Before he became a barber, before he opened the shop that would become a mecca for Mexican immigrants in Brooklyn, Andres Mendez found himself like so many of his customers—crossing the border illegally.
He was drunk when he crossed the Arizona desert in 2001 with his three teenage cousins in tow—they all were. He recalls that at age 20, leaving his home in Puebla, Mexico and heading north was simply a fun adventure. Now at age 30 he can appreciate the risks involved in the walk through the arid expanse of the Sonoran Desert. But back then, he says, they didn’t measure the risks—“so much could have gone wrong.” He recalls that instead of packing food and water in their backpacks, they each carried beer—Tecate.
The boys rode a bus from the southern state of Puebla to the border city of Nogales, where they joined a group of 14 other immigrants, led by a coyote or handler. “We were lucky,” he says. “Our coyote really looked out for us because we were young. He would say: ‘Muchachos, please stop drinking. The desert is no place for games.’ But of course, we partied on.”
After walking through the desert for three hours, the group was picked up by a van and taken to a safe house, where Mendez was shocked at his first taste of the American bastardization of his culture—store-bought tortillas heated in a microwave. “I still remember that rubbery texture,” he says with a grin. The following day, Mendez boarded a plane to New York City to join his father and brother who had been working in construction for two years. “Back then, it was easy to jump on a plane without papers,” he says. “A coyote could simply buy you a ticket and you would be on your way. After 9-11, that’s impossible.”
Fast-forward ten years, and Mendez has flourished from thrill-seeking teen to successful business owner. After a long stint of odd jobs, from construction to gardening and waiting tables, he decided to try his hand at cutting hair. And he found something he loves to do. “Some people sit in my chair and don’t like to talk,” he says. “But more often, I get to talk to people as I work. That’s what I love to do.”
A Room of One’s Own
Mendez does so much more than just talk to customers. In 2009, he opened Azteka Style, a barbershop in Brooklyn that has become a magnet for many local young Latinos. “I wanted to create a space that attracted Mexicans,” he says. “Where we could connect with each other because we are such a minority here in Brooklyn.” Walking into Azteka Style is like stepping into a barbershop on Cesar Chavez Avenue in East L.A. The purple walls are covered with Aztec images—Quetzalcoatl, the feathered-serpent god, looks-on over Andres’ station. Also prominent are posters bearing the images of Mexican Revolutionary icons—Emiliano Zapata, Francisco Madero, and of course the notorious Pancho Villa. The local Univision television station plays in the background as Mexican tunes, from corridos to Latin pop, serve as background to the sounds of blow dryers, clippers and electric razors.
As customers file in and out of the barber seat, conversations revolve around the mundane— music, girls, attacks on El Tri, the Mexican national soccer team, whose losing streak has complicated chances for a bid at the 2014 World Cup. Such is the talk you’ll hear at Azteka Style, where men come to get what its slogan promises: “The craziest cutz in New York.” Many also come to play table soccer or futbolito, or they just hang out.
But in between jokes and light chatter, the conversations sometimes run deeper—to how they came to be New Yorkers. Their talks offer a glimpse of the new, Mexican diaspora—often driven by the drug violence, which according to estimates from Human Rights Watch has claimed the lives of over 60,000 Mexicans since 2006. For many Mexican immigrants, coming north is one way to escape the maddening economic and political chaos that has ensued from the drug wars. To this day approximately 24,000 people remain missing in Mexico and 16,000 bodies remain unidentified, according to estimates released this year by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission.
The stories of the gruesome violence are countless, though some have been reported by CNN and other American news outlets. Aug. 25th, 2011—at least 52 people were killed when the Casino Royale was set ablaze by the Zetas Cartel in Monterrey after the manager refused to comply with demands for a tax payment. Sept. 13, 2011—a murdered man and woman were found hanging from a bridge in Nuevo Laredo; near the bodies was a sign saying they were killed for denouncing drug cartel activities on a social media site and threatening others with a similar outcome if they post “funny things on the Internet.” May 13, 2012—Mexican authorities found some 49 decapitated and dismembered bodies along a highway between the cities of Monterrey and Reynosa.
While Mexican authorities have captured several high-ranking cartel leaders, including Miguel Angel Trevino aka “Z-40,” the head of the Zetas Cartel, and Mario Armando Ramirez, a ranking member of the Gulf Cartel, the violence continues. A 2012 U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee report concluded that Mexico’s war on drug cartels has been “largely ineffective” and in some instances counterproductive to reducing violence.
