The Latinos of Sunset Park Prepare for a Storm
Snow still dotted the desert that March day 18 years ago when Rosa made her way to the border with nine-month-old Sebastián tucked beneath her sweater.
She was nearing the end of her journey across Mexico from her home in Atlixco, in the central state of Puebla, to the northern desert of Sonora on the border of Arizona. Rosa had traveled more than thousand miles by road, Sebastián’s shoes and socks had been lost, and now mother and son faced the cold without winter clothing. For two nights Rosa held Sebastián tight against her body as she crossed the desert on foot for the final stretch to the United States.
It was the journey she chose to end the separation from her husband, who had crossed a year before in search of work. “I got here the way everyone does,” she says of the travails that finally reunited her family. They made a home in New York, and three years later came a daughter, Noemí. Today, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, Rosa still looks back in wonder at those two nights in the desert. “I don’t know how it got into my head I could do it.” Sometimes she tells the story of her crossing to Sebastían to let him know what he and his mother shared, how she came for his future and how she carried him to safety.
Sebastián is nineteen now, and since the 2016 election has been asking his mother if he’ll have to make the reverse journey against his will. His case mirrors 742,000 others who entered the United States too young to be held responsible for their migration status, and who, like him, are protected from deportation by President Obama’s 2012 executive action, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA). The family’s last name has been omitted in this story to protect their migration status.
One of president-elect Donald Trump’s campaign promises was to eliminate DACA, adding to the many worries of organizations who attempt to support and inform migrants on the risks they might face after the presidential inauguration on January 20th.
Rosa works for one of these organizations, Mixteca, founded in Sunset Park in 2000 to aid Mexican and Latin American migrants, and now racing against the clock to make sure the word gets out. “It’s like a hurricane, you don’t know how bad it will be or not,” says Lupita González, Director of Programs at Mixteca, who came from Mexico to work at the organization.
Rosa cleans for Mixteca, but also continued her education there, having had to interrupt her studies in Mexico after primary school. Mixteca offers various levels of adult education in Spanish and English, and also provides access to health care programs, domestic violence prevention and support, HIV/AIDS prevention, and immigrant services. But now Mixteca is also stepping up its community outreach to provide a safety net of community, with a range of services ranging from access to psychologists to legal assistance.
This two-pronged approach, improving migrant’s quality of life in the U.S. while providing them the means to remain in the country, was illustrated during a week in mid-November. On Tuesday at PS 94 on 6th Avenue, a PTA meeting hosted by Eduardo Peñaloza, Mixteca’s executive director, addressed concerns far beyond the ongoing school year. The next night, a few block north, at Mixteca’s headquarters on 23th Street, six to eight English classes were underway, as they are every other weekday.
That Tuesday, Peñaloza took the microphone to address the 44 parents, teachers, and students who had gathered to listen and vent their worries. “These are very complicated days, with much uncertainty. Those who have knowledge are trying to make sense of what’s going on,” Peñaloza told them, first in Spanish, then translated into English. The parents listened attentively, and spoke among themselves in Spanish while their children waited idly by their side. Some of the adults already knew Mixteca, or had renewed their passports there. Now Peñaloza warned them “We have to hope for the best but prepare for the worst,” by which, he went on to say, he meant raids and deportations.
The next night at Mixteca, Eileen White taught her basic level English class. These ESOL classes (English as foreign language) are offered to two groups from Tuesdays to Fridays, and that Wednesday was this group’s second before last, as they prepared for the final exam to move on to the next level. Around the table, in front of the whiteboard, separated from office space by a long, mauve divider screen, students Mónica, Santiago, José, Roque, Elizabeth, and Ángel strove to learn English. They ranged in age from teenagers to grandparents, and treated one other with familiarity. (Their last names have been omitted to protect their migration status.)
White began her class with reading and comprehension. Sitting at the top of the table, her deep-blue eyes matching a blue sweatshirt, she said, “This is long, but I think we can do it. Roque, you start, read until the word backyard.”
