Cross Purposes

Mexican immigrants are defying expectations in this country-and changing the landscape back home

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

On a windy Sunday morning, I get off a subway train in Queens, New York, to join throngs of Mexican families headed into the mowed, shady groves of Flushing Meadows Park. Many are wrapped in Mexico’s red, white and green national flag; others wear shawls imprinted with the image of the Virgin Mary. They have come, by the hundreds of thousands, to celebrate Cinco de Mayo (the fifth of May), the Mexican national holiday marking the day an invading French Army was defeated in 1862.

Inside the park, a steel globe of the earth and waterstained concrete pavilions, left over from the 1964 world’s fair, suggest the ruins of a bygone civilization. On a stage just beyond these structures, costumed dancers and drummers evoke another lost civilization—the Aztec Empire. Following their performance, more contemporary acts predominate: mariachi musicians, cowboy balladeers, tropical torch singers, rock bands and comedians.

Between acts, radio talk-show hosts pay homage to the various states constituting the Republic of Mexico. The cheers of the crowd reach earsplitting decibels at the mention of Puebla, the small, 13,187-square-mile state (roughly the size of Maryland) due east of Mexico City. Little wonder, considering that Poblanos, as natives of Puebla are called, account for at least 80 percent of the estimated 600,000 Mexicans living in the New York City metropolitan region. And this is, in a sense, their day; the 1862 defeat of the French invaders took place in Puebla.

Nowadays, of course, it’s the Mexicans who are often portrayed as invaders, illegal immigrants pouring across the 1,951-mile-long border with the United States. In fact, the presence of undocumented Mexicans, who account for perhaps 60 percent of the 12 million or so foreigners living illegally in this country and for 15 percent of the 2.1 million Latinos in New York City, remains the most contentious issue between the United States and its southern neighbor. For decades, undocumented Mexicans have taken the jobs that nobody else seemed to want, while fending off charges they were not only depriving Americans of gainful employment but were also lowering the wage for some blue-collar jobs.

The surprising reality, however, is that Mexico’s immigrants—a population exemplified by the half-million or so Poblanos living in the New York area, with another 500,000 concentrated mainly in Los Angeles, Houston and Chicago—fuel a complex economic dynamic, both here and at home. In taking on menial work in this country, Mexicans have not only raised their standard of living and that of their families, they’ve also created a flow of capital back to villages across Mexico, especially towns throughout Puebla. That transfer of wealth—around $17 billion last year, double what it was only four years ago—has transformed life across the border, where new housing, medical clinics and schools are under construction. “Many government officials both in the United States and Mexico would argue that these remittances have accomplished what foreign aid and local public investment failed to do,” says Oscar Chacón, director of Enlaces América, a Chicago-based advocacy group for Latin American immigrants. As this transformation has taken place, many of the assumptions—or even stereotypes—held in this country regarding Mexican immigrants are being challenged.

“Getting into the u.s. was so much simpler and safer when I first came here,” says Jaime Lucero, 48, one of the organizers of the Cinco de Mayo festivities. Lucero, from the small Puebla community of Piaxtla, was 17 when, in 1975, he waded across the Rio Grande into Texas and hopped a bus to New York City to join an older brother washing dishes in a Queens restaurant. He became legal under President Reagan’s 1986 amnesty program, which granted residency to illegals who had resided in the U.S. before 1982 and imposed sanctions on employers who hired undocumented workers. He became a citizen in 1988. Today, he is the millionaire owner of both a women’s apparel company in New Jersey and a factory in Puebla. “I came in through the backdoor,” he says. “But I never intended to be a burden to this country.”

Neither do Ricardo, 20, and Adela, 19 (as illegals, neither offers a surname), a couple I meet at a taco stand during the Cinco de Mayo festivities. They each work, they tell me, some 70 hours a week for less than the current $5.15 minimum hourly wage. Ricardo bundles and sells flowers at a delicatessen, while Adela washes, dries and folds clothes at a laundry. Both come from Chinatlán, the village nearest to Piaxtla. In the summer of 2003, they smuggled themselves across the border in a truck container, walked for several days through the 120-degree-heat of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, then took a series of cars and vans to New York City.

Last year, 154 Mexicans died from thirst and heat prostration between Tucson and Yuma not far from the place Ricardo and Adela entered the United States. But they both scoff when I ask if they feared for their lives. “I’m likelier to get run over by a car in Puebla,” says Ricardo. The next time Adela crosses the border, she says, “it won’t be so hot”: she’s planning a trip to Chinatlán for Christmas and a return to New York City a month later. Nor is she dissuaded by a more aggressive police presence at the border, the result of post-9/11 fears of terrorists sneaking into the United States. During the six months that ended April 1, 2004, the U.S. Border Patrol intercepted 660,390 people illegally crossing from Mexico—up 30 percent over the same period a year before.

In January 2004, President Bush proposed granting three year visas to illegal foreigners who can show they hold U.S. jobs that Americans have turned down. The plan, now stalled in Congress, falls short of the permanent residence permits for immigrants that Mexican president Vicente Fox has been urging since 2001. President Bush’s proposal bears a resemblance to the Bracero (migrant farmworker) Program of 1942 to 1964, which allowed Mexicans to be given temporary contracts for agricultural work. Intended to address a World War II-era shortage of farm labor, the Bracero Program led to an unintended consequence: an upsurge in illegal border crossings. Millions of Mexicans—precise figures have never been calculated—entered the country illegally. “People who were unable to get bracero jobs just headed elsewhere in the United States,” says Robert Courtney Smith, a sociology professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) and author of a forthcoming book on Puebla immigrants in New York. The first Poblanos to arrive in New York during the 1940s, he says, ended up in the city for this reason.

Once settled, the new arrivals often arranged menial jobs, and a place to sleep, for friends and relatives, most of them also illegal, who joined them from their hometowns in Puebla. Over the past six decades, the number of illegal Poblanos in New York has soared. But according to Francisco Rivera-Batíz, a ColumbiaUniversity professor of economics and education, until the early 1990s, some 85 percent of all undocumented Mexicans in New York City returned home within five years. That figure, he says, has declined sharply in recent years to about 50 percent because of Mexico’s sluggish economy—and, ironically, because stricter border surveillance makes going back and forth between the two countries more difficult. As a result, the border controls that were designed to keep people out of the United States are also keeping illegals in.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus