As he sits on the railing in Union Square Park, surrounded by hundreds of young men and women absorbing the first warm day of the year, José’s hands move nervously over a bottle of orange juice. On the label is an idyllic American farm, no doubt in some far-off corner of the country, where the grass never goes brown, the sun never sets, and children grow up tall and straight on pesticide-free produce.
“It’s bullshit, of course,” José says, holding up the bottle in the afternoon sunlight.
Hidden beneath his low-pulled black hat, his eyes look tired. José worked a double yesterday, from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., and another shift today, Saturday, on four hours of sleep. He is one of the most active members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio (MJB), a controversial group of Mexican immigrant activists that applies Zapatista-inspired methods of grassroots organizing in Spanish Harlem, also known as “El Barrio.” He lives in Queens and commutes 45 minutes six days a week to the Deli in lower Manhattan where he has worked for seven years. All in all, he works almost 70 hours a week. He is 27 years old, “illegal,” and angry.
Like other MJB members, José refuses to keep quiet, to be silenced by fear of deportation or imprisonment. He is one of a growing number of Mexican immigrants that reject the role of voiceless victim. Despite never going to college, having left Mexico for the U.S. at age 19, José understands perfectly well the forces driving Mexicans to the United States, the way the system handicaps immigrants once they arrive, and the dangers of raising his voice and fighting back.
“In Puebla, my family, we used to grow maize, beans, vegetables,” he says in Spanish. “But the big corporations changed everything.” They bought up the land, freeze-dried goods and pasteurized milk, and outsold small farmers like his father. “We had a couple of cows, but we had to sell the milk fresh everyday, understand? How can we compete with milk that lasts for two, three, four weeks in a carton?”
“It’s the same thing that goes on here,” he says, gesturing to the billboards and signs around Union Square, “or in El Barrio. Corporations sell cheaply to eliminate the competition. Then they raise their prices.”
Unlike Ecuadorians and other Hispanic immigrants, Mexicans come to the U.S. with plans to make a quick buck and return, he says. “‘Two years here and then I’ll go back,’ they say to themselves. But it’s always one more year, one more year.” Rarely do they go to school or learn the language, he says, because they always plan to return to Mexico.
“They spend their lives dreaming,” José says, his mouth caught somewhere between a sneer and sad smile. But between their illegally-low wages—when José started at the Deli he got paid only $3.50 an hour—and remitting money back home, they leave their children with nothing except debt and misfortune.
José uses the word “sistema” over and over, as he does when speaking for MJB. Like others in the organization, he sees NAFTA as a pillar of an economic system that strips Mexicans of their farmland and pulls them to the U.S., only to be labeled “illegal” and discriminated against. He speaks in different registers to different audiences, deriding “gentrification” to activists and journalists during a speech at City Hall, criticizing “gente con dinero” and “evictions” to community members in neighborhood meetings.
For some Americans, José is a nightmare come true: an “illegal” immigrant who, far from hiding in the shadows, spends what little time he has free from work criticizing conditions here in the U.S.
The fear and anger towards “illegal” immigrants falls most heavily on the few immigrants’ rights organizations whose members do speak out, staging protests and, in the case of MJB, filing lawsuits against abusive landlords. Even in New York, where undocumented immigrants have long found refuge from American xenophobia, activists like José are increasingly at risk of deportation.
“If they are caught demonstrating, the thing that ICE should do is ask them for their ID. If they don’t have ID, they should be investigated,” a Minutemen spokesman recently told me over the phone. His high-pitched voice quivered as he grew angrier and angrier. “If a man doesn’t got an ID, he’s got a problem.”
But perched atop a handrail in the park, José doesn’t look worried about being approached by the Feds or asked for ID. Instead, he worries that MJB is misunderstood by the public, by its activist supporters and by some of its own members.
“The media and activists like to hear about defeating Steven Kessner, about a victory over one landlord,” he says, referring to the landlord MJB pressured to leave El Barrio. “But, for us, it’s more important that the community is growing in confidence,” José says. Small scars dot his hands and forearms. He speaks quickly and passionately, words pouring quickly from his barrel chest.
When I ask José what the future holds for MJB, he pauses. Kessner sold his 47 buildings to Dawnay, Day, a $4 billion international corporation with property on five continents. Since then, little has improved for the hundreds of MJB members living in what are now Dawnay-owned apartment buildings. Mysterious fines continue to pile-up, crumbling walls and ceilings go unfixed, and misleading letters urging tenants to take cash settlements and move out are slipped under creaky doors.
“Things aren’t going to change here in El Barrio just because people agree with us,” José says. But when immigrants get up and speak in front like they did at City Hall, it means something. “When they chanted ‘Sí se puede,’ their children were there. They heard them, and now they’ll grow up thinking that they can change things.”
MJB has grown bolder in its criticism of city government officials—particularly East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito—and offices, like HPD, which it considers complicit in landlord abuses. Meanwhile, a new “International Campaign in Defense of El Barrio,” including trips overseas by MJB members, provides “insurance” against the growing list of enemies the group has made in New York, José says.
It is only when speaking to José that MJB truly begins to make sense, that I begin to understand how a tenants’ rights organization could have taken up Zapatismo, filed a lawsuit against a billionaire international corporation, and protested on the steps of City Hall.
But there is a flip side to this success. The louder their stories, the more likely MJB members are to be harassed or, worse, deported. When José and another MJB member attended a public meeting on Columbia University’s expansion into West Harlem last year, he got up and asked Mark-Viverito why she had “betrayed” the community and reneged on her promise to vote against the plan.
“Her people approached us afterwards. They asked why I said ‘betrayed,’ saying that it was too strong a word to use in front of the community,” José says. “But I told them it was the right word to use, because that’s what she had done. Then they invited us to a ‘private meeting,’ but we said ‘no thanks’ and left.”
When I mention the risk of deportation, José pauses again. The sounds of Union Square wash back over our conversation, a thousand footsteps shuffling past us.
Yes, he says, he worries that things will get more dangerous for him and other MJB members in the months to come, as the organization shifts its criticism from landlords to the city that fails to regulate them.
In the end, something has to give, both in the U.S. and in Mexico, José says. The people will organize, from El Barrio to the factories in Tijuana and the farmlands in Puebla.
By the end of our conversation, José has torn the orange juice label to pieces. The idyllic farmland, the corporate logo, the friendly face of all that José sees wrong in the U.S. and Mexico, lies in tatters on the ground. Just then, a man in a green jump suit comes by and silently sweeps it up into the trash.