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Mexican immigrants celebrate the Virgin Mary

El Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe from Irasema Romero on Vimeo.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Culture, Front Page, Multimedia, Southern Bronx0 Comments

For two hate crime victims, jail not justice

While her teenage son was locked up in Rikers Island for weeks in October charged along with 10 others in a brutal anti-gay hate crime, Ada Cepeda was so devastated she stopped eating. The Dominican mother lost 12 pounds in a little over two weeks.

Two of the four men cleared in the Bronx anti-gay hate crime are listed as victims in indictment. Photo by Amara Grautski

Two former suspects in Bronx anti-gay hate crime now listed as victims in the indictment. Photo by Amara Grautski

She was certain her 16-year-old son had been falsely accused, but the truth turned out to be much worse.

In another cell, Brian’s 16-year-old friend Bryan Almonte had been arrested for the same crime and placed in protective custody because he suffers from epilepsy and diabetes. Bryan’s incarceration had come only a couple months after his father died from a heart attack in the Dominican Republic.

On October 26, the District Attorney dropped charges against these two youth and two others, citing simply that there was “no sufficient evidence to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt.” What city and law enforcement officials neglected to announce a week later was that Cepeda and Almonte were not only released from custody, they were identified as victims of the crime they were accused of committing.

According to the November 4 indictment unsealed on December 1, five of the seven men charged with aggravated sexual abuse, robbery and assault stand accused of threatening to hurt Cepeda with pliers during the October 3rd attack. They also are charged with intentionally hurting Almonte.

The police had originally claimed there were four victims, three of whom were assaulted, sodomized and tortured at a Morris Heights apartment by a gang of Bronx men who yelled anti-gay epithets. Now the total tally of victims is not four but six, according to the court document, with the offense against Cepeda listed as a hate crime.

When asked about the upgraded victim count, a spokesperson for the Bronx District Attorney’s office said he would not comment because the case is still ongoing.

Politicians and city officials expressed outrage in early October in the wake of the heinous assault that made national and international headlines, urging the district attorney to make sure justice is served.

“These suspects had employed terrible wolf pack odds,” Police Commissioner Raymond Kelley said at an October 8 press conference. “Odds which reveal them as predators whose crimes were as cowardly as they were despicable.”

At the same press conference, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he was “sickened” by the attacks. “The heartless men who committed these crimes should know that their fellow New Yorkers will not tolerate their vicious acts or the hatred that fuels them,” he said.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn released a statement that same day, calling the attacks  “appalling” and “despicable.” And when Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson dropped charges against Almonte, Cepeda, Steven Caraballo and Denis Peitars on October 26, Quinn expressed her disappointment and said she hoped the remaining suspects would be aggressively prosecuted.

But after the indictment was released last week naming two of the four released suspects as victims, most city officials were silent, except for Quinn, who would not back away from her original condemnation.

“This week’s indictments send a message that if anyone dares to commit such acts of hate in any of our five boroughs, they will be found and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Quinn said in a December 8 statement to the BronxInk. “Although I am disappointed by the District Attorney’s dismissals of four of the accused men, I appreciate the work of the office in bringing the remaining suspects to the grand jury.”

The BronxInk contacted a Quinn spokesperson on December 8 to confirm that despite new details revealing that two of the four released young men were actually victims, this was her opinion. In an e-mail, Eunic Ortiz informed the BronxInk that this was Quinn’s latest statement.

While the indictment offers more details of the crime, it did not clarify the involvement, or lack there of, of the other two men who were released.

Caraballo’s mother told The Bronx Ink four weeks ago that a gang member had held a gun to her son’s head the night of the assaults. That detail was not mentioned in the indictment. According to early court documents, Caraballo had hit a young man in the face with a closed fist.

The New York Daily News also published a story on October 10 saying “several members of the Latin King Goonies told detectives they would have been slashed and beaten if they did not help torment the defenseless victims.” The statement suggested in early October that some of the suspects may have been coerced, but the indictment offers no clarification.

Brian Cepeda and Steven Caraballo found refuge inside their apartment building after being released from jail. Photo by Irasema Romero

Brian Cepeda and Steven Caraballo found refuge inside their apartment building after being released from jail. Photo by Irasema Romero

After weeks of anxiety and facing the unknown in prison, Almonte, Cepeda and their respective families were left hoping for a public apology. Now a month and a half after their release, Ada Cepeda is still waiting.

“Who put an apology in the papers? No one,” Cepeda said at the door of her Morris Heights apartment.

“Instead of putting out the fire,” she said, the media “added more fuel to the flames.”

Media heavyweights such as CNN, the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the New York Daily News and NY1 gave space and airtime to the initial crime. But after the release of the indictment, The New York Times’ City Room Blog posted a 200-word story online stating that the two victims were wrongfully accused, and other media outlets like the Associated Press and the New York Post also ran significantly shorter pieces. None of the stories thus far question how two victims ended up being arrested and jailed.

Defense attorneys involved with the case were not providing any answers. On October 14, Almonte’s lawyer, John O’Connell, said his client may not have been “quite as involved” as he was made out to be. But he did not return calls for further comment after the indictment was unsealed. Four calls made last week to Cepeda’s defense attorney Phil Dussek, were not returned.

Ada Cepeda admits she is most upset that more has not been done to clear her son’s name. But she is too weary to push the issue any further. Her family has gone through enough, she said. She cannot afford to take legal action against the city to compensate for Brian’s time in prison. Ada, who works as a housekeeper in a hotel, missed full days of work during Brian’s October court appearances—wages she cannot afford to sacrifice.

“In the end, you know the city has a lot of money,” Ada Cepeda said. “We leave it to God. God is the one who will give justice.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Crime, Hate Crimes, Multimedia, Special Reports0 Comments

 as the recession continues

The increase in remittances to Mexico that started in April 2010 has slowed down

The increase in remittances to Mexico that started in April 2010 has slowed down. Photo by Irasema Romero

Adrian Dominguez has not yet met his newborn son, Diego. He moved to New York City from Guerrero, Mexico, six months ago with the goal of saving money for his new family.

Dominguez, a college graduate with a degree in information technology, now works 60 hours a week as busboy in a restaurant on the Upper East Side. As part of his weekly routine, he visits Western Union on West 231st Street in the Bronx to send money to his wife. His weekly contributions add up to $600 to $700 a month.

The amount of money Mexican immigrants like Dominguez send to Mexico increased by 9.32 percent in August 2010, compared to the previous year as reported by Banco de Mexico, the country’s central bank. But that upward trend in remittances has slowed.

According to BBVA Research, dollar remittances to Mexico decreased in September by 1.6 percent from the previous month. Remittances to Mexico exceeded $5.5 million, 4.6 percent less than the previous 2010 quarter, but with a three-point increase from the same quarter in 2009.

The report suggests that although remittances began to increase in April 2010, the recovery will be “slow and perhaps volatile” depending on the U.S. employment rate for Mexican immigrants.

“According to the data compiled by the comptroller’s office, the unemployment rate among Hispanics in the third quarter was 13.3 percent, the highest since the recession began,” said Juan Luis Ordaz Díaz, senior economist at BBVA Research.

Hispanics in the city experience higher unemployment compared to the national rates among this ethnic group, even when New York City has a lower unemployment rate than the U.S. average.

Ordaz Diaz said that although the U.S. economy may add jobs for the holiday season, BBVA doesn’t expect remittances to increase by more that two percent in the fourth quarter. In order to continue providing for their families in Mexico, workers in the U.S. are finding ways to keep their own living expenses low.

To save money for his family, Dominguez lives with his brother in the Bronx and eats at the restaurant where he works. With a daily two-hour commute to work, he says he does not have time to be a tourist.

“You don’t have time to do other things, so you’re not going around spending money,” Dominguez said of his experience saving money for his family.

For every $100 Dominguez sends in cash through Western Union, he pays a $5 fee. His wife has free access to the money the next morning when she picks it up at Elektra, a Mexican retail store that works with Western Union to conduct money transfers. Aside from Elektra, which boasts of over 1,000 stores throughout the country, Mexican families may receive money sent to them through Western Union at Mexican national banks like Banco Azteca and Banamex or grocery store chains like H-E-B and Comercial Mexicana.

