At around five thirty in the afternoon Veronica bustles into her job at Mixteca. She’s just settling into her desk when the phone rings. A mother on the line asks in Spanish when they’ll host the Mexican Consulate on Wheels again. “I want to get my children their double nationality,” the mother says, as if to further illustrate the urgency of her question, “You know, in case.”
The phones buzz with calls every few minutes as people trickle in and join small discussion groups throughout the large white room. Red portable room dividers assembled Tetris-like separate the ESL class from the domestic violence prevention workshop happening simultaneously. Small children hang out in the reading corner, a small plastic table tucked on one end of the room and stacked with a few bright-colored books, while teenage volunteers try to complete their homework on desktop computers.
Sitting by the office’s entrance, Veronica’s small frame is barely visible behind a desk where a miniature Mexican flag sits atop a mess of papers and manila folders. Black Ray-Ban eyeglasses frame her beaming brown eyes and she greets visitors in English and Spanish while she scrambles to pick up phone calls.
As the secretary for the immigrant rights center in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, Veronica is on the frontlines of a revved-up battle to inform and protect immigrant families at a time when the threat of mass deportations are paralyzing communities. Throughout the country, immigrants are refraining from going to work and are keeping their children home from school. In these cases, invisibility and the complete withdrawal from the lives many have spent decades building is the only defense against an administration bent on their expulsion.
At Mixteca, the sheer number and character of the calls are telling. What do I do if U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) comes to my door? How can I prepare my mixed-status family in the case I’m deported? Where can I process paperwork, or get a hold of the Mexican IDs and documents needed to, using the words bureaucrats from both sides of the border often like to throw around, “reintegrate” into Mexico after deportation?
These questions, and the anxiety that drives them, fall upon the small shoulders of the young secretary who works at Mixteca six days a week and still manages to complete her schoolwork before shifts. Veronica is only 17 years old. She’s a high school senior, and unlike many of the people who call into Mixteca, she was born in the United States.
Dressed in a brown and black coordinated outfit and matching gold jewelry, a cursive name ring on her left ring finger, Veronica carries herself with poise as she goes about working despite the chaotic nature of her environment. Taking a break from the pace of the front office, she confides her assessment about the spike in fear among Sunset Park residents.
“They’re really concerned,” she says, “they want to know how a Trump presidency is going to affect them.”
Her connection to this community, as a first-generation member of the growing Mexican community of New York and daughter of undocumented parents, is why she cares about immigrant rights. Veronica was born in Sunset Park, the Brooklyn waterfront neighborhood that has been home to a mosaic of Irish, Finnish, Norwegian, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Ecuadorian, Colombian and Chinese immigrants. Mexicans, particularly those from the southern state of Puebla, have more recently begun to call Sunset Park home.
The Growing Mexican New York
It’s an emerging Little Mexico on the East Coast. With avenues lined up and down with Mexican-owned businesses, Sundays in Sunset Park draw families by the hundreds to enjoy tacos, tlacoyos and tortas —a trifecta of delicious Mexican food— while St Jacobi Lutheran Church on Fourth Avenue hosts danza azteca, a pre-Hispanic ritual danced endlessly to the beating of giant gourd drums, for people of all ages. Mexican markets and restaurants sprinkle Fifth Avenue and hipster epicures and immigrants alike agree that restaurants like Tacos El Bronco are home to the best tacos in the city. Every September 15, the neighborhood council closes the avenue to bring together the best selection of Mexican food and cumbia sonidera, Mexico’s heavily synthesized and psychedelic twist of the Colombian dance music genre, to celebrate Mexican Independence Day.
Sunset Park is the only home Veronica has ever known, yet she has picked up on the ways migrant nostalgia recreates life in the U.S. in the image of the cities and villages they left behind. She says the neighborhood feels like Mexico.
“Sunset Park feels like my parents’ hometown. Everyone here knows each other and I recognize people in the park and around the neighborhood,” she says.
The familiarity makes her feel safe.
This community, which seems to embrace all waves of Mexican migrants, both from the motherland and transplants from other Little Mexicos, is nearly a century in the making. New York City-bound migration started in the early 20th century, with thousands of people migrating northward to flee the violence of the Mexican Revolution. These migration patterns are relatively new, compared to the Mexican communities that have thrived in the Southwest and California for centuries. Places like East Los Angeles are home to at least three generations of immigrants that have prospered from cultural revolutions that reclaim Mexicanidad —the diaspora’s representations of Mexican life and culture as resistance to assimilation— and allude to its proximity to the border and the patterns of U.S.-Mexico history through cultural mantras like “we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.” Borders were redrawn in the Southwest, displacing and propelling Mexicans to new social and cultural contexts. What was once Mexico became Los Angeles, the biggest Little Mexico north of Mexico City.