And So They Come
Foreign-born Mexican males in New York “work at extraordinarily high rates;” about 86 percent had jobs in 2010. This was the conclusion of a 2013 study of Mexican residents in New York City by CUNY’s Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies, based on U.S. Census and Department of Labor data. The study found that, “Like most immigrant groups before them, Mexicans are ambitious, hard workers, serious about improving their standards of living and most of all they are dedicated to securing a better life for their children and future generations.”
Nonetheless, the American political climate continues to be inhospitable to Mexican immigrants. The AP has reported that asylum requests from Mexicans in connection to cartel violence have more than quadrupled to 9,206 in 2012. To be granted asylum, an immigration judge must find that an applicant suffered persecution or has a well-grounded fear of persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group. Despite the violence in Mexico, more than 90 percent of these asylum requests are denied.
Similarly, calls for comprehensive immigration reform have been stalled, despite the fact that they are now coming from some unlikely partners, including the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
At Azteka Style, opinions on immigration reform vary from the warily optimistic to the jaded and skeptical. Mendez sums up the mood best. He shrugs and says, “We are here. We are working. Faith is the last thing we should lose.”
Poverty or Violence
“I came to New York after my cousin Carlos’ body was found. The Zetas cut his hands off, wrapped him in plastic trash bags and dumped him in a landfill in Aguaprieta,” says Marcos, 27, a native of the town of Tlapa in the state of Guerrero, who like many others declined to share his last name for fear of retribution. “Two weeks later, we found his brother Ignacio’s body. They shot him four times and dumped him in a river.” His cousins were 17 and 18 years old. As his stylist Elena hears this, her clippers immediately stop shaping his rattail; she looks up nervously to see if he’s joking. He isn’t.
This happened in 2008 and Marcos came to New York soon after. The message these two deaths sent his family had been heard. Marcos, who dropped out of school after the fifth grade to help support his family, says he saw coming to the U.S. as his only chance to escape the violence. While his mother for years had been reluctant to let him go, the killings finally convinced her.
Marcos spent three months trying to cross the border in Nogales. The coyote he hired was a family friend who charged him the discounted rate of $2,000. He borrowed the money from family. Border patrol agents sent him back five times before he made it through the desert. During the third attempt his group was robbed at gunpoint as they hid in a ditch. “The migra,” he says, “arrested all of us, including the robbers.”
Marcos says he doubts the Mexican government has the ability to contain the violence. He says that seven months ago, the mayor of his hometown of Tlapa, Willy Reyes, was arrested for his connections to organized crime. “At least now they are making arrests,” he says. “But when even government officials are involved in the drug trade, you really see the size of the problem.”
The story of the arrest of Mayor Reyes made headlines in Mexico. Reyes was accused of paying 300,000 pesos, some $23,000, for the slaying of Moises Villanueva, a member of the Mexican legislature—allegedly to secure his own bid for the position and presumably to protect a narcotrafficking corridor. After the arrest, the governor of the state of Guerrero stepped in to aid Reyes, who was ultimately released and exonerated without a trial. Mexico ranks as the fifth most corrupt country in the world according to the 2013 Global Corruption Barometer, a survey published by the anti-corruption nonprofit Transparency International.
Juan, 34, from Santa Tecolapa in the state of Puebla, chimes in: “President Peña Nieto is a dumbass. Things will only get worse.” Juan came to the U.S. in 2007 as the violence in his home state escalated. His father had immigrated to New York City in the late 1990s to work in construction. “It was the perfect opportunity to convince my family to allow me to come,” he says. Back home, he adds, most of his cousins have had little choice but to work as security detail for the cartels. “It’s no way to live,” he says. “The risks are too great.”
Happy with his decision to come to the U.S., Juan works as a roofer, is married and has a two-year-old son, Alejandro, who was born in Brooklyn, NY. The little boy is evidently unhappy and makes his displeasure known to anyone with eardrums, as he gets his first haircut at Azteka. Juan looks on at his crying son, smiles and says, “We’re ok. This too shall pass.”
Pedro, 40, from Tlaxcala, Mexico is no stranger to the journey north. He has been coming to New York City since the mid 1990s to work—a total of five times. He has worked as a roofer, a plumber, a mason, and a carpenter. And each time he has returned home with the idea to remain in Mexico but circumstances keep bringing him back. A father of three university students, he is currently working in New York to fund his children’s education back home. A doctor, a computer scientist and an engineer—that’s who he says his children will be.
