12 Years Behind a Stove—An Undocumented Immigrant in New York City

Pedro cooks at a deli in Upper Manhattan. He is one of the 775,000 undocumented immigrants estimated to be living in the state of New York in 2018.

By Carmen Arroyo
NEW YORK, Feb 12 2019 (IPS)

One chilly afternoon in November 2005, Hilarino came by Pedro’s house in Oaxaca, Mexico, driving a shiny red car.

“Pedro!” he shouted, “We are leaving in March. There is a route North to the U.S. that passes along the sea.”

Pedro was thrilled. “I saw him with that car and I thought ‘there’s money up there. At least a lot of jobs.’” Pedro shook Hilarino’s hand, went back inside and told his wife Camila he was leaving the country. He was headed to the United States of America.

Twelve years after he initially crossed the border as a mojado, a wetback, Pedro cooks at a deli in Upper Manhattan. He is one of the 775,000 undocumented immigrants estimated to be living in the state of New York in 2018. Like most migrants, he left his family behind and came to the U.S. dreaming of success. But mostly, he dreamt of happiness. And like many of them, he is still looking for it.

Today, Pedro throws food on the grill like a pitcher in the final round of a baseball game—same speed, same accuracy. He also prepares sandwiches, spreads cream cheese on bagels, and sometimes cooks burgers and steaks. He always adds some spices to his cooking: chili powder, cumin, and garlic.

From Monday to Saturday, he stands behind the stove for 8 hours, and talks to his colleagues about their families and their weekends. They’re almost all Mexican and crossed the border by foot.

Samuel, Pedro’s closest friend at the deli, crossed in 1999, when he was 15 years old. Now he is married and has three kids. His other friends at the deli, Jose, Lupe and Juana, had a similar fate. They live with their families in the U.S.

During his shift, Pedro’s dark, straight hair is covered under a white cloth that resembles a chef’s hat. When you ask for a turkey sandwich after 10:00 PM, Pedro peers over the counter, overcoming his 5’2” height, curious to see who’s buying.

I met them—Samuel, Juana, Jose, Lupe and Pedro—when I moved to New York in 2017. They love Spanish-speakers that go to the deli. Being from Spain, I fit right in.

“How’s school?” asks Lupe when I tell her I attend Columbia University. “What do you study? Be careful!”

Pedro fears Donald Trump, “he’s not good for immigrants, he’s just rich.” He loves Mexico’s president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), “he has great ideas, he’s really going to make a difference.”  Pedro supported Hillary in 2016. “She said she would help us out.”

“Are you a Democrat?” I ask him.

He looks at Samuel, they laugh, and reply simultaneously: “You could say so.”

Up until the time Pedro was 23 years old, he had lived in Oaxaca all of his life. He worked for four years as a police officer in his hometown. His job paid enough to provide for Camila and their three-year old daughter, but not enough to own land, launch a business, or do anything aside from surviving.

Pedro was tired. His job was dangerous and boring. “If I’d stayed, I doubt I’d be alive.” He never knew when the narcos [drug dealer] would bribe the officers or would kill them out of spite. “I was going crazy,” he explains over coffee.

Until the age of 23, Pedro lived in Mexico his entire life.

In September 2005, his childhood friend who lived in California, Hilarino, phoned him. “I’m coming back for you, Pedro.”

“I was so excited, híjole. You can’t imagine,” sighs Pedro.

That same night, he told his pregnant wife he was leaving. Camila shook her head. “You are lying.” Pedro remained silent, finished his frijoles, kissed his wife good night, and went to sleep.

Hilarino returned to Mexico in November 2005 when Pedro’s wife had just given birth to a second girl. Hilarino showed up at Pedro’s house in a new car and agreed to take a safe passage through the Gulf of California into Arizona.

Pedro told Camila he was definitely leaving. She stared at him in silence, blaming him for the lonely years to come. But she didn’t quite believe him. “You have a job here,” barked Camila.“If you want to go, go. But you have a job here. Your family is here.” Pedro couldn’t hear her. At that time, happiness lay on the other side of the border.

On the Feb. 28, 2006, Hilarino called Pedro. There was a way into the U.S. on  March 3rd. Pedro hung up, quit his job, and filled a small bag with dried tortillas and canned kidney beans. On the morning of the third, he woke up and left.

Camila begged him to stay. She cried, pointed at their daughters, and let her tears wet the tablecloth. But nothing could move Pedro. He was not going to let his feelings dictate his actions. “I hardened my heart. I already knew what I wanted,” he tells me in a confident voice, while he stirs his coffee. To this day, Camila mentions every time they fight, “you never cried for me when you left.” Pedro shrugs, and the abundance of his wrinkles becomes more apparent.