Veronica’s Little Mexico is what one migrant once called, “the last outpost of a long journey of constant wandering from the Mexican border throughout the American territory.” So far from the border, and filled by other little migrant worlds, it’s interesting to think whether it will ever be like Pilsen or East Los Angeles. But the influx of migrants from La Mixteca, a region that sits atop Mexico’s volcanic belt and Sierra Madre valleys, conjoining three stares off the Pacific, are pouring into Sunset Park.
Like many immigrants, Veronica’s parents migrated to join extended family that arrived years earlier. Her family is from San Jerónimo Xayacatlán, a municipality in the state of Puebla, within La Mixteca. They moved into a small apartment, where they still live, just a few blocks from Sunset Park’s Greenwood Cemetery in 1999.
Veronica’s mother Olivia says that they had planned to work in the country for a short time and return to San Jerónimo Xayacatlán to marry but decided to stay. Sitting in the crowded but impeccably clean apartment, where photos of Veronica and her two younger siblings frame the light peach walls of the living room, Olivia explains that limited work prospects back home made them change their plans.
“I didn’t plan to build life here. We wanted to stay here one or two years and save money. But those two years never came,” she laughs. “We stayed because the quality of life is better. Back home we can’t earn the same kind of money, we don’t have the same opportunities, and our children won’t have the same comforts.”
The eldest of two, Veronica was born a year after her parents arrived to Sunset Park.
Olivia, who has worked cleaning houses in Sunset Park and Park Slope for 10 years, says this neighborhood is a big change from her small rural village in Mexico where the primary source of work is farming. Despite rising rent prices and encroaching changes in the demographics of those moving in, she likes Sunset Park because it’s a commercial center for the Mexican community, “We have everything on hand here. We don’t have to go far to do our shopping and it’s a centrally located neighborhood.”
The qualities that have encouraged so many Mexicans to embrace the neighborhood have also appealed to housing developers and gentrifiers. A viral video driving avocado-crazed millennial Instagrammers wild is a sign of this change. Avocadoeria, the world’s first avocado restaurant, opened this year just a few blocks away from Veronica’s apartment. Yet the hysteria plaguing social media —the video is at 1.2 million views and counting— is detached from the reality of residents concerned with multiplying forms of displacement. A fruit originally from Puebla, avocados may ironically displace Sunset Park’s poblanos.
Gentrification, deportation and racism are all threats to Veronica’s Little Mexico. Olivia, forced to abandon her hometown for work in the US, thinks about what change in the community might mean for her. “I’m not too confident that they’ll we be able to stay here much longer because they raise our rent every year,” she says.
Immigrant Rights in Sunset Park
Mexicans in Sunset Park must adapt to new changes, whether that’s the rise of Trump’s America, the spread of gentrification, or more traditional issues facing immigrant communities. Mixteca was created to address this variety of issues. Gabriel Rincón, a Puebla-born doctor, moved to the neighborhood three decades ago and took note of the prevalence of HIV/AIDS affecting immigrants at the time. He founded Mixteca in 2000 to provide health services to the community, and over time, the organization began to offer adult education, domestic violence awareness, and mental health workshops, among other services. Over the years, Mixteca has increasingly focused on immigration.
Veronica started working there in a time of heightened hostility toward immigrants. And although the sense of panic isn’t immediately apparent on a stroll down Fifth Avenue, the happy and busy cadence seemingly unabated during the elections, reports from other cities feed the fear and anxiety expressed in the recent phone calls pouring into Mixteca. Earlier this year, news outlets reported the rise in immigration raids in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and San Antonio. The number of detentions are rising according to immigrant officials and although the policy of mass deportation precedes this administration, the new brand of xenophobia and racism gripping the country means more families will be torn apart.
Nationwide organizations and activists mobilize to protect undocumented immigrant rights. In September of last year, just two months before the election, Veronica joined that effort in her own community when she was hired at Mixteca. In her first job ever, she must try and slow down Trump’s deportation machine threatening her community and family.
On a regular workday, she surveys speculation of policy changes according to the flux and nature of phone calls and inquires. Most recently, on the cusp of tax season callers were worried about filing their taxes, fearing immigrant officials would find them through their tax identification numbers. But as people call in with questions, Veronica doesn’t always have the answers and often has to do research herself. She relies on Google to resolve questions left unanswered by previous training and experience, in an attempt to console the deepest sort of panic and concern of families.
