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Theodore Hamm | The Nation

Theodore Hamm

Author Bios

Theodore Hamm

Theodore Hamm, editor of The Brooklyn Rail, is an associate professor of urban studies at Metropolitan College of New York and author of
Rebel and a Cause: Caryl Chessman and the Politics of the Death
Penalty in Postwar California, 1948-1974 (California).

Articles

News and Features

Whatever his party label, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's firmest loyalties are to Wall Street. Why is his Democratic opponent unwilling to forcefully challenge him on economic issues?

Say what you will about Michael Lind, at least he's never predictable.
That is, of course, unless your prediction is that he's once again
trying to find a way to disagree with everyone else.
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For more than a century, a recognizable pattern existed among those
migrating to New York City: They came first either through Ellis Island
or up from the American South, and more recently via JFK. As the
newcomers quickly helped build larger communities, they began to occupy
distinct places in the mental and physical geography of the city.

Yet the fastest-growing migration of the past few decades into the city
severely complicates the demographic pattern to which most New Yorkers
are accustomed. Mexican migrants, whose (counted) ranks nearly tripled
to 275,000 between 1990 and 2000, are indeed coming in significant
numbers, but they are staying for quite varying amounts of time and
inhabiting quite varying parts of the city. Spatially, there is no
Mexican equivalent of the Puerto Rican neighborhoods of the Bronx, or
the Dominican enclave in Washington Heights. That the vast majority of
those who come across the Rio Grande are undocumented also suggests that
it may be a while before the Mexican community will have a direct voice,
either politically or via organized labor, in city affairs.

Enter Jimmy Breslin. Yes, the same pugnacious figure familiar to New
Yorkers for his four decades as a muckraking columnist, and to national
audiences most recently for his intro to Spike Lee's Summer of
Sam
. Could there be a better guide to the new pattern of immigration
than Breslin? From a scholarly standpoint, the answer would obviously be
yes--the recent work of Arlene D&aacute;vila and Agust&iacute;n
La&oacute;-Montes, Nancy Foner and others is a good place to start. Such
scholarship shows that the current wave of immigration fits no one mold,
with some groups, particularly Mexicans, establishing a transnational
pattern of going back and forth to their home countries, thus making it
impossible even to identify a single unified process of Latino
immigration. But from the perspective of gritty, everyday, street-level
New York, or at least that fast-disappearing world of tough talk and
no-nonsense reporting, Breslin has no match as a firsthand observer of
the newcomers' place in the city's social hierarchy. Ultimately, the way
Breslin, an older, working-class Irish-American, grapples with the new
migration tells us more than a little bit about the changing meaning of
the American dream.

Breslin's new book, his eighth nonfiction work, tells of The Short
Sweet Dream of Eduardo Guti&eacute;rrez
. Guti&eacute;rrez, an undocumented Mexican
laborer, died in a 1999 construction accident in the Hasidic
neighborhood of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. For Breslin,
Guti&eacute;rrez's story not only typifies the hardships that Mexican
migrants face in coming north but shows how harsh the working conditions
are when they arrive. Guti&eacute;rrez, in other words, hardly lived the
life of a latter-day Horatio Alger. Instead of fortune, the city
provided only loneliness and a gruesome but entirely preventable death
in a cement foundation.

Guti&eacute;rrez's tragic demise sets Breslin on course to discover the
origins of what would otherwise have been yet another mostly forgotten
existence. Breslin goes to central Mexico, to the small town of San
Matias (near Puebla), to recapture Eduardo's life and surroundings
there, and then follows his tortuous journey north across the border,
before arriving in Brooklyn. In the process, Breslin accomplishes twin
goals: to show how Mexican migrants are increasingly making their way
well beyond the Southwest, steadily transforming the demographics of
Midwestern and Northeastern cities; and, more dramatically, he
illustrates how that migration probably has more in common with the
Middle Passage than with any of the heroism now accorded to the
immigrant journey through Ellis Island.

Breslin opens with a series of outsider's observations of life in
impoverished San Matias. Ninety percent of Mexican children will never
go to school beyond the sixth grade, and instead go to work, which in
places like San Matias is sporadic and pays almost nothing. Thus, as a
result of stories told by relatives and others within their community,
the young of San Matias live their lives with pictures of American money
in their heads. And "such poor, dark-skinned children," Breslin
observes, soon become the young adults who are migrating along with
counterparts from India, China and elsewhere to become New York City's
new majority, by which he essentially means people of color.

Getting here from San Matias is no mean feat. After hearing from his
girlfriend Silvia's brother-in-law of construction work in Brooklyn that
paid $6 or $7 an hour (to undocumented Mexicans), less than one-third of
what unionized American workers receive, Eduardo was tempted to go
north. After Silvia, only 15, told him that she was headed for Texas,
Eduardo, four years older, had even less reason to stay home. Breslin
then vividly re-creates both journeys, supplementing the two stories
with documentation of parallel dangers that Mexican migrants experience
every day: dangerous coyotes (smugglers), rattlesnakes, heat exhaustion,
drowning in the Rio Grande, suffocation in a tunnel leading to Tijuana,
getting hit by a train in Texas or a car in San Diego, local police,
airport security and, above all, the Border Patrol. Thus harrowed, both
Silvia and Eduardo nevertheless do land safely: the former in Bryan-College Station, Texas, where she works at both the Olive Garden and a
barbecue joint; and the latter initially at JFK, only after being
delivered COD by a coyote on a flight from Los Angeles.