Hilarino left his car with his parents in Oaxaca, and he joined Pedro and another 12 hopeful Mexicans—10 men, 2 women—on a bus ride from Oaxaca to the Arizona border. Leading them was a “coyote,” a smuggler who helps Mexicans get into the U.S.

Hilarino, Pedro and another 12 hopeful Mexicans—10 men, 2 women—took a bus from Oaxaca to the Arizona border.

Since President Trump took office, coyotes have increased their rates. They now charge eye-popping fees—ranging from 8,000 to 12,000 dollars—to those looking to cross the border. Twelve years ago, Pedro paid only 1, 300 dollars.

After two days on the bus, they arrived at the frontier—1,800 miles away from home. They bought 4 gallons of water, Coke and Red Bulls in preparation for the driest journey of their lives. In a matter of hours, they became mojados—undocumented and unwanted. They had been loved, but now they felt tossed aside. They left their families behind and looked toward the future, towards happiness.

The journey lasted four days. They walked at night and slept in the mornings to avoid the heat. “The first night I was so scared…Wow. Una caminada recia [A tough walk],” says Pedro, to attest to the length of the journey. “We hiked from 6:00PM to 5:00AM. I didn’t even know where I was. Once you are inside the desert, you can deal with anything.”

That first day was a nightmare. Pedro napped next to Hilarino. You don’t hear much in the desert, so his snores filled their moments of rest. Suddenly, one of the 14 migrants came running toward them carrying his shoes in his right hand. “La Migra, la Migra!” he shouted warning his colleagues of the Border Patrol Agents. “Oh my God, I was so scared,” Pedro recalls. They all started running, but the coyote called them back and calmed them down.

“They won’t come here. Let’s just walk fast.”

Pedro bursts into laughter, covering his mouth with his hands. “They didn’t get me. They didn’t get me! Thank God!!”

Pedro mentions God once every five sentences. After a few seconds of doubt, he admits he is  Catholic, but that he doesn’t go to Mass very often, nor do his friends Samuel or Jose. All of a sudden, he realises something: “She’s from Spain, don’t you see? Where do you think religion came from? From Spain!” Samuel nods convinced, and Pedro looks back at me with a satisfied smile. “The Argentinian Pope is a good person,” he adds.

On the third day in the desert, they had run out of water. Pedro and Hilarino licked the remains of their empty water bottles, hoping for one more drop. One of the 14 fainted, so they carried him until they arrived in Phoenix, Arizona. They had walked 380 kilometres, more than 80 hours, eating only corn tortillas and kidney beans from a can.

On the third day in the desert, Pedro and Hilarino had run out of water.

The coyote had arranged for a van to drive them out of Phoenix to Los Angeles, California. “He was a very good man. I’ve heard other stories. Kidnappings, killings. But this coyote did everything he promised he would do. He got the 14 of us to Los Angeles.” Nevertheless, insists Pedro, that was 2006. Now the story has changed. “The border is too dangerous. The narcos are everywhere. If you cross their territory, you become theirs.”

The narcos are not the only problem for Hispanic immigrants in 2018. After President George Bush signed the Secure Fence Act in October 2006, the government built 1,120 km of fencing from San Diego to New Mexico, making it harder for immigrants to cross by foot. Now, with President Trump, the number of arrests by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has surged. Immigrants detained at the border are criminally prosecuted, and funding for Border Patrol Agents has increased. Pedro considers himself lucky to have come to the U.S. in early 2006, instead of today, with these increased challenges.

Once in California, Hilarino and Pedro obtained fake IDs and looked for jobs. For the next six months, Pedro harvested pears, peaches, and kiwis alongside other Hispanics. Their salaries were 420 dollars per week. Pedro sent part of his earnings to Camila. But he hated the job. “It was too hard,” he remembers, rubbing his dry hands against each other.

He also missed his family. “For the first three years, I could barely speak with them over the phone. I couldn’t see them.” Now, with Facebook, Facetime, and WhatsApp, they talk frequently. “The first time I saw them I cried so much. It was incredible,” he smiles again. But then he mumbles, “It’s still so hard. So hard, so hard.”

Silvino, one of his colleagues at the plantation, suggested they go to Montgomery, Alabama, where he had been working earlier in the year. The job was in construction and the pay was higher, 600 dollars per week. Pedro quickly agreed and bid Hilarino farewell.

Pedro paid 200 dollars to get to Montgomery, moved in with Silvino, and phoned Camila, as he did every time he traveled. The following day Pedro was working in construction, where he stayed for the next three months.

By the end of November, winter took over Alabama and construction work stopped. “There were no jobs, nothing I could do.” Pedro wanted to move again, when his wife called him. “My kids… They were sick. They had pneumonia.” He told Camila to use the savings he had left in Mexico for the doctor. Then he looked for someone to take him to New York, where he had a friend living on 125th Street. Silvino, as Camila and Hilarino before him, didn’t want Pedro to leave. But his pleas and promises of employment didn’t make a dent in Pedro’s resolution. He chased his future to New York.