Dominguez said that he plans returns to Mexico permanently in the next four to six months, but he hopes the money he is sending now will help with the medical expenses from the birth of his son.

“Unfortunately Mexico does not provide us with the opportunities we would like,” Dominguez said.  “If the jobs were well paid, we wouldn’t have to go through a lot of these things.”

Dominguez said the entry-level jobs available in his home state do not pay enough for his family to live comfortably.

Besides subsidizing the basic needs of families in Mexico, remittances are used to cover education costs, buy property or create businesses, according to Darryl McLeod, an economics professor at Fordham University who has studied the trends associated with remittances.

He said although there were major decreases in remittances during 2008 and 2009, Mexican families are now receiving more pesos to the dollar. Today, the peso is approximately $12.50 to the dollar, when in 2008 it was $10.59. BBVA Research predicts the process of disinflation that started in April 2010 will continue in the coming 2011 quarters, allowing for less than four percent in core inflation, compared to the 6.5 percent experienced in October 2008.

“Even if they sent six percent less remittances, it buys more pesos,” McLeod said. “They’ve had a little bit of inflation, but not that much. They were able to make the dollar go further.”

But that isn’t much of a comfort to Marisela Castillo, who has lived in New York City for 25 years, and continues to feel the need to send extra money to her widowed mother in Mexico City.

She and her siblings send around $500 to $800 a month to their mother because they all feel an obligation to make sure all of her monthly cost are covered, she said.

“It may be almost nothing, but we are always sending money,” Castillo says of her effort to send money to Mexico. “If you don’t help them, who will?”

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Money, Northwest Bronx0 Comments

For immigrant Mexican mothers, obesity is a new threat to their children’s health

Seven-year-old Mileidy Merino waits for her mother, Araceli, to  finish dinner.

Seven-year-old Mileidy Merino waits for her mother, Araceli, to finish dinner. Photo by Irasema Romero

The small rural town of Tecamtalan is covered with natural colors. They are the colors of acres of harvested land, where food like tomatoes, watermelons, peanuts, beans and corn dot the central Mexican state of Puebla. These are the lands where only three years ago Sindy Cecilio, then 10 years old, climbed up and down wooden ladders picking plums from their trees. Agriculture was a family business. The Cecilio family sold fresh produce in a market 15 minutes north of their home.

The fresh air and open spaces are a contrast to the life she now leads as a seventh grader at M.S. 328 in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx. Gone are the afternoons playing and running in open fields or the Saturday mornings helping her father in the harvest. Now instead of selling food in the market, she accompanies her mother Araceli Merino to buy fruits and vegetables twice a week from the small Green Cart that parks on West 231st Street and Kingsbridge Avenue.

Keeping her three children healthy is important to Merino, a stay-at-home mother, because she knows it is easier for them to gain weight now that their new lifestyle requires less physical work than what children are used to doing in Mexico. That’s true for her as well. In Mexico, she had to wash clothes by hand, one piece at a time. Today she just goes to the laundromat down the street.

For evidence of how their new lifestyle has influenced her children’s health, Merino has only to look at her. Last September, Mileidy’s doctor told Merino that the little girl needed to lose 12 pounds.

“In Mexico children eat but at least they go out and walk, run and play outside,” said Merino in the hallway of the family’s two-bedroom apartment.

Unlike her sister, Mileidy did not experience the active lifestyle helping in the field.  Merino said that other than weekends when the weather is warm and they go to Van Cortlandt Park, the children spend their free time at home. And because P.S. 207 is only a few buildings south from their Godwin Terrace ground-floor apartment, Mileidy’s physical activity is limited to a school dance class once a week.

Forty-six percent of Hispanic children across the New York City public school system are overweight or obese, according to a recent study released by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Mileidy has become part of this statistic after living in the Bronx for three years. This weight gain may be influenced by her family’s adjustment to a new lifestyle because in Puebla, physical activity and healthy eating were rooted in their livelihood.

