The Politics of Divide and Conquer
NYTimes.com > New York Region September 6, 2003
Little but Language in Common
By ALAN FEUER
n Spanish, "No me gusta" means "I don't like." If you are Mexican or Puerto Rican, the phrase is the same.
"I don't like the Mexicans," said George Ortiz, 52, who was born in Puerto Rico. "They think they can live in the neighborhood and not obey the laws."
"I don't like the Puerto Ricans," said Javier Morales, 31, who moved north recently from Mexico. "They forgot where they came from after they started living in New York."
[They call East Harlem El Barrio — the neighborhood — but it is not so neighborly these days. In the last 10 years, Mexican immigrants have been arriving in a huge influx to the crowded streets of what has long been a Puerto Rican enclave. While the two groups share a language, a common tongue does not ensure a common bond. As far as ethnic rivalries go, the friction between the Mexicans and the Puerto Ricans of El Barrio is hardly open war, but it can be felt in the angry looks, muttered slurs and numerous complaints that are heard on East 116th Street, the neighborhood's main road.
The Puerto Ricans accuse the Mexicans of stealing jobs and cheating the tax man, and staying in the city as illegal immigrants. The Mexicans, in turn, accuse the Puerto Ricans of crowding them out of apartments, businesses and parks.
The two groups are in a classic immigrant struggle over bragging rights, real estate and money. It seems they will even grumble about a sports field. Last week, for instance, Mr. Ortiz, a building superintendent, was playing softball with friends on a baseball diamond in Thomas Jefferson Park, near the East River. The field was old, sad, dirty, filled with weeds.
Meanwhile, not a hundred yards away, Mr. Morales, who works for a construction firm, was playing soccer in the same park with his friends. The soccer field was brand new, clean and well maintained.
While some may see the discrepancy between the fields as a fluke, a matter of construction schedules, or even evidence that city money is tight in trying budgetary times, others see it as an indication that the neighborhood has changed.
"They spent all that money fixing up the soccer field, and Puerto Ricans don't even play soccer," Mr. Ortiz said. "That field was built for all the Mexicans in town."
There are now about 200,000 Mexicans in New York City, according to the 2000 census, making them the city's third-largest Hispanic group after Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. The Mexican population has nearly tripled in size since the early 1980's. Most have come from the Mixteca region of Mexico, which includes the states of Puebla, Guerrero and Oaxaca. They were pushed from home by natural disasters and financial crises and drawn to New York City by the opportunity for work.
At the same time, the city's Puerto Rican population, nearly 800,000, according to the last census, has declined by more than 10 percent since 1990.
The man responsible for managing this change is Philip Reed, the city councilman for District 8, which covers much of eastern Harlem.
On a Tuesday, Mr. Reed might take a call from a Mexican vendor complaining he was chased off the streets by a Puerto Rican shopkeeper. On a Wednesday, he might take another call from an angry Puerto Rican who has heard a rumor that 116th Street — also known as Luis Muñoz Marín Boulevard, for Puerto Rico's first elected governor — was going to be changed to a Mexican politician's name.
"It's a thicket," Mr. Reed explained.
The thicket is perhaps thorniest on 116th Street between Second and Third Avenues, where Mexican tacquerias now stand side by side with Puerto Rican cuchifrito shops. Walking the block one hears salsa and merengue intermixed with mari- achi. Puerto Rican guayaberas are sold next door to Mexican fútbol jerseys. On the corner, a travel agency advertises trips to San Juan, P.R. Down the block, another promotes Mexican excursions to Cancún.
So far, the Mexicans have not been able to transform their growing numbers into political clout, although they are slowly waking to the notion that to solidify their status, they will need Mexican politicians and police officers.
"Right now, they're not involved in the formal structure of the city in any way," said George Reagan, director of programs for Asociación Tepeyac de New York, which works with the Mexican population. "They want to have political power. They want to have a real say in their schools. But they're just getting here. It takes time."
Still, the Mexicans may not have time. El Barrio is gentrifying rapidly as wealthy whites and Asians are moving in, attracted by inexpensive rents. While many Puerto Ricans with family roots in the neighborhood have started moving back, the Mexicans — often illegal, poor and unaware of tenant rights — are starting to be shut out, even as they arrive.
"They're being priced out as gentrification occurs," Mr. Reagan said. "Because so many are undocumented and because they just don't understand the system that exists, it's very easy for a landlord to simply say, `Get out.' "
Complicating matters even more is a schism that has developed between Mexicans who are established in the neighborhood and those who have only recently arrived.
This summer, for example, tensions worsened when several Mexican restaurants complained to the police about a group of Mexican women selling tacos and empanadas on the sidewalks in front of their doors. The women, they said, were stealing customers. The women, in turn, have said that selling street food is the only way they can survive.
"Many of the businesses allow these women to use a piece of their property," said Flor Bermudez, a staff lawyer for Esperanza del Barrio, which is representing the vendors in their dealings with the courts.
"Many of the more established Mexican businesses started off as street vendors. So I think they have a certain amount of sympathy for what they're going through."
Sympathy, perhaps, say the restaurateurs. But patience, no.
"I can understand these women need to make a living," one proprietor said. "But I pay taxes. They don't pay taxes. I'm here legally, and they are not."
He asked that his name be withheld, wanting to avoid upsetting fellow immigrants from home. "It's hard enough to be here with the problems we already have, mainly from Puerto Ricans," he said. "We don't need more from picking on our own."
You'd be amazed at the number of people who spoken to me about this. All disagree with this article. The relationship between Puerto Ricans and Mexicans is good and not what the NY Times says it is.
Jose B. Rivera
|Thread Tools||Search this Thread|
|Display Modes||Rate This Thread|