“Seen from the outside, Mexico looks very dramatic, it’s like a war.”
– Antonio Banderas (actor)
NEW YORK — I see them everywhere: at hotels, restaurants, construction sites. Anywhere that hard work needs doing, you’ll find these immigrants from the state of Puebla, in central Mexico. They are helping New York City remain the capital of the world.
For years, these immigrants have arrived in the United States, documented or not, as if on an unending conveyor belt. One brought his brother in-law and his sons over, another his cousin.
Roughly half a million Mexicans live in New York, and a substantial number of them come from Puebla. Most left behind mild weather and tough economic obstacles, adapting to New York’s harsh winters for the ability to earn dollars in low-paying jobs. So they work, and send what
earnings they can back to Mexico so their children can live a bit better than they did.
I recently spent a week visiting New York, and often when I am dining at a restaurant in the city, I make it a point to visit the kitchen. In the back, as plates come and go, I always find workers who are willing to tell their stories, almost always sprinkled with humor. At French and Italian restaurants, I found that most of the employees working in the kitchen were “Poblanos.” No matter what their professions were back in Puebla, in New York they have reinvented themselves as chefs, waiters, dishwashers or whatever position allows them to survive.
However, many are here reluctantly. “We left our families behind,” said a worker named Ramon, after his kitchen shift was done. “But the bacon is here.”
They may be in the U.S., but their minds are back in Mexico, a place they cannot return to. Crossing into the U.S. took a great deal of effort and money, and these days the Mexican border is more heavily patrolled than ever. So a summer or Christmas visit to Puebla is a risk that they cannot afford.
This is why Donald Trump’s recent anti-immigrant rhetoric is especially stinging. When the Republican presidential hopeful likened Mexican immigrants to rapists and criminals during his announcement speech a few weeks ago, these Poblanos knew that he was utterly wrong. Mexican immigrants build Trump’s buildings, they harvest the food that he eats and they take care of his hotels. Yet there he was, attacking them.
The Poblanos and I also spoke about Mexico — specifically about the fact that the national soccer coach was recently fired following some mistakes, while the officials who allowed “El Chapo,” one of the most infamous drug dealers in the world, to escape from prison got to keep their jobs. All we could do was laugh at the absurdity, since nothing that happens in Mexico can surprise us anymore.
In addition, we discussed the recent murder of Ruben Espinosa, a Mexican journalist from Veracruz. According to Reporters Without Borders, more than 80 journalists have been killed in Mexico in the last decade, and most of these crimes have gone unpunished. “Things are hard in Mexico, aren’t they?” asked a Poblano waiter, between delivering pasta and dessert courses. The worst thing is knowing that Ruben won’t be the last journalist to fall.
The devaluation of the Mexican peso is yielding a bit more buying power for their families, according to these workers. In the towns of Tenango de las Flores or Cholula, I am told, it’s easy to know who receives dollars — some houses are newly painted or now have a second floor.
Back home, it used to be that women and children waited for the men return after they spent time working in the U.S. But these days fewer and fewer people are waiting. Those who leave Puebla will never come back, so they focus on bringing the family that they left behind to the U.S. The only people who return, in fact, are those who get deported after making the long and treacherous journey north.
Many of the people I spoke with in New York have children who were born here and, thus, they are American. I find that these Poblanos, the ones who have been here the longest, talk less about soccer and Mexican politics, and more about what that “Trump character” is saying. They are studying which presidential candidates might offer them a path to legalization.
If everything goes wrong, they are ready to be the generation of sacrifice — the one that risked everything for those who will come later.
Meanwhile, they will work as hard as they can.
New York owes a huge debt to these Poblanos. The city functions well thanks to the efforts of thousands of semi-invisible laborers who do the work that nobody else wants to do.
Puebla York is, indeed, a great place thanks to their efforts.
Jorge Ramos, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, is the host of Fusion’s new television news show, “America With Jorge Ramos,” and is a news anchor on the Univision Network. Originally from Mexico and now based in Florida, Ramos is the author of nine best-selling books, most recently, “A Country for All: An Immigrant Manifesto.”