On June 16, 2015, Donald Trump officially announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. In the first minutes of his speech, to the applause of the crowd gathered at his tower in New York City, he said: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
In late November of this year, José, 32, is standing at a corner in Bushwick. His dark skin and other distinctive facial features hint at his Spanish and Mesoamerican heritage, and indeed, he belongs to the group Trump was talking about—one of those Mexicans who have a lot of problems. But the kind of problems he has are not the ones that Trump mentioned that first day, and throughout his campaign.
Outside it is 42 degrees, cloudy and windy. Wearing sweatpants and a down jacket with a hoodie covering a blue sports cap on his head, he shifts his body left and right, his hands inside his jacket, to try to keep warm. In front of him is a cart that carries a large cubical basket–about three feet per side–made of something like thin bamboo. The basket is filled with bread that would be typical in Tlaxcala, his home state in Mexico, which he sells in the streets of Brooklyn, the Bronx, and other boroughs. The bread is baked locally by some of his immigrant colleagues. A large loaf—about a foot long and six inches wide—of cream bread, or pan de nata, costs ten dollars, while other smaller loaves, all on the sweet side, cost five or six dollars. There are dozens of pieces in his basket. He constantly looks over his shoulder to watch the street. “I don’t have a permit, so I have to watch for the police. If they fine me, I won’t be able to pay rent.”
José is an undocumented immigrant. He arrived to the United States in 2005, following one of his brothers who had crossed the border eight years before him. He came directly to New York and has worked ever since for less than minimum wage in restaurants, construction sites, and other venues. He started selling bread two years ago.
He left Mexico and ventured into the United States, he says, out of economic hardship. Before he departed, at age 21, he had been living with his parents. Life was rough. His mother and his father—who recently became 100 years old—needed support. He could not provide it to them back home, he says, because the only jobs he could find were poorly paid. “Back in Mexico you live by the day. Here it is the same, but I can send them a little money, maybe $50 every week or two. It is not much, but it helps. Trump says he wants to prohibit us from sending funds back to Mexico. If that happens, I don’t know what I will do to help them.”
These days, his parents are not the only ones whom José is supporting. Sometime after he arrived in New York, he met a woman from his home state who was also an undocumented immigrant. Seven years ago, they had a daughter. Life was difficult, he says, but they both worked and were happy to have a family. When their child was about two years old, his wife got pregnant again with their second girl. “We thought it would be like first time,” he says. But the joyful occasion became a tragic one when routine tests on his wife showed unforeseen results. “They told us she had leukemia,” José said. “I could not understand it. We were supposed to be there only a few days and go back home with our baby. But now they were telling us she would die.”
Their daughter was born safely, but her mother remained in the hospital for three months, until she died, in the same place where her little girl had come to life.
José stood by his wife side through her long decline, he says, while trying to look out for the girls. “It was very hard. I was devastated and desperate,” José said. He did not work during those months and, after his wife’s death, he was not emotionally prepared to find another job, nor could he, being in the country illegally, apply for economic support. “But I had to pull myself together for the girls. I got a job, I went to work every day and I hired babysitters. I worked extra hours to pay them, so could barely see my girls.”
After two years, the situation became so dire that he decided the best thing for the girls was to send them to Mexico to live with their grandparents. They were two and five years old. “It broke my heart, but I had no choice” he said. Three years have passed since then and José misses his children, but he does not dare risk going to see them in Mexico. He has not been back home, in fact, since he arrived in New York, eleven years ago, for fear he could not be able to reenter the United States, the only place where he believes he can earn enough to support his parents and children, if barely.
Tormented by being away from his girls, he considered venturing a visit this year, but since November 8 he has categorically decided against it. “On the night of the election I was at home, waiting for Hillary to win. But she didn’t win. I could not sleep. I was awake until 4 A.M.
“If Trump makes it harder for Hispanics to work here, I don’t know what I will do,” he said. “I try not to think about him. He is the president now and that is how things are. I don’t think bad about him, but I am scared.”
His daughters are the reason he remains in this country, he says. “I want them to grow up here, where they have a better chance in life than in Mexico. They can learn English, become doctors or lawyers. They wouldn’t have to be in the streets selling bread like me. They are Americans, but I am afraid the new president will not let them come back, that he will not let them grow up here with me. I just want to give them a chance for a good life and then maybe I will go back to Mexico and wait to die.”
In the afternoon, business begins to pick up. Customers—all of them Hispanic–stop around the bread cart to ask “¿Cuánto cuesta el pan?” A woman arrives with two children, a boy and a girl. The boy turns to his mother and excitedly asks her: “Mamá, I want to eat el que tiene crema!” Smiling, Jose hands the boy the bread and collects a ten-dollar bill from his mother. While his fingers swiftly look for change, the freezing wind suddenly blows with force, pushing back his hoodie and revealing three red and white letters embroidered against the intense blue background of his sports cap: USA.