A man stood alone by the side of the road, still and calm, facing the water. He arched his back slightly, arms sweeping backwards, his hands clutching a warped metal pole. The metal, cold and grey, glided forward, the tip bending gently as he cast. He grunted softly. The street around him was empty, and he was staring at the water. In the heavy rain he had a black jacket on, his head exposed to the sky, his fingers purple with cold, as he fished.
I walked by him, straight by him, curious, but wet and freezing, eager to be on my way. He did not see me and I did not look back, for a while, until I passed a sign, bright white against the all-consuming gray. “Quinnipiac Energy Company Environmental Clean-up Site.” I turned and walked back. I looked at the water this time, frothy, murky water, putrid green with congealed algae. I tapped him on the shoulder and spoke to him. He turned quickly, his broad smile shining, his four top front teeth sheathed in dark gold.
He did not speak English. He would not give his name. He would not say where he was from, Mexico perhaps, from the North maybe, his skin was fair. “You catch anything?” I asked in Spanish. “Nah,” he said, smiling wide again. My presence seemed to have shattered his serenity, or, perhaps, it was just time to go. He reeled in his line slowly, dragging the bait over the railing and onto the sidewalk. The sopping tiny squid was splayed helplessly on the ground, its midsection jutting upward, a harsh metal hook cutting deep inside. He looked at me warmly, an oversized cross, also gold, dangling heavily from his weather-beaten neck. He had been staring at the fetid water for a while, but he could not read the sign. Catching a fish from that water did not strike him as a bad idea, he said, plus you should have seen what they caught a few months ago in the river. Big fish, huge fish, must have been three feet long. He was not there, but he heard it from a friend. He had not caught anything, but he had not been there for that long. A year, he guessed, he wasn’t sure, time as illusory as the fish. He smiled again and started to walk away, drops of rain slashing into his shoulders. I shivered with cold. He never shook once, walking lightly away from the river. “Que te vayas bien,” he said, looking over his shoulder. Have a pleasant journey.
The “immigrant experience” was there, I thought, dumbly, there down Grand Avenue in Fair Haven, past the muddy train tracks and the forsaken industry. There, where countless numbers of immigrants arrive every year, drawn by promises of high-paying jobs and the possibility of giving their friends and family back home the chance to survive.
I walked away from the tall, impressive buildings in the city center, and the air soon became acrid and heavy, like someone had just shuffled their feet over every street, kicking up dust. On the other side of the tracks, the Fair Haven side, the buildings are small, squat and rectangular. Grand is the commercial center of the neighborhood, a patchwork of locally owned businesses, row houses and one main shopping center, which has a Subway sandwich shop housed discreetly in the corner. The signs change too, advertisements for “The Sopranos” give way to placards in Spanish. “Asamblea de iglesias pentecostales de Jesucristo,” one sign read.
Some buildings, remnants of an era when industry brought jobs to the area, have shape and character, but most of these are run-down and crumbling. One even has columns. The building is abandoned now, its paint flaking off the sides, the facade checkered red and white. A faded John DeStefano mayoral campaign poster hangs in the window, proudly proclaiming his vision for change. The window is cracked, a long, jagged shard slicing through the “f.”
Fernando Lopez* does not mind fishing. It is just that he never has time. “I’m working, always working” he said. Trabajo y trabajo y trabajo. He smiles, massaging his left palm with his right hand, kneading slowly, deeply. He’s been working all day he said, like everyone else. Well, everyone who wants to actually get ahead in life.
Short and energetic, with a slight paunch, Fernando does not look like a typical immigrant. He is 53, noticeably older than most of the Latinos in the area. He wears a crimson button down floral shirt, spotless, tight across his tiny chest, tucked proudly into neatly pressed gray slacks. His shoes, with black Velcro straps, are his best effort at subdued stylishness, the kind of footwear one might expect at a nursing home prom. Dark and straight, his hair is meticulously combed, still wet with mousse and parted daintily to one side. “I am a businessman,” he said, tapping his chest proudly. He stood in front of his latest business venture, a white catering truck parked on a dusty vacant lot on the side of Grand Avenue.
He touched his hand to his head, smoothing down the perfectly coiffed hair. A young man, baggy jeans slung low on his hips, black do-rag stretched tightly over his scalp, swaggered past. Fernando hopped delicately into his truck, checked something and hopped back down. He smiled aristocratically, with self-assurance out of place in the dirty lot. “Negocios. ¿Comprendes? Negocios.” Business. You understand? Business. The lot, he was surprised to learn, once contained a well-known heroin crash house. He shrugged. Fair Haven is no different from other places. Some people work, and some do not. He’s an opportunist. Now he’s here, making money honestly, “If you want to succeed you have to work and work and work.” But, then again, Fernando’s life is a little different from those of some of his customers. Fernando has a passport. He came to the United States by plane, by plane, he said. Fernando is legal. He said the word slowly, deliberately. He repeated it. “Legal.”
