A Bronx Tale

A Bronx Tale

Grassroots activists tap into the momentum of the immigrant rights movement to bring blacks and Latinos together on shared concerns.


The years have been hard on the South Bronx. But there was a time, before the banks disinvested, exposing homes to the arsonist’s torch, before crack and AIDS devastated whole families, that kids in the South Bronx knew better than to think that misdeeds would go unreported to their mothers. Back then, family meant the neighborhood and the neighborhood meant community, remembers Cerita Parker. That principle compels Parker–as a black woman, a community organizer and a mother–to champion immigrant rights.

Wearing dark glasses and long braids, Parker shares the message of her mission inside the storefront office of Mothers on the Move (MOM), the grassroots group to which she belongs. She explains to new members, and reminds a few veterans of the South Bronx group, why immigration belongs on their organizing agenda alongside environmental justice, housing and education.

“How can we close our eyes to our neighbors?” asks Parker, referring to undocumented immigrants. “It’s just another device to divide and conquer. They want us to compete for the very basic things. No one is talking about the bigger picture.”

Parker speaks about reports of discord between African-Americans and undocumented immigrants, primarily from Mexico and Central America. Despite the arguments that illegal immigration diminishes wages and jeopardizes the blue-collar jobs typically filled by blacks, MOM is intent on seizing on the momentum created by the immigrant mobilizations to grow its familia.

When the House approved the Sensenbrenner bill (HR 4437), which proposes to criminalize immigrants and anyone who helps or works with them, MOM took it as a threat to its efforts to organize the community. The group responded to the call for a national boycott on May 1 by shutting the gate to its storefront, and members joined the bodega owner and barber next door in forming a human chain on the Grand Concourse, the historic main street of the South Bronx.

“We live with Mexicans, we live with Central Americans, we live with Africans. The same problem that immigrants are going through, regular people go through,” said Wanda Salaman, executive director of MOM, an imposing Afro-Boricua with a round, smiling face framed by a short bob. “The rents aren’t cheaper for American citizens, the schools are the same. Just because we’re American citizens, it doesn’t mean they are going to clean the streets, because they don’t.” Even if all the undocumented immigrants were deported, Salaman notes, it wouldn’t make life better in the South Bronx and other neighborhoods in the United States where working-class and poor African-Americans and Latinos live and work.

Nonetheless, a debate rages on the radio airwaves, in local political circles and in corner shops about whether undocumented immigrants undermine the upward mobility of African-Americans. In a poll conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center, more than a third of African-Americans said they or a family member had lost their job to an undocumented immigrant.

In a heated online discussion among members of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists, one message rang out: Blacks Should Not Suffer Because Mexico Is a Failed State.

However, as San Francisco State political scientist Robert Smith argues, “The damage to African-Americans has been done. There is no way to undo it. I would support the U.S. exercising the right to secure its borders and to remove people who have no right to be here, but it can’t be done in a rational, humane way.” The only solution for African-Americans is to support legalization, he says. Once those who are most easily exploited obtain legal status, blacks will gain an ally; only together can they revive the working-class struggle.

Some black leaders have joined the push for recognition and rights for undocumented immigrants. At the grassroots, black churches have joined coalitions in cities like Philadelphia and Chicago. Commentators have shunned divisiveness and called for unity. But some wonder whether these efforts at solidarity will overcome the tensions. Erin Aubry Kaplan, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, mused, “The unity is seductive on the surface, but how deep does it go? Blacks and Latinos have different experiences and ideas–not only about what America is but about what it means. And these differences have been suppressed, not examined or celebrated, by the cult of multiculturalism that dominates race relations and fuels the renewed call for black-brown unity.”

Many of the organizing networks that summoned stroller-pushing parents and teenagers to the marches were constructed around the transnational life of immigrants and second-generation Americans. Hometown associations and soccer teams, mothers’ groups and migrant workers–people who have their feet planted in two countries and live in an America writ large–supplied the people power for the massive demonstrations.

Even so, immigrants built on existing networks of tenant rights groups, antisweatshop coalitions and business and youth groups–networks not constructed around ethnic identity but around the need to deliver the first massive outcry in a generation.

In the South Bronx, MOM has entered the new territory carefully. One member who took a decidedly anti-immigrant stance stopped participating after MOM joined the immigrant rights movement. But as the movement presses on, MOM has added an immigration committee to its projects on housing, youth and education. MOM anointed the welfare recipients who earn their benefits by volunteering with the grassroots group “messengers of the movement” and deployed them throughout the community to register voters and educate their neighborhoods, connecting the fight for legalization with their campaign for working people.

A crop of six “student” organizers has gathered in the back offices of MOM for their afternoon training with veteran organizer Maggie Williams to consider the factors that create the social problems in their communities, and to explore the underlying reasons people immigrate or lack job skills.

Surrounded by photos of inspirational figures–Mother Jones, Malcolm X and Ernesto “Che” Guevara–they prepare for a voter registration drive the next day by concentrating on MOM’s first rule for effective recruiting: Understand a person’s self-interest as a way to motivate them.

“When you try to get a job you’re underexperienced, or you’re overexperienced or you get an entry-level job and you’re stuck there,” said Diane (who wanted her last name withheld), her long legs kicked out under the table. “You start at the bottom and you’re working your way up but staying at the bottom.”

With a 6.7 percent unemployment rate in the Bronx (the city’s overall rate rests at 5.1 percent) and a median household income of $28,705–one of the lowest in the country–the prospects for new jobs, much less a livable wage, are less than bright.

The disproportionately black and Latino residents of New York’s poorest neighborhoods die eight years earlier than other New Yorkers because of preventable diseases. Students–black and Latino–attend super-sized schools that combine middle and high schools. These conditions, MOM organizers dryly observe, are tailored to prepare them for the last stop in the assembly line–the mega-prisons, like the new one the city is considering building not too far away. The latest investment by the City Council in the Bronx has come in the form of a proposed 2,000-bed, $375 million prison along the eastern edge of the borough. From across the table, Julio Vargas wonders, “Why are they building more jails and not housing?” To the south, gentrification has spread across the Harlem River from Manhattan, fingering into their neighborhoods.

Given these circumstances, Vargas wonders, why do immigrants still steal across the border or overstay their visas? “Don’t they see what’s going on in America?” he asks.

They have their own problems, retorts Diane, who admits that she becomes discouraged when she hands out MOM fliers to Spanish-speaking immigrants and they don’t follow up.

But then she offers the answer MOM hopes will resonate and keep the movement going. “We’re all in the same spot,” she says. “That’s what each group is seeing.”

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