Los Angeles Times Magazine

Sunday, August 3, 2003

So Far From God, So Close to Ground Zero

Mexican Immigrants Are Transforming New York City's Latino Presence, Even as They Cope With the Usual--and Some Unexpected--Pitfalls

By Eric Pape

IT ALL SEEMS so familiar: a rectangular park with uneven grass where men with Mexican accents kick soccer balls, shoot basketballs and kiss their girlfriends or wives. Nearby, bodegas sell dried chiles, mole, chipotle salsa and cheap, poorly printed tabloids with scantily clad women on the covers. Families unite on weekend afternoons over ceviche, enchiladas and sopes, and laborers take breaks over warm-weather beers in front of paintings depicting Aztec deities and fields of corn. Sidewalk vendors sell Mexican flags, plastic snow domes with the Virgin of Guadalupe inside and T-shirts with images of Latino youths in full gang garb. A deflated pig's head glares out from a butcher's window up the block.

An Angeleno could be forgiven for confusing these images with countless neighborhoods in greater Los Angeles and America's Southwest. But here, in winter, snow dots the stoops of brownstone apartment buildings nearby and the sweeping view is that of the Hudson River. This is the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Across the river, Spanish Harlem (also known as "El Barrio") is being transformed. In a neighborhood now known as "Little Puebla," barbershops such as the Azteca cater to a new clientele, Cantinflas hams it up on the cover of cassette boxes at video stores, and restaurants with names such as Oaxaca and Guerrero tout regional fare. Zapatista slogans appear in murals, and spray-painted gang tags increasingly advertise the likes of the Vatos Locos (Crazy Guys), Sons of Mexico, Wild Chicanos and even Los Pitufos (the Smurfs).

"El Barrio was Italian and Puerto Rican. It is now becoming Little Mexico," says Robert Smith, a Barnard College sociologist. He notes that the same process is happening in parts of Queens, where in 1999 an illegal Mexican rodeo made headlines when a bull escaped and went on a rampage through the streets of Long Island City. "You can buy a decent taco in most neighborhoods in New York," Smith says. "That's a big change from when I got here in 1987. Thank God!"

In a city whose Latin flavor has long been provided by Nuyoricans and Dominicans, the Spanish accent is changing rapidly. Sunset Park "is like a Mexican village in terms of eating, drinking beer, shopping," says Jerry Dominguez, a community leader based in East Harlem. Similar neighborhoods have sprouted up elsewhere in New York state and much of the Eastern Seaboard. According to Dominguez, who arrived in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant in the mid-'80s, parts of upstate New York, and even nearby states such as Connecticut, are Mexico.

Except that in New York City, Manhattan's skyline replaces dusty villages, cramped brick apartments substitute for adobe huts and rickety buses have been swapped for creaking subways. But otherwise, Mexicans re-create the familiar. They tend to live, socialize, eat and work with their compatriots. Mexican gang members even tend to rob other Mexicans; undocumented immigrants rarely call the cops. Soccer matches draw vast crowds and Cinco de Mayo is feted by the masses, celebrities and politicos in New York. Madison Square Garden books Mexican singing legends Vicente Fernandez and Juan Gabriel, and is about to host a mariachi concert. For some, the city has a new nickname: Manhatitl∑n„a play on Manhattan and Tenochtitl∑n, the Aztec capital that became Mexico City.

Fueled by the familiar search for employment, the Mexican population in New York City more than doubled in the '80s and tripled in the '90s, according to Smith, who was hired by the 1990 census to estimate the number of undocumented farm workers in the Northeast. Following the 2000 census, Smith conducted his own research, focusing on New York City's Mexican population. Nearly 200,000 Mexicans have been counted in the city, but Smith says that the true Mexican population, including all undocumented immigrants, is probably closer to 300,000„eighth among U.S. cities. If growth continues as expected, Mexicans will become New York's largest Latino community in about 15 years, he adds, supplanting the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans.

Amid the changing immigration tides and the many distractions of life, most New Yorkers are barely aware of the Mexicanization of the city, and if they are, it is usually through the new Mexican restaurant in their neighborhood. Still, the city's top Spanish-language radio station, WSKQ-FM (97.9) (La Mega), now grabs a higher audience share overall than K-Rock 92.3, the station that carries Howard Stern's morning show. While La Mega hardly offers a Mexican voice„its DJs are from Caribbean countries„its audience growth in recent years has largely been Mexican.

The Mexican adage that bemoans being so far from God and so close to the United States has taken on a different resonance as its citizens continue to flock to the outer reaches of the U.S. These immigrants are far from home and may feel even farther from God. As the new underclass, they cope with exploitative employers, unattainable social services and the threat of again being unwitting victims of a terrorist attack.

