Only the Dead Know Brooklyn

Only the Dead Know Brooklyn


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 Dávila and Agustín Laó-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 Gutiérrez. Gutiérrez, an undocumented Mexican laborer, died in a 1999 construction accident in the Hasidic neighborhood of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. For Breslin, Gutiérrez’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. Gutiérrez, 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.

Gutiérrez’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.

Ad Policy