In New York, Mexico's richest immigrants lend hand to their countrymen
At a time when immigration issues are divisive, New York’s Mexican community is struggling. But wealthy Mexican immigrants are rising to be a part of the solution and, in the process, overcoming old stereotypes.
New York — The view from Carlos Valverde’s 38th-floor office tells a story by itself – New York stretching below, the mighty skyscrapers of the World Trade Center rising all around.
Mr. Valverde is the construction manager of the World Trade Center’s Tower Three, responsible for 2 million square feet of real estate, and the vista from his office is, in many ways, the realized vision of many immigrants’ dreams.
From Brooklyn’s workaday Sunset Park, however, the view is quite different. There, at classes put on by a nonprofit, the Mixteca Organization, six to eight immigrants sit in folding chairs around plastic tables struggling to spell tarea, Spanish for “homework,” or trying to understand the concept of the hundreds’ place in math.
By some estimates, there are 4.3 million Mexican immigrants in the New York metropolitan area, and according to a 2015 Migration Policy Institute study, they are the most disadvantaged immigrant group in the United States.
In Mexican culture – both in Mexico and here in New York – there’s little tradition of people bridging these two worlds.
But that is changing. Valverde is part of a slowly growing effort to bring the resources of New York’s Mexican-American 1 percent to bear on the problems of the 99 percent.
The benefits for the immigrant community here are plain. Edgar Morales, for one, has gone from being a construction worker to getting a college education paid for by a Mexican philanthropist. He’s now a computer science major with dreams of interning at Google or Microsoft.
But it has also changed Valverde, who volunteers at Mixteca in Sunset Park, and others like him. In Mexico, the wealthy travel with bodyguards and live in houses surrounded by electrified wire; in the US, some are reaching and gaining a new perspective.
After spending hours talking with clients about every conceivable detail of an elevator’s interior, Valverde says, “I go to Sunset Park and talk to a graduate [at Mixteca] who just finished English 3 and is a baker.”
Compared with the baker’s reality, he says, the elevator issues seem “minute, minuscule.”
“There is a huge disconnect between the Mexican migrant population that has no visas and the other Mexicans in New York City from families with money, influence, and college educations,” says Valverde. It was a revelation when he realized that in the US, “It doesn’t have to be the way it is in Mexico.”
In cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles, these support networks have grown organically as Mexican immigrants have come to the US, made their fortune, and given back to the community. But Mexican immigrants have been in Chicago in significant numbers since the 1920s and in Los Angeles since before California was a state. New York is different.
In New York, the growth in Mexican immigration has been recent and abrupt. According to “The Newest New Yorkers,” a study of foreign-born residents compiled by the city in 2013, the city’s Mexican population has grown by a factor of almost six since 1990 – from the 17th largest to the third largest migrant population in the city.
There hasn’t been time for Mexican-American income, citizenship, education, and political representation to catch up with population.
Jorge Suárez Vélez doesn’t want to wait. Twenty years ago, he moved to the US as head of Latin American research for Nomura Securities International, a Japanese bank. Now, from his posh brownstone on East 76th Street, he runs the Association of Mexican Professionals and Entrepreneurs (APEM) – along with his financial planning firm. The goal of APEM is to break what he calls “this very bad cycle” of lack of education, organization, and political representation among Mexican migrants in New York.
“You have [Mexicans] working on Wall Street, and the only contact they have with the migrant Mexicans is when they order food delivery to their Chelsea apartment or have a busboy clear their table,” he says. “What we want is for them to start realizing that there is a community with specific needs, and they can do something to accelerate the development of this community. We’re trying to build this solidarity.”
“No professional migration is wealthier or more successful than the one that migrates to New York,” he says.
To Mr. Suárez Vélez, that presents a tremendous opportunity.
His New York-based philanthropy, founded two years ago, raises money from the Mexican diaspora. Among other activities, APEM has funded some 30 scholarships, at $20,000 apiece. Last year it raised $110,000, mostly from well-to-do Mexicans in the US and Mexico in fields such as banking, law, and pharmaceuticals. This year, the goal is $250,000.
Making the ‘impossible’ possible
Would-be Google intern Mr. Morales is one of the beneficiaries. Through APEM, Morales met Mexico’s ambassador to the US and a Mexican presidential candidate. “It’s really amazing for someone in the lower class to meet these important people,” says Morales, whose family moved from the Mexican state of Puebla six years ago. Where he used to live, making such contacts “would be something impossible.”
APEM is also paying for the college education of Amalia Rojas, who previously worked cleaning houses with her mother and, like Morales, is undocumented.
After being accepted to the University of California in Los Angeles, Ms. Rojas wanted to apply for federal financial aid and one day asked her parents for her Social Security number. She had come to the US as an infant and grown up in the Astoria section of Queens. “I get good grades; I say the Pledge of Allegiance; I eat Mister Softee,” she says. “For as long as I can remember, I was just normal.”
Then, at 17, she learned she had no Social Security number. “My mom kind of just burst my bubble.”
Now, she’s at Lehman College (part of the City University of New York system) and is about to graduate with a degree in political science, theater, and playwriting. Her work deals with issues facing her community: A recent play, “Silent Tradition,” tells of a family riven by incest.
