May 22, 2011
Staten Island reshaped by Hispanic wave
La nueva imagen, The New Image-- the name of a cheery, Port Richmond salon where owner Brenda Cruz cuts hair to sound of boleros, rancheras and Mexican top 10 on the stereo -- could also double as the name for the neighborhood, and in fact, the name for the entire borough.
The "new image" of Staten Island is a borough of ethnic diversity; it is a place where Hispanics have a presence in virtually every neighborhood, and a place where the Hispanic community grew by 51 percent over the past 10 years, according to 2010 Census figures.
While the majority of the 81,0501 Hispanic Staten Islanders still hail from Puerto Rico, or checked "other" on their census form -- a category which includes everybody from Colombians to Dominicans -- the borough is also home to a booming community of Mexicans, whose numbers ballooned by 140 percent since Census 2000.
The 18,684 Staten Islanders who identified their heritage as Mexican on the questionnaire are quietly contributing to the community and carving out a niche called home in our ever-changing borough, which now has a population of 468,730.
They work in such visible fields as restaurants, construction, landscaping and are opening small businesses, even as their presence has triggered backlash from those looking to demonize them as outsiders in these tight fiscal times.
"In the past ten years the community is becoming more united and thriving," said Ms. Cruz, 28, who settled in Staten Island from Puebla, Mexico in 2000, the year of the previous Census. "Before there weren't as many Hispanic businesses here and most buildings were empty. Now businesses are opening, you see more families."
FROM COMMON GROUND
Although she does not have legal status here, Ms. Cruz pays around $1,000 in business taxes every quarter. Her family is pooling money so her younger brother and sister can attend college, as they are not eligible for loans without a change to immigration law.
"I feel Mexican and I feel American," said Ms. Cruz, who has not returned to the place she was born since she left. "Sometimes I see people on the bus who I knew growing up in Mexico; and we laugh and say, wow I can't believe you're here."
Like Ms. Cruz, many Mexican Staten Islanders can trace their roots to Puebla, a region in east central Mexico.
"It's a heavily eroded, very dry area with few economic possibilities. It's where the earliest migration stream developed from the state of Puebla to New York," said Leigh Binford, the chair of sociology, anthropology and social work at the College of Staten Island, who lived in Puebla and studied migration between 1997 and 2010.
He described how immigration patterns typically work: A handful of trend-setters arrive in a new area, find success, then bring over family members. They bring friends and family and so on. Soon, whole communities are on the move.
"If someone finds they can take a free ferry from Manhattan; then they discover there is work here then they discover the housing is cheaper; then they have a cousin or a brother, and why wouldn't they come directly here," he said.
As the Mexican community expands, more people are also settling here from regions outside of Puebla, said Gonzalo Mercado, of director of El Centro del Inmigrante, in Port Richmond, a help center for the community. The Island is also a preferred destination for a growing community of indigenous people from Mexico, some of whom do not even speak Spanish but languages closer to Navajo, he noted.
"We have definitely seen an increase of people in the community, just in terms of the flow of people coming here; we know there are pockets of people living in all parts of the Island, in the North Shore, the South Shore, the East Shore, South Beach, Eltingville, everywhere," he said.
As people become more established here, they are starting families, and parents now come to El Centro seeking advice on navigating the school system.
The bulk of the clients who come through the doors are hard workers trying to get a toe hold on the American dream, he said. Many of them have working papers. Many of them do not.
In this tough economic climate, the undocumented are relying on each other or taking risky jobs from unscrupulous employers to sustain themselves, he said.
Without legal status, they are not eligible for any federal assistance, such as welfare, Section 8 or public housing. And even if they were, it is culturally distasteful to ask for help, he said.
"People are here because they are helping their families; they are very reluctant to take things for free, being handed things for free is not very well seen in their culture," he said. "For them, just to have a good job and support their families, that's why they're here. If they see themselves as not producing, and somebody has to take care of them, they have let down their family."
He cautioned too, with so much recent attention on Mexicans, especially after the spate of hate attacks that rocked Port Richmond over the summer, it is important to remember Latino Staten Islanders hail from dozens of countries.
"There is nobody who is not trying to get legal status in this country. The immigrant community is incredibly entrepreneurial and have come to Staten Island to put down roots in the same way Staten Island's last wave of immigrants did," said Daniel Coates, of the Port Richmond office of Make the Road New York.
On Staten Island, where the train is free within the borough, savvy, low-income newcomers have fanned out from hubs like Port Richmond and populated areas near train stations in New Dorp, Eltingville, Tottenville and others to ease the commute to work.
"We have seen people coming in and working with us and taking classes and accessing services from a wider and wider range of neighborhoods. We do see folks getting around," he said.
They are speaking English at work and school, and shopping in business districts where they can chat with store owners in their native tongue about the countries they left behind. They are filling the pews every Sunday during Spanish mass at houses of worship from Tottenville to Port Richmond.
"I believe the Mexicans and other people who are now struggling for justice, will become part of the melting pot that is what has happened to every group, Italians, Irish, Germans," said Lester Figueroa, of Pleasant Plains, a Puerto Rican, an attorney and a pastor at Calvary Assembly of God in Eltingville. "The Puerto Ricans that come to this country are mostly educated and employed so they have become comfortable and assimilated into the mosaic that has become Staten Island."
In the early 1990s, he and others established the Latino Civic Association to unify Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics who were then the targets of hate crimes and discrimination. The group has been dormant for several years, but Figueroa said he sees a renewed opportunity for a pan-Latino group to take hold.
"We used to say Staten Island is a forgotten borough and we are the forgotten people in the forgotten borough," he said. "Then all of a sudden the Hispanic population started growing, and we said we're not going to be forgotten anymore. We're here to stay."
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