Roque raised his Mets baseball cap, drew the text closer to his eyes and read without difficulty. When it came to José’s turn he struggled with the word “swinging.” He was the group’s eldest, in his sixties, and repeated the word until he got it right, smiled underneath a large mustache, black as his short hair, and finished reading his part of the text. At the end of the reading, Elizabeth, a young woman with large eyes and a ponytail, asked and learned the meaning of the word “climb.” The photocopies they worked on depicted four children laughing, playing on a swing set. In the background, beyond the divider screen, Mixteca’s other work continued: answering phones; typing at computers; ushering in people that came to see the migration lawyer that offers free council every Wednesday, bringing with them envelopes full of legal documents and questions in urgent need of answers.
On Tuesday, at PS 94’s school auditorium, parents listened studiously as Peñaloza outlined some of their greatest worries. He told them they needed to take preventive steps for their children, for those with DACA or without it, citizens or not. But parents need to take care of themselves too, and act soon. “If you have a working permit and you are renewing it, do it quickly. If not, you should wait, because it would be giving out information,” Peñaloza said.
Parents had to be prepared for hard choices, he went on, and ask themselves, should the worst come to pass, who would care for their underage children? They needed to know a citizen they could leave them with if they were forced depart from the country. All the while, the children they spoke of played games, took out an iPad or headphones, cleaned their nails, and sometimes chattered in English, oblivious to the adult world and its worries.
At Mixteca too, adults studied as children played. One of Mixteca’s most successful policies is allowing parents to bring their children to classes, because otherwise many would not be able to attend, having no one to leave them with and not being able to afford babysitting. Beyond the light chatter of the classes the sound of running footsteps signaled the children coming and going, while their parents sat pencils in hand behind divider screens.
In class, White was teaching the vocabulary of directions, making her students put one hand over their heads, then in front, to one side, behind it, and finally right in between their eyes, ending with a finger inside an ear. Everyone complied, except Ángel, the second eldest student, who looked puzzled and wrung his hands as his turn approached. Mónica, a dark-haired woman in her thirties, frowned but got the answers right despite dividing her attention between the class and her two children. Her daughter rested her head on her right arm, writing on a notebook. Her son sat further back, observing those around him. Mónica caressed her children between exercises, thanking them for their patience while their mother spent two hours learning a language that they already knew.
At PS 94, Peñaloza moved the conversation to problems arising since the election. “On top of the legal problem, there is a social problem. There are already a lot of racist attacks,” he told them. In the face of discrimination, he advised caution but also firmness: “Remember, everybody has rights, and independently of the migration status you can fight back, not by confronting but by denouncing.”
Peñaloza enumerated situations in which migrants might feel endangered, ranging from not opening the door to a migration officers without a warrant, to snitching. He told those present, “Don’t be afraid of employers threatening to denounce you to migration. That’s not how migration works. Yet.”
Little by little people began to participate. An elder woman in a red sweatshirt with her hair combed back asked him, “Can DACA be revoked?”
“Yes, everything suggests it can,” Peñaloza answered. He added that schools and universities offered sanctuary, at least in New York, but a watchful eye should be kept on family members living in others states, and all should be prepared to give them shelter at home if need be.
Here, another woman joked that solidarity wasn’t always easy to find, and that if her family were sent back to Mexico, her sister would surely put them in the hen house to live in.
“We would run out of hen houses,” Peñaloza said smiling. He added that many in Mexico were afraid of a massive return of migrants, but that the greatest change wouldn’t come from deportations but from the legitimization of racism. The deportation machinery was already in place under Obama that had deported two million people, he reminded them. Now, he explained, “What is going to change is the rhetoric, the hate speech.”
The danger, he continued, came from those who would start treating migrants differently, those who used to say hello and no longer did; the danger was of migrant becoming scapegoats, he said, before concluding “We have to rise to the challenge, not through violence but through organizing.”
Peñaloza then turned to one of the a distracted teenager, sitting in the first row, “How old are you?”
“Sixteen,” she answered.
“Were you born here?”
“You need to listen to this. It will be your responsibility soon. Those who were born here have to be the voice of the community where it matters.” Then, turning to the audience, he told them “We must survive Trump, as a community.”
Before leaving, Peñaloza invited everyone to come to Mixteca headquarters that Sunday for an information session, to learn and pass on the knowledge to other migrants.
On Wednesday in English class, final preparations for the exam called for practicing conversation. The theme was the borough that, beyond their various origins, they had come to call home. “Let’s talk about Brooklyn,” White said. It was Roque who started, saying, “Sunset Park used to be a little bit dangerous, but now it’s better.”
