A Link in the Chain

Bound for The Bronx, A Mexican Teenager Says Farewell to His Family and Culture

It was a sunny January day, and Antonio Gonzalez, his mother, and his infant brother moved through the crowded streets of a small city near their home in Zapotitlán de Salinas, a village in southern Mexico. Antonio was leaving in the morning for New York, and the coyote had told him to get some new clothes for the journey.

They wove their way through scores of street vendors and passed through a narrow alleyway. The courtyard ahead smelled of blood and buzzed with flies. Teresa, Antonio's mother, handed the one-year-old, who had yet to be named, to him. One of the family's 180 goats had died the previous night of some unknown sickness, and Teresa pulled its bloody hide from her bag and offered it for inspection. The patrona nodded, pulled a wad of bills from her wallet, and handed Teresa 200 pesos, or about 20 U.S. dollars. Teresa contributed her hide to a three-foot pile, and they walked out into the hot sun. On the corner, a five-story glass building loomed over the two-floor cement dwellings, and Antonio asked a visitor, "Are the buildings in New York bigger than that?"

Down the block they found a storefront selling jeans, soccer shirts, and baseball hats bearing the names of American sports teams. The coyote who was arranging his illegal journey had said black jeans would be hard to see at night in the desert, but Antonio picked a dark blue pair instead. The salesman asked the question that is like a mantra in this part of southern Mexico, "Vas al otro lado?"—Are you going to the other side?

"Yes," Antonio answered, "to New York."

The salesman had just returned from Los Angeles, and Teresa asked if New York was near Los Angeles and if the trip was dangerous. "No," the salesman told her. "New York is across the country." He stuffed the 100-peso bill into his pants, and said, "We're Mexicans. In this world it is necessary that we suffer." He agreed that if the helicopters came it would be hard to run in Antonio's heavy work boots, and he pointed the family to a store up the block that sold sneakers. With the last of the money from the goatskin, they bought a pair of off-brand sneakers and caught the bus back to Zapotitlán.

Eighteen years old, Antonio is small and compact with wiry muscles from years of manual labor. The state of Puebla has a large indigenous population, and Antonio's eyes are Asiatic, his skin mocha colored; there is a rumor of a mustache on his upper lip. Though he left school at 13, he has a studious air about him. He frequently breaks into an easy, self-conscious grin, and his idea of entertainment is to hike into the surrounding hills with his friends, make campfires, and sing Mexican folk songs late into the night. Even by the standards of Zapotitlán, a traditional, solidly Catholic community, he is quiet, polite, and family minded. The other local boys talk of the sports cars they will buy when they return from New York. Antonio has his eye on a maroon Dodge minivan. "I can put the whole family in it," he explains.

Each year, at least 300,000 Mexicans cross illegally into the United States. In this three-part series, the Voice will examine the experience of Antonio Gonzalez, an 18-year-old laborer from the state of Puebla. This first installment documents Antonio's preparations for the journey and shows how his village has been transformed by this exodus. The second segment will describe his voyage and the dangers involved, and explore the hidden world of Mexico's human smugglers. The third part will look at the rapidly growing Mexican community in New York, and the challenges and struggles of being an illegal immigrant in our society.

If he makes it to New York, Antonio will become a link in what the locals call "the chain," an exodus of men and women that for two decades has emptied this town—and the surrounding state of Puebla—of its youth. In some municipalities, New York has lured away 40 percent of the population.

The chain works in mysterious yet entirely logical ways: You go where your cousin or your neighbor went; you go where there is a place to sleep and a lead on a job. From the state of Michoacán, they go to Chicago; from Vera Cruz, to Reno or Las Vegas; from Hidalgo to Long Island. And from Puebla, they come to New York City. Of Zapotitlán's 4500 natives, 1500—including nearly all of the town's young men—are in the north Bronx, in neighborhoods along the 6 train with names like Castle Hill, Soundview, Parkchester. Puebla is not a border state; in fact Antonio will travel 1200 miles to the Arizona border. Yet per square mile, this arid patch of land in Mexico's southeastern corner exports more people to New York City than any place on earth.

In 1990, there were 100,000 Mexicans in New York City. Robert Smith, a Barnard College professor who has spent 15 years studying New York's Mexican community, estimates the current population at 300,000. Four out of five come from Puebla. They work in New York's Korean delis, pizza parlors, and kitchens, their subminimum-wage labors helping to keep fresh flowers and sushi affordable, their money orders and wire transfers raising the standard of living for 5 million Pueblans. And in a generation, the attitudes, wealth, and sexual mores of New York have turned upside down a culture unchanged from the days of the Mexican revolution.

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