Do illegals ever work for him? “No. No no. Here? No.”
Fair Haven, a neighborhood of 14,300 people, is nearly 54-percent Hispanic. Unless, of course, you count the illegal immigrants, who probably number in the thousands. Though New Haven is cold and farm labor is seasonal, more immigrants arrive every year. Some come to stay, wiring money home to their families to pay for tickets or to procure the services of a coyote, who ferries people across the border. But many are transients. “They come and they go,” Fernando said. “Come and go.” They stay for a year, two years, five years, wiring money home constantly, wiring home a better life.
And Fernando? He laughed, his petite frame bouncing up and down. He formed a pistol with his fingers and poked me in the chest, glad I asked, and walked quickly toward his car, beckoning for me to follow. He grabbed an envelope from his glove compartment and handed it to me. It was from the American Automobile Association. A roadside assistance card. OK, I said. Look at the card, he said. It’s an AAA plus card, plus, he said again, becoming more excited. “The plus means I can go anywhere. Los Angeles, Chicago, New York. Anywhere.” Fair Haven is just another stop. Here, there. No difference, really, just another place to make money. He’d even been to Paris, once, because staying here or going there was all the same, just a part of life. He didn’t like Paris, though, there it was different. “They don’t like Mexican food.”
He’s a cook, and there are Latinos here. When the money is gone he will be gone too. “You see this truck? It was made in Mexico. From Mexico. Like me.” The truck has wheels, he added; he knows to leave when there is no more money to be made in Fair Haven. He looked up and down the road, Grand, the heart of Fair Haven. Satisfied, he walked up the stairs into his truck and took an order from a pair of customers standing outside the window.
One of those customers was Jose Cuapio. He ordered six tacos — three beef and three pork — and would order three more before he had left. Jose was solidly built, his face drawn and serious. And he was tired. A giant tape measure hung loosely from his side, his faded jeans sagging on the left side under the weight. He’d been working all day, he said, like every day.
Illegal? “Claro,” he said, of course, surprised that I did not know the answer already. He maneuvered a taco into his mouth, and as he bit down the brown paste of refried beans oozed onto his sweatshirt. He swatted the food absently, smearing the gooey beans into the fibers. He did not seem to mind much; his tattered sweatshirt was already spotted with stains.
We stood there for a few minutes, quiet, as tacos disappeared into his mouth. He spoke haltingly at first, hesitating, untrusting. His life was “bien normal,” he said. We were quiet again. A young man raced by in a red car, the flashy after-market chrome exhaust screaming. Jose kept on eating. He did not turn around. Too tired.
Like most illegal immigrants, Jose came to the United States to make money. Any money he could. He’d been in Fair Haven about a year and a half, obligated to stay. His son, a handsome, precocious child, had suddenly become ill. The bills and doctors fees mounted. Jose, a farmer, went into debt to help pay for the medical care. His son died anyway. Dejected and hopeless, an itinerant farmer with no land and with angry lenders who had been stiffed on payments, Jose found a coyote and crossed the border. He came here so he could reclaim his life, to fish in the river of plenty.
The desert. “We suffered a lot,” he said. According to Reuters, the U.S. Border patrol recorded 80 border crossing deaths in 2003, but the actual number is probably higher because some bodies are never found. “Suffered.” He repeated but would not elaborate. He was not afraid; people made the crossing all the time. You went and hoped. He crossed with five others, from disparate parts of Mexico. The coyote dropped the group off in a house on Kimberly Avenue in Fair Haven. Jose called a friend who had already made the crossing and was living in Fair Haven. He walked out the door, met his friend and was off. He started working the next day. A year and a half later he was about six blocks from where he started. He was eating tacos. He did not know any English yet, but, he said, there was no need. He was returning home at the end of the month. The tacos, at least, were good. A slice of there.
He paused, pensive. A smile crept across his face. He was 33, and he was now obligated by fate to lay carpets for hours a day. Carpets, even though he has been a farmer all his life. The sun was starting to set, balmy sunshine giving way to chilled wind. The other customer, Jose’s friend (who also said his name was Jose Cuapio) had run back to the dented brown van they had arrived in and had the heat on full, the engine idling. But Jose wasn’t cold. The wind picked up the now empty paper plate resting in his had, and it fell lightly to the ground. Jose didn’t notice. Thirty days, and he was home. His debts erased, money in his pocket, he would have no need to stay. At home, ah, home, he said, he taught soccer, fútbol, to kids. Here? Here? Could he do that here? He waved his hand, swatting it all away, distancing himself from the unfairness of here. Here they want papers; here they want English; here they don’t want Latinos. Here. All he needs is one more month, and he will be home again.
