This article was originally published in the April 2017 Princeton Echo.
On weekdays at 6:30 a.m., the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood in Princeton bustles with activity. A steady stream of customers enters through the open doors of the Mexican and Guatemalan grocer across the street from the cemetery. A woman stands behind the counter, straightening the milk candies and Cremino Mexican chocolates to the side of the cash register as a romantic bachata plays over the store’s loudspeakers. Further inside, more than a dozen varieties of tortilla line the nearby shelves, as well as fresh fruit, central American spices such as epazote, ajenjo, ruda, and hoja de aguacate, and jars of pacaya in brine.
A collection box on the counter shows a photograph of a teenage girl dressed in a formal blue dress, perhaps for a fiesta de quinceañera, a celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday. The notice on the box, in imperfect Spanish, refers to a much more somber event:
La familia necesita alluda economica para el funeral de su hija. Gracias por su Alluda.
The family needs help paying for its daughter’s funeral. Thank you for your help.
The signs, the newspapers, the bulletin board notices are all in Spanish, but it is a classic American scene — within the new country is a Latin American diaspora, a community that carries its culture into foreign contexts. From the shelves of the grocery come the ingredients for the Mexican and Central American cooking that is served up every day in dozens of nearby homes and apartments in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood of Princeton.
In a few hours, El Chapín, a Guatemalan and Mexican takeout place with counter seating for a half-dozen people, will be doing a brisk business. Chapín [a colloquial term for a Guatemalan person] offers a variety of tacos, burritos, tostadas, and other dishes Americans would find at a Mexican fast food restaurant, along with some not so well known: mojarra frita [fried tilapia], guisado de pollo [chicken stew], and coliflor forrada [fried cauliflower].
Along the street in front of the stores, regardless of the weather, men sit on stoops and lean on the porches of houses, watching cars drive past.
The men waiting on the street are typically day laborers; they work on a temporary basis for construction and gardening companies. Many of them do not speak English and many are undocumented. Vans will soon drive up, pick up the men, and give them work for the day.
Witherspoon at 6:30 a.m. is not the Princeton people think of when they hear of the university, the quaint stores of Nassau Street, or the estate-like houses a few blocks to the west. Witherspoon at 6:30 a.m. is a side of Princeton that few residents and visitors notice: a Spanish-speaking Princeton that does not always shine with wealth, one in which many residents have jobs that pay minimum wage or lower.
However, it is a side of Princeton that is becoming increasingly important. The Latino population in Mercer County increases by a rate of 2 percent every five years. More than one quarter of that community was estimated to be undocumented by the New Jersey Policy Perspective in 2008. Since President Trump’s election and inauguration, progressive groups across the country have given renewed attention to the lives and livelihoods of undocumented people.
Princeton is one of the communities that joined in this national fight: Mayor Liz Lempert officially stood by Princeton’s “sanctuary city” movement. Along with Chicago, San Francisco, and other cities across the country, Princeton asserted that it would not deputize its police force to find and prosecute undocumented people for immigration law violations. Immediately after the election, Lempert issued a press release emphasizing her support for Princeton’s minorities. “We commit to supporting all our residents regardless of their race, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, immigration status, disability, economic standing, or political views,” she announced. “Much progress can happen at the local level.”
* * *
When Susana arrived in Princeton from Mexico 16 years ago, hardly anyone spoke Spanish. This was four years before the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund (LALDEF) was founded. When Susana arrived in Princeton most of the Latino businesses in Princeton today had not yet been established. Susana’s go-to way to find Spanish speakers was to walk to the Burger King on Nassau Street and talk to the Latino staff.
Susana, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is Mexican and undocumented. She agreed to talk to me about her experiences living in Princeton. We sat across from each other at a table in the Princeton Public Library cafe. She is a small woman who looks young for her 34 years, and yet the effusive openness with which she describes her experiences gives her an air of confidence and authority. While I sipped coffee, Susana poured out detailed examples in Spanish of her frustrations with life in Princeton.
