Reality of the American Dream for Mexican Immigrants in New York City

Mexican immigrants typically cross the border into the United States in pursuit of the American Dream. Some join their families already there, while some make the transition alone and send money to their loved ones back in Mexico. Though most miss the comfort and culture of their native country, they attempt to assimilate themselves into the American way of life and work hard to make it through in reach for the dream.

Lidia, a 40 y/o Mexican immigrant currently living in New York City, shares her personal story and the intimate details of her own transition. She migrated from the Mexican state of Puebla in 1989, yet to return to her home county. She came alone, but united with her father who moved to the city when Lidia was a teenager. With her father, Lidia lived in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx while she searched for work and saved up for her own apartment. Her experience provides insight of the wants and wishes immigrant communities in New York City yearn for, while also underscoring the common fears and struggles faced on a daily basis.

Like millions of Mexican migrants residing within U.S. boarders, Lidia immigrated to the United States illegally and does not have proper legal documentation. As Lidia demonstrates, undocumented and unauthorized migrants spend much of their lives avoiding government detection in fear of deportation. Through her story, we learn that the reality of living the American dream for undocumented Mexican immigrants in New York City is far less likely than many believed before first arriving.

Q: What was one of the main reasons you decided to immigrate to New York City?
A: When I was 13, my father immigrated to New York to find a job that supported our family better. Back home in Mexico, my mom took care of my four siblings and me with the little money she made as a housekeeper and the money my dad would send, but we were barely making it by. I came here because I knew there was much more money to be made in America and my family really needed the help.

Q: Did you have certain perceptions or picture in your head what it would be like to live in New York City prior to moving there?
A: Growing up, I would see pictures of New York City that showed it as a lavish place where fancy people lived who could afford nice things. I would see pictures of what “New Yorkers” looked like – most were typically attractive, well-kept, well-dressed and seemed happy there. This was opposite from what I was used to in Mexico, where the floors in our house were made of dirt and the clothes we wore were practically rags. I just wanted a better life and believed immigrating here would give me one. I thought if I could just get myself to New York City and worked hard enough, I’d have the chance to live the dream life I saw in the pictures.

Q: What was the hardest part of your transition?
A: Finding a job, and finding a job that paid enough. My illegal status and poor English prevented me from finding work for the first five months I lived in the city. I only ended up getting a position as a dishwasher in a local restaurant because my dad knew the owner, who was also a Mexican immigrant. No one wanted to take the risk hiring me because of my status. Like many other Mexican immigrants, the owner struggled himself to stay in business and had to stay open seven days a week from dawn until dusk to make enough money. So, he couldn’t really afford to give me more than a few hours of work a day. I ended up having to work at least three jobs at the same time to be able to afford my own apartment. I spent all my time working, and still didn’t make enough money to be able to stay in one place. I moved from apartment to apartment struggling to make ends meet. It certainly wasn’t the life of luxury I pictured.

Q: What did you do for fun when you weren’t working?
A: It was hard to make friends at first and I moved around between Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens quite often. When I moved to Jackson Heights, where I live now, I found a close-knit Mexican immigrant community going through similar experiences as I was. We all worked tirelessly and barely had any time for fun, but when we managed to find the time, we had fiestas in the basement of our apartment buildings. We all wished we could get together more often, but even if we had more time, we wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving our apartment complex. We basically felt trapped in the land of the free.

Q: Why did you feel trapped? Did it have something to do with your illegal status?
A: The fear of being detected isolated us. We spent more time working and worrying about being caught than enjoying life. I knew it would be difficult, but I didn’t think my fear would turn into a crippling anxiety that confined me to my apartment. Some American Dream, huh?

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