It’s just that here, in America, its all about your group, he said, whether you are illegal, legal, whatever. He can’t even register a car and that mierda, that shit brown van over there, is not even his, it belongs to the boss. “Manejamos a la suerte” he said. “A LA SUERTE.” They drive, drive by praying, drive by luck. They drive as slowly and deliberately as they can, trying their best to not attract any unnecessary attention, the fear of deportation weighing constantly in the back of their minds. He shakes his head, not bitter, resigned perhaps, clinging to the hope that it would be over soon, and he could use his new money to buy his own land at home and get back to farming, living for himself and not for others. Maybe then he could start to mourn for his dead son. There, he belongs there. Here, even if he had the money to pay for insurance, he can’t get it. Just can’t. He’s illegal. Racismo. Everywhere. Mexican. Mexican. Mexican. Everything.
Or, more accurately, nothing.
Jose, like many other immigrants, simply tries to fly under the radar and go about his business. In Fair Haven, where the hunt for jobs is getting harder, this has a profound effect. Rather, it has a profound non-effect. Jose cannot even play fútbol. It is cold a lot of the time. Far colder than anything he is used to for most of the year. That is probably the main reason he can find any work at all. The rain and the cold drive most other people away. For those, like Jose, who have a friend from their hometown who has already established himself in Fair Haven, coming to the town is a matter of course. The only usable nearby open space is gated, part of a predominantly black housing project. No fútbol, no action. Groups of two or three illegals stand and talk sometimes, gathering near the catering truck or waiting to wire money home. The young men who have not yet sent for their wives often live together, five or six to an apartment. Work, eat, sleep. Life as an illegal is stasis. Sitting by the side of the road, fishing, but the line is always slack.
He stopped. He glanced down at the bean-stained plate lying at his feet. His face calm, he reached down, picked up the plate, walked over to the trash can and threw the plate away. He walked back. “Siento bien porque voy a ver mi tierra otra vez. No estoy acostumbrado a la vida aquí.” I feel good because I’m going to see my homeland again. I’m not used to life here. He raised his arm to Fernando, who was busy behind the counter, flipping, chopping, rolling, listening. Three more tacos.
Fair Haven goes by a couple of other names, depending on who you talk to. Melting pot, city in transition, or, to some, and to the brown graffiti on the side of the co-op liquor store, ghetto. Whatever the moniker, Fair Haven elicits complicated feelings about what it means to be home, what it means to have a community. Illegal immigrants are often lumped together, “the immigrant community,” “the immigrant population.” You can tell who they are, it seems. They wire transfer money; they work in the tobacco fields, in the factories, in restaurants. But trying to understand those who come, those who risk so much, to come up with one conception of what they all are hoping for, is not really possible. There are the regional differences, of course. Ecuadorians, Guatemalans, Dominicans, Mexicans. Then there are the Puerto Ricans, the immigrants who are citizens. Then, of course, there are the blacks, the Italians, and, now, in some of the nicer sections of town, the urban whites who work downtown. “The underground community” is a misnomer. They are not hidden from anyone, really. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, maybe, but the police officers on patrol generally pay them no mind. For Ricardo Martinez*, a patrolman for the New Haven Police Department, the immigrant community is not a major source of worry. “If it’s not loud and making a lot of noise, then no one’s going to look at it.” Martinez is Puerto Rican. Legal.
Glenda Urbina tries to be optimistic. She considers herself lucky, after all. She has a job, a real one, steady, inside, secure, helping immigrants. In her 40s now, she is stout, gray hairs strewn messily about her head, mixed in noticeably with the darker strands. She is a member of the older generation; she arrived from Guatemala about two decades ago to join her mother. The beneficiary of a middle-class standard of living in Guatemala, Urbina was able to study English. “Success stories are rare.” Success is relative of course; it means different things to different people. For Urbina, success is extrication.
“I don’t live in Fair Haven,” she said.
“Where do you live?”
She smiled, straightening her posture. “Hamden.”
A coy smile crept across her face. She shrugged playfully. “I’m used to a different atmosphere. Now I just work here.” She’s a part of suburbia, as American as you can get. She no longer considers herself an immigrant, it seems. She’s not leaving. Her heart’s not in Fair Haven, of course, but it’s not in Guatemala, either. It’s in Hamden. AAA Plus, plus! Landed the American dream without ever having to attach a squid to a hook.
