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One Immigrant’s Journey: Chasing the Dream in NYC

Enrique, Jr., sitting at the kitchen table with the apartment violations tacked to the wall behind him. Photo by Peiheng Tsai.
Enrique, Jr., sitting at the kitchen table with the apartment violations tacked to the wall behind him. Photo by Peiheng Tsai.

Full disclosure: Enrique is my friend. I met him through my work, as an organizer at the Pratt Area Community Council, a not-for-profit housing organization in central Brooklyn. He came in one evening with a familiar tale of landlord abandonment. Since then, he has been an active member of PACC, and I have remained in frequent contact with him. I do not write, then, of the faceless immigrant, of mass numbers that we can use to determine trends affecting immigrant New Yorkers. Instead, this is a story of one person, and I write this account as a friend—though being as truthful as possible with the facts and circumstances that he has encountered.

Enrique is naturally loud, and when excited he gets—like most of us—louder. "You want us to drive you around, right," he bellows out across the table in a dusty but delicious Mexican restaurant in central Brooklyn. "How are we supposed to do that without licenses?"

We were engaged in a discussion over the new push to prevent undocumented immigrants from receiving driver’s licenses, one of the many consequences of a post-9/11 environment that paints immigrants not simply as potential economic drains, but as national security threats as well. At the car service where Enrique worked, the results of this new policy were dramatic. "Now we’ve got ten, fifteen people without their license," he told me. "So they can’t work, and they’re wondering what to do." Enrique was not personally affected, having become a citizen years ago, but the contained rage on his face radiated clear as he described the ordeal of his coworkers.

"You’ve got to get more active," Enrique admonished, shifting topics. "You keep sitting around, not doing your job, you’ll be in trouble, too." He laughed, and took a long gulp of water. "Rich people keep moving in, you think they’ll need you? No way, guero."

Though Enrique is from the southern Mexican state of Puebla, in some ways he’s as New York as they come: blunt and outspoken, hardworking and rushed. Through his job as a driver at a car service in Brooklyn, he knows the streets of the city inside and out, and has his finger on the pulse of Brooklyn affairs. Most of the people he drives around are working-class, and he has developed a distinctly working-class view of NYC.

"High-class people, they’re coming," he told me one afternoon as we drove in his car past the proposed site for the new Nets arena. "Now they want to live in Fort Greene, Bed-Stuy, everywhere. They want us out. But there’s only so many places we can go."

Enrique made the trek from Mexico to New York City with his older sister in 1984, at the age of fourteen. After living in Borough Park for several years, where he worked as a dishwasher, he moved into a building on Broadway Avenue in Bushwick. The Broadway property was one of many abandoned buildings in the neighborhood that were eventually taken over by the city, and was later transferred to the tenants as a low-income cooperative. Soon after signing the lease Enrique met his future wife, Paula, who lived nearby. Two years later they celebrated the birth of their daughter, Christian.

Enrique, Jr., sitting at the kitchen table with the apartment violations tacked to the wall behind him. Photo by Peiheng Tsai.
Enrique, Jr., sitting at the kitchen table with the apartment violations tacked to the wall behind him. Photo by Peiheng Tsai.

In 1993, Christian became ill. Enrique and Paula took the 3-year old to Wyckoff Hospital, but the doctors were unable to diagnose her condition. Frustrated, the parents brought her to a private physician, where they learned that she was suffering from severe lead poisoning. The Department of Health (DOH) and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) came out to the building, and they discovered numerous lead paint hazards. According to Enrique, they were of no further assistance.

"They didn’t do anything for me," he told me. "I did the repairs on my own, same as I always have. HPD came out and found lots of lead, but I was the one who did the work." Christian remained hospitalized until her blood lead level dropped, but the doctors warned Enrique and Paula that their daughter had probably suffered permanent brain damage, and would likely exhibit behavioral and learning problems in the future.

In 2001 Enrique and Paula separated. He moved into a new apartment on Dekalb Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, with Paula and Christian staying in Bushwick. At the time of their separation, Christian was ten years old and had been classified as learning disabled, and Paula began receiving disability checks for her. Enrique would continue to keep in touch with Paula, and visit Christian frequently, but it was painful for him to see his daughter struggle in school and find himself unable to help.

Soon after moving out Enrique met a new partner, Juana, who had a 14-year old son, Abran. Juana and Abran soon moved in with Enrique, and later that year Enrique and Juana celebrated the birth of Enrique, Jr.

A few weeks after Enrique, Jr.’s birth, the landlord disappeared. That winter the basement regularly flooded, and the sitting water and backed-up sewage caused a stench that became impossible to wash off their clothing. With no regular extermination, rats and cockroaches crawled around dusty floors, and mold caused by frequent leaks started to form on the walls.