Mileidy's family moved to the Bronx three years ago from Puebla, Mexico. Photo by Irasema Romero.

Mileidy's family moved to the Bronx three years ago from Puebla, Mexico. Photo by Irasema Romero

The U.S. Census estimates there are 282,965 Mexicans living in New York City, with nearly half originating from Puebla, a state known for its agricultural richness.

While the weight gain for recent immigrants may seem relatively small, public health experts worry that it’s an indicator of bigger problems to come.

As children become accustomed to the American culture, their body mass index levels increase. The National Council of La Raza released in November their latest installment of a 12-part series titled Profiles of Latino Health: A Closer Look at Latino Childhood Nutrition, which indicates that “first-generation immigrant children were significantly less likely (24.6%) than second-generation children (U.S.-born children of immigrant parents) (32.1%) and third-generation children (U.S.-born children of U.S.-born parents) (31.7%) to be overweight or obese.” In the Cecilio family, those statistics translate into the fact that one of the four children is experiencing weight issues.

Merino attributes her daughter’s weight gain to her diet both at home and at school, which serves pizza for lunch every Friday. Since September, she has tried to make the meals at home healthier. She stopped making spaghetti, which they ate at least once or twice a week. She returned to caldo de pollo (chicken soup), cemitas (a sandwich specialty from Puebla) and the traditional mole poblano.

“They used to eat a lot before,” said adding that she has now restricted Mileidy from eating her favorite evening snack: Mexican white cheese with sour cream.  After 6 p.m., the family is now only eating healthy snacks like oranges and Mileidy’s favorite fruit, the mango. Before that, they were having a full meal right after school and again at around 8 p.m.

The second grader has since lost three pounds and her mother keeps working for more.  Merino said she will continue buying fresh fruit from the Green Cart and going to a live poultry shop called a vivero on 231st Street and Broadway. She said she does not buy prepackaged poultry or meat from the supermarket because she is used to growing chicken in her home in Puebla.

“I think it’s because they spend more time in the supermarket, and in the viveros you can buy them the way you like them,” said of her interest in keeping her Mexican customs and not buying frozen food.

According to Andrew Rundle, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, her desire to buy fresh fruit from farmer’s markets and poultry from viveros is consistent with what his team found in recent studies of health-conscious New York immigrants.

In his interviews with 350 Hispanic immigrant women about what makes food healthy, the majority suggested they want to know where the food comes from and they like to be able to choose the meat or poultry they want. These women did not use terms like gluten-free or organic, which in local supermarkets can mean a higher cost in food, to describe their nutritional choices.

The idea of healthy food originated in the lifestyle of their native Latin American countries, but also echo the slow food movement that started in Italy, Rundle said.

The slow food movement was established in 1986 as an alternative to fast food, suggesting a need for fresh and organic food that is not altered for faster growth.

“This is an idea that is seen as very elitist, yet these women who are immigrants and live in poor areas have these ideas and attitudes that are very familiar to slow foods,” said Rundle, adding that the women in the study perceived the dirt on the vegetables they buy at farmers’ markets as an indicator of freshness.

This principle of freshness is valued among other Poblano immigrants in the Bronx who are used to eating organic produce their family harvested. At the age of 22, Ines Juarez moved to the Bronx from a small town in the mountains of the Mexican state of Puebla, where her family planted corn, oranges, and bananas in the fields adjacent to their home.

“[In Mexico] things are more natural,” Juarez said speaking of the fruits and vegetables she now tries to buy for her family. “Here they regularly have to have chemicals to help them grow faster for production.”

Her two boys, who are also students at P.S. 207, did not get to experience that rustic lifestyle in her native Mexico, where she woke up to the sound of roosters and chickens. In contrast, Jonathan, 9, and six-year-old Bryant’s childhood experiences are limited to the busy city streets surrounding their Bailey Street apartment, where the #1 train rushes through in the background and honking cars crowd the nearby Major Deegan Expressway.

Juarez tries to continue the customs she learned in Puebla, where the women in the family would spend time making food from scratch, including rolling and pounding on dough to make corn and flour tortillas. Food was not purchased in cans or packaged to last for weeks. If they wanted something sweet to drink, they would pick oranges from the ground near the fruit trees around their home and have freshly squeezed orange juice.