Until age 18, Susana worked in Mexico City cleaning office buildings and houses. She enjoyed the work, but Mexico City was dangerous. She was assaulted frequently. The violence was so constant that she was afraid to go anywhere in the city alone; it escalated to the point where going to the United States was essential for safety.
Susana’s experience crossing the U.S.-Mexico border was brutal. With her husband and younger sister she went through the arid hills of Tijuana, a trip that involves two days and one night of consistent walking. The group brought water and no food; when the water ran out, they drank standing water from a recent monsoon. American immigration officials caught them trying to cross five times: on each occasion, ICE arrested them, separated the men from the women, collected their information, and drove them back to Mexico in buses.
After returning to Tijuana after the first arrest, Susana’s sister got life-threatening heatstroke. The man who helped Susana and her family cross — the coyote, as these people are commonly known — let Susana’s sister stay in his house and found a doctor to treat her. Once Susana’s sister recovered, they continued trying to make the journey, eventually succeeding. It took 22 days of fear, arrest, and physical hardship to successfully cross the border.
New Jersey was the chosen destination in the U.S. Susana’s sister moved to Ewing, where she still lives. Susana and her husband moved to Princeton. Her brother already lived in the town, so she had some support to begin her life despite the lack of a Latino community at the time. But Susana quickly found that starting a life in Princeton was challenging: her brother was the only one in the family who spoke English but barely had time to translate because of work. Though some people in Princeton were helpful, especially her acquaintances at Princeton Human Services, most people did not try or want to help her. With the bare minimum of guidance, she taught herself how to use public transportation and how to relate to an entirely new set of local institutions while staying under the radar.
* * *
‘The problem with being undocumented is that you live in the shadows,” Roger Martindell says. Martindell is a Nassau Street lawyer who has represented hundreds of undocumented clients in Mercer County. He is not an immigration lawyer, but he can speak Spanish. This service is in high demand in Princeton and Trenton, areas where many of his clients are similar to Susana: immigrants new to the country and trying to navigate an unfamiliar system of institutions.
Through his extensive work with the Latino community in Princeton, Martindell found that one of the major challenges of being undocumented is relating to everyday aspects of government: it’s harder to go to the police, harder to file a complaint, harder to do anything through official channels. When undocumented people do have to deal with the law, they are afraid of deportation. “I wouldn’t want to be in that situation,” Martindell says matter-of-factly.
But some local governments are easier to deal with than others. Hazleton, Pennsylvania, is notorious for putting barriers in place for undocumented people, for example. Beginning in around 2000, the Latino population, which was only around 4.9 percent of the town, began to quickly grow. Today it hovers around 46 percent. Convinced that many Latinos were undocumented, leaders in Hazleton passed a series of local ordinances in 2006 and 2007, one of which required proof of legal status for home rentals. Hazleton became infamous in immigration debates because of such controversial laws. Though the U.S. Supreme Court has since found these ordinances unconstitutional, the clear antagonism toward the immigrant population makes Hazleton a challenging place to be undocumented.
In Martindell’s eyes, Princeton is a very different, more welcoming context. Rather than legal barriers, the main problem in Princeton is a lack of awareness. Undocumented people are often unaware of their own rights. Martindell represents many clients whose employers pay undocumented workers less than minimum wage, neglect to pay overtime, or otherwise economically cheat the vulnerable population. A common case, Martindell explains, is an undocumented employee who works for years without fair wages. One day something else happens, like the boss getting angry and shouting a racial slur. The employee then goes to Martindell to file a discrimination suit, but it turns out that wage theft was the onerous long-term crime that had never been reported.
Consumers are in an excellent position to hold local businesses accountable for unfair employee treatment. Documented Princeton residents, though, are often unaware of which businesses engage in these illegal practices. Admittedly, it is not an easy task to figure out which businesses commit wage theft: many cases are settled outside of court and though most perpetrators are well-known restaurants and landscaping companies, the suits are rarely filed under a business’ name.
