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Combatting the Erasure of Mexican Immigrants in New York

By BETH HARPAZ

Mexican Americans were New York City’s fastest-growing immigrant group between 1990 and 2010, soaring in number from 56,000 to more than 300,000. They are also the city’s third-largest Spanish-speaking ethnicity after Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. Yet despite New York’s tradition of celebrating immigrants and diversity, the Mexican American community and the impact of its labor has gone largely unrecognized.

A new book, A Mexican State of Mind: New York City and the New Borderlands of Culture, counters that invisibility on several fronts. First, the author, Professor Melissa Castillo Planas (Lehman College), details the struggles and contributions of Mexican American workers in New York, many of whom are undocumented and vulnerable to exploitation, especially in the restaurant industry. But the book’s main theme is the recognition of young Mexican migrants as creative individuals who are as dedicated to their art as any hipster white kid with a fancy degree. Their endeavors include street art, hip-hop music, and other expressive pursuits, from the Har’d Life Ink arts collective and tattoo shop, to the rap group Hispanos Causando Pániko.

“I have tried to give life to the x-rayed migrants, the invisible back-of-the-house restaurant workers, the deliverers, and construction workers to give a sense of their thoughts, dreams, and creative lives,” Castillo Planas writes. “These migrants are attempting to reclaim their identity beyond that of the stereotyped laborer through artistically based communal and public labor actions located in creative alternative economies. Although their legal status may not change, these art collectives are a way to publicly advocate for a Mexican identity that is not based on migration status or laboring body, but instead is focused on cultural contributions and artistic skill that is also monetarily valued. Beyond resistance, these practices are an act of what I call ‘anti-deportation,’ in that they not only reject a narrow illegal identity but also establish artistic institutions.”

Castillo Planas also sees New York as a new “borderland” of “Mexicanidad,” an outpost of the Mexican diaspora far from the Mexican border and from traditional centers of Mexican American culture in places like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Texas. This new borderland also reflects pan-Latin, Caribbean, and African American influences.

She sees this emerging community banding “together in crews, artist collectives, and activist groups to maintain and develop a sense of Mexicanidad in a city that either overlooks this population, surveils them, or purposefully exploits them.” Through their creative work, they refuse “labels … commonly assigned to Mexicans,” instead creatively expressing autonomy  and the “politics of anti-deportation.”