CHICAGO — The same table Jose Almanza used to sell his homemade garapiñados — caramelized peanuts and pecans — outside a restaurant in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood for more than 25 years now is adorned with flowers and votive candles.
Almanza, 67, known as “el señor de los cacahuates,” (“the man who sells peanuts”), died three days after he was run over by a car pursued by Chicago police the night of Aug. 2, according to police spokeswoman Kellie Bartoli. Now, after a memorial service in Chicago, his family is hoping to be able to send his body back to his birthplace to be buried.
“He leaves a great void in our lives, but I’m at peace because he was a good man and people seem to have noticed that,” said his wife, Maria Ruiz, who said she’s found the strength to deal with Almanza’s death through prayer.
“He made a lot of sacrifices for me and for my sons, but he never returned home, to Mexico, to see them again,” she said.
The last time that Almanza saw his sons was 20 years ago, when he briefly returned in 2000 after his father died.
Like any Sunday night, on Aug. 2 Almanza came home from selling his peanuts after 9 p.m., when the restaurant closes.
He got home, dropped off his leftover merchandise and headed to the Walgreens at 26th Street and Pulaski Road, three blocks from their home, to buy water bottles.
When his wife noticed he was taking too long, she looked outside. Police were already approaching her home to give her the news that Almanza had been struck by a driver.
According to police, officers in an unmarked car tried to pull over Cortez Williams, 26, for a traffic violation in the 2200 block of South Springfield Avenue when he fled the stop. Williams was arrested near where police say he hit Almanza, 2600 S. Pulaski Road, and faces multiple charges, including fleeing the police, reckless driving causing bodily harm and possession of a firearm.
Almanza was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital in critical condition but died Aug. 5 after suffering multiple injuries in the crash, according to the Cook County’s medical examiner’s office.
“I hope people remember him for his honesty and work ethic. He did everything for his family,” Ruiz said.
It was to provide for his family that he came to the United States. In 1995, Almanza made the tough decision to leave his hometown of Salamanca, Guanajuato — a small city in central Mexico — to move north because his business selling fruit and other goods was failing and the family lived in borderline poverty, Ruiz recalled.
Almanza was afraid they wouldn’t be able to afford a healthy upbringing and good education for their two sons, Sergio and Oliver Jose Almanza, she said.
“We wanted to make sure our sons attended college, that was our only goal,” said Ruiz, who joined her husband in Chicago a few years after he established himself in the Little Village neighborhood.
Almanza learned his trade from his father and began selling peanuts and pecans almost immediately after arriving in the U.S.
In Mexico, garapiñados are traditional and can be found just about anywhere, Ruiz said. So when Almanza noticed that they were hard to find, even in Little Village, he asked a family member for a recipe and began experimenting after his factory job.
At the beginning, he walked through the 26th Street corridor offering samples to neighbors.
“He noticed that people liked them because, for many, it reminded them of home,” Ruiz said.
Eventually, he perfected his recipe and asked the owner of Taqueria Atotonilco, 3916 W. 26th St., if he could stand outside the restaurant to sell.
The owner agreed and since then, Almanza had spent nearly every day of the last 25 years selling there.
“People would come here and look or ask for Don Almanza, el señor de los cacahuates,” said Raul Muñoz, manager of Taqueria Atotonilco.
Both Almanza and Ruiz held various manufacturing jobs over the years. But it was Almanza’s peanuts that ensured they had enough money to pay for their sons’ college careers in Mexico.
Sergio Almanza got a degree in computing and is a teacher at a school in their town in Guanajuato. Oliver Jose Almanza received a technical degree in the business industry and is a merchant like his father was, Ruiz said.
“At least his dream of sending them to college came true and the sacrifice of moving to this country was worth it,” she said.
When their mother called to give them the news of his death, they broke.
“He gave up his entire life for us,” Oliver Jose Almanza, 39, wrote in Spanish in an email to the Tribune. “I learned from him, his dedication to his profession, a merchant at heart, but he also taught us to be honest.”
Though Muñoz closed the restaurant for a few weeks after the coronavirus pandemic hit Chicago, Almanza continued selling the peanuts outside through it all, until his death, Muñoz said.
“It’s a loss for the whole (neighborhood) because he was vastly loved,” Muñoz said. “He was an example for many of us, born in this country, of why people migrate here and what one must do to succeed.”
Many people have stopped by to drop off flowers and votive candles at a memorial Muñoz set up for Almanza outside the restaurant. A local pizzeria where Almanza used to watch TV sent some slices of pizza to place on the table, and local mechanics sent a flower arrangement.
A GoFundMe created by his niece Alma Ruiz has raised over $13,000 to cover a funeral and other costs.
His wife, sons and other family say that although they knew Almanza was appreciated by many, they were surprised by the outpouring of love and support. It gives them some peace and consolation amid so much pain, Ruiz said.
“I hope I can grant him his last wish: to take him back to our hometown,” she said.
He longed to return all his life, she said. He often looked for things that reminded him of home — in food, in music, in people, his wife said.
Like Almanza, many immigrants die without returning to their native countries because of economic hardships or immigration status after decades in the U.S.
Nearly 800 Mexican nationals’ bodies were sent back home from Chicago in 2019, with more than 550 so far in 2020, according to Reyna Torres Mendivil, the consul general of Mexico in Chicago.
Mexican consulates must be notified of an attempt to send a body home, called repatriation, to process permits with U.S. and Mexican agencies. Consulates also can provide financial assistance to families in need.
The wish to repatriate a loved one is based on religion, culture and nostalgia, Medivil said.
A few years ago, Almanza and Ruiz had talked about returning to Mexico to live with their two sons, but she suddenly fell ill in 2019 and was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She had to begin chemotherapy and has been in treatment since then, making it impossible for them to return.
“He never left my side while I was in the hospital because he was afraid of something happening to me,” Ruiz recalled. “The least I can do for him now is make sure that I take him back.”
The process of returning Almanza’s body home has been especially difficult and costly, said Alma Ruiz, who is helping her aunt arrange the return.
Because of the pandemic, a process that normally takes one or two weeks is taking much longer, because agencies are closed and travel is limited, said a spokesperson for Martinez Funeral Home, 2534 S. Pulaski Road.
Ruiz said she’s found strength in the “amount and quality” of the people who have shown respect for her husband.
“May God bless them,” she said. “Because all these people offered him affection and solidarity, and that’s what one needs when one is far from our home country. We need the love of our people here.”
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