But there are ways to hold businesses accountable other than searching judicial indexes: talk to employees. “I was in a restaurant in Princeton, looking at an employee who seemed Guatemalan and appeared to be falling asleep,” Martindell says. He spoke to the man, who said he was on his second shift and had already been working for 12 hours. “This has a cost to him, his family, and the restaurant, since he won’t do his job as well,” Martindell says. Just because someone is undocumented does not mean that they do not have rights. But also, just because a municipality respects those rights does not mean that private corporations and the general public follow suit.
* * *
Since coming to Princeton in 2000, Susana has made strides to find her place in the community. She and her husband applied for and received work permits. She now has consistent work cleaning houses and gets along well with her boss. Susana had two children in the U.S., a now thirteen-year-old boy and nine-year old girl. She enrolled both in Princeton public schools and in order to make communicating with the educational bureaucracy easier, Susana took night classes at a nearby high school and now has basic English skills. Susana is an active part of the growing Latino community; she participates in a church group that supports 25 undocumented families in Mercer County.
Susana once had a bank account but closed it when she discovered how much money she was losing to monthly fees. Now her employers pay her in cash. She regularly sends funds back to relatives in Mexico through one of several stores that wire cash internationally, like Conexión Latina MultiServices on Witherspoon Street, just a few doors from the Mexican and Guatemalan grocer.
On the wall behind the counter at Conexión Latina are two chalk boards, with hand-written numbers on them. People in the community know that they announce conversion rates for dollars into Mexican pesos and Guatemalan quetzals.
The other commodity that is a big seller at Conexión Latina: pre-paid telephone calling cards.
On a table in the shop is a stack of the free weekly Spanish language newspaper, Reporte Hispano. The cover shows a cartoon of Donald Trump, his right arm gesturing off the frame under a sign that says “Deportation.” A swastika is mounted on an armband below his left shoulder. The headline reads “Confusión y Temor.”
Another free newspaper, the monthly Visión Latina, shows Trump on the cover with the caption “America First (Pero No Para Los Hispanos).”
“But not for Hispanics.”
Lots of people in the community believe they are being excluded from concerns of the new administration. Marco Gonzalez, who runs Conexión Latina along with his wife, Rosie, says the fear among his customers has risen noticeably since the Trump administration came to power. “I am OK,” he says. “I’ve been here since 1986 and I went through the process to become naturalized — thank God.” Even so, he feels the stigma of the negative light being cast on immigrants, legal or otherwise.
Life was not easy for the Hispanic immigrant community under the Obama administration, either. Martindell’s wage theft cases serve as one blatantly illegal example of the long-standing mistreatment of undocumented workers, but Susana’s personal experiences show how discrimination can also extend subtly into many official and unofficial settings.
Susana and her husband recently completed a time-consuming application for a local apartment unit and paid a $140 fee for a credit review. After submitting the thick pile of paperwork, they received a letter in response that said that they could not rent the apartment if they were not American citizens: they needed a visa or American passport in order to qualify for the properties.
“Why didn’t they tell me from the beginning?” Susana says. “Why don’t they mention that if you aren’t an American citizen, don’t bother applying?” She spoke to the company about why she had gotten the letter and was told, “sometimes, that’s how things work.”
Explaining this type of discrimination to her children is an even greater challenge for Susana. After reading the letter from the landlord, her son and daughter said, “are they going to come deport you because your aren’t a citizen?” This question has become somewhat of a refrain in Susana’s household over the past few years. To this day, her children do not want their mother to drive, as undocumented people cannot get licenses in New Jersey. They ask what would happen if the police pulled her over. Wouldn’t she get sent back to Mexico?
When living with this constant sense of fear, official institutions can feel threatening rather than helpful and trustworthy. Susana filed a police report when her son’s bike was stolen and the first thing they asked from her was her social security number. A simple routine question, articulated without attention to who is listening, can seem to be a threat. Mistrust sprouts from these moments of neglect and separates an entire community from organizations that, on a municipal, de jure level, just have the role of keeping Princeton safe.
Susana feels even more affected by the subtle class and ethnic discrimination that everyday Princetonians exhibit. Much of Susana’s life revolves around her children’s schools, which have been unwelcoming places for both mother and children. Susana has never been welcomed into circles of wealthy, Anglo parents. Her children have never been invited to others’ play dates. One Latina mother told Susana, “when someone asks you where you work, never tell them that you’re the one who washes clothes and cuts grass.”
