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.