Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Immigrants head to the suburbs, testing the American Dream

June 9, 1996


Newhouse News Service

FREEPORT, N.Y. _ There is no Statue of Liberty in Freeport Harbor. But considering all the Dominicans, Salvadorans and other Latin Americans immigrating directly to this Long Island village of 40,000, maybe there should be. She could be a Lady Liberty for the suburbs, holding aloft a can of lighter fluid for starting the barbecue. It might be good to place her on a pivot. Then she could alternately turn to bid adieu to the hundreds of thousands of Americans leaving Long Island, and then swing back around to stand as both a welcome and a warning to the increasing numbers of immigrants headed straight for those self-same suburbs:

Welcome to the metaphoric heartland of the American dream.

But be warned, you may find yourself toiling in someone else’s dreamworks, mowing the lawns, tending the children and mopping the floors in someone else’s dream house.

And be further warned: Your very presence raises issues of race, class, and cultural conflict that the suburbs were designed to avoid. It was, as much as anything, their reason for being.

A few, like Freeport, struggle earnestly to accommodate, to integrate, to adjust, or even to celebrate their new complexity. Many others, with suburban aloofness, pretend you do not exist, or with suburban indirection, work to keep out or scare away the many poor among you by making it difficult to enroll your children in school, or gather for day labor, or live in the density you require to make ends meet.

”Long Islanders see these foreign-looking and relatively poor people coming into their towns and they’re seen as dragging the communities down, driving up taxes and threatening property values,” says anthropologist Sarah Mahler, the author of American Dreaming and Salvadorans in Suburbia, both recent books about immigrant life on Long Island.

”Long Island is a place people came to escape the city and if they see this as the city chasing after them, many Long Islander get nervous,” says Jennifer Gordon, a Harvard-trained lawyer who launched the Workplace Project to defend the rights of Latino immigrant workers on Long Island.

Freeport is a microcosm of how immigration is transforming not just the cities that represent the traditional ports-of-entry for new arrivals from abroad, but also the whole metro areas that surround those ports-of-entry.

It is part of what American University sociologist Robert Manning refers to as a profound but largely overlooked shift in the destination of immigrants. They still head to the same metropolises, but increasingly they settle in the suburbs instead of the central city.

The suburbs like those on Long Island are attractive to immigrants, says Mahler, who teaches at the University of Vermont, because they seem safer and nicer places to live than the city, but especially because that is where the jobs are. And, once an immigrant community establishes itself, a chain of migration from the old country is set in motion.

Sitting at the counter of Mi Cali Bella, his popular soccer bar and restaurant in Freeport’s increasingly Latino business district, Rafael Zapata recalls how well-thumbed his Spanish-English dictionary was when he first immigrated to Long Island from Colombia 25 years ago.

”In 1971 here on Long Island it was very difficult to find other Spanish- speaking people. In 1996, it’s now very difficult to find American people,” says Zapata, adding, with some pride, ”I live in an American area _ Levittown.”

Hyperbole, with a point.

Immigration is overwhelmingly Latino and Asian and overwhelmingly concentrated in 10 metro areas _ Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, Washington, D.C., Houston, San Diego, Dallas and Boston.

But, according to University of Michigan demographer William Frey, that is only half the story of how and why immigration is transforming those metro areas. The other half of the story is the simultaneous, large-scale exodus of existing residents of those metros, who are mostly non-Hispanic whites.

Between 1985 and 1995, 5.3 million immigrants arrived in those 10 metros, even as those areas experienced a net loss of 4.5 million locals. And, just as significantly, Frey says, the metros to which most Americans were moving were those, mostly in the South Atlantic, Pacific Northwest and Mountain states, that receive relatively few immigrants.

While many in Freeport brag that their community’s diversity represents America’s future, Frey argues that it represents only one American future. It is the America of the 10 high immigration metros, which increasingly has an altogether different look and feel to it than the rest of the nation.

For example, Frey found that 27 percent of adults in the 10 high immigration metros, but only 6 percent of adults in the rest of the country, are foreign-born; that the high immigration metros are 40 percent minority, while the rest of America is only 18 percent minority, and that in the high immigration metros, immigrants and minorities are especially concentrated among the least well-educated and the poor.

”The people at the top, the people with the power are still white,” says Angelo Falcon, president of the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy in New York. ”It’s almost a South Africa-type situation, at least metaphorically.”

And, significantly, in New York and elsewhere, the changing demographics are not confined to the urban centers.

Orange County _ once the ultimate bastion of white conservatism, the very capital of Reagan Country, a place that named its airport after John Wayne _ is now one of the most multicultural places on the planet.

Cicero, Ill., the Chicago suburb that for so long symbolized white resistance to integration, is now close to 40 percent Hispanic, and schools in the historically Jewish Chicago suburb of Skokie are close to 30 percent Asian.