When Enrique, Jr. became sick after a string of winter days without heat or hot water, Enrique began a case against his landlord in Brooklyn’s housing court. Over the course of six months the city registered 194 violations, and he returned to court seven times to reopen the case when repairs failed to materialize. Instead of allowing him to confront his landlord directly, each trip to court found Enrique faced with a new attorney, and forced him to miss another day of work. Eventually the judge fined the landlord $25,000 in civil penalties, but this was still little solace to Enrique—his building was falling apart.

"The judge told me, start a new case, to get the money," said Enrique. "So I start a new case, and the landlord doesn’t show, and I don’t get anything. Always I’m in court, and always they don’t do anything." Enrique represented himself in the civil case to try and collect the fine, but to no avail. The landlord had abandoned the property, and the city—though efficient at sending inspectors to document violations—seemed unable to complete the needed repairs. Enrique’s phonebook-thick packet of violations was brought into court as evidence, but succeeded only in getting the city to write up more fines and cite more violations.

For many families, it would have been time to move on. Enrique had tacked to the kitchen wall dozens of violation printouts, each with precise details of the hazards that existed—and each entirely useless except as a wall-hanging memento commemorating bureaucratic ineptitude.

Enrique and Juana decided to improve their home, in steps. Enrique purchased a hot water heater with the rent money, and trudged it up to his second floor apartment. After pouring a slab of concrete in the kitchen and installing the contraption, a constant stream of hot water was finally assured. Other tenants were hoping to reap the benefits of Enrique’s labor, but this he was not going to allow without them sharing the costs.

"Hey, if I’m paying for it, you got to pay me a little, too," Enrique explained. "Nothing is free here. I got the heater, come on, help me out a little, together we’ll be fine." Enrique had been asking the other tenants to pool their money and together try to purchase the building, but none seemed excited about the prospect. Some were just glad to be living rent-free, regardless of the poor conditions. He eventually agreed to give others hot water as long as they paid him a small fee each month, and when tenants decided to stop paying he would cut off the water—which would cause them to immediately make the payment.

Next came the backyard. When I first visited Enrique’s Dekalb Avenue apartment, in the fall of 2002, he motioned me over to the rear window. Across the backyard lay dense piles of debris six feet thick at points, with contents ranging from shredded tires to barbed wire and soiled diapers. With the help of Juana and Abran, the backyard was cleaned up in two months. By the time of my next trip to his home, in the summer of 2003, stalks of cornrows were thriving where the rotting refuse had once been.

"You see, I said we’d fix this up," Enrique told me as we stood on the fire escape balcony, admiring the fruits of their labor. To our left and right were trash-strewn backyards, but ten feet below us lay a healthy garden of corn. The scene had a surreal quality; in the gritty streets of Brooklyn, a plot of cultivated land emerged amidst urban decay, like a stubborn weed poking through solid concrete on a basketball court. There is much talk of immigrants coming to the US and bringing with them their customs. Here, it seemed, Enrique and Juana had actually unpacked a small section of Mexico, dirt and all.

With hot water assured and corn growing in the back yard, Enrique set about fixing the walls and floors. He stripped the rotting planks running through his railroad apartment, replaced them with new lumber, and put down a blue-and-white checkerboard tile. Crumbling walls were repaired, and a fresh coat of yellow paint turned the run down unit into a cozy and friendly home.

According to NYC housing law, however, Enrique’s actions are labeled "self-correcting"—a term given to the practice of tenants making repairs on their own—and are discouraged. Thus, though Enrique had kept meticulous receipts of his expenses, if the old or new landlord suddenly were to show up demanding the back rent in full, he now would be legally obligated to pay, regardless of the improvements he made.

When I brought this to his attention, he laughed. "You know what HPD says when I ask them for help: ‘we can’t do it, impossible.’ They say that they can’t do this, they can’t do that. If they’re not going to do anything, they expect us to just sit back and do nothing?"

The one constant in Enrique’s life is work. As a car driver for a private company, much of the money he sees during the course of a day doesn’t actually stay in his wallet. Bills that his customers hand him at the end of each ride help pay for gas, for car payments, and then for his employer. He begins work at 6 AM, shuttling people around the City until noon, when he goes home for lunch and a quick nap. At 2 PM he’s back in the driver’s seat again, and finishes his evening shift around 9 PM. He maintains this schedule seven days a week. All told, after deducting work-related expenses, his weekly income hovers around the $300 mark. Logging in at least 70 hours of work each week, his actual annual income is $16,000.

Enrique is obsessive about the need for his children to break free from his life of constant work and poverty wages. He is perpetually admonishing his stepson Abran about his grades, telling him that he needs to concentrate more in school so that he’ll be able to land a good job. "I tell him, if he doesn’t get serious, he’ll end up cleaning dishes or driving a car around like me."

