Home Political science
Zapotitecos/as in New York
First founded in the seventeenth century, New York became the largest and most important American port by the mid-nineteenth century. It served as the center of a vast transportation network that linked Caribbean and Atlantic ports, cities and towns in the US hinterland via Lake Erie and seaports in England. The growth in the city’s manufacturing capacity paralleled its rise as a seaport, particularly
Surplus labor and restructured economies 39 with respect to three industries. Sugar, shipped in from the West Indies, was refined in New York, becoming the largest industry in the city during the first half of the nineteenth century and the second largest after mid-century. Cloth from the textile mills of England and, later, New England, was made into ready-to-wear clothes in the scores of garment factories throughout the city. This labor-intensive industry grew significantly throughout the early twentieth century, absorbing thousands of the millions of immigrants that arrived in New York after the Civil War (1861-1865). This same immigrant flow contributed to the demand for ready-to-wear clothing, further contributing to the expansion of the industry. Finally, the printing and publishing industry in the city provided not only pirated copies of the latest English novels, but also newspapers. Information about the latest economic and political developments was highly valued in a city at the center of international trade networks and commodity flows (Glaeser, 2005).
While many immigrants arrived in New York and continued on to settle in the interior of the country, many remained in the city, finding work in manufacturing and a place to live in vibrant ethnic communities. In 1924, the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act “was the nation’s first comprehensive restriction law. It established for the first time numerical limits on immigration and a global racial and national hierarchy that favored some immigrants over others.” (Ngai, 2004, p. 3, emphasis in the original). The national origin quota system sharply limited the immigration of “undesirable races” from southern and eastern Europe while favoring migrants from northern Europe. In New York, the number of foreign-born declined in proportion to total population.
Owing to US-led economic transformations of Puerto Rico’s economy after the country took possession of the island in 1898, migration to New York climbed steadily in the early twentieth century and soared after World War II (Bourgois, 1995, pp. 49-53). The Puerto Rican population grew from 61,000 in 1940 to 817,712 in 1970, representing 10 percent of the city’s population (Sánchez Korrol, 2010, p. 1059). Many were employed in manufacturing at the same time that these industries were in decline.
The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 abolished the national origin quota system, establishing instead hemispheric quotas and privileging family reunification. This increased the number of so-called “new immigrants” from Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America, contributing to a growing diversity of ethnic groups in New York. Approximately three million people, one-third of New York City residents, were immigrants in 2010 (Foner, 2013).
The growth of the immigrant population after 1965 occurred during a time of deindustrialization in New York. While the garment industry adapted to flexible production regimes to supply the city’s fashion industry and required large number’s of women culled from the ranks of the “new immigrants,” the overall number of workers employed was lower when compared with the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century (Chin, 2005). The decline in manufacturing industries was offset by the city’s rise as a global center of finance and business services (Sassen, 2001). The FIRE economy in New York created low-wage service jobs filled by immigrants from Mexico and other countries.
The concentration of these high-income workers in major cities has facilitated rapid residential and commercial gentrification, which in turn has created a need for legions of low-wage service workers—residential building attendants, restaurant workers, preparers of specialty and gourmet foods, dog walkers, errand runners, apartment cleaners, childcare providers, and so on.
(Sassen, 1998a, p. 48)
The first migrants from Zapotitlan arrived in New York beginning in 1984 and settled in the Soundview, Parkchester and Castle Hill sections of the Bronx. Originally built and settled by Irish, Italian and Eastern European immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the majority of these populations migrated to the suburbs in the post-World War II period, opening opportunities for Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and African Americans to settle. The white flight, abandonment and disinvestment which destroyed sections of the South Bronx in the 1970s occurred less frequently in Soundview, Parkchester and Castle Hill (Gonzalez, 2004). In the 1980s, Mexicans, including Zapotitecos, arrived in the area. It was common for men from Zapotitlan to crowd ten or more into one-bedroom apartments, often in pre-war tenement buildings. As they became more familiar with the city, different groups splintered off and recruited newly arrived relatives to settle with them in Washington Heights on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and in Sunset Park in Brooklyn. While Mexicans’ geographic dispersal in the city was quite high, their settlement patterns often placed Mexican immigrants as newcomers in neighborhoods with relatively high proportions of Puerto Ricans (Smith, 2006). To adhere to conventions of “respectability” (Skeggs, 1997), single women from Zapotitlan could not live in crowded conditions with unrelated men. Instead, they settled with other immigrant women or, more commonly, with brothers already established in the city.
In the 1980s, when Mexicans, West Africans and other immigrant groups joined the growing Latino population in the Bronx, commentators celebrated the revitalization of the borough (Gonzalez, 2004). Although the increased commercial activity and building renovation were viewed as positive elements, Zapotitecos/ as complained bitterly about shouted insults and, occasionally, assaults, by “morenos/as” on the street. Beatriz, who we will meet in Chapter 4, describes how, at her retail job in a clothing store owned by Koreans, she had repeated troubles with Puerto Rican women. “They would insult me and tell me off when I wouldn’t sell the clothes to them at a lower price.” She described how she had to defend herself when they threatened to wait for her outside the store after her shift or cut in line in front of her at the pharmacy. Security guards herded fistfights into the street so as not to scare off other customers.
The tensions and conflicts among Puerto Ricans and new Mexican immigrant arrivals in New York that Beatriz and other migrants described in their interviews reflected the “human underside to the latest phase in the restructuring of New York’s economy” (Bourgois, 1995, p. 169). During the 1980s, the real value of the minimum wage declined by one-third, and the income gap between the minimum wage and the federal poverty threshold grew ten times (New York
State Assembly, 2004). Puerto Ricans and Mexicans competed for jobs while their economic value was plummeting.
The poverty of [Mexicans’] natal villages makes them a highly disciplined, inexpensive workforce capable of fulfilling the enormous needs that well-paid FIRE sector executives have for personal services: housekeepers, office cleaners, delivery personnel, boutique attendants, restaurant workers. Furthermore, their impoverished rural backgrounds where miming water and electricity are considered a luxury make them tolerant of the crashing public sector breakdown endemic to U.S. inner cities. Native-born New Yorkers of any ethnicity are simply not exploitable enough to compete with rural new immigrants for low-wage menial jobs.
(Bourgois, 1995, p. 169)
The structural violence of the dismantling of life conditions in rural Puebla propelled men and women into New York’s workforce displacing native workers by way of their cheapened, “illegalized” labor. These groups often faced off on the streets,7 their rivalry stemming from Mexicans’ self-declared greater capacity for work, a neoliberal subjectivity analyzed further in Chapter 4. An alternative explanation focuses on the simultaneous shift in New York’s accumulation regime and the arrival of Mexicans into the city’s working classes that prompted a revaluing of waged work and segmentation of the working class along ethnic/ racial hierarchies (Federici, 2006). The violence of this process turned factions of the working classes against each other. Meanwhile, the economy hummed along, sustained by cheap, racialized, "illegalized” labor.