Monday, August 03, 2009

The Worst of Times for Latinos? Two Stories

In an interview with NPR's "Latino USA," author Sandra Cisneros ("The House on Mango Street")lamented that right now is the worst time in history for Latinos in the U.S. Deportations, the fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, and crippling poverty for many in our community, are the evidence she uses to paint a bleak portrait of the Latino experience in this country. And while I've written about some of these things, specifically the uptick in violence against immigrants and the inflamatory rhetoric of the anti-immigration movement, her comments shook me up. They made me feel like the uppity, self-made and self-righteous villain in a Tyler Perry movie. I realized, listening to Cisernos' interview on my iPhone at the gym, that I have deliberately distanced myself from the issues of the 'hood I grew up in and I have made every attempt in my life to never go back there.

But my parents - whom I love dearly and whom I'm lucky to have a wonderful relationship with - are still there. And they probably won't ever leave. So they'll keep it real with me and they'll tell me about the things that are going on around them in el barrio. In between our conversations about the trips they're going on and where they'll meet James and me for dinner, there are real, true and disturbing stories about people who can't get their act together or who simply were never given a chance to do right by themselves. My mom is on the front lines of this divide - she works in the public school system, making sure kids are fed and that they have somewhere safe to go to until 6 when most of their parents can pick them up from work. She sees parents younger than me picking up 10 year-olds, she talks to teenage mothers who are raising their kids out of shelters, and she consoles children who are missing a parent. But sometimes there are problems that can't be hugged away or laughed and talked about in Spanish in the schoolyard. For many Latinos it is indeed the worst of times, as Sandra Cisneros said. Here's one such story.

On July 17, Yorceli Flores,a 26-year-old immigrant from Puebla, Mexico, was stabbed to death in her apartment in Sunset Park. She was pregnant, and left behind two boys, aged two and six. One week later, her 22-year-old boyfriend - who claimed to have found her body - was arrested and charged with murder. The children, with no father, are now in the foster care system.

Yorceli's oldest son spent a year in my mother's classroom at the after-school program at P.S. 24. She didn't form much of a bond with his mother, who had obtained a restraining order against the boy's stepfather - who has since been deported - and then took up with a younger guy who would ultimately kill her. The alleged killer had come on numerous occasions to pick the boy up from my mom's program - even while the boy's stepfather would come in and ask my mom and her colleagues for help, saying that the kids were not safe in their home. My mom spoke up about this, but ultimately, there wasn't much the school system could do for the kids.

So you have the perfect storm of domestic violence, broken families, dubious immigration status and all-around hard living here. Was Yorceli's death avoidable? Did her kids really have to suffer as they did in the months leading up to their mother's death - there are claims that the children were underfed and lived in a cramped apartment with other families - was there anything that the victim could have done for herself and her kids to avoid all of this? And while Yorceli was being sentenced to death and her alleged killer was making small talk with my mom, I was across the river, sipping cocktails and toasting life.

The victim was two years younger than me but, as we say in Spanish, had done a lot more living. She probably came to my neighborhood long after I had left, seeking opportunity that I never thought existed there. And our common denominator is my mom - always eager to help, always uber-involved, always unnervingly task-driven. I wonder if these two women had formed a relationship if Yorceli's life would have turned out differently - I don't underestimate my mom's power of persuasion.

Where Yorceli's story and mine begin and end, in the place I grew up but always wanted to leave, the divide between esos Latinos who are making it and those who are scraping by isn't really that wide. It's a fact that gnaws at me and questions everything I thought was good and fair about a system that has worked for me.

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