His experiences have led him to see education as the critical key to success. In Mexico Enrique attended elementary school for a few years, but after arriving in the US at fourteen began working full-time as a dishwasher. Enrique is very aware of the limitations placed on him because he never received a high school diploma, and dreams of his children attending college. Several months ago a group of my friends went out for drinks with Enrique. The next day he asked me if they had all gone to college. I told him that they did.

"You see, you all know how important education is," he said. "That’s what I’m trying to tell Abran. Learn computers, study hard, but he doesn’t want to listen. He’s different."

I pointed out to Enrique that my friends and I all went to safe, quiet and well-funded schools, and that I actually didn’t study all that much. I mentioned that most of my friends could afford special tutors when they ran into trouble, and that Abran might be having problems because his school was overcrowded and overwhelming. He didn’t agree. "Education is education. You’ve just got to study."

Suddenly, in August of 2003 a new landlord popped onto the scene. Though he was pleased to see that Enrique’s family had created a beautiful apartment in the rundown building, his admiration did not prevent him from charging an inflated rent of $1,200 per month. Other tenants of the building, unable or unwilling to pay, were quickly evicted. Enrique and Juana, not wanting to abandon the home they had built for themselves, signed a lease—hoping to somehow make ends meet. In November Juana began working as a seamstress in a nearby factory, and a daycare was found for Enrique, Jr. But Juana’s wages were more than offset by the daycare costs, and her boss didn’t permit bathroom breaks, while a broken heater forced the workers—all Mexican women—to wear heavy coats during the ten-hour shifts. Yet even with low wages and harsh conditions, work itself was only available for Juana a few days each week.

Though Enrique began putting in more than 80 hours a week at work, their combined wages were impossible to reconcile with the rent, and as they struggled to pay the $1200 each month, a familiar pattern emerged. Heat was shut off for a few days. Repairs that the new landlord had promised, like fixing the collapsing stairwell, kept being put off. Different individuals regularly showed up, claiming to be the owner and demanding additional rent.

In December Enrique finally accepted an offer to live with his brother’s family in Westchester. The rent there was cheaper, at $900, but hardly affordable. This past winter, during a conversation I had with Enrique about the move, he told me that he had just discovered that his brother didn’t have a lease, leaving Enrique nervous about the possibility of an eviction. And, he said, the heat had been turned off for the past three days.

Enrique is by no means an average immigrant, or an average New Yorker. His combination of intellect and determination, innovation and willingness to sacrifice are rare among all New Yorkers—immigrant or otherwise. In many ways these attributes have served him well in New York City. Over the past 20 years he has learned English, become an American citizen, raised a family, found work that he enjoys, and been able to occasionally send money back to his family in Mexico.

But it has not been an easy journey. His daughter has been lead poisoned, his search for affordable housing fruitless, his work never-ending. When I asked him to document all of the repairs he had completed in the Dekalb Avenue apartment, he hesitated. "I don’t want to remember, cause I’ll begin to cry," he told me. "We did so much work there, but I don’t want to remember it any more." Enrique took a deep breath. "That’s how I do it—I just don’t think about it, cause it’s gone." His story has been one of sweat, but not yet equity.

Now living in Westchester, Enrique spends many nights without returning home, sleeping in his parked car in Brooklyn so as to save money on the gas and toll payments needed for the commute. Far from his work and missing family and friends in Brooklyn, Enrique and Juana still hope to return to the borough that has proven at times to be so unmerciful.

"Our country has always benefited from the dreams that others have brought here. By working hard for a better life, immigrants contribute to the life of our nation." So spoke George W. Bush, announcing his guest worker proposal, which in his words "represents the best tradition of our society, a society that honors the law, and welcomes the newcomer. This plan will help return order and fairness to our immigration system, and in so doing we will honor our values, by showing our respect for those who work hard and share in the ideals of America."

What happens if we take our country’s promise at face value? What should we make of talented immigrants like Enrique, who do everything right, and still find the dream just that—an unachievable promise that continues to recede? What advice can our political leaders provide for immigrants like Enrique? What should he have done different—so that his daughter wouldn’t have been lead poisoned, that his children could have attended quality schools, that his 70-hour workweeks could have taken him above the poverty line, or that he could have been better welcomed in this "land of opportunity"?

Our country will surely continue to wrestle with the many questions that swirl around immigration in the years ahead. The debate centers around huge questions that lead to simplistic answers fueled by political motives. Do immigrants help or hurt our economy? Should we fear or welcome them? Are they hard working or lazy? Do they deserve driver’s licenses? Broad questions, debated hotly and loudly on national television channels and news radio stations. Still, Enrique’s story is there. It happened. It deserves, at the very least, reflection.

Gabriel Thompson is the Director of Organizing at Pratt Area Community Council (PACC) in Central Brooklyn. He is currently finishing his first book, entitled Calling Young Radicals: Why Community Organizers Can Save Our Democracy (and how you can become one).


Gabriel Thompson


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2004

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