In New York, with its millions of inhabitants rushing to a job, a date, or a doctor’s appointment, Pedro felt more at home than he had for the last nine months.

This time, he paid 400 dollars for a 17-hour ride. When he arrived to the city, it was snowing. “‘What is this?’ I asked. I had never seen snow before. I didn’t know what to do!” He laughs, making his almond-shaped eyes disappear. “I was in the Big Apple.” In New York, with its millions  of inhabitants rushing to a job, a date, or a doctor’s appointment, he felt more at home than he had for the last nine months.

The couple he knew at 125th Street fostered him in their home while he roamed the streets looking for a job. It was so cold that he didn’t look up to the skyscrapers, he just looked down as he trudged through the ice and snow. The next day, Jose, a Mexican friend of the couple, came over. “You don’t have a job, compadre? Let me talk to el patrón, he’ll have a job for you.”

Pedro hadn’t picked up much English on his two previous jobs—everyone was Hispanic in the farming and construction industries.

“What can you do?” asked Jose.

“Anything,” replied Pedro.

Jose called his boss, and Pedro started working at the deli that very night. After his three previous months in Alabama construction, he actually was ready for anything.

For a month and a half, he worked as the handyman and delivery boy of the deli. For once, he finally felt happy: he enjoyed his friends, his children were healthy, and he liked New York. But the rhythm was too fast. “Here, everyone rushes. They work, work, work, every single day of the year. They are busy all the time. Over there, you have more time for family, for tradition.”

He stops for a moment and adds: “Although I love turkey day.”

“Thanksgiving?” I ask.

“Yes, turkey day!!” he laughs.

The deli’s kitchen needed a cook, so one of the Mexicans who worked behind the stove taught Pedro how to grill.  

After a couple of months, he started looking for a new job. “It didn’t pay enough.” The deli’s kitchen needed a cook, so one of the Mexicans who worked behind the stove taught Pedro how to grill. “This is easy, Pedro. Try one hour per day, before your shift, you’ll become a cook.”

Working at the kitchen was much better: He could learn English, and the salary was higher.

Samuel, who works at the counter, advocated for Pedro in front of his boss.

“I had never cooked before. In Mexico, my wife cooked, and I worked. I came home to a warm meal every day, as is tradition.” So when he got the job, he phoned Camila.

“Don’t be sad,” she said. “We are doing well. Échale ganas.” Pedro did as she said and worked hard every day, and kept sending money back to his family. Two years in, Samuel ran to the deli: “Good news for you, Pedro. El patrón will pay you more starting next week.”

That week Samuel counted Pedro’s cash with him. “He is such a noble man,” smiles Pedro. “He was so happy for me.”

Samuel also speaks highly of Pedro. “He is always laughing, and he talks so much,” Samuel points at him, while Pedro chats with Jose.

Now, Pedro shares a room in Upper Manhattan with an Ecuadorian immigrant. He pays 300 dollars in rent, and sends almost 2,000 dollars to his family every month through Western Union. Most of it goes to Camila and his two daughters. “A couple of years ago, Camila phoned me and said, ‘We are going to buy some land.’”

Pedro leans over and assures me, “That wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t come here. They have everything now.”

Still Camila wants him back home, and Pedro has the same desire. He misses his family. When he wakes up at 12:00PM, he calls his daughters, who are now 13 and 15 years old. The smallest one used to sing songs to him on the phone as a child. “I talked to her and she sang back. She only sang,” he tells me cheerfully. After a 30-minute chat with them, he gets changed for his 4:00PM shift at the deli. He also sends them presents from time to time: socks, shoes, and clothes. 

On Sundays, he listens to rancheras (he hates reggaeton), goes for strolls downtown, and has beers with his Mexican friends. Sometimes he joins Samuel’s family when they go for a picnic on Governor’s Island. Every couple of days he reads El Diario de Nueva York, for immigration news. He also glances over El Diario de Mexico, to feel assured that the demise of Mexico’s largest political party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), has actually happened, and AMLO is in control. Samuel, Jose, Lupe, Juana and the other Mexicans who work at the deli feel the same way.

“Most of my friends want to go back home too. One just left. He had a girlfriend there,” laughs Pedro. When he returns to Mexico, he will start his own business, maybe a restaurant. But he knows that the moment he sets foot on that plane back to his homeland, he will never return.

“I’ve been saying this for three years. Someday I will go. But not now.” Pedro smiles again, and he realigns his chef’s hat, while he throws strips of beef onto the grill.

He looks back at Samuel and repeats: “Someday.”

  • All names have been changed to preserve the identity of those featured.
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