They rarely watched television because they were busy harvesting the field and tending to the chickens and turkeys the family grew.

When the children were not going to school or helping the family, they had lots of room to run and play, Juarez added. Because other family members lived nearby, it was easier for children to go out with relatives without worrying about where they were.

Although she still makes tortillas from scratch and stays away from canned food because her family doesn’t like the taste, Juarez believes Jonathan is about five to 10 pounds over his healthy weight.

But as a first-generation Mexican immigrant, the factors influencing Jonathan’s weight may be defined by his mother’s struggle to maintain hints of a Poblano lifestyle while not limiting her children’s American experience.

“Their friends bring snacks to school and they want some,” said Juarez. Often, Jonathan and Bryant are asking for cookies and chips. “I tell them ‘no’ because it’s not as healthy and they don’t need it…But it’s difficult to limit so many things.”

Arminda Muñoz took her three children to Fitness Fun Day at M.S. 45 to help her 11-year-old son Jeffrey stay active. Photo by Irasema Romero

Arminda Muñoz took her three children to Fitness Fun Day at M.S. 45 to help her 11-year-old son Jeffrey stay active. Photo by Irasema Romero

Juarez’ children are easily tempted by snacks from the bodegas surrounding their school. According to “Disparities in the Food Environments of New York City Public Schools,” another study completed by Dr. Rundle and his team, there are on average 10 bodegas within a 400-meter radius of New York City public schools.

Even though Juarez, who is a stay-at-home mother, tries to maintain a healthy diet, other Mexican immigrants may not be as aware of the low nutritional value of processed food.

In the 2009 study “Moving to the Land of Milk and Cookies: Obesity among the children of immigrants,” Dr. Jennifer Van Hook, a professor of sociology and demography at Penn State, and her team followed approximately 20,000 children from kindergarten through 8th grade and found that 40 percent of first-generation Hispanic children are overweight or obese by the time they get to eighth grade. About two-thirds of Hispanic children in the study were of Mexican descent.

She said that immigrant parents may not understand the significance of childhood obesity because it may not have been a major problem in their native countries. Even in the U.S., it has only become an issue in the last 10 to 20 years.

Van Hook said that children in the study whose parents come from the poorest countries had the highest obesity rates.

“The idea of dieting, the idea of exercising… is probably foreign to a lot of these people coming from pretty rural areas of Mexico and agricultural backgrounds, especially if parents grew up in situations where they did not have enough,” Van Hook said.

Although Puebla has a prominent agricultural economy, it is still one of the poorest states in Mexico. CONEVAL, Mexico’s council for the evaluation of economic development reported in August 2010 that over 61 percent of youth in Puebla live in conditions of poverty. In all, over half of Puebla’s five million residents live in poverty.

Children in Mexico who live in rural areas are thinner than those who live in urban areas of Mexico, said Van Hook, which suggests that a higher income does not translate to a healthier lifestyle.

“There’s more opportunities to go out to dinner and to eat more, and to eat more sort of non-traditional preprocessed foods when you live in an urban area,” she said adding that immigrant families who have gained a level of financial stability in the United States are also still at risk of gaining weight.

Although family economics may be better than when they arrived to the Bronx almost 10 years ago, Juarez rarely eats out, and instead takes her children to Van Cortlandt Park on the weekends She said she tries to keep the children as physically active as possible even if it’s inside the house.

Sixty minutes of daily physical activity are recommended for children, but, according to the New York City Department of Education, only 40 percent of the city’s six- to 12-year-olds achieves it. The department’s 2009 Child Health Survey suggests that one in every 10 children did not get even one hour of physical activity outside of school the week before the survey was administered.

Romero_article 4_children

Jeffrey Muñoz plays games at Fitness Fun Day in October. Photo by Irasema Romero

With the goal of providing fun alternatives to exercise, Manhattan-based USA Fitness Corps partnered with Thomas C. Giordano Middle School in the Bronx to offer Fun Fitness Day this past October.

