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Finding Sanctuary 

Meet Yazmín Ortega, an undocumented immigrant who trekked through Arizona on her way to East Harlem, N.Y.

NEW YORK — A small kettle of coffee spiced with sugar and cinnamon steeps atop a gas griddle nestled carefully in a shopping cart.

Yazmín Ortega, wearing a houndstooth coat, an apron and a baseball cap, adeptly flips a corn tortilla. She fills the taco with guisado, adds a dollop of red salsa and, with a shy smile, hands it to her customer.

The scene could easily be one in Ortega's native state of Guerrero, Mexico. Instead, the scene plays out in New York City's East Harlem, a neighborhood that in recent years has earned the well-deserved nickname of "Little Mexico."

Along 116th Street, the epicenter of East Harlem's Mexican community, shops advertise red-white-and-green long-distance calling cards, foods like tamarind and dried hibiscus, and CDs sporting the visages of Los Tigres del Norte, the popular Mexican-American band.

New York City has experienced huge growth in its Mexican population, changing the nature of long-established neighborhoods like East Harlem.

Ortega and her husband made the roughly 2,000-mile journey from her hometown of Tlapa de Comonfort to New York City eight months ago. It was a journey that involved trekking eight days through the rugged topography of the Sonoran Desert. According to immigrant-rights group Derechos Humanos, 253 known migrants died trying to cross the border in the fiscal year ending in September.

"Horrible," she said of the journey that took her eight days through Sonora, Mexico, and Arizona. "Cold, like the nights now." She shuddered. "Sleeping in the hills, with nothing—with only a sweater. Bearing the cold, walking."

Taking a breath, she continued, "No, it's an ugly thing. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone."

Ortega is a relatively new arrival, crossing the desert near Lukeville around the time Arizona politicos began discussing the merits and demerits of SB 1070, the state's controversial immigration law.

She said she and her husband chose New York because of its lax immigration enforcement, because she knew people from her home state, and because the wages are higher there than in other parts of the country.

She is part of a continuing wave of Mexican immigrants, mostly from the states of Puebla and Guerrero, that began in the 1980s and hastened in the following years. East Harlem's Mexican population grew nearly 17-fold, from 762 in 1980 to 12,785 in 2009, according to data from the U.S. Census and the New York City Department of City Planning.

Although Puerto Ricans still constitute East Harlem's largest ethnic group, they no longer define the area's Latino identity like they did in the four decades following World War II. Between 1980 and 2009, the district's Puerto Rican population decreased more than a quarter.

Emilio Martínez, a 72-year-old retired butcher originally from Puerto Rico, has witnessed the changes firsthand since he moved into his eighth-floor East Harlem apartment 58 years ago. His apartment is filled with knickknacks and photographs spanning the decades. Finches, parakeets and a parrot flit and chirp, nearly drowning out the television in the background.

"At that time, there were none of them here," he said, referring to the Mexican immigrants. "There were Puerto Ricans and blacks, and over there," he said, indicating with his finger, "were some Italians."

When Martínez was a young man, Puerto Ricans would stand on the sidewalk selling morcilla, or blood sausage. "Nowadays, on every corner, you see the Mexicans selling coffee, tacos, and if you walk up 116th, over there by Second Avenue and all that, it's all Mexican over there."

The transition has not been without some friction. Martínez said there had been some trouble with gang activity. But he admitted that Mexicans work hard; he said that many pull 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. Because many are in the country illegally, they don't put up a fight to get minimum wage or pay raises, which can depress salaries. Although they've contributed to the country by filling a labor shortage, he said, he's concerned they may drain social services when they don't pay taxes.

There is no SB 1070 here.

In 1989, New York City Mayor Ed Koch instituted a policy prohibiting city officials from inquiring about people's immigration status without cause. The tradition has been carried down through subsequent administrations, earning New York its reputation as a "sanctuary city."

