Monthly Archives: July 2008

American Zapatistas

From Mexico to Manhattan, without the masks

A Zapatista mural in East Harlem, also known as \

A Zapatista mural in East Harlem, also known as El Barrio

 

VOICES

Perched on the steps of City Hall, the protesters seem on the verge of being swallowed by the city.  Sixty-story highrises lean in towards them like teeth; the incessant honking and clatter of traffic are the sounds of giant jaws slowly screeching shut; even the subway cars rumbling underfoot are signs of an insatiable hunger.

With their signs and posters, the protesters seem aware, but unafraid, of this.  In their chants and speeches, they describe New York not as a melting pot, but as a furnace – a furnace in which immigrant labor is consumed, melted down and transformed into the glittering buildings of downtown Manhattan. Mostly Mexican immigrants, they belong to the Movement for Justice in El Barrio (MJB), a grassroots tenants’ rights organization fighting gentrification in East Harlem.

“¿Qué queremos?” shouts a middle-aged man in a red hat.

“¡Justicia!” shout back sixty others, young and old.

“¿Cuándo?”

“¡Ahora!”

It is a wintry Sunday afternoon in April and City Hall is empty.  One by one, MJB members descend the building’s cold steps to a podium decorated with the giant, papier-mâché head of Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos.  Above Marcos is a bouquet of microphones.  A dozen reporters and a handful of television news crews are here for the event.

In the long shadow of the government building, MJB members – some of them “illegal” immigrants – tell their own stories, many of them speaking in public for the first time in their lives.  They are stories of discrimination and fear, persecution and redemption.  They are immigrant stories, and they are told out loud.

 

SILENCE

Movement for Justice in El Barrio is a rarity, both in New York and in the United States, where crackdowns on undocumented immigrants have grown in frequency since September 11, 2001.  If immigration is a topic perennially on the backburner of American politics, it has boiled over repeatedly since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center conjured-up bitter images of ‘the enemy within.’

For many undocumented immigrants, the fear unleashed in the wake of 9/11 has been internalized, often at great personal costs.  For them, being “illegal” is no longer just a stigma, but a self-imposed gag order, an austere rule they live by in order to hold on to what they have earned in their adopted country.

The first two times that Yessica Ramírez tried to cross the border between Mexico and the United States, she and her child ended up in an American holding cell with nothing more than a couple of blankets between them and the frigid floor. The patrolleros gave her ugly looks and ignored her requests for food and water. Her baby boy became sick.

On her third try, she walked right in, slipping across the 2,000-mile long border and into the Texas desert. Eventually Yessica and her son made their way to New York where they joined her husband, a busboy, also undocumented.  Yessica’s name, along with several others in this article, has been changed to protect her identity.

But for all that she found in this country—a new life, an apartment in Staten Island, money to buy more than las básicas at the grocery store—Yessica aches for what she left behind: the mild winters, her parents and siblings, a friendlier way of life.  Most of all, however, she misses her voice.

Terrified that speaking out or even attending a protest will lead to her deportation, Yessica’s life is consumed by fear.  She is haunted by the possibility that she and her children will be grabbed and taken back to Mexico, away from her husband and six years of hard-earned savings.

When asked if she joined the hundreds of thousands of Americans and immigrants who demanded the reform of immigration policies in 2006, Yessica shakes her head.

“Just look what happened to Señora Elvira,” she says, alluding to Elvira Arellano, an undocumented immigrant who took refuge in a Chicago church for a year to avoid separation from her U.S.-born son. Arellano, who briefly became a spokeswoman for the need to reform U.S. immigration policy, was deported in 2006, without her son.

A May Day protester's sign reads "I'm Illegal. So What?"

A May Day protester's sign reads "I'm Illegal. So What?"

 

Arellano’s story is a parable of the every-day risks that “illegal” immigrants run in this country.  Like Yessica, Arellano tried several times to enter the U.S. before succeeding.  For ten years she lived a quiet life in the U.S., working as a cleaning woman at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, before being discovered during a post-9/11 security sweep.  To this day, she lives in Mexico, separated from her now 9-year-old son.

Although the most famous case, Arellano’s deportation is by no means unusual.  In fact, there are signs that Mexican immigrants are paying the highest price in the U.S.’s “war on terrorism.”  According to the Office of Immigration Statistics, Mexicans made up 57 percent of the total U.S. undocumented population in 2005 but 87.6 percent of those deported the following year.  Of the 68 “illegal” immigrants who died in U.S. custody over the past four years, roughly 75 percent of them were Hispanic, most of them from Mexico.

In this sense, Yessica’s fear is justified.  Her story is typical of Mexican immigrants to New York and elsewhere in the U.S. Vulnerable to exploitation by their employers, their “illegal” status means that they often have little legal recourse available.  Once detained, they often disappear, held in private jails for months on end before being silently deported, or worse.

Instead of protesting, Yessica dedicates her life to working and saving money. She stomachs the racism and discrimination towards Hispanics that she sees from time to time, afraid that complaining would only bring attention to her, instead of the problem. In six more years, she hopes to return to Puebla and build a house, eating like an American but living like a poblana. Until then, she will have to put up with the frenzied, cold lifestyle of New York, and dream of warmer days ahead.

 

THE MOVEMENT

When I first meet Juan Haro, the MJB coordinator, he is standing in front of a row of women, giving an interview while they beat wooden spoons against pots and pans in the background.  Short with finely trimmed facial hair and basketball shoes that seem far too large on him, he is intense and articulate.

As he speaks into the reporter’s microphone, he gestures over his shoulder at a dilapidated building on 105th St. in East Harlem.  Massive steel beams hold up its sagging walls, like an old woman precariously propped-up by a pair of wobbly crutches.

“We believe that their goal is to transform the neighborhood, and make it into a neighborhood for the rich,” Haro says of the building’s landlord in his high-pitched voice.  “We’re not going to let that happen.”

Two-dozen people behind Haro hold up signs reading “I Am Cold” and “Queremos Justicia.”  With the help of MJB, they are protesting the landlord’s decision to save money by frequently shutting-off the heat in their building.  After weeks of little to no heating, and no response from the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), tenants called the number listed on an MJB flier handed out in the subway.

"We Want Justice." MJB's members include families and children affected by El Barrio's poor housing conditions.

"We Want Justice." MJB's members include families and children affected by El Barrio's poor housing conditions.

 

Inside the building, the cold is only one of many problems the tenants blame on their landlord: rotting ceilings, rusted bathrooms and kitchens, and holes in the walls mar almost every room.  In apartment 10, Guadalupe, a young woman with dyed blonde hair, points to the bedroom window, where a ring of packing tape is the only thing keeping it from falling four stories to the street below.

“The biggest problem is the old people and the children,” says Jorge Martínez who, at 68, has lived in the building for many years.  He stands in his kitchen in a coat and hat, explaining how he sleeps in two sweaters and demonstrating how he heats his apartment by turning on the stove in the morning.  “It’s terrible. Once they stop the heat, the old are becoming frozen.”

But the building’s lack of heat isn’t caused by a broken boiler or unpaid bills. Instead, tenants have been living without heat and hot water because their landlord, Ramón Durán, says heating oil is too expensive.

“I’m not a million dollar guy,” Durán says, dressed in a skin-tight shirt and seated at a large table in his restaurant, in the same building as the apartments. “I have tenants living over here that are paying $300.  And you know what?  $300 isn’t even enough for oil for one or two weeks.”

“I’ve got my children too,” Durán says, referring to the tenants’ worries for their children. Durán, who is Puerto Rican-American, does not live in the building. As for the allegations that there is no heat or hot water, he replies: “That’s what they say, but it’s not true.”

The 105th Street protest is both an example of Movement for Justice in El Barrio’s mission and the methods by which it has grown. MJB, which now counts 400 members in 30 buildings across East Harlem, was founded in December of 2004, when 15 families in an East Harlem apartment building joined forces against their landlord, Steven Kessner.  The families felt that Kessner was pressuring them out of their apartments so that he could attract wealthier, whiter tenants.

Much has changed for MJB since 2004.  The organization won a Pyrrhic victory when Kessner sold his 47 buildings in East Harlem, though his son, Michael, remained in charge of managing the buildings.  Even worse, Dawnay, Day Inc., the multi-billion dollar international corporation that bought the properties, has proved even more aggressive in its attempts to gentrify the neighborhood, according to MJB.  The conflict came to a head last October, prompting a still-unresolved lawsuit by 17 MJB members who claim Dawnay, Day harassed, bribed, and overcharged them in order to get them to move out.

New ownership of its members’ buildings has also brought a new approach for MJB.  In April 2008, the group launched its  “International Campaign in Defense of El Barrio,” a national and international tour designed to drum-up support for the fight against gentrification in East Harlem.  After touring the East and West coasts, MJB has now gone global.

But Haro, who, as coordinator, is paid for his work, is the only member of MJB going on the trip to England, Wales, Scotland, France, and Spain.  Born and educated in the United States, he switches with ease back and forth between English and Spanish, fluent in both.  He refuses to discuss his own life, other than to mention that he was a union organizer before joining MJB.  Instead, he prefers to “keep the focus on the members and their stories.”

“The members speak.  I don’t speak,” he says, referring to the events at which he can be seen rushing from place to place, whispering and directing but never speaking.

Though it is their voices that echo across the plaza in front of City Hall, most MJB members cannot afford to take six weeks off from their jobs.  Others, in the U.S. illegally, cannot travel outside the country for fear of deportation back to Mexico.

When the International Campaign was announced at the City Hall protest, a middle-aged woman with dyed red hair who had been chanting turned to me and laughed.

“Who’s going to France?” she said.  “You?  Because I’m certainly not.”

In a small classroom-turned-movie theater at New York University, images of fractured skulls and bullet wounds flash across the screen.  The injuries belong to campesinos, or peasant farmers, in Chiapas, Mexico.  The voice narrating the images belongs to Ernesto Ledesma, a human rights researcher at the Center for Political Analysis and Economic and Social Investigations (CAPISE).

Photo of a peasant allegedly shot by Mexican authorities in Chiapas, presented by Ledesma.

Arronte’s point is clear: war has returned to Mexico, reigniting the lives and politics of rural and indigenous Mexicans long subjected to state-led violence and political repression. Using a host of maps, photos, and documents, he argues that Chiapas and other poor, agricultural states in southern Mexico are once again being consumed by the bloodshed and land seizures that drew international attention to the region in the early 1990s.

In the back of the room, behind a table of Zapatista literature and songs, stand a dozen or so MJB members in matching t-shirts.  The organization has sponsored the event, and Ledesma is introduced by several MJB members who explain that repression in Chiapas and gentrification in El Barrio are part of the same problem: neoliberalism. 

Neoliberalism can be summed-up as the overriding belief in unfettered markets.  In today’s era of globalization and outsourcing, these free markets mean that international corporations are free to move jobs and capital across borders and in and out of communities, transforming cultures and changing lives in the process.

Like the Zapatistas in Chiapas, MJB members see neoliberalism as the underlying problem. In New York, they argue, the gradual weakening of rent control laws—which privilege a tenant’s livelihood over the landlord’s profit motive—fits this neoliberal pattern and has led to gentrification.

Thus, for MJB members, the affiliation with the Zapatistas goes beyond mere cultural connections, instead relying upon the perception of a common enemy and a shared solution.  Haro himself is careful to point out that the link is “organic,” not a public relations stunt.

In early 2005, Movement for Justice in El Barrio became an adherent to the “Sixth Declaration of the Lacondon Jungle,” a Zapatista call for an international campaign against neoliberalism and repression.  Though the affiliation may surprise many Americans who remember 1990s images of masked Zapatista peasants clutching rifles, it has helped MJB represent a rapidly changing neighborhood.

El Barrio has had a large Hispanic population since the 1950s. But today’s neighborhood reflects a changing United States. Just as Hispanics are now the largest minority in the U.S.—growing from 9 to 12.5 percent of the population from 1990 to 2000—they have risen from 32 to 55 percent of the population in El Barrio since 1970. Meanwhile, the makeup of Hispanics in El Barrio has also changed. While Puerto Rican flags can still be seen on neighborhood murals and in shop windows, El Barrio’s cultural and political movements increasingly reflect its growing Mexican population.

“Zapatismo made sense because most of our members are Mexican,” Haro says.  Though MJB members hail from the Mexican states of Puebla and Guerrero, not Chiapas, the Zapatistas’ “Other Campaign” is a call for all Mexicans—even those in the U.S.—to organize outside of party politics, he says.

MJB videos of members marching through the streets of East Harlem are shown alongside Zapatista documentaries, in which indigenous peasants storm military bases and re-occupy traditional farmlands taken from them by the government.  We are left to imagine that these are two fronts, simultaneously occurring in a transnational battle.

MJB members march on New York's City Hall

MJB members march on New York's City Hall

 

A RISKY LIFE

Like the bustling streets of El Barrio, the American city has always been a place of contact and friction, where immigrants’ dreams of upward mobility grate against the prejudices and fears of second- or third-generation Americans struggling to get by.  For an undocumented immigrant, life in America easily becomes a game of risk minimization, a practice of living “entre la casa y el trabajo,” between your house and your job.  What are hiccups for most Americans—traffic tickets, public arguments, missed bills—become days in jail and one-way tickets away from family and friends.

For the members of MJB, these risks are far greater.  Yet, though hesitant to speak with reporters, they speak openly at public events, aware that their stories of landlord abuses and government failings are both their strongest weapon and greatest vulnerability.

Before I ever met with Juan Haro, I had heard rumors that landlords had tried to have him deported.  In reality, the rumor was about another MJB member, and was false anyways.  But the animosity towards Haro is real.  Anonymous bloggers call him a “thug” on the Internet.  Michael Kessner, director of Dawnay, Day in New York and son of former landlord Steven Kessner, thinks that Haro is “just out for attention for himself.  I don’t think he’s doing any good for any of our tenants.”

Like many people, Haro laughs when he’s happy, and when he’s uncomfortable.  When I ask whether he’s ever scared doing his job, he nervously recounts a confrontation with another East Harlem landlord.

“‘Who are you?  I want to see your ID!’ the man said, then he grabbed me and threw me against the wall.”  Haro laughs uneasily as he tells me this, as if laughter could hide the anger in the landlord’s eyes as he tried to shove him out of the building and into the night.

“The tenants were screaming, telling him that he couldn’t do it, that we had a right to be there,” Haro says, still laughing.  Suddenly he stops, his voice serious.  “Then one of the women tried to intervene.  He punched her in the face.  He had his hands on me, pushing me towards the door.”

“Finally the cops came, hauling the landlord off to jail.”  The laughter returns to Haro’s voice, as if, with the violence once again behind him, the absurdity of it all overwhelms him.  “But the police forced us out of the lobby.  They way they decided to deal with it was exactly what the landlord had wanted: for us to leave.”

Stories like this are common among MJB members.  Victor, a well-built man in his forties, claims that two men approached him one night after work.  They offered him a high-paying job, he said, if only he were to leave Movement for Justice in El Barrio and work for East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito—a charge Viverito vehemently denies.

Georgina, a shy woman with sleepy eyes and dark hair, joined MJB after men came to her door in the middle of the night, claiming that the landlord was selling the building and that she could be separated from her children if she didn’t sign over her lease.  Victor and Georgina’s stories highlight how the everyday risks of being an immigrant in the U.S. are both magnified and consoled by speaking out against abuse. 

“The first time she told us her story, she was crying” Haro says of Georgina.  “Not because she was scared, but because it was just so powerful.” 

 

CONTROVERSY

Subcomandante Marcos makes his first appearance at City Hall in effigy. Movement for Justice in El Barrio combines Zapatismo with tenants' rights activism

Subcomandante Marcos makes his first appearance at City Hall in effigy. Movement for Justice in El Barrio combines Zapatismo with tenants' rights activism

As Movement for Justice in El Barrio has gathered friends, both across the U.S. and around the world, so too has it amassed a number of enemies.  In a city of cutthroat politics and precious real estate, these enemies may as yet prove costly for MJB and its members.

“They’re very confrontational,” says Michael Kessner from Dawnay, Day—the company MJB has accused of trying to force poor tenants out of their apartments—of MJB.  “They don’t represent the truth of what’s going on here and have basically smeared our reputation with their protests.”

But MJB stands by its accusations. A lawsuit filed in October by 17 MJB members accused Dawnay, Day of making “false, deceptive and misleading representations to [tenants] in verbal and written communications, including rent bills and other correspondence,” in an attempt to force them out of their apartments. If true, these charges would violate a number of New York consumer protection laws.

After crediting some of the accounts in question, Kessner considers the lawsuit resolved.

“It’s not our goal to kick people out of their homes,” Kessner says.  “But obviously we’re out to make a profit, too.”

Kessner accuses some MJB members of illegally occupying their apartments, saying that they don’t appear on the lease, nor are the family members of the lessee.

“It’s a completely separate issue whether or not they are here legally,” he says.

If MJB’s fight with Dawnay, Day is straightforward, its disagreement with East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito is not.  Former allies, Viverito once met with MJB members to draft a list of community grievances.  Now, however, the two camps are now bitterly divided, each blaming the other for the betrayal.

Certainly, Viverito does not appear to be your typical establishment figure.  Young, bilingual and born in Puerto Rico, she is charismatic and prides herself on being responsive to the community.  But it is precisely this community that MJB feels she has ignored.

First, MJB took issue with Viverito’s support for a particular version of immigration reform, which members felt did not go far enough in protecting immigrant rights.  More recently, MJB’s opposition has centered on the councilwoman’s vote in favor of rezoning 125th Street.  With Viverito’s vote, the City Council approved the plan by a 47-2 vote last month.  Supporters say the plan will bring new businesses and housing to an area in need of investment and revitalization.  But MJB and other community organizations argue the plan will only raise rents, push out lower-income families, and kill the neighborhood. 

An open letter by MJB accuses Viverito of voting “against the community in secret and out of the public eye.”

“We know that Melissa Mark-Viverito claims to be
anti-displacement,” the letter reads, “but we have seen time and again
that, despite empty words and media stunts, when it
comes down to the moments in which she actually
exercises her power in the form of votes in the
Council, she votes against the people and for
displacement.”  MJB members were among those who booed Viverito and the City Council before being forcibly removed from the chambers by the police, before the vote took place.

Viverito, on the other hand, sees MJB as unrepresentative of East Harlem and uninvolved in discussions of the rezoning plan.

“I’ve never seen their organization represented at any of the discussions,” she says, her voice agitated over the phone.

“They have rebuffed every opportunity to get involved.  I don’t know who they collaborate with or who they have worked with, other than themselves,” Viverito says.  “They want to say I’ve betrayed them, but what have I betrayed?  These are sentiments shared by very few in the community.”

“They are people who are obviously not happy with the plan,” she admits, adding that the rezoning is inherently controversial.  But the City Council has worked with the Mayor’s office to improve the initial plan, especially with regard to the number of low- and middle-income houses to be built, she points out.

Mayor Bloomberg and City Council members have both cited an agreement reserving 46 percent of new residential units in the rezoned area as moderately priced housing.  But the formal agreement only sets aside roughly 5 percent of the housing for families earning $30,750 or less, leaving the future of 125th Street, and East Harlem, uncertain, to say the least.

“I think I have a good feel of the pulse of the community” in East Harlem, Viverito says.  But when it comes to MJB, “there’s always going to be a select group of people with their own agenda who don’t want to listen.”

But with their regular consultas, or community consultations, MJB also claims to keep pace with the sentiments in East Harlem.  And what its members are feeling is angry.

“We will not buy into
her efforts to trick the people while she gives Harlem
away to corporations and slumlords!” MJB’s letter reads.  “We will never
forget her votes in favor of displacement in West,
Central and East Harlem!”

Mutually exclusive? It remains to be seen whether MJB's brand of social activism and grassroots organizing is compatible with New York City's power politics

Mutually exclusive? It remains to be seen whether MJB's brand of social activism and grassroots organizing is compatible with New York City's power politics

 

WHAT WOULD JESÚS DO?

Like MJB’s Juan Haro, Juan Carlos Aguirre speaks eloquently and authoritatively on Mexican migration to the U.S.  Like Haro, working with Mexican immigrants is his job.  Unlike Haro, he himself is one of them, having moved to the U.S. as a child from the state of Guerrero.  Wearing thin glasses and a collared shirt, he speaks softly about Mexican immigrants in New York.  His eyes widen when he gets excited.

“The underlying reason is really free trade,” Aguirre says, explaining that agriculture in the U.S. and Mexico has been quite different for decades. Whereas the U.S. has few individual farmers—the long-forgotten yeoman farmers of the Jeffersonian age—and, instead relies on agricultural corporations to meet domestic demand, Mexico’s farmlands were, until recently, dotted with the houses and small towns of subsistence farmers. Often, these farmers would harvest little more than they needed, perhaps venturing to larger towns or cities to sell their extra produce.

But NAFTA changed everything, Aguirre says. Cheaper produce meant that these farmers went under, leaving their lands for the bleak job market of Mexico City before—if lucky enough to have connections in the U.S.—making their way to New York.

Aguirre works at the Tepeyac Association, a cultural center located in a creaky old building in lower Manhattan.  In many ways, his stories of immigrants’ lives in New York are the same as Haro’s, but his solution is somewhat different, focusing less on confrontation than assimilation.  Tepeyac offers computer classes and English lessons four times a week in the aging building’s basement.

But Tepeyac’s lower-profile approach to helping Mexican immigrants is itself a response to the growing xenophobia in the U.S.  Over the last few years, the association has toned down some of its most controversial events. In Easters past, Tepeyac members staged a reenactment of the crucifixion—complete with Romans, jeering crowds, and, of course, a bloody Jesus nailed to a cross—in front of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office.

“It had to do with the way immigrants are treated,” Aguirre explains, sitting in his small, all-white office on the fourth floor of Tepeyac’s aging building. The building was once a monastery and is still cluttered with crosses and paintings of the Virgin Mary. As you walk up its creaky staircase, miniature saints and apostles gaze down at you from each nook and cranny.

“Employers take advantage of them,” Aguirre says of the hundreds of Mexican immigrants who come regularly to Teyepac. Immigrants played all of the parts in the reenactment. Some even screamed anti-immigrant insults at Jesus, as if purging themselves of the abuse they themselves receive every other day of the year.

“Criminal!”

“Thief!”

“Go back to Mexico!”

“Immigrants are the people who are used and then, when the time comes, sacrificed,” he says. Many Mexican immigrants see a reflection of their own ordeals in the agony and suffering of Jesus.

This year, however, Tepeyac decided against staging the crucifixion—a decision that reflects the increasingly perilous situation for immigrants in the U.S.

“This year, I’m not sure it’s a good idea,” Aguirre says softly, “with things like they are now.”  As he speaks, people stream in and out of the building’s lower levels, many of them coming for help in filing their taxes.

But if Tepeyac has toned down its public relations in favor of daily, lower-profile services, it is unlikely that it will ever forego the Carrera Antorcha Guadalupana—a 40-day relay run that winds its way from Mexico City, across the border, through the southern U.S., and to New York. The race is a vestige of the days when Tepeyac was affiliated with the Catholic Church. Last year’s run brought a six-foot tall portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Tepeyac from the Basilica in Mexico City.

The Carrera is, of course, a symbol of the connections between and culture shared by Mexicans in New York and Mexico City. At the same time, it is parable of the difficult journey Tepeyac’s members have made to the U.S.

As Juan Carlos shows me the portrait of Our Lady, he explains the problems that have come to plague the Carrera in recent years. Other than the initial departure and ultimate arrival, the race’s most important moment is when runners carry the torch across the border between Matamoros, Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas. But since the Bush administration made border security a priority, many runners have been forced to stop at the border—the torch the only thing making it across.

As with the now-abandoned crucifixion reenactment, there is more than a hint of masochism to the Carrera. The torchbearers often meet what Aguirre calls “resistance,” especially in the South where anti-immigrant sentiment is strongest.

“This year, Alabama was the most difficult state,” he says, choosing his words carefully. “We even get resistance among Catholic Churches.” In a few weeks, Tepeyac will donate the Our Lady of Guadalupe portrait to a small church in Alabama as sign of thanks to the supporters who helped the runners, Aguirre says.  But something in the way that he says this hints at a passive-aggressive provocation, like leaving a photo of an ex-girlfriend somewhere where your wife might see it.

 

Many of MJB's members are speaking out for the first time in their lives. Here, an MJB spokesperson translates a young mother's speech into English

Many of MJB's members are speaking out for the first time in their lives. Here, an MJB spokesperson translates a young mother's speech into English

JOSÉ AND THE SYSTEM

As he sits on the railing in Union Square Park, surrounded by hundreds of young men and women absorbing the first warm day of the year, José’s hands move nervously over a bottle of orange juice.  On the label is an idyllic American farm, no doubt in some far-off corner of the country, where the grass never goes brown, the sun never sets, and children grow up tall and straight on pesticide-free produce.

“It’s bullshit, of course,” José says, holding up the bottle in the afternoon sunlight.

Hidden beneath his low-pulled black hat, his eyes look tired.  José worked a doble yesterday, from six a.m. to 11 p.m., and another shift today, Saturday, on four hours of sleep.  Though he is one of the more active members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio, he lives in Queens and commutes 45 minutes six days a week to the Deli in lower Manhattan where he has worked for seven years.  All in all, he works almost 70 hours a week.  He is 27 years old, “illegal,” and angry.

Like other MJB members, José refuses to keep quiet, to be silenced by fear of deportation or imprisonment.  He is one of a growing number of Mexican immigrants that reject the role of voiceless victim.  Despite never going to college, having left Mexico for the U.S. at age 19, José understands perfectly well the forces driving Mexicans to the United States, the way the system handicaps immigrants once they arrive, and the dangers of raising his voice and fighting back.

“In Puebla, my family, we used to grow maize, beans, vegetables,” he says in Spanish.  “But the big corporations changed everything.”  They bought up the land, freeze-dried goods and pasteurized milk, and outsold small farmers like his father.  “We had a couple of cows, but we had to sell the milk fresh everyday, understand?  How can we compete with milk that lasts for two, three, four weeks in a carton?”

“It’s the same thing that goes on here,” he says, gesturing to the billboards and signs around Union Square, “or in El Barrio.  Corporations sell cheaply to eliminate the competition.  Then they raise their prices.”

Unlike Ecuadorians and other Hispanic immigrants, Mexicans come to the U.S. with plans to make a quick buck and return, he says.  “‘Two years here and then I’ll go back,’ they say to themselves.  But it’s always one more year, one more  year.”  Rarely do they go to school or learn the language, he says, because they always plan to return to Mexico.

“They spend their lives dreaming,” José says, his mouth caught somewhere between a sneer and sad smile.  But between their illegally-low wages—when José started at the Deli he got paid only $3.50 an hour—and remitting money back home, they leave their children with nothing except debt and misfortune.

José uses the word sistema over and over, as he does when speaking for MJB.  Like Juan Haro and Juan Carlos Aguirre, he sees NAFTA as a pillar of an economic system that strips Mexicans of their farmland and pulls them to the U.S., only to be labeled “illegal” and discriminated against.  Like Haro, he speaks in different registers to different audiences, deriding “gentrification” to activists and journalists, criticizing “gente con dinero” and “evictions” to community members.

