred and Freddy Padilla say they feel a strong connection to their Mexican forefathers.
“I’m very proud of where I was born and raised, but I’m also proud of my dad and grandfather and what they have taught me about my heritage,” said Freddy, a fourth-generation Mexican American who grew up in Demopolis. “I was fortunate that my grandfather and dad ingrained that culture in me. I love the Mexican culture, which is rich with tradition and strong family values, and, of course, I love the food.”
Like his son, Alfred enjoys chatting and swapping stories with other Hispanics. He has become good friends with many who have moved to the small town of Demopolis through the years.
“When I first moved to Demopolis as a boy, I didn’t use my native language for a long time, so I lost it,” said the Alabama Power retiree. “But I’ve tried to continue using Spanish when talking to my Hispanic friends.”
Alfred was born in 1955 in a primarily Mexican community in Winslow, Arizona. His parents, Alphonso “Pancho” and Rose Marie Perez Padilla, were also raised in Winslow, but could trace their roots directly to Mexico. Pancho Padilla’s family moved from Mexico to Pajarito, New Mexico, sometime during the 1800s, Alfred believes.
As a small child, Alfred spoke only Spanish at home with his parents and five brothers and sisters. It was not until he started elementary school that he began learning English.
Alfred said he experienced a huge culture shock when he moved to the South as a fifth grader.
It was in the 1960s at the height of the civil rights movement. Alfred’s dad had remarried and relocated his family to Montgomery, where he managed full-service gas stations for an oil company. Then, two years later, the Padillas settled in Demopolis, becoming one of the only Mexican families in town.
Although they were a minority in Demopolis, Alfred said the family was welcomed by the community. In fact, Alfred raised his own family there and worked for 43 years at Alabama Power’s Greene County Steam Plant until retiring in May. Freddy has followed in his dad’s footsteps and is a Governmental and Corporate Affairs manager at the company’s Corporate Headquarters in Birmingham.
“We are privileged to work for Alabama Power – a company that embraces diversity and is dedicated to giving everyone opportunity,” Freddy said.
While Alfred was raised in a Spanish-speaking environment until he moved south, Freddy has never formally learned the language and had a strictly American upbringing.
“I may not look Mexican,” Freddy said. “But I’m very proud of my Hispanic heritage and proud of where we come from.”
Alfred said after living in Demopolis for so many years, he had grown away from his roots. But in the past decade, he has yearned to learn more about his family’s background and has been making yearly trips to visit his brother and cousins who still live in the Southwest.
Authentic Mexican food has also helped keep Alfred connected. Alfred and his brother, Louie, a power supply mechanic at Greene County Steam Plant, often get together to cook green chili, tamales, enchiladas and other Mexican dishes for family, neighbors and friends. To make sure their dishes are truly authentic, Alfred has chili powder and other ingredients shipped to him from relatives in Arizona. On his visits he ensures safe passage by bringing his ingredients home in his carry-on bag.
“I like my Mexican food hot and spicy,” Alfred said, adding that the choices at local Mexican restaurants are “way” too mild for his taste.
Freddy said he is grateful to the Demopolis community for readily embracing his dad’s family and making them feel at home.
“Obviously, my dad’s family was in the minority,” Freddy said. “When they moved, there weren’t a lot of Mexicans in the deep South, especially in rural Alabama. I’m sure they had to face some obstacles to make it feel like home, but they remained very proud of their culture and were able to introduce it to those around them in their small town. I am glad for celebrations such as Hispanic Heritage Month. The Hispanic culture is rich with tradition, and I am grateful my dad has more time to visit family in the Southwest and continue learning about our lineage.”
Pancho’s Red Chili Enchiladas
- 2 to 3 tablespoons New Mexico red chili powder
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 2 heaping tablespoons flour
- Garlic powder to taste
- 2 cups hot water
- 12 corn tortillas
- 2 cups grated cheese
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 1/2 pounds ground chuck, browned and drained (optional)
- Chopped lettuce
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Pour 1/3 cup vegetable oil into a deep skillet and heat on medium high.
- Add chili powder, stir and add flour. Continue stirring, being careful not to burn.
- Add water and continue to stir until lumps are gone. Continue to cook on low heat for 5 minutes and then remove from heat.
- Pour remaining oil into a small skillet to heat tortillas and drain them on paper towels.
- Dip one tortilla at a time in the chili mixture.
- Lay each tortilla flat and add a small amount of cheese, onion and ground chuck. Roll up and lay side by side in a baking dish.
- Sprinkle with grated cheese and bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes or until warm.
- Top with chopped lettuce and serve.