The Dallas suburb of Richardson must accommodate students who speak any one of 59 different languages.

And, especially in Washington, D.C., says Manning, the American University sociologist, immigrants increasingly turn their sights away from the city center and toward the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, where the overwhelming majority of them now do business.

In the New York metro area, the pattern of immigrants in and existing residents out is repeated in every one of 14 counties surrounding the city from New Jersey to Connecticut.

New York City may still be immigration’s Broadway, but increasingly communities like Freeport have emerged as its dinner theater.

Of course, Freeport is not the Long Island of Jay Gatsby.

It is, in fact, the Long Island of Joey Buttafuoco. Just across the village line is the auto body shop where Buttafuoco first encountered Amy Fisher, and here is the Freeport Boatel, where he further encountered her. Freeport gave the world rocker Lou Reed and rapper Flavor Flav, and for many years its most famous resident was Canadian immigrant Guy Lombardo, for whom the village named a marina and an avenue where one can now dine Honduran or Dominican.

Freeport is most remarkable within its borders for its long, hard struggle to maintain an integrated community.

But gone are the days when Freeport merely had to bring together black and white. As a consequence of immigration, Freeport is now very roughly a third (non-Hispanic) white, a third (non-Hispanic) black and a third Hispanic (the 1990 Census says far less, but most on-the-ground estimates say at least a third and growing).

These days, more than a third of Freeport students speak Spanish at home; the community had, at last count, 32 bodegas; three of the four major supermarkets in town are Hispanic-owned; there are Spanish-language newspapers, Latino nightclubs and even a ”psiquiatra Hispana” who advertises her willingness to treat everything from ”depresion” to ”ataques de panico.”

The production workforce at Love and Quiches, a commercial bakery at the Freeport Industrial Park, is almost all Latino, and through word-of-mouth, self-replenishing.

“I don’t have to do anything to actively recruit,” said vice president Andrew Axelrod, adding, “I don’t see many native-born apply for positions.”

Douglas Mendoza got a job there through the coach of his soccer team, who was then Love and Quiches’ production manager.

Ten years later, Mendoza has that job, trying to keep the Salvadorans, Dominicans, Bolivians and Guatemalans working together even though, he says, the members of each nationality think they are superior to the others.

“They say I’m Fidel Castro,” said Mendoza, 31, who at 15 left his family and the civil war in El Salvador to join an uncle and cousin on Long Island. (Mahler says an estimated 1 million Salvadorans, one out of every six, resettled in the United States since 1979.)

Mendoza got a degree in computer technology going to school nights and weekends at New York University, and this year prepared 628 tax returns without a single audit.

Originally undocumented, he is now legal. Last year he became a citizen about the same time his wife, a Costa Rican woman he first espied spreading icing on a cake at Love and Quiches, was giving birth to a citizen, their son, Douglas Jr.

“Right now I’m doing all right,” said Mendoza, who is trying to buy a home in the heavily Italian community of Inwood. “You call it the American dream.”

And, he added, “My son will do better, hopefully.”

But the prospects for most of those who work at Love and Quiches are not as sanguine. They attend on-site classes to learn rudimentary English. Mendoza’s father, who immigrated much later, does scullery work there at night.

According to the 1990 Census, Hispanic per capita income in Freeport is barely better than $10,000 a year, which was only 61 percent of the town average, which is already among the lowest on Long Island.

Mahler, the anthropologist, is especially pessimistic about the ultimate prospects of the Salvadoran population on Long Island (which exceeds that in the city), because they have darker skin, which will make them more vulnerable to racial prejudice, and because they come from poor backgrounds to begin with.

“Ninety percent of the Salvadoran population comes from the countryside and 90 percent of that 90 percent is illiterate,” said Cecilia Moran, a former political prisoner in El Salvador who directs a Salvadoran organization on Long Island.

Because rents are high, wages low and immigrants commonly send a big chunk of their income back home, there is also tremendous overcrowding in apartments and formerly single-family homes.

Donald Mauersberger, a former Freeport fire chief whose father and grandfather were also chiefs, says they have encountered as many as 14 people living in a studio apartment.

”It’s a matter of time before we suffer a large loss of life,” he says. ”No question about it. The clock is ticking.”

And, he adds, ”If we allow it to go too much further we can’t get our bedroom community back.”

Freeport’s mayor, Richard Wissler, says he shares Mauersberger’s concerns. But, he adds, ”The village is a living organism and it is evolving and we have to be tolerant.”

”Someday,” the mayor says, ”the Melendez family, 50 years from now, is going to have a family reunion in Waterfront Park in the Village of Freeport and they are going to remember how they crowded into a house to save the money to bring family here to the village and to buy the homes they now live in the same way the Goldberg family remembers the Lower East Side in New York crowding into a tenement house.”


Written by jonathantilove

July 24, 2022 at 5:20 am

%d bloggers like this: