Indigenous Mexicans Find Refuge in Manhatitlán

Seventeen year-old Erastro reluctantly agreed to pose for his picture after an indigenous community leader from Erastro's hometown convinced him that the photographer, although a "white Mexican," was trustworthy.

Also known as "Méjico" at the Dominican restaurant where he works, Erastro stands just about five feet tall; his face is round and his skin is almost as dark as his black hair. To many New Yorkers, these characteristics may describe the majority of Mexicans, but spend a little time with Erastro and his Mixteca identity is almost immediately apparant. His first language is Náhuatl, and his soft-spoken manner reveals an unmistakably rural upbringing.

Erastro comes from the Mixteca region, an area which spans parts of the Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Puebla states in south-central Mexico. It is a rural area with a concentrated indigenous population that, in recent years, has become one of the principal places of origins of migrants to the United States.

The 1990 census recorded the Mexican population in New York at 61,722, up from 7,364 in 1970. According to Barnard College Sociology Professor Robert Smith, author of several books on indigenous migration to the United States; by 1992 that number had risen to 96,000.

Smith, whose articles have been published by the North American Congress for Latin America (NACLA), believes that this boom in immigration has three causes: the Mexican farm crisis in the 1980's, the 1986 Amnesty Law, and the high demand for service workers in New York.

Many Mixtecas who come to the city are often unable to speak Spanish, read or write. The difficulties they encounter abuse, exploitation, discrimination, poverty are all too familiar.

"The fact that they don't speak Spanish shouldn't warrant abuse and humiliation," said Victor Guzmán, an indigenous leader from Guerrero who now works for the employment agency Casa Mexico. According to Guzmán, cases of Mexican business owners abusing indigenous Mexicans are common.

Besides the problems most new immigrants face, indigenous Mexicans pay the price of being one minority within another. Smith writes that, "indigenous Mexicans do not `naturally' fall into any one spot in New York's social and racial hierarchies. They enter New York both as immigrants and Latinos."

For this reason, indigenous Mexicans sacrifice their own well-being for that of their families; they are often forced to navigate social networks organized heavily by race.

In Erastro's case, this translates into 12-hour workdays for a weekly salary of $250. One quarter of his salary goes to pay the $800 he still owes the coyote who brought him here, and another quarter goes to his family in Guerrero. On his one day off, Saturday, he usually does laundry and talks to his friends, fellow Náhuatl -speaking Mixtecas. With their help, he has now ridden the subway twice, ventured into Brooklyn once for two hours, and learned how to send money to Mexico.

Mexico, beloved and beautiful?

The racial divisions that characterize Mexico are strong yet subtle. Despite the 1910 Revolution, almost 5.5 million indigenous Mexicans still live as marginalized citizens. Terms such as indio, which is commonly used to refer to someone who is ignorant and uncouth, are a reflection of the repressive social order. Only 20.7 percent of Mexicans households that speak a language other than Spanish have services such as running water, sewage, and electricity.

Guzmán estimates that 30 to 40 percent of Mexican immigrants in El Barrio are indigenous. Some take the time to practice English during the day while at work and Spanish at night with friends or neighbors. For others, however, the best they can do is try to survive and keep a steady job.

"I know some people that spoke our language back home, but here they only want to speak Spanish. I think they feel embarrassed," said Erastro.

According to Mónica Santana, Director of the Latino Workers' Center, the majority of Mexicans who seek the organization's help with work-related problems are indigenous.

"The thing is that they don't tell us," said Santana, "These people try to hide their identity because in their countries they were discriminated against. The same thing happens with Guatemalan, Ecuadorian, and Honduran immigrants."

More often than not, Mexicans who are concerned with maintaining their cultural identity have a higher social and financial status than the Mixtecas, Zapotecos, or Tlapanecos who live here.

Every Friday afternoon behind the grocery store El Limon on 125th Street, the members of the Cetiliztli Nauhcampa Quetzalcoatl in Ixachitlan (Group of the Fourth Paths in the Land of Red People) dance group meet in a ballroom under a mural of Ricardo Franco. The mural represents the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the religious syncretism there. Before the dancers begin, they form in a circle to pray and perform a purification ritual. Most dancers come from urban centers in Mexico, maintain good jobs and speak Spanish.

Unfortunately, Erastro can't be present on Friday afternoon; he gets out of work too late and depends on his boss for a ride home.

"Anyway," said Erastro standing outside of his workplace on 117th Street, "I don't know how to make it all the way over there by myself."

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