Dynamic Diaspora: Women and Immigration

Part: 6

For Street Vendor, Another Holiday in Shadows

Friday, December 25, 2009

In New York City, a food vendor celebrates her 20th Christmas without the documentation she needs to visit family back in Mexico. To her, the warm rice and hot tamales that she cooks and sells preserve the cultural connection every day.

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Lucia, who often wears her hair gathered in a black scrunchie, lives in a nearby apartment, where she gets up at 5 a.m. to begin cooking.

Nearly everything--the gorditas, tostadas and especially the rice--must be cooked on the same day. Then she packs the food into a white minivan.

One evening, as the street is beginning to darken and a small patch of orange sky is framed by the buildings at the west end of Manhattan, Lucia is in a hurry.

Immigration Process a Maze

Esperanza is hosting a workshop at 7 p.m. with immigration lawyers. Tonight is a chance for the vendors--and anyone else who's seen the fliers strewn on their carts--to learn how to live legally in the United States without fear of deportation and about the benefits of residency.

But the process seems like a maze, with one end point and most routes blocked.

Lucia was born in Atlixco, an agriculture city two hours from Mexico City, where her family worked in the fields harvesting onions, flowers and squash. After working in the flower fields, she came to the United States in 1990 "to have a better life," she says, shrugging.

She has a son and a daughter, who recently gave birth, who live nearby.

She still misses the hometown she can no longer visit because she lacks the required documents. To gain legal status in the United States, she would likely need to return to Mexico and try to enter legally with an approved visa.

Many immigrants like Lucia, whose children are here, fear that route will trap them in Mexico, due to years of paperwork, and keep them from seeing their children and grandchildren again.

At the workshop, two immigration lawyers take turns explaining different types of visas and how to gain residency.

One cautions the crowd to stay out of trouble with the police; good moral character is an important component to becoming a citizen, he says.

One woman, who earlier that day was in Esperanza's office asking for help, nervously raises her hand. Will it count against her if she has been fined as a street vendor?

"Usually this doesn't have a bad effect," the lawyer assures her.

The lawyers explain the few exceptions that would allow a worker to quickly attain the kind of legal status that would allow Lucia to travel home to Mexico.

A victim of domestic violence, for instance, might have a shot. But it's no guarantee, and people like Lucia who lack documentation tend to stay under the radar rather than "come out of the shadows" and risk being deported.

In the church basement, the crowd of about 75 strains to hear the lawyer's answers translated. Toddlers play under the chairs.

In the back of the room, Lucia gently pushes a stroller back and forth with one hand. It is bedtime for her infant grandson. Outside on 116th street, the carts have disappeared, fire trucks are screaming and teenagers are lingering outside the bodega next door.

In 12 hours, Lucia will be back on this street, sitting in a folding chair in front of the white van that carries the stacks of fresh gorditas and tamales, pulling out the sturdy umbrella and starting over again.

Alison Bowen is a New York City-based freelance journalist pursuing a master's degree in journalism and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University.

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Series Overview

Dynamic Diaspora: Women and Immigration

Part: 12

Few Care for the Undocumented With Breast Cancer

Part: 11

Nebraska Prenatal Bill Stirs Fight Over Immigration

Part: 10

Visas Out of Hell: Women Need to Know They Exist

Part: 9

Deportation of Mothers in Iowa Tests Local Charity

Part: 8

Women's ESL Dominance Tied to Job Demands

Part: 7

For Street Vendor, Another Holiday in Shadows

Part: 6

Arrested Iowa Meat Packers Live in Legal Limbo

Part: 5

Battered Immigrants in Arizona Find Few Havens

Part: 4

Recession Shrinks Safety Net for Immigrant Women

Part: 3

Immigrant Survivors of Abuse Seek Freedom

Part: 2

U Visas Speed Up for Immigrants Who Flee Abuse

Part: 1

U Visa Recipients Look for Better Enforcement