Mónica added she liked Sunset Park, that it had been her home since she first arrived, to join her father. When he left for Chicago, she stayed on with her children.
Santiago, a shy teenager wearing a hoodie said he liked Borough Park. “I can ride a bike, relax in the park, and there are trees there.” Most of all, he liked the view and watching the…he hesitated, and asked for the word in Spanish. That day in class, Santiago learned the word “sunset,” and the meaning of “Sunset Park.”
Soon White’s English class drew to a close. The final exam would be held on November 30th, the last class on December 2. Mónica’s son asked if they could bring food that day. “Of course, I’m only in it for the food,” White answered with a smile.
White used to work in public schools, and has been teaching here two years. As her students left the class she remarked: “They’re desperate to learn. I tell them, you have all that English in your head, I just have to pull it out.” She first learned Spanish in school, and says she further improved when she had a Puerto Rican boyfriend. “That’s what I tell them, get a boyfriend of girlfriend!” She is confident they will pass and move up to the next level. How many levels Mixteca will be able to offer them, however, will depend on the availability of volunteer teachers like White.
Days later, the two sides of Mixteca came together, on Sunday November 20th at Mixteca’s headquarters in Sunset Park for the information session. There was sweet bread and tamales to eat, coffee to drink. Next to the main entrance were a Mexican and an American flag side by side. José from White’s class was there, as well as Peñaloza, accompanied by members of Mixteca’s board of directors, Carolina Rubio, a pro bono lawyer, and council Member Carlos Menchaca, the first Mexican-American elected to office in New York.
Menchaca wore glasses, had short, well-combed hair, and spoke Spanish with a slight American accent as he reassured the audience that New York City would remain a sanctuary city that stood with all its citizens, and would not disclose their migration status with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The crowd broke into applause when Rubio said, “There is no such thing as an illegal immigrant: we are undocumented. We have to stop using that word. If someone does, correct them.”
To mark the occasion, and as a symbol in troubled times, the guests went outside to inaugurate a mural recently painted on Mixteca’s façade. The Philadelphia-based artist Michelle Angela Ortiz presented her work “Nuestro andar florece,” “Our Journey Blooms,” depicting a proud migrant woman in warm colors, and a subway that read “Hope St.” running into welcoming arms. The work stemmed from a collaboration between Mixteca and the Mexican NGO Habitajes. Ortiz said in Spanish that the mural was an answer to racism she had witnessed in her own community, a homage to the migrant woman “who arrives and strives forward…to the power of the migrant woman.” Ortiz said she painted it so children would be proud of to be the daughters and sons of migrant parents.
Among those implicitly honored by the mural was Rosa, who had listened to the speeches inside and had come to Mixteca on her free day to inform herself, for her family’s sake. Rosa sat smiling, stout and with her hands on her lap, a calm force with a soft voice and sweet, brown eyes. In the end, she was among the last to go, and despite it being Sunday, offered to help fold and store the chairs from the event.
Eighteen years after Rosa walked to the U.S. border she remains undocumented, like her husband, while her son Sebastián is under DACA and her daughter Noemí is an American citizen. Rosa says she is proud of having brought up her children here. Back in Atlixco, she said, you had to get married and stayed married, even if your husband beat you, the way her father did her mother. Back home, as a woman and due to poverty, she couldn’t study beyond primary school, but here her children have. Rosa says that despite working and bringing up two children, she used to feel she didn’t know anything. But seeing them gain an education and knowing she had given them the means to do it made her want to return to studying herself, at Mixteca, first to learn to speak English, then to read and write it.
As in the mural, Rosa arrived and strove forward, and saw her 15-year-old daughter Noemí going further still. She describes her as a bright student, whose intellectual curiosity she hopes will make her go to college. She worries however, for the son she carried with her to this new life. A good son, who works part-time to bring money home and will soon have his high school diploma. But Sebastián also has a passion for boxing, and she cannot shake the fear of what could happen to him during a fight, or out on the streets.
Rosa says Sebastián is confused by the possible loss of DACA, a menace to all he knows. The family has never returned to Mexico, a country Sebastián last saw cradled against his mother’s bosom, on a journey long before his memory began.
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