To Morales, part of what APEM does is teach Mexican immigrants to take pride in their own heritage. One of his neighbors “doesn’t see himself as Mexican.
He wants to shop at Starbucks and buy Nike,” he says. Migrants like him feel embarrassed, he says, and are focused on assimilating.
“That’s one of the biggest challenges, to help each other to not feel ashamed about being Mexican,” he says.
A perceived lack of unity among Mexican-Americans is viewed by business leaders and philanthropists as a major hurdle.
“In New York we can see other cultures and communities and how they help one another – Koreans, Chinese, Jewish,” says Susana Camarena, an APEM founding member. “When they do something, they do it first in their own community. But Mexicans don’t think like that. They don’t first think to support another Mexican.”
This is partly a result of conditions in Mexico, say cultural observers.
“Distrust is embedded with the corruption experienced in the country of origin,” says Xóchitl Bada, associate professor in the Latin American and Latino Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She notes that strong, autonomous social institutions are relatively new in Mexico. “Philanthropy is not part of a long-standing historical Mexican tradition.”
The challenges are significant. “The Newest New Yorkers” found that 82 percent of Mexicans were not proficient in English. They had the highest high school dropout rate of any group surveyed, 46 percent, and only 7.4 percent had a college education or better, less than any migrant group surveyed except those from El Salvador. And 30 percent of Mexicans in New York lived in poverty, more than any population except Dominicans.
The contrast of two worlds
This is where Mixteca comes in. The lessons in Sunset Park underscore the challenges facing New York’s Mexican-American community. Not only are there foundational courses such as basic literacy, advanced literacy, and arithmetic, but there are basic Spanish classes. A substantial number can’t read or write Spanish, either. Many come to the city from the eponymous Mixteca region, a mountainous area whose indigenous people span the states of Puebla, Oaxaca, and Guererro.
“It is remote and outside the main infrastructure of Mexico,” says board member Eduardo Peñaloza. Some speak only their native language and are ill-equipped for cosmopolitan life. They’re mostly first-
generation, “embedded in a we-come-here-for-work, day-to-day-labor” way of thinking, he adds.
“They’re teaching me first grade,” says a woman in a Mixteca basic literacy class who came to the US five years ago. “I have two babies,” she says in Spanish. “I come and take the classes and I leave.” A student from Guererro wants to open his own market. “If you don’t know how to read a paper, you can’t do business,” he says.
On the top floor of a tony Wall Street apartment, the atmosphere of the tastefully dim light of a recent Mixteca fundraiser contrasts sharply with the makeshift walls and linoleum floors of their Sunset Park offices.
APEM founding member Ms. Camarena is here, part of the philanthropic ecosystem that has developed among upper-class Mexican-Americans in New York, with many connected to multiple nonprofits. Camarena is also executive director of Qualitas of Life Foundation, founded by a Mexican philanthropist to educate the community about financial literacy.
Shortly after arriving in New York with a sociology degree from the University of Guadalajara, she began volunteering at the Mexican consulate. As she met other Mexicans like Suárez Vélez, she wanted to do more.
“I was looking for a job but also for a way to give back,” she says. “We are all migrants here. We all came through a big effort. We all are people who want a better life.”
Board member Mr. Peñaloza, who migrated as a student 20 years ago, circulates among the 40 or so young Mexican professionals at the fundraiser. They include account associates for Latin American markets, New York University graduates, political operatives, a tennis instructor, and a magazine owner.
Peñaloza raises his voice to be heard above the music.
“New York allows the encounter between these two Mexicos,” he says, referring to the Mixteca literacy students and the evening’s well-tailored guests. “Allowing professionals to encounter the more traditional migrants is something democratizing, something that doesn’t happen in Mexico.”
‘It’s up to us ... to give back’
Valverde is here, too. He walks briskly around the room, shaking hands. He moved from Tijuana to Boston to get a bachelor’s degree in architecture, then to New York for a master’s in construction management.
“It’s not that I didn’t care,” Valverde says, referring to the plight of poorer Mexicans in New York. “I just didn’t know.”
His conversion to philanthropy came two years ago when he met Suárez Vélez. He was persuaded that “the fact that you were born into a family that could afford an education was pure luck, nothing else,” Valverde says. “It’s up to us now to be able to give back.”
Currently on the boards of Mixteca and APEM, Valverde sees himself as “the microphone” – the one trying to get other successful expatriates “to wake up and give back.”
His pitch is simple and pragmatic: He cites the cost-benefit analysis of rich giving to poor.
“It’s pure math,” he says. “All it takes is a $20,000, four-year investment [to make the difference between] possibly earning $15,000 to $20,000 per year as a high school grad, and $60,000 to $70,000 per year as a college grad.”
Valverde also acts as a mentor to Morales, the young computer scientist. It’s a struggle to find an internship that doesn’t require working papers, which Morales lacks, but Valverde doesn’t want him to lose hope. One day, Valverde took him through some unoccupied offices at the World Trade Center. “We could see the whole city. People looked like ants,” Morales says. “It was the awesomest.”
“One day in the future,” Valverde told him, only half joking, “you will have your company here.”
This story was produced in association with Round Earth Media, a nonprofit organization that mentors the next generation of international journalists. Antonia Cereijido contributed to the reporting.
[Editor's note: Xóchitl Bada's position in the Latin American and Latino Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago has been corrected.]