Jaci Van Heest, a professor of kinesiology and child psychology at the University of Connecticut, designed the workout for the event using traditional activities and modifying them with fun new elements. For example, the simple act of kicking a soccer ball incorporates body movements to increase physical activity as children participate in a circle.

“If you use the word exercise, it conjures up images and feelings that are typically negative – work, sweat, sore, not fun,” Van Heest said. “If adults think that, why would children think or say anything different?”

Seventh grader and Puebla native Jeffrey Munoz enjoyed playing Van Heest’s modified soccer version as he gathered with other children in the southeast corner of the M.S. 45 Doc Serpone playground on East 189th Street and Lorillard Place.

The session was led by a group of retired veterans of the U.S. armed forces. Jeffrey watched the ball closely to kick it during his turn. When it went out of bounds, he took a breather, bending down and restings his left elbow on his knee.

The 11-year-old said that sometimes he does not get a chance to play soccer, his favorite sport, with his friends because they don’t want to go out a play.

“My dad told me that I needed to lose weight because I’m getting a little fat,” Jeffrey added.  “It makes me feel like he wants me to exercise.”

Jeffrey, who moved to the U.S. with his family five years ago, is now 10 pounds over his healthy weight, said his mother Arminda Muñoz.  “He likes to exercise but he also eats a lot,” Munoz said of her son, who also watches at least two hours of television each day. “I want him to get healthy because he’s at risk of having diabetes and other health problems.”

A doctor advised Jeffrey to lose weight earlier in the semester and Muñoz now wants her two younger children to learn the value of being healthy and staying active.  That’s why she brought her children to the fitness session at Jeffrey’s Mott Haven middle school.

Principal Annamaria Giordano said the school decided to become the first to offer Fitness Fun Day in the Bronx as a way to provide school families resources to fight childhood obesity.

“The small steps are perfect because they lead to the big steps,” she said of that Saturday’s two-hour activity series. “We are trying to ensure that our children are healthy and fit. Our small part can help a child or two or more.

Van Heest said Fun Fitness Days strives to change the perception of exercise for the over 100 schoolchildren who participated. The next time they have the opportunity to be active, she hopes they will bring back the memory of “the last time I had fun.”

Similarly, parents like Merino, Juarez, and Muñoz rely on memories of the Puebla they left behind to continue influencing their children’s diet and exercise habits. Their children may grow up as Americans but they each strive to preserve the best of what their families experienced in Mexico – if only for the sake of their children’s health.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, East Bronx, Education, Health, Northwest Bronx0 Comments

On the Corner: Day laborers hit hard by the recession

Roberto Pareja wait for work on a chilly October morning. Photo: Yiting Sun

Roberto Pareja waits for work on a chilly October morning. Photo: Yiting Sun

At 7:15 on a chilly October morning, a 33-year-old Mexican immigrant leaned against the shuttered door of Kennedy Fried Chicken, a worn-out backpack filled with wrenches and tape lay next to his feet.

Roberto Pareja positioned himself across the street from the Benjamin Moore paint store in East Tremont as he had done nearly every day for years, hoping one of the contractors leaving the store would hire him.

Two hours later it began to rain, and the father of two ducked under a deli storefront. None of the customers needed his help that day, nor the help of 20 other day laborers waiting with him. But he did not want to leave.

For Pareja, no work meant worrying about his $960 monthly rent, food for the six people in his family, and dolls for his young girls.

Pareja is one of almost 100 day laborers who have congregated for years on the corner of East 180th Street and Third Avenue. On a nice sunny day, almost all of them will gather, but on this rainy morning, only 20 tried their luck. The New York Immigration Coalition estimates there are about 10,000 day laborers in the city. Some of them have been in the underground labor pool for years. Others are newcomers driven here by the recession.

“There is less work this year than last year,” said Corinne Beth, an immigration lawyer that supports day laborers on behalf of the Westchester Hispanic Coalition, a not-for-profit organization. She added that with the group of day laborers she helps in Portchester, if five out of the 30 men get work in a given week, they are lucky.

