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|Central Mexico to New York, via Arizona|
|Written by Devlin Houser|
|Friday, 19 November 2010 19:39|
NEW YORK — A small kettle of coffee spiced with sugar and cinnamon steeps atop a gas griddle nestled carefully in a shopping cart. Yazmín Ortega, wearing a houndstooth coat, an apron and a baseball cap, adeptly flips a corn tortilla. She fills the taco with guisado, adds a dollop of red salsa, and with a shy smile, hands it to her customer.
Though the scene would not be out of place in Ortega's home state of Guerrero, Mexico, it plays out in New York City's East Harlem neighborhood, whose Mexican immigrant population has exploded in recent years. Many of the Mexicans who live here, began the journey through Southern Arizona.
Ortega, who crossed the border with her husband in March, arranged the journey from her hometown of Tlapa de Comonfort. The two took a bus from Guerrero to Mexico City, and from there caught a flight to Hermosillo.
From Hermosillo, they drove a full day to Sonoyta, Mexico, across the border from Lukeville. On the Mexican side of the border, they slept, woke up, and were trekking though the arid terrain by noon.
They crossed at a point where only a small wire fence marked the boundary.
"We walked the whole night," Ortega said. She was the only woman in the group of some 25 immigrants guided by two, what she described as, "boys."
"They didn't leave us," she said. "When we didn't feel well, they helped us, they gave us water." She said she felt lucky to travel with the coyotes she did, particularly because their group came across with another group of some 30 immigrants that had been abandoned by their guide the day before. One of her group's guides split off to shepherd the lost group through a different route.
"Horrible," Ortega said of the experience. "Cold, like the nights now. Sleeping in the hills. With nothing – with only a sweater. Bearing the cold, walking. No, it's an ugly thing – I wouldn't recommend it to anyone."
Last year alone, 224 immigrants died crossing the Arizona desert, but the lure of a better life is strong.
Angel Barranco crossed the border near Naco a little more than two years ago. The group of 38 acquaintances – all from Barranco's home state of Morelos - traveled together to Naco, Sonora, bringing with them food, water and dreams of a better life. The group – who did not travel with a coyote or guide – spent a week in the desert before crossing back into Mexico and trying again.
"We were definitely out there a week, because we got lost," he said. "It was hard. La Migra came after us twice. I didn't let them catch me, but they did get a few of us."
They crossed again, but their food and water ran out. They saw ranchers working on the range, and asked them for help. They obliged with food, water and directions.
The group hid for two days at a friend's house in Southern Arizona, and from there took a Greyhound bus to New York, he said. Others went to Florida, Los Angeles and Denver. He chose New York because a friend had a job lined up for him, he said.
Barranco and Ortega are part of a continuing wave of Mexican immigrants going to New York City that began in the 1980s and hastened in the following years.
East Harlem's Mexican population grew 17-fold from 762 in 1980 to 12,785 in 2009, shows census and New York City Department of City Planning data.
There is no SB 1070 here. If anything, it's the opposite. In 1989, New York City Mayor Ed Koch signed into law a policy prohibiting city officials from inquiring
The tradition has been carried down through subsequent administrations, earning New York its reputation as a "sanctuary city."
In a storage room on the third floor of William Paca School, Dean Nancy Vega chatted with parents in Spanish during a Wednesday night open house.
While Vega spoke with the Caribbean lilt of a Puerto Rican, the women who ushered their young children through the metal door of the storage room spoke Spanish with a distinctly central-Mexican accent.
Vega said she noticed a spike in the number of Mexican children enrolled roughly 15 years ago.
"When they came in, we dropped. Our scores dropped," Vega said, referring to the state's school assessment scores.
The biggest factor, Vega said, was that children were coming in who did not speak English, and the school at the time was ill prepared to teach them.
"It's not that they were bad or they were slow," she said. "They just needed extra time to catch up."
The school experimented with different approaches to teaching students English: Spanish-dominant classes for new arrivals, English immersion, and ESL classes for students transitioning between the two programs.
Father Claudio Stewart, of the Church of Saint Paul, said he's adapted church celebrations to meet the needs of his congregation, which he estimates is 80 percent undocumented immigrants from Mexico.
The high number of illegal immigrants in East Harlem is not necessarily a problem, said Democratic State Sen. Jose Serrano, who represents New York's 28th district.
"New York City, and East Harlem in particular, has always been a first stop for immigrants coming to the United States.
"(The Mexicans) believe very strongly in the American dream, and they're willing to work very hard to get there. To me personally, I think it's something that has added to the cultural fabric."
Serrano said that although the influx of Mexican immigrants has caused some unrest, New Yorkers tend to be more comfortable with immigration because the city is so racially and culturally diverse.
"I haven't seen in New York the level of tension that we may see in, say, Arizona or in California."
Devlin Houser traveled to New York City as part of a cross-cultural reporting project called "Beyond the Border."