Toil and Temptation

From the Car Wash to the Chicano Club, a Mexican Teenager Learns to Survive in the Bronx

For seven days after his arrival from Mexico in mid January, Antonio Gonzalez spent his time alone in the apartment, watching Spanish-language soaps and game shows, occasionally looking out the window at the snowy Bronx streets or gazing at the 6 train as it clattered by on the el. Two years earlier, his older brother, Juan Carlos, had learned the neighborhood by each day venturing a block farther from the apartment, then returning home. When he had mastered the surrounding streets, he traveled a stop on the subway—then two, then three. But Antonio saw the police cars passing by on the streets, and fearing deportation, he stayed inside. On the eighth day, the skies cleared, and he went to work at the car wash with his brother.

Antonio and Juan Carlos left before dawn, walking north along Westchester Avenue, past the candy store, restaurant, pizza parlor, real estate office, and bodega, each business owned by immigrants: Indians, Dominicans, Italians, Guyanese, and Puerto Ricans, respectively. Antonio smiled as he passed the pizza parlor. A 15-year-old acquaintance from Zapotitlán, Antonio's village of 4500 in southern Mexico, had vanished a year earlier, and a few nights ago Antonio had gone to buy a slice and found the young man there, sweeping bits of crusts and garlic salt from the floor.

At Westchester Square, the two brothers caught the X31 bus along Tremont and Williamsbridge avenues to Eastchester, a north Bronx neighborhood remarkable for its dreary nondescriptness: block upon block of squat one-story brick buildings, stores selling auto parts and laminated furniture, a KFC, a Dunkin Donuts, some gas stations.

At the car wash, no one tells Antonio how much he is being paid, and he does not ask. In lieu of training, he is handed a towel and told to join a dozen others—all compact, brown-skinned men like himself—who stand in the mist at the foot of the wash tunnel, eyes sandy from sleep, waiting for the cars to roll out. The men regard him coolly, saying nothing, but shout to one another in Spanish over the roar of the machinery—the blowers, spray jets, and huge flopping strands of soapy cloth that make sucking noises as they slap against the cars.

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

At 7 a.m., a sedan rolls out of the tunnel, and six men swarm the vehicle, quickly burnishing the exterior and wiping clean the windows from the inside. Thirty seconds later another vehicle is spit out, and Antonio joins the second group, trying to walk alongside the still-rolling car as the others do, wiping as they move.

The former slaughterhouse worker left school at 13. He has been a laborer for five years, frequently averaging 70 or more hours a week at jobs in Mexico. He has assumed that rubbing a car dry will be easy work, easy money. He is wrong. The teenager stoops, bends, and reaches for the elusive water droplets; an hour later his legs and back ache, and pain rockets through his arm as he drags the waterlogged towel over the cars for the thousandth time. The areas that he wipes are still damp, and the others take up his slack and grumble about the poor job he's doing. He is nervous and afraid to disappoint his brother, who has paid $1600 for Antonio's illegal passage to New York. He sees the boss watching him from inside the glass booth, motionless and grim-faced.

Another worker shows Antonio how to fold his towel to get better coverage, but Antonio repeatedly drops the towel as he tries to double it. Behind him, the cars are piling up in the tunnel, and he works quickly, just short of frantic. He has 11 hours and 500 cars to go. Before the day is over, he is thinking that his journey to New York is a mistake. He is thinking that he will return home soon, to Zapotitlán, his village in the state of Puebla, where the majority of New York's Mexicans come from.

If Antonio does return, he will be a man very nearly alone, in the company of young children and the elderly. Fully one third of Antonio's village—including nearly all of the working-age males and 20 percent of the women—is in New York City. Firm figures are hard to come by for a community that is largely illegal, but in the last decade, New York City's Mexican population has grown between 300 and 600 percent—depending on which experts are consulted—to a total of at least 300,000. Dr. Robert Smith, a Barnard College expert on Mexican immigration, calls the growth "astounding—the fastest of any group in the city." (So many Mexicans have left Puebla that they are called the Puebla York, in much the same way that New York City's Puerto Ricans are referred to as Nuyoricans, and Manhattan-based channel 47 hosts Hechos Puebla, a weekly show on Puebla current events.)

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