But, hey, that's life in la gran manzana.

THERE ARE HISTORIC symbiotic relationships between adjoining states along the U.S.-Mexican border that were defined by the 1848 treaty in which Mexico gave up what is now the American Southwest. As Mexican immigration„legal and illegal„extended beyond the border, migration patterns became less predictable. Mexicans simply went wherever there was work to be found. The roots of New York City's Mexican community lie in, of all places, Puebla„a small inland state southeast of Mexico City.

The seeds go back to 1943, when Pedro and Fermin Simon hitched a ride to the U.S. with an American vacationing in Mexico City. The Simons, who are credited with starting the migration of poblanos„as natives of Puebla are known„to New York, found a U.S. labor market depleted by World War II. They sent word to family and friends back home. The trickle that led to New York was, for decades, made up almost entirely of poblanos. Eventually, word spread throughout much of Mexico's small Mixteca region, which includes portions of three states„Puebla, Oaxaca and Guerrero.

Fast-forward to the 1980s: A financial crisis in Mexico, followed by the devaluation of the peso in 1994, slammed the Mixteca region. Desperate Mixtecans needed a place to go, but large American cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, San Antonio and San Diego already contained so many Mexicans that immigrants from different regions simply faced too much competition in the labor market to get a foothold. In New York, Wall Street was on a historic roll, expanding businesses faced another labor shortage, the Mexican population was small and Mixtecans were welcoming family and friends.

Today, nearly two-thirds of all Mexicans in New York descend from Mixteca. The percentage of poblanos peaked years ago, but they still account for about half of all Mexicans here. Mixtecan teenagers are increasingly dropping out of school back home to work in New York rather than wait to graduate. This has driven down the median age in the city's Mexican community to just 24.2 years. Coupled with an increasing influx of women and the reunification of families, the birth rate for Mexicans in New York is rising.

Things could have turned out differently, says Smith, the author of "Mexican New York: Transnational Worlds of New Immigrants" (forthcoming from University of California Press). "In historical terms, it was an accident that Don Pedro ended up in New York. If that didn't happen, all of these poblanos could just as well be in California."

For Puebla, a state of 5 million, the link to New York has been significant. Local activists estimate that as much as $500 million is sent home from New York each year. Internet Web portals link small Pueblan towns directly to news from New York, and vice versa, and every Saturday the local Telemundo affiliate broadcasts half-hour news programs produced in Puebla.

Surprisingly, the growth in New York has yet to engender broad resentment toward Mexicans. Unlike in California, where then-Gov. Pete Wilson was accused of stoking an anti-immigrant backlash in the mid-1990s with Proposition 187, New York's political elite„Republican and Democrat„has mostly been tolerant of this massive and largely illegal migration. Republican Gov. George Pataki even attended a Cinco de Mayo festival in Queens. "Most natives in New York see Mexicans (to the extent that they see them at all) through the proud eyes of inheritors of a City of Immigrants," Smith wrote in a draft chapter of his book. "Mexicans are seen as hard-working strivers whose children will continue in this vein and prosper."

While Mexican immigrants may not benefit from much of this sentiment outside of New York, their commitment to those left behind is impressive. Mexicans in the U.S. are believed to have sent an estimated $10 billion home to their families in 2002. It is no wonder that the Mexican government recently opened a trade office in midtown New York and that President Vicente Fox refers to such benefactors as "heroes."

Bother Joel Magall∑n is a portly, disheveled man with jowls, fleshy lips and mussed hair that give him an informal, almost ineffectual air. He doesn't look or sound much like most people's idea of a New York Catholic religious figure. When he speaks English, he does so with a thick accent. Spanish is the language he uses here, and it is the language in which he speaks to the guard dog, a lugubrious pit bull that sprawls near his desk and growls at visitors.

New York City did not immediately seduce Brother Joel. He felt more useful in Chicago, where he spent the mid-'90s, encouraging boys to leave their gangs while he studied for a master's degree. On a trip home to Mexico City, his Jesuit superiors asked him to drop in on New York City. Its exploding Mexican population had spiritual needs.

The Mexicanization of the nation's most ethnically diverse city already was in high gear when Brother Joel arrived in the late 1990s. He met with prominent figures from different neighborhoods. Mexican immigrants held jobs in ethnic restaurants, small Korean-owned grocery stores, construction, cab driving, tailoring, cooking and cleaning. He also discovered that they had needs far different from those back home: practical advice about how to cope, linguistic and cultural assistance, health information and community mobilization.

In Mexico City, he delivered a report about his work with the Mexican gangsters and another on New York, and he asked to return to Chicago. He was sent to New York, where a symbol of his countrymen's vulnerability soon confronted him.

