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Hiding in Plain Sight

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At home in Brooklyn.   

Then the three ladies she worked for informed her that they’d be away for the summer. They would call in September. Luisa was a housewife, and broke, once more.

“Sometimes I don’t know what I want,” she said with a sigh. She missed Puebla’s balmy climate and the freedom of a life lived more out of doors. Most of all she missed her mother, whom she last saw eight years ago. The forced separation clearly weighs on her. On the day I first met the family, I tagged along to a rosary at a friend’s basement apartment. As people talked over chicken and macaroni salad, an empathetic murmur circled the room: Sin papeles. Without papers. The friend’s father had died a few days earlier but it was too risky to go back for the funeral in Acapulco.

The mood was somber as I drove the family home. “This is one sacrifice you make when you are an immigrant,” said Luisa. “If someone dies, we can’t come back.”

In the jungle heat of July, a piercing squawk led Luisa out her front door. On her stoop perched a green parrot. “When a bird comes to your house on its own, it’s good luck,” she said. The parrot was full of tricks, and the children pleaded to keep it. Word had it that a Latino neighbor family had set it free before returning to their country. Now the parrot was undocumented, too.

Under its pale fluorescent glow, the kitchen was livelier than ever. As Juliana swirled to mariachi in her polka-dot folklórico skirt, and the parrot drank iced tea and swayed in time, Berto killed zombies on the computer. Standing at the stove, Luisa stirred a pot with an eye on Fuego en la Sangre, a steamy telenovela. But whole days passed with Alberto missing in action. He was still at Jesse’s factory—still underpaid, still going by “Oscar” for what safety the pseudonym might lend him. One day, on principle, he asked about a long-promised raise to $12 an hour. “I’ll pay you seventeen an hour,” said the boss who’d once pledged to sponsor him, “but bring me your papers.”

To keep pace with his bills, Alberto took a temporary night job and another on the weekends. He’d had no day off for weeks; you could see his fatigue in the worry lines between his eyes. His sole recreation was his Saturday-evening soccer game in Sunset Park, the swath of green that named the neighborhood. At 36, he still looked dangerous with the ball—“I’m a goal-scorer,” he told me, in a moment of braggadocio. His team was rallying when Luisa rushed down the hill on an errand. She returned an hour later with deposits for their weekly tanda, a rotating credit association. For ten weeks each member put in a set amount (in this case, $100); in the eleventh week, he or she skipped a contribution and got the money back. If nothing else, it forced people to save toward the rent or a rainy day.

In an undocumented family, Alberto said, an important lesson is passed from father to son: “You don’t feel you have the right to fight back.”

For Alberto, the ultimate tanda jackpot would be a used Toyota Siena. In Mexico he’d been free, he said. When not out on patrol, he was busing off on some excursion—to see the Provençal colors of Oaxaca or hear the marimbas in Vera Cruz. In New York, he said, he felt entrapado, hemmed-in: “I can’t really move here.” After all this time, he had yet to take his family beyond the city limits. Flying was too pricey and too monitored since 9/11, and everyone knew of the “raids on wheels,” where ICE agents boarded Amtrak or Greyhound and apprehended whole families. Under the circumstances, Alberto’s Toyota lust seemed very American, a longing for the open road.

The catch was that he’d also need a driver’s license, a legal impossibility in New York since 2002. For $3,000, he’d heard that he could get the real deal through a secondhand contact inside the DMV. “I want it, but I’m not sure I’ll really do it,” Alberto said. For now, it’s an extravagance beyond his reach.

When times are bad at the top, they’re generally worse at the bottom. By September, three or four strangers were stopping by the cabinet factory each day, trolling for work. Orders dried up. In the first week of November, Alberto took a call at home; he’d been laid off, effective immediately. For the first time, Jesse had left him. (Characteristically, the boss still owes him $500.) Since then he’s worked construction on and off, but the near future seems grim. Even with Luisa’s wages, the family has ten dollars in the bank.

Now and again Alberto uses Google Maps to zoom in on the project that brought him here. The raw walls of his Mexican house stand like a ruin, a symbol of his life’s incompletion. Though he wants to stay in New York as long as he’s making money and the children keep progressing, who can tell when he might be forced to leave? With a future so abstract, of what use are plans?


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