The school itself has had issues in communicating with Susana about disciplinary issues. When another parent lodged a complaint against Susana’s daughter for bullying, the school translator called Susana and explained the situation. Rather than contacting her with the problem right away, as they would with any other parent, the school waited to get a translator until the problem escalated, so that they would only have to arrange for translation once. This frustrates Susana, who just wants the same treatment as anyone else. After 17 years in town, she knows how to get a translation if she needs one, she insists.
The alienation that Susana feels also affects her children on a daily basis. Both her daughter and son feel excluded in the classroom and playgrounds. Susana’s daughter explains that the other girls kick her out of the group. “They’re Americans, so the Hispanics are separate,” Susana’s daughter explains. She is a third grader already aware of how her ethnicity isolates her.
“It’s hard to live in the rich world of Princeton. It affects you. It gets to you.” This is what Susana tells her friends and family back in Mexico when they call her. Yes, her children have far more opportunities here than at home. Yes, her family is safe and has enough money. But Princeton, despite being the most beautiful town she has ever seen, lacks inclusion. She sees this grate on her family. “When I grew up in Mexico,” Susana recalls, “I had such good friends. I have the memories that stay with you of having a best friend stand by you.” She wishes her children would be able to have that experience as well.
On a de jure level, Princeton is a safe place to be undocumented, a sanctuary amid hate-driven national politics. But on a de facto level, Princeton has to work to become a truly safe space. As Susana puts it: “One thinks that if you live in Princeton, such discrimination doesn’t exist. But I think it’s where it is most present.”
* * *
LALDEF’s Adriana Abizadeh confirms that Susana’s experience is part of a larger pattern. Though she celebrates Princeton’s strides in recent years to be a welcoming town, she acknowledges that a variety of issues persist, including discrimination against Latino students in Princeton schools. Wage theft, too, is still a regular issue. Organizations like LALDEF try to foster community; though they do a remarkable job, community requires the active collaboration of the majority of Princeton residents.
Active, attentive collaboration is viewed as more urgent now that Donald Trump is president. “The day after the election, when we came into the office, the phone was non-stop ringing,” Abizadeh says. People constantly poured through the doors of La Casa de Bienvenida, the organization’s headquarters in Trenton. They were genuinely afraid about deportation, about what might happen to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), about not knowing quite what was going to happen. Now Trump is following through with his campaign promises to crack down on “illegal criminals”: he ordered ICE raids on immigrant communities, arresting more than 150 people, only some of whom had committed felonies. He has also threatened to deprive sanctuary cities of federal funding if they resist his immigration control efforts.
Abizadeh knows that municipal and nonprofit progressivism isn’t enough to have a truly safe town in this context. National laws set limits for local political efforts, and even the most progressive politics doesn’t mean everyone will be open-minded and aware. But in the coming years, LALDEF can guarantee that it will continue to fight: “We are an immigrant nonprofit, we are serving immigrants, that’s what we do day in, day out regardless of the presidential administration.”
At this moment every member of the Princeton community, not just LALDEF, has the chance to affect the experience of a marginalized group in a moment of fear and threat. In terms of what a documented Princeton resident can do to make that happen, Abizadeh prescribes simple advice for families: “Stand up for your neighbors. Stand up for your friends.”
This can only happen if Princeton becomes aware of the side of Princeton that populates Witherspoon at 6:30 a.m. Just two hours later, that same street will have no more men waiting for work and no more white vans picking people up off the street. Witherspoon at 8:30 a.m. is filled with children going to school and professionals going to work.
Susana likes to describe Princeton as having two faces. There’s the face that everyone sees, the one at 8:30 a.m. And then there’s Susana’s life, which has struggles few people seem to know of or understand. This is the 6:30 a.m. side, one that Susana would like to change, even though she feels she won’t be able to. She calls it the other face of Princeton.
Lara Norgaard is a senior at Princeton University majoring in comparative literature.