Cesar Diaz, an undocumented employee of an Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side, was badly beaten when he showed up for work one day in 1997. His new boss, who had just inherited the restaurant, told him that he was 10 minutes late. Three men beat Diaz, broke his nose and left him in need of stitches.

Community leaders wanted to stand up for Diaz, but they faced a quandary: When you are undocumented, if you fight for even basic rights, you risk deportation. Few spoke much English, and many new arrivals were desperate to send money to family members and pay off thousands of dollars in debts to the traffickers who had brought them here.

"People felt very insecure," says Brother Joel, who had arrived less than two months earlier. Nonetheless, a demonstration was planned. "Everyone thought that the other people wouldn't show up. We were all afraid of the Immigration Service, but 150 people came," he says. "It was the first time that Mexicans appeared on television [in New York] defending one of their own."

Alejandra Orozco, a stage actress from Mexico, remembers that time well. She had come to New York in the mid-'90s to work with Repertorio Espa“ol and had found a large but insular Mexican community. "There were a lot of workers doing their thing and trying to survive, but they weren't noticeable," she says.

Another rally was called for the following week by the Latino Workers Center. Turnout doubled. Community activists began holding monthly meetings to discuss needs, grievances and organizing tactics.

Soon after, Brother Joel reported to his local superior, Cardinal John O'Connor. "I have some bad news," he recalls telling the cardinal. "People don't say they want Mass in Spanish, or anything about religion. They say they want a social organization to remedy injustices." To Brother Joel's surprise, the cardinal was supportive: "He said, 'We lost the young Dominicans and the young Puerto Ricans because we did nothing for them. We don't want to miss this opportunity. I want to be the cardinal for Mexicans.'"

To that end, the Tepeyac Assn. of New York opened its doors in late 1997. The organization's name carries particular significance among the notably conservative and pious people of the Mixtecan region. Tepeyac is a hill in what is now a suburb of northern Mexico City, where legend says the Virgin Mary appeared to an Indian boy in 1531 and instructed him to tell Spanish missionaries to build a church that was more compassionate to Mexico's indigenous people. The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe was built on the site.

The archdiocese supplied the Tepeyac group with space on the edge of Greenwich Village, and Catholic charities offered some material support to help pay for heating and other operating expenses. Now Mexicans had a place to go. Brother Joel became the executive director.

In Spanish Harlem, others began to sense that the Mexican community was approaching critical mass. Dominguez, who had picked fruit in the South in the mid-'80s, began working with dozens of community leaders to open Casa Mexico, an organization that aimed to support the community from its shoebox-shaped office wedged into the corner of 116th and Lexington in El Barrio. The organization offers job training and English and health-awareness classes to the Mexican community.

All Dominguez had to do was step outside to know which way the wind was blowing. "We socialize in our world. Even though we are in New York, we never leave Mexico," he says. And New York's Mexico was expanding, albeit with features rare in his homeland. Dominguez began working to make sure that the experiences of Cesar Diaz were not repeated. He became a leading figure in a local movement that demanded dignity for undocumented Mexican immigrants„"the perfect exploitables," he calls them. Demonstrations were called at several Korean-owned grocery shops, most of whose owners ultimately promised to offer their Mexican workers more respect.

Like labor and political organizers in Los Angeles, Dominguez sees huge potential in organizing Mexican laborers in his adopted city, particularly if Mexicans find a way to work alongside large Latino groups such as Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans. It is better to grow the political capital of the Latino community as a whole, he suggests, than to fight over a smaller political pie.

IN NEW YORK NOWADAYS, it sometimes feels as if everything eventually gets back to Sept. 11, 2001. As radio and television broadcast the unfolding horror of that day in New York, Mixtecans and others fretted for friends and family. Many villagers discovered how difficult it was to confirm whether people who don't officially exist in the U.S. were alive or dead. Some parents who succeeded in reaching their children told them to come home; it seemed safer.

Two days later, an 18-year-old man who used to deliver food in the World Trade Center visited Brother Joel. "I live alone and I am the head of my family," Brother Joel remembers the young man saying. "My father is in prison in Mexico, and my mother has six kids and I am sending money for them. They don't know where I live or where I am working. If I had died, no one would have known. The door would close and no one would ask about me." The boy moved to Chicago to live with cousins.

"This is not the situation of one guy," Brother Joel says. "This is the situation of many." Sixteen Mexicans were confirmed dead after 9/11, and seven more were reported missing by friends, colleagues and family members here. (Fear of arrest among undocumented immigrants sometimes prevents them from reporting various problems, including disappearances.) "We cannot prove that they were working at the World Trade Center. We can't prove they existed, even if their wives or kids abroad say so," Brother Joel says. But, he adds, 62 Latino families continue to report missing relatives who were thought to be in New York at the time of the attack.