Veronica often mulls over the questions in her mind. “Sometimes I can’t concentrate in school because these questions that they ask me, se me quedan,” she says.
One parent asked Veronica whether it was okay to list their 18-year-old as the caretaker of their other children if they were deported. “I don’t know what’s best to recommend because I don’t think it’s good for someone to be 18 and take care of their other siblings,” she says.
Parents must indicate guardianship in the letters that must be notarized and submitted to immigration lawyers. Parents have allegedly inundated immigration rights advocates for guidance on choosing guardians for their children in recent months.
“I could relate to that because we haven’t written a letter like that in my family because we try not talking about the negative outcomes, so we don’t scare my sister and brother,” she adds.
Veronica turns 18 this month, and wonders whether her role in the family will change. “What am I going to do? I am going to turn 18, should I write this card, or not?” These questions erode the division between her work and personal life. While trying to help address the hardship facing dozens of families, Veronica also most reckon with issues going on in her own life.
The Making of Home
Sitting in Sunset Park’s Tulcingo Deli a few hours before her Friday afternoon shift at Mixteca, Veronica talks about the challenges she faces as a teenage girl, both at her job and in life beyond. Tulcingo, a Mexican restaurant off Fifth Avenue that features a live Mariachi band on weekends, sells Veronica’s favorite cemitas, a sesame seed torta stuffed with quesillo, chipotle, onions, avocado and meat. What sets cemitas apart from regular tortas is papalo, a fresh Mexican herb with a pungent kick.
The mood at Tulcingo is a contrast to Mixteca’s steady turmoil. Televisions play local news on mute as a handful of patrons silently dig into their tacos. Outside, people saunter up and down the street, many run errands as students and workers start to head home. In between bites of her cemita, Veronica discusses her end of the school year plans. She doesn’t want to go to prom because it’s expensive and says that the senior trip to Six Flags is overrated.
“I don’t really want to go to prom. They won’t play Mexican music, my favorite, and it’s just not what I like,” she says. Reluctant to join her friends, who are increasingly pressuring her to join their dateless prom entourage, a show of teenage girl solidarity, she rather go camping with her best friend. She wants to go on a trip to the Pocono Mountains in July. She’s unsure if they’ll be able pull it off because she says campers must be at least 21 to rent a cabin.
As she outlines what’s to come it becomes clear that although President Trump is a menace for so many, and although he certainly has become one for her and her community, there are other pressing issues to address. Although the rise of Trump did in fact change the character of her everyday life, especially at Mixteca, she’s also going through a year of personal transition and change.
Veronica thinks about life after high school. She applied to a few colleges in the city and although she hasn’t decided where to go, she’s leaning toward Lehman College, the City University of New York campus in the Bronx. The Jaime Lucero Mexican Studies Institute, a research center that doubles as a community resource center focused on Mexicans in the U.S. that recently helped undocumented students visit Mexico for the first time, is at Lehman.
“You know how I work at Mixteca and I like to do stuff for the community? Well, they do a lot of stuff at Jaime Lucero too,” she says. “Maybe I can volunteer there in my spare time.”
She wants to study speech pathology or education in college. She also plans to continue working at Mixteca, even when she starts college in August. “I hope that my work doesn’t affect my education. If there’s a point where I can’t concentrate in school, I guess I’ll have to quit,” she says.
Veonica admits she’s already missing high school. “I’m going to miss it!” she says in between laughs. “I’m feeling nervous because college is a whole new experience.” Before starting this new chapter, Veronica will travel to San Jerónimo Xayacatlán for the fourth time. Because her parents are afraid of ICE check points, it’s up to her to go to JFK Airport and lead her siblings in the journey back to Mexico. She’s asked for time off from her supervisor at Mixteca and is excited to return to Puebla.
As a member of New York City’s growing Little Mexico, involved in addressing the political crises affecting the diaspora on the northern side of the border, Veronica traverses between homes constructed by the immigrant labor and presence on one side and memories and love for the roots on the other.
Mixteca and Sunset Park are an important part of Veronica’s migrant imaginary. “Sunset Park is home and hope, I would say,” she tells me as we talk over the phone after our last meeting at Tulcingo.
“Home, because I grew up here and these are my paisanos. We prove that not all Mexicans are here doing crimes, or trafficking drugs, they’re here so they can improve themselves and have a better life.”
Nidia Melissa Bautista is a journalist and graduate student at New York University. She’s originally from Los Angeles and reports on gender, human rights and migration.