Toil and Temptation

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

And sometimes, in their insular community, they find love. In 1996, Alma Rosa, a tall, graceful teenager, placed second in the local beauty pageant in San Antonio, Mexico, a nearby village that makes Zapotitlán seem like a metropolis. Alfonso, the second oldest son of a middle-class family in Zapotitlán, found her there at the pageant, and the two began to date. Yet the young girl's family strongly disapproved of Alfonso, and they sent their 19-year-old daughter away, to San Bernardino, California, where there is a small colony of townspeople. Alfonso followed and searched northern California in vain for several weeks, eventually losing hope, assuming she would be married if he ever found her. He left for New York to seek work. The following spring, at a gathering of people from Zapotitlán, he heard two men speak of her. She too had come to New York, and he called her that evening. The couple live today in a building full of Mexicans on Dean Street, in downtown Brooklyn, with their two small children and three of Alfonso's brothers.

About one-fifth of the immigrants from Zapotitlán are women, and the percentage is growing steadily. In the Mexican community as a whole, the number of women arriving in New York is higher, probably approaching 40 percent. They are working in factories, cleaning houses, and having children. The birth rate among Mexican woman rose 232 percent between 1989 and 1996; they now rank third among immigrant groups in New York City—higher than Chinese, South Asians, or Haitians. "Most of these [Mexican] women are very young, and they have a high fertility rate; it's a double whammy," says Peter Lobo of the New York City Department of Planning. "This is going to have a huge impact on New York City."

Lessons In Money and Skin Color

At the car wash, a week has passed. The pain in Antonio's body has lessened, he has learned how to handle the towel, how to flip the car doors open, wipe the seals with one quick motion, then snap the towel over his shoulder and quickly wipe the windows with a softer blue rag. His coworkers are not so intimidating now; the other Mexicans see that he will work and begin to talk and joke with him—the Salvadorans also, though they speak differently and seem harder men, having been through a war that Antonio knows nothing about. And then there are the tall, dark-skinned men, men unlike any he has seen in Mexico, who he has assumed are morenos, African Americans, but turn out to be Africans, and at first he is confused by the distinction ("In the dark of the tunnel, you can see just their eyes," he says with some wonderment). Because they are African, they are very proud, he is told, and dislike taking orders. With the exception of a garrulous Nigerian who has learned to speak Spanish, the Africans are given jobs where they work alone.

Spend 72 hours a week wiping other people's cars, and resentment is a constant companion. Until recently, Antonio has known only Mexicans. Lunch and downtime at the car wash are filled with talk of money and race. Eastchester is a working-to middle-class neighborhood of West Indian and African American civil servants, secretaries, teachers, construction workers. Most work hard, many favor nice cars, and the line at the car wash is a parade of conspicuous consumption—Cadillacs, Lexus, late-model SUVs. They come here because it is nearby, and because the "Super," which includes hot wax, polish, and wheels Armoralled, costs $9, a savings of $3 over the other car wash, a half-mile down Baychester Avenue, where the white people go.

But the Black people—especially the young Black men—don't appreciate paying hard-earned money to have a bunch of illegals leave drops of water on their cars. If they feel they are not getting their money's worth, they wave their hands in the air and shout at the workers and then mock them: "No speek eengleesh." Antonio quickly learns the phrase "Yo, yo, yo" and an utterance that sounds to him like "fock" or "focking," which he believes to be a mean word. And noise is of particular concern. Antonio and Juan Carlos are soft-spoken and courteous. They would never raise their voices unless they were ready to fight. These Black men raise their voices all the time.

The tips left by the Black clientele run to silver and copper, with some dollar bills thrown in. At the end of a 12-hour shift, Antonio takes home maybe $5 in tips. Down the hill, los blancos leave $5 bills, and rumor has it the workers average $30 a day in tips. Times six days, that's good money. But here Antonio is stuck with the cheap morenos who shout at him, wear their clothes baggy, and lounge against the wall. "Where do they get their money?" he wants to know. To him, and to the other Mexicans, the young Black men seem lazy and dangerous.

The first week there are days when it rains and there is no work, but soon Antonio is averaging 72 hours a week. His hourly rate remains a mystery to him. He is simply handed an envelope with $270 in cash at week's end, which he accepts without complaint. Juan Carlos is the senior laborer at the car wash. With a year and a half of experience, he makes $4 an hour. The others, he believes, make $3.75 an hour. It is straight time—nothing extra after 40 hours. A laborer working at the legal minimum wage, plus overtime, would be paid $497. The car wash has approximately 20 employees. By using workers without green cards, the owner, a Portuguese immigrant, is saving nearly a quarter of a million dollars a year.

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