The damage downtown sent a flood of displaced Mexicans into the Tepeyac Assn.'s offices, where paintings, posters and stained-glass images of Mexico's spiritual protector and symbolic mother, the Virgin of Guadalupe, line the walls. They explained their plight and sought refuge and advice from fresh volunteers and staff who were hired to deal with them. Mexicans even brought immigrants from other, longer-standing Spanish-speaking communities in New York because those people didn't know where else to go. The association counted more than 3,000 Latino workers who were dislocated from their jobs; an estimated 70% of them were Mexican. "A lot of employers wouldn't admit that these people worked for them, so they had received no help," Brother Joel says.

Largely in response to 9/11, the association has grown to employ 18 paid staff members and 20 volunteers who work to strengthen immigrant rights and support the cultural, economic and political development of the Mexican community and, increasingly, other less-established immigrant groups. The association also has developed grand ambitions: to spread the Virgin's message to countless small but fast-growing Mexican outposts in the Eastern and Southern United States.

"After Sept. 11, people from Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and Bolivia came to our program for dislocated workers," Brother Joel says. "We served them because we decided that our organization was formed for immigrants. When we asked why they didn't go to their own organizations, they said, 'We don't have any.' So now we are willing to give them leadership training. It is the key to better communities."

The Tepeyac Assn. frames the Mixtecans' arrival in the U.S. in the context of millions of other immigrants who have come to New York. "Everyone thinks that this is something new, but we are repeating the same story every 20 years with different immigrants," Brother Joel explains. "This is the history of the U.S. We want to learn from Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, the Irish, Italians; we don't want to repeat the same mistakes." They have learned that unless they come together, they will be broken apart. "If not, we will be slaves forever."

Dec. 12 is the virgin of Guadalupe's feast day, and many Mexicans make a pilgrimage to the Basilica in Mexico City or significant churches in their hometowns. A holy flame is carried on foot from Mexico City's most hallowed cathedral to other churches around the Mexican capital.

In Mexico, La Virgen is a daily part of many people's lives. She adorns candles, decorates restaurants, sits on church altars and dangles from rearview mirrors. She is carried into gambling dens. She watches over brothels. She sometimes stands in for the eagle on the Mexican flag.

Four years ago, the Tepeyac Assn. began mimicking the homeland tradition by having devotees carry a torch from St. Patrick's Cathedral to local parishes. Groups of ecstatic joggers, dressed in white, ran through the streets of New York bearing the holy flame.

This inspired a tremendous challenge. In 2001, Cardinal Edward Egan asked the association to arrange a torch run from the Basilica in Mexico City to St. Patrick's in Manhattan. Such an audacious run would merge spiritual traditions with political and community goals, and in so doing, a scattered community would be brought together.

On the feast of the Virgin last winter, New Yorkers could see radiant representations of her on signs held aloft, on sweatshirts and even tattooed on the biceps of small children, with the faithful rallying around her, beneath her, beside her. On paper, film, canvas, cloth, glass and wood, she represented protection, a sort of shelter in an anything-can-happen city.

One hundred men and women in white jogged down the sidewalk of Manhattan's Fifth Avenue toward St. Patrick's. Thumping mariachi tunes and dancers from the Mexican state of Puebla welcomed them. "Las Ma“anitas," the Mexican birthday song, rang out in her name. A flame that had traveled more than 3,000 miles on foot was carried past seen-it-all Manhattanites who looked on, perplexed.

The pattering of 200 shoes on the sidewalk marked the movement of angelic runners past the mega-stores and the corporate bases of Fifth Avenue. The Virgin's presence was everywhere around her messengers, as it had been with other immigrant runners who had transported her flame through rain, hail and snow. The flame had been hosted by clergy, community activists, immigrants and families of Mexicans lost on 9/11. It had passed through dozens of Mexican parishes, neighborhoods, towns and villages that make up something of a connect-the-dots trail of secret migration from southern Mexico to the Northeastern U.S. The flame made the trip in six weeks.

The Virgen de Guadalupe has been consulted, sung to, danced for, prayed to and worshiped by thousands of immigrants who carried her flame. It might as well be her soul in their hands and her strength in their hearts. The runners were blessed at St. Patrick's Cathedral, and then they continued on to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Lower Manhattan. Mexicans from the five boroughs of New York City raised her flame. And there it burned, marking for her new flock that La Virgen had arrived in New York.

Eric Pape last wrote for the Los Angeles Times magazine about three lawyers who chose to defend accused terrorists and war criminals.

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