As Mexico’s middle-class expands, in large part due to foreign investment, Pedro hopes that his children will be able to remain in Mexico. “There are jobs in Mexico,” he says. “The problem is that unskilled workers cannot survive on the current salaries. That’s why I insisted that my kids go to college.”
And while Mexico has seen a slight upsurge in its middle-class despite the violence, at current growth rates, a study by Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) estimates that it will take approximately 25 years before the country will be made up primarily of middle-class families. The violence in Mexico has affected even microeconomic studies such as this one, according to Rodrigo Negrete, the study’s lead researcher. “Because of the violence crisis, people don’t declare their actual incomes,” says Negrete. To be classified as middle-class in Mexico, a person must make at least three times the minimum wage—the equivalent of some $15 a day. Currently, nearly 60 percent of Mexicans earn less than this.
Pedro, a regular at Azteka, was a shift supervisor at a Volkswagen manufacturing plant in Tlaxcala and says that the average factory worker in Mexico earns between 700 and 800 pesos a week. That’s less than $60 a week. “A pair of pants cost about 400 pesos, a shirt 300 pesos. Young people have no incentive to work 12-hour shifts at a factory to starve, so they turn to the cartels for work,” he says. “Can you blame them?”
Similar concerns about the need for livable wages in Mexico have come from many places, including Mexican academics and think tanks. A recent study by the Autonomous University of Mexico’s Center for Multidisciplinary Analysis found that factory workers in Mexico earn on average 55 pesos a day, “which after weekly bonuses and benefits yields a weekly salary of approximately 800 to 900 pesos a week.” That’s between $62 and $70 per week. The same study concluded what most Mexican workers know firsthand, that this income is insufficient to support the average family.
“In Mexico, the less education people have, the better it is for the government. If people are uneducated, they will not ask questions,” Pedro says. “That is why there is very little aid for higher education in Mexico.” As a result, he has made his life in New York, away from his family, to fund his children’s education.
In the process, he has learned English, become comfortable with the American way of life and has witnessed the transformation of the immigration system, both from a law enforcement perspective, as well as, from the point of view of the coyotes.“As it becomes harder and harder to cross the border because of increased security, coyotes are also becoming smarter and more high tech,” he says. Most coyotes, he adds, no longer enter the desert with immigrants. The risks are too great because of increased surveillance and agents on the ground.
According to Pedro, modern day coyotes hand immigrant groups a cellphone; they use GPS technology to guide the groups remotely. And the coyotes know the desert well, he says, including the areas where sonar surveillance can detect cellphones. The groups are then instructed to turn the phones off as they cross these stretches; this is where the real danger lies for the undocumented travelers.
Elena, 29, has been cutting hair at Azteka Style for two years. A native of Atisco in the southern state of Puebla, she came to New York City with her husband in 2009—her two-year-old daughter, left behind. She says the decision to leave her toddler in the care of her mother-in-law was a difficult one. “It’s tough but at least now that she’s older we can actually talk every night.” Elena holds back tears as she looks down and mumbles the name of her young daughter in a heavy accent, “Chelsea, en Ingles,” she says with a half-smile. She looks away, regains her composure and carries on.
After walking through the California desert for three and a half days, sleeping in ditches during the day and walking mostly at night, her group of 20 immigrants led by a coyote reached the town of San Ysidro, Calif. There they boarded a van that would eventually make its way to New York. “I fell many times. My backpack was full of canned food. The weight was too much,” she says, recalling the disorientation that she felt as she traveled through the desert at night. “All you can do is hope that the coyote knows his way. But after a couple of nights of walking you start having doubts.” She arrived in New York City with nothing but a backpack and a sweater, but also with the drive to work hard to return home to her daughter.
Now, Elena works two jobs. Aside from being a stylist, she is a wash-and-fold worker at a laundromat. Her workdays are typically 12 to 14 hours; her shift at the laundromat begins at 7 a.m. She says she has forgotten the meaning of a day off. “What’s that?” she jokes, as coworkers talk about weekend plans. Her goal: To save money to build a house in Atisco. “I don’t dream of anything fancy,” she says. “Three bedrooms, white walls and a red roof. Just something enough to live and be on a different level.”
Last year, Elena and her husband finally saved enough money to break ground and the project is underway. She says the foundation has been laid and brick walls are going up slowly. And while they can’t go home to see the progress in person, Elena’s money continues to flow to Atisco by way of Western Union. “In a year or two, I will be cutting hair back home,” she says with a smile.