Even though the National Bureau of Economic Research declared an official end to the recession in September, the day laborers’ predicament is far from over.

“The recession hits day laborers harder than it does people with full-time work,” said Lynn Svensson, director of the Day Laborer Research Institute. Of the estimated 260,000 individuals working as day laborers in the United States, approximately 75 percent are undocumented immigrants, according to “On the Corner,” a study by the University of California at Los Angeles in 2006. The study found that their immigration status and the lack of English skills are the biggest impediments in finding more stable work.

Since the recession began in December 2007, the number of day laborers at this spot has increased, said Bob Ascat, the paint store manager who has seen them for the last decade. Local contractors drive by the corner looking for workers to assist in construction work. For a worker who does not have a business relationship with a contractor, he relies on customers from the paint store who have home projects to complete.

But the work available for them has decreased as more people compete for a shrinking pie. In 2009, the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization, reported that the unemployment rate for foreign-born Hispanics in the fourth quarter of 2008 was 8 percent, a 3-point increase from the same period in 2007.

Although immigration status was not recorded for the report, the center estimates that undocumented immigrants account for about five percent of the U.S. labor force. In certain industries such as construction, which is the primary industry for day laborers, undocumented immigrants account for 12 percent of employment. Most undocumented immigrants are from Latin American countries, with 55 percent coming from Mexico.

“Life is difficult,” said Pareja, who emigrated to the United States from Mexico eight years ago. “There are times when you don’t find work, and even more now that things have gotten harder.”

His family is still suffering from the recession’s consequences. A month ago his wife started selling Mexican tamales by the dozen to acquaintances with the hope of earning the family an additional $150 a week.

When there is no work, Pareja supports his family with savings and relies on his father-in-law, who assists him in some projects, to pick up half of the rent when necessary. Every single workday counts for him because coworkers may learn of his skills and recommend him for contract jobs.

A week after that chilly Monday morning, Pareja found a contract job with the help of a friend he met through work. He would earn $450 a week for six weeks remodeling apartments on 1st Ave near 60th St in Manhattan.

But work comes sporadically for Pareja, who may have a week with only two to three days of work, other weeks nothing. “No one can survive on that,” said Svensson. “ Bosses are paying less now, their wages have actually gone down.”

There are also day laborers in the underground economy who may not get paid for days and even weeks of work when contractors use a person’s immigration status as an excuse to withhold payment.

“They threaten you with sending immigration, and you can’t turn somewhere else for help,” he said.

“Day laborers are often the targets of exploitation,” Svensson added. “They are often paid less than they were promised, or not paid at all for their work, and told by employers that if they call the police that they will be turned in to immigration.”

What makes the situation worse is day laborers often do not know enough about their rights. “They have no sense of empowerment,” said Beth.

Other day laborers in this Bronx intersection have also been cheated out of money by dishonest contractors. According to the UCLA study, 54 percent of day laborers in the Eastern United States have not been paid for their work.

In a more recent study released this past summer, the Seton Hall University School of Law surveyed 26 day laborers (approximately half of the workers) at the corner of Stockton Street and Wilson Avenue in Newark. Ninety-six percent of day laborers at this East Ward intersection, located less than 40 minutes from the Bronx, reported instances of nonpayment or underpayment from contractors.  These regional and local reports exceed the 48 percent reported nationally for day laborers who have lost wages, and in Newark the majority of them have lost $800 or more.

“They have accepted wage theft as a cost of doing business,” said Bryan Lonagan, a Seton Hall law professor who oversaw the Newark study. “There really isn’t an effective avenue for them right now to bring a wage complaint.”

Bronx day laborer Jose Balquiera understands the frustration of losing $800 of wages.  After only a few months in New York City, the 28-year-old lost two weeks and $1,000 when a contractor did not pay him for remodeling an apartment. The person who hired him dismissed any discussion of payment from the beginning, simply saying he would pay him on Saturday, then telling him another day.

“Sometimes they don’t show their face,” Balquiera said, scanning the street for cars pulling up. “They give you their numbers but they don’t answer to not pay you.”