“I mean, who wouldn’t want to live in Guilford or Hamden?” Wilson Reyes turns his palms up and shrugs his shoulders. “I don’t want to say it, but, Fair Haven kind of is the ghetto.” Unlike Glenda, however, Wilson likes living in Fair Haven, the “big melting pot.” Wilson, whose parents are Puerto Rican, was born in Waterbury. He owns a restaurant on Grand, Burns Cafe, which serves “Latin cuisine all day.” He slides me a bowl of soup, on the house. A whole breast of chicken, over spaghetti, in broth. Authenticity is relative. Some customers chat in English, others in Spanish.
He moonlights as a bail bondsman, coming up with quick cash for people who have been arrested, for a fee. His cherubic smile vanished when his cell phone rang. “He wants 15,000? Are you crazy? F*ck ’em.” A part of the system now, not like Fernando or the two Joses. He hung up, the smile returned. “These guys,” illegals, “they work hard.” He respects that. This is America, after all, land of the meritocracy. All that matters is how hard you work. Here, not there, where you can work for years, hours a day and not make anything at all. At home you make three pesos an hour; here, five dollars an hour, eight, maybe, if you are lucky, and you wire home the difference.
The difference. The catch in the river. The fish you always hear about, three feet long, you should have been there, it was great. When I walk away from the catering truck to call a cab, Jose and Fernando start talking. I walked over after a while, quiet. Jose’s eyes were somber, fixed hard on the successful Fernando with his combed hair and neat shirt who was standing in the truck above him. “The f-cking doctors; they’re worthless, all of them. Yeah, my son, I still don’t know what was wrong with him.” Fernando was writing something on a piece of paper and was about to hand it to Jose when I returned. They both turned and looked at me, hesitant. Then Fernando shrugged and handed over the slip of paper, the first few digits of his telephone number visible in dark pencil strokes.
Manuel Estrada* was there a few days ago, working in Fernando’s truck. A light rain fell, the white truck specked with water. Estrada, from Oaxaca, Mexico, was there, stirring beans behind the counter. “That’s why I’m here. Other people don’t want to deal with the lluvia, the rain.” He’s 22 years old. He does not go out, no clubs, no nightlife. Fernando’s words were empty. Illegals? “No. No no. Here? No.”
He does smile. Smiled a big smile, all the time. His face is youthful, studded with the sparse growth of a day without shaving. A smile like an eraser, he smiled and smiled and smiled long enough in the hope that I would lose interest in the question so he could pretend I never asked it. “I just don’t have the words to explain,” he said, tilting his head to one side as he stirred. “All I do is send money home.” He smiled. “My future is there, but it depends on how much money I have.” He smiled again, straining. “No se. No se, ¿ok? Un año, un año, un año y voy a regresar.” I don’t know, I don’t know, okay. One year and I’m going home. He throws his hands in the air. A silver watch rested loosely on his left wrist. A full-color rendition of the Virgin Mary is set in the watch face. Is he religious? He looked at me, the sides his mouth curling into the force field of the eraser smile. He ignored the question, smiling back at me, blankly, like he didn’t hear me. I ask again. “No. I don’t have time for church,” he said, oblivious to the irony.
Fernando and Jose were still chatting, easily, unhurriedly. He wouldn’t tell me the details, but, then again, I had called a cab and was awaiting my evacuation. The multiple 45-minute walks were now a five-minute car ride, $6.75 and Fair Haven just a thought in the rear view mirror. The sky had darkened, headlamps of passing cars interrupting the deepening twilight. I was shivering again, shivering as Fernando and Jose talked, Jose’s hands stuffed boyishly in his pockets, his pale yellow baseball cap bobbing as he talked, and he was unresponsive to the cold. They smiled as they waved to me; I climbed into the taxi, and they kept talking. I got in the cab and closed the door.
Grand was morose in the early evening, and quiet. A veil of deep grey covered everything. Kwame, my cab driver, was from Ghana. We drove past the squat buildings and the wire transfer places. We drove past the housing project, where about 20 people stood and talked. Kwame slapped his steering wheel. “This I don’t understand. I come here and work 12 hours a day, and these people just stand around and do nothing. All day.” He sighed. “If I had stayed in Ghana and worked 12-hour days then I’d be rich by now.” The light was red and we stopped. He looked over at me and sighed again. We both knew it wasn’t true. That’s why he was here. That’s why Jose and Fernando and Manuel were here. To work 12 hours a day, to smash the steering wheel, to move to Hamden, to wire money home after laying carpets all day, to buy a button-down shirt and slacks even though you are making hundreds of tacos a day, to try to find something, something, anything, here, there, wherever, to make it possible to live, even if it means sitting there, fishing, just fishing, in a river you don’t even know is polluted, fishing, fishing all day, fishing in the rain, fishing for nothing.