In a storage room on the third floor of the William Paca School, Dean Nancy Vega chatted with parents in Spanish during a Wednesday-night open house. While Vega spoke with the Caribbean lilt of a Puerto Rican, the women who ushered their young children through the metal door of the storage room-turned-office spoke Spanish with a distinctly Central Mexican accent.

Vega, who grew up in East Harlem, started teaching fifth grade at the school in 1988. Some 15 years ago, she noticed a spike in the number of Mexican children enrolled.

"When they came in, we dropped—our scores dropped," Vega said, referring to the state's school-assessment scores. The biggest factor, Vega said, was that children were coming in who did not speak English, and the school at the time was ill-prepared to teach them.

"(The parents) were very submissive, very nice, very afraid," she said. "They were, 'Yes, teacher; no, ma'am; yes, ma'am'—really nice parents. But they didn't speak English, and their children didn't, either."

The changing face of the student body brought tumult to the school, with one principal being ousted midyear after the school struggled to adapt its curricula to meet the newcomers' needs.

"It's not that they were bad or they were slow," she said. "They just needed extra time to catch up."

The school experimented with different approaches to teaching students English—including Spanish-dominant classes for new arrivals, English immersion, and English-as-a-Second-Language classes for students transitioning between the two programs.

Within the last two years, the school has received children who speak Mixtec, a language indigenous to Central Mexico, and what Vega described as "Spanish you can't understand."

This poses new challenges for teachers, she said. "Where do you put this child? Does he learn Spanish first, or does he learn English?"

The school still struggles to bring its ESL students up to par with native speakers, but the administrators and teachers have made headway, earning an A rating two years in a row before dropping to a B last year.

School officials have incorporated cultural events into the curricula, too. Ten years ago, Cinco de Mayo was introduced. Ballet folklórico came five years later, and they've recently started re-enacting Las Posadas, a Catholic tradition honoring the trials of Mary and Joseph as they searched for a place to give birth to Jesus.

The cultural evolution mirrors that of the Church of Saint Paul, which 12 years ago pioneered celebrations of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Since then, other churches in the area have followed suit, said Father Claudio Stewart. Stewart estimates that 80 percent of his congregation is undocumented immigrants from Mexico.

This is not necessarily a problem, said Democratic State Sen. José Serrano, who represents New York's 28th District. "New York City, and East Harlem in particular, has always been a first stop for immigrants coming to the United States. (The Mexicans) believe very strongly in the American Dream, and they're willing to work very hard to get there. To me personally, I think it's something that has added to the cultural fabric," he said.

Serrano said that although the influx of Mexican immigrants has caused some unrest, New Yorkers tend to be more comfortable with immigration, because the city is so diverse.

"I haven't seen in New York the level of tension that we may see in, say, Arizona or in California," he said.

While tensions are lower in New York, Serrano said exploitation of illegal immigrants is still a major problem, and many are reluctant to come forward if they are victims of a crime. He said this is why he supports the 1989 "sanctuary city" order.

Norma Brito, originally from the state of Puebla, said she feels safe in the city, and has even joined the William Paca School Parent Teacher Association, where she and others sell tostadas and chiles rellenos to raise funds for the school. Brito crossed 15 years ago, slipping under a vehicle barrier in California and walking four hours through a field. Packed in the back of a van, she went to San Diego, where she took a bus to Los Angeles, and from there flew directly to New York.

She lives with her husband, two children and a stepbrother in a one-bedroom apartment they rent for $1,200 per month. She said she did not plan on staying in New York as long as she has, but her husband found good work and does not want to leave. She said she does not live in fear of being caught, though her illegal status is something she keeps in mind.

Over the years, the two have managed to save enough money to buy a house and a small plot of land back home. Her two children were born in New York; her daughter, now 14, sat at a nearby table brainstorming ideas for a school group she's forming to promote the Mexican culture and fight discrimination.

After 15 years of New York City life, Brito still clings to the idea of going home.

"I want to, and I'm going to," she said. "My daughter's going to turn 15 soon, and we're going to have a quinceañera. And after that, I told my husband, we could save a little more money, and let's go back. Those are the plans."

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