The Toluca, Mexico native has been in the United States for a year, and feels overwhelmed by the language barrier, which often causes day laborers even more fear to enforce their rights. “It feels really bad,” said Balquiera in Spanish of not being able to defend himself when he encounters contractors that do not want to pay. “Imagine, they talk to you in English and you don’t understand.”

Wage theft in New York City amounts to an estimated $1 billion across all low-wage industries, according to the National Employment Law Project. Passed last month in legislature, the New York Wage Theft Prevention Act calls for stricter penalties and the enforcement of laws meant to protect workers.

Although this provides an added resource for workers, the Newark study suggests day laborers are vulnerable to wage theft because they have limited English skills and they fear complaining to the authorities due to their immigration status.

“Most of them expressed fear of the police reporting them to immigration and customs enforcement for possible removal,” Lonagan said of the lack of police involvement.

Lonagan added that if a day laborer submitted a dispute through small claims court, it could take almost a year before the claim was just recognized. The day laborers choose then to seek work to make up the lost money instead of spending days in the process.

Although Bronx day laborers may not seek formal assistance in cases of labor abuse, these workers look out for each other even as they compete for jobs. Demaso Genis said he makes an effort to point out crooked contractors who have stiffed him in the past when they return to the intersection. He wants to make sure others are not exploited and left at construction sites without payment.

“There’s no way to reclaim that money,” he said. “No one is interested in lending us a hand.”

The day laborers support each other in whatever possible small ways. Photo: Yiting Sun

The day laborers support each other in whatever possible ways. Photo: Yiting Sun

Genis said even when contractors actually do pay, every day there is someone different who promises a specific salary only to actually pay less.

The 47-year-old left his wife and two children in Morelos, Mexico more than a decade ago. He said even when the recession might have ended for others, supporting the family is still a struggle for him.

“There are weeks that you can’t even send $50,” he said of this variable work that pays him an average of $80 a day when there’s work.

Remittances to Mexico dropped 20.4 percent from February 2008 to February 2010, according to BBVA Research, a global finance company. After 17 consecutive months of falling remittances, April offered an increase of less then a percentage point. Although remittances continued to increase at a small rate, the improvement slowed in September, and it’s not expected to reach more than two points based on the outlook of the United States economy.

As a result, these day laborers live on as little as possible to send as much money as they can to families in their native countries. Balquiera lives with 11 other men in a four-bedroom apartment, where his portion of the monthly rent is $120.

“When I do find work, I send money; when I don’t…” he stopped and shrugged off the rest of the answer. “It’s difficult here.”

Before the recession hit, day laborers had less competition and more work. With more money to send home, their families invested the money they received in education, businesses and new houses.

After almost 20 years of sending money to his wife and six children in his native Acapulco, Mexico, Cornelio Hernandez, 63, now has his own house in Mexico and is currently putting his youngest daughter through college.

“Everything is done with sacrifice,” he said of not seeing his family for almost two decades. “We come to this country to suffer, to become something.”

Hernandez’s time in New York City has paid off. He is solicited by contractors throughout the city because of the reputation of his work. For the past few summers, a real estate agent has hired Hernandez to work in City Island for the upward sum of $110 a day to remodel apartments. His tired eyes light up and his smile widens when he talks about his children’s professional pursuits.

This winter Hernandez is prepared for more than the harsh winter. According to Svensson, there is less work for day laborers from November to the end of February. Contractors focus mostly on indoor projects such as painting and installing floors.

Pareja said his current contract job is helping him save for those winter months. He still hopes this job could lead to the next so he does not have to spend hours waiting for work in the snow. “We try to do things as best as possible,” he said with his one-year-old daughter on his lap in his home. “If your boss likes your work, he can give you more work.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Money, Southern Bronx0 Comments

Police seek suspect in string of Bronx robberies

Police are asking for the public’s help finding a man wanted in connection with three separate armed robberies in the Bronx. (NY1)

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Hit-and-run driver was going 60 mph when it killed Bronx man

The Bronx man who was mowed down by a hit-and-run driver Sunday night was a father of three who immigrated from the Dominican Republic two decades ago. (NY Daily News)

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Bronx residents survive a week without running water

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