Toil and Temptation

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

Twenty years ago, Mexican workers had the second-highest per capita income among Hispanics. Today they have the lowest. Their average earning power has dropped 50 percent, a result of the flood of illegal laborers like Antonio who are readily exploited by tens of thousands of small businesses throughout the city—restaurants, delis, small factories, and building contractors who rely on their subminimum wage labor to turn a profit.

But to Antonio, $300 a week is about $270 more than most men make in Mexico, where the minimum wage is $4 a day. After work one evening in mid February, the two brothers walk down to the Western Union near Castle Hill Avenue. There, they send a money order for $300 to their mother in Mexico. It is their combined savings from three weeks of work. Theirs is a drop in the bucket: In 1996, the last year for which figures are available, $5.6 billion was sent home by Mexicans in the U.S., making remesas the third largest factor in the Mexican economy.

Of Antonio's townspeople here in New York, there is a shoe-store owner in Queens who is building a gas station in the village; a busboy at a restaurant on Madison who is part-owner of construction vehicles that are rented out in Zapotitlán for $2000 a month; a 17-year-old bodega worker on Tremont who makes $1200 a month and sends $1000 home to his mother—eating free food at his job and staying inside on his day off, lest he be tempted to spend money. They say that those who suffer the most in New York, live the best when they return to Mexico.

When he left Zapotitlán for New York, Antonio's stated dream was to build a kitchen for his mother. Upon receiving her son's money, she hires a local contractor to begin work on the addition, then abandons the project, to be completed another time. A few weeks later, Antonio sends more money and the mother of nine—who cannot read or write, but adds complex sums with lightning speed—buys several hundred dollars' worth of food and soda, and opens a small store in the front room of her house.

Life As An 'Illegal'

By late February, Antonio has begun to feel secure in the Bronx. There is solace in the daily routine; he is no longer afraid of the police that pass by, the dollar bills and coins are less confusing. Yet the frustration starts early each morning. At work, vacuum cleaner in hand, Antonio has learned to say, "Open the trunk." But the patrons frequently respond with a torrent of words, and he stands and listens helplessly. Buying coffee at the bodega is an ordeal; he gets nervous, procrastinates. What if the Puerto Rican woman is not working today? The other counter workers ask him questions that he does not understand. The customers stare as he grows flustered.

And Antonio begins to see the long-term limitations as well. The two brothers are living doubled-up, and being gouged on the rent, but cannot move; landlords won't rent to "illegals" with no credit history. Juan Carlos has a friend working at a midtown parking lot—a union job, $20 an hour, and they're hiring. But between Antonio and Juan Carlos, they have only one fake green card from Texas, with someone else's name on it. It will never do. So they stay at the car wash, surrounded by opulence and possibilities, caged by their illegal status and lack of English. A friend suggests English classes and Antonio laughs. "We leave the house before six in the morning and get home after eight at night—some nights we work until 10. When do we take the classes?" A week later he says, "We could just stay right here, buy from the Puerto Ricans, work with the Mexicans, stay right here." He means literally and figuratively, and he shakes his head. Right here is not going to be good enough.

Success Stories

For the first generation who arrived from Zapotitlán, in the 1980s, right here wasn't good enough either. Lupe Gonzalez came across in 1987, in the trunk of a car with holes cut in the floor. The coyotes gave him a straw through which he sucked fresh air as he bounced over the roads near San Diego. The 18-year-old's entered the work force as a messenger in midtown Manhattan—$100 a week plus tips. Yet the job suited him no more than the conservative lifestyle of his hometown. "I used to dress up in my sister's clothes and play with dolls when I was a child," explains Lupe. In 1991, he found a job as a hairdresser at a shop on a Bronx side street, near the Morrison Avenue stop on the 6 train. He slowly built up his clientele in the Hispanic neighborhood, and became best friends with two Puerto Rican stylists, who were also gay. "They taught me how to do my makeup, how to wear fake tetas and high heels. They took me to the gay clubs and balls," he says, explaining his entry into New York's gay community.

Eight years ago, he put down $5000, bought the shop he worked in, and renamed it Versace; in February of 2001, he opened a second, larger location, Style 2000. He now has five employees. On a recent April evening, the tall hairdresser with the lipstick and long hair formed elaborate curls with a hot comb in the crowded salon, the air filled with hair spray and merengue blasting from overhead speakers. The four chairs were full, and a crowd of people—Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, one Chinese woman—waited near the door for their hair to be cut.

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