Sympathetic as the author is to the courage and struggles of those who
endure such hardship in coming north, there are still some troubling
dimensions to Breslin's account, particularly in his somewhat simplistic
choice of terms to describe the process. He so often uses "the Mexicans"
as the subject of his sentences that one begins to fear Buchananesque
calls for big walls along the border (fortunately, they are not there).
Breslin also far too simplistically refers on many occasions to how
Mexican migrants are lured by The Job, and at one point riffs: "They
come across the riverbanks and the dry border, those people who want to
work, who want to scrub floors and clean pots, or mow lawns." Yet as his
own telling of Silvia's double shifts in El Paso and of Eduardo's later
job-hopping in New York suggests, the specific work matters much less
than the simple fact of a paycheck. Migrants seeking wages who will
accept the least-desirable work is surely more accurate than talk of
Mexicans who want "The Job," but then again, drama is Breslin's primary
concern.

Once away from the airport, Eduardo enters a frighteningly impersonal
city, and here Breslin emphasizes the changing meaning of the
contemporary immigrant experience: "Once, they came in dreadful old
ships, from Magilligan in Northern Ireland, from Cobh in southern
Ireland, from Liverpool and Naples and Palermo and Odessa.... Those able
to stand always scoured the horizon for the first look at a city where
the streets were decorated, if not paved, with gold." The numbers of
subsequent nonwhite migrations, particularly those of Puerto Ricans and
Dominicans, are missing from Breslin's litany, which illustrates the
degree to which the traditional mythology of immigration into New York
City needs to be rewritten continually. But here as elsewhere, Breslin
should be indulged, for the experience of Mexican immigrants in New York
is skewing more than a few familiar demographic patterns.

Eduardo's experiences in Brooklyn illustrate some of the unique features
of contemporary Mexican migration. He settles with a handful of others
from San Matias in Brighton Beach, an area whose Eastern European Jewish
identity grew rapidly with the influx of Russian and Ukrainian
immigrants in the early 1990s. On a few occasions, he and a friend would
go to Sunset Park, an increasingly Latino neighborhood and one of the
few areas of the city with a visible Mexican presence. Indeed, as the
ongoing research of John Mollenkopf and others demonstrates, even though
their ranks are growing rapidly, Mexican migrants are tending to favor
heterogeneous ethnic neighborhoods rather than grouping together.
Breslin's re-creation of Eduardo's life in the city may help explain one
of the reasons this is so. As Eduardo and his roommates drink a few
beers after a long day's work, they reminisce of home and discuss plans
to go back. That so many do go back and forth, perhaps, diminishes the
necessity for those who stay to form distinct neighborhoods of their
own.

Those working here as undocumented laborers also face conditions hardly
conducive to sticking around. Despite repeated building-code violations
elsewhere in the neighborhood, a slumlord named Eugene Ostreicher was
able to continue building in South Williamsburg, using undocumented
Mexican laborers like Eduardo. While working for Ostreicher in November
of 1999, Eduardo poured cement on the third and top floor, which was
supported by only three flimsy, improperly fastened beams; the structure
soon collapsed, and Eduardo drowned in cement three floors below.
Breslin thus takes aim at a variety of targets: Ostreicher, who was slow
to face punishment, and whose cozy relationship to City Hall (via Bruce
Teitelbaum, ex-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's liaison to the Hasidic
community) had allowed him to keep building despite past violations; the
city's Department of Buildings, a bastion of frightening corruption and
inefficiency; and, to a lesser extent, the construction unions, which
allow the use of nonunion labor. Some of Breslin's examples do seem
tangential, like his discussion of a phony Pell Grant scheme run by
Ostreicher's Hasidic neighbors, or of Mayor Giuliani's war on sex shops.
But there is no doubting Breslin's crusading spirit, and he's always
good for a memorable barb or two--as when he reminds us that pre-9/11,
Giuliani did "virtually nothing each day except get into the papers or
to meet girlfriends."

As the book closes, with Eduardo dead and Ostreicher facing minimal
punishment at best, the meaning of the former's sweet dream is
uncertain. He came to New York with a desire only to make enough money
to go home, perhaps with Silvia. But now he is sent home in a casket
paid for by the Red Cross and the Central Labor Trades Council, the
latter doing so to "get into the newspapers." Though by no means the
first group to come to America with the primary goal of making money in
order to take it back home, Mexican migrants find a labor market that is
increasingly transient, unregulated and brutal. Still, despite the
hardships, they are helping to create a new, transnational version of
the American dream. It is a story that we all need to consider, and
Jimmy Breslin has successfully helped open the door.

This past winter both Edwin Meese and Gen. Barry McCaffrey expressed surprising misgivings about the current direction of the War on Drugs.