For some Americans, José is a nightmare come true: an “illegal” immigrant who, far from hiding in the shadows, spends what little time he has free from work criticizing conditions here in the U.S.

“It is the duty of every American to report illegal behavior, including illegal immigrants,” said Al Garza, National Executive Director of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps.  Garza, who, as he likes to point out, is himself Hispanic, prides himself on being “fifth-generation American.”

“To tell [illegal immigrants] that they have rights is like taking a bunch of murderers out of prison and talking about their rights,” he says.  “Illegal immigration has nothing to do with ethnicity, it has to do with right and wrong.”  When asked his opinion of the annual May Day parades that draw hundreds of thousands of immigrants—legal and illegal—in cities across the country, including more than 1,000 this year in New York, Garza scoffs.

New York is a sanctuary city for illegals, says Garza, a Vietnam veteran, hand-to-hand combat expert and retired private investigator.

“If they are caught demonstrating, the thing that ICE should do is ask them for their ID.  If they don’t have ID, they should be investigated,” he says.  “If a man doesn’t got an ID, he’s got a problem.”

But perched atop a handrail in the heart of Manhattan, José doesn’t look worried about being approached by the Feds or asked for ID.  Instead, he worries that MJB is misunderstood by the public, by its activist supporters and by some of its own members.

“The media and activists like to hear about defeating Steven Kessner, about a victory over one landlord.  But, for us, it’s more important that the community is growing in confidence,” José says.  Small scars dot his hands and forearms.  He speaks quickly and passionately, words pouring quickly from his barrel chest.

When I ask him what he thinks of the International Campaign in Defense of El Barrio, José pauses.

“Things aren’t going to change here in El Barrio just because people agree with us overseas,” he says.  But when immigrants get up and speak in front like they did at City Hall, it means something.  “When they chanted ‘Sí se puede,’ their children were there.  They heard them, and now they’ll grow up thinking that they can change things.” 

The international campaign, on the other hand, is “insurance,” he says.  MJB has grown bolder in its criticism of city government officials—particularly East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Viverito—and offices, like HPD, which it considers complicit in landlord abuses. 

It is only when speaking to José that MJB truly begins to make sense, that I begin to understand how a tenants’ rights organization could have taken up Zapatismo, filed a lawsuit against a $4 billion international corporation, and protested on the steps of City Hall.

But there is a flip side to this success.  The louder their stories, the more likely MJB members are to be harassed or, worse, deported.  When José and another MJB member attended a public meeting on Columbia University’s expansion into West Harlem last year, he got up and asked Viverito why she had “betrayed” the community and reneged on her promise to vote against the plan.

“Her people approached us afterwards.  They asked why I said ‘betrayed,’ saying that it was too strong a word to use in front of the community,” José says.  “But I told them it was the right word to use, because that’s what she had done.  Then they invited us to a ‘private meeting,’ but we said ‘no thanks’ and left.”

When I mention the risk of deportation, José pauses again.  The sounds of Union Square wash back over our conversation, a thousand footsteps shuffling past us.

Yes, he says, he worries that things will get more dangerous for MJB in the months to come, as the organization shifts its criticism from landlords to the city that fails to regulate them.

In the end, something has to give, both in the U.S. and in Mexico, José says.  The people will organize, from El Barrio to the factories in Tijuana and the farmlands in Puebla.

By the end of our conversation, José has torn the orange juice label to pieces.  The idyllic farmland, the corporate logo, the friendly face of all that José sees wrong in the U.S. and Mexico, lies in tatters on the ground. Just then, a man in a green jump suit comes by and silently sweeps it up into the trash.

 

Rallying on the steps of City Hall, MJB members demand the right to safe, affordable housing, regardless of immigration status

Rallying on the steps of City Hall, MJB members demand the right to safe and affordable housing, regardless of immigration status

 

 

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