This story was originally published in the May 2017 Princeton Echo.
Every morning on the way to school, my daughter and I pass La Mexicana, a small neighborhood grocery store, or bodega. In recent years we always see a group of men there dressed in overalls, with lunch bags in hand. They are all Latinos. Often a pickup truck or bus stops and some of them get in. In the afternoon, when I pick my daughter up from school, a few of them are still waiting there, their feet propped against the wall behind them, their lunch bags on the ground.
Princeton has a large Latino community (as the Echo reported in its April issue). But none of the white elite knows their stories, or even their names. These are the invisible Princetonians.
How would the town function without them? In the summer they prune the trees and weed the flowers. In the fall they blow the leaves off the sidewalks. In winter they plow the driveways. In the dead of night they supply the shops and scrub the floors. With a smile, they clear the plates off your table in restaurants and refill the water. Every day an army of housekeepers irons the shirts of Mr., brings the dresses from Ms. to the cleaners, and gets the children from school. Without all this hard work, life would grind to a stop here.
Where do they live? Often not in Princeton, which charges sky-high property taxes. The coveted zip code 08540, unlocking access to one of the best public school systems in America, is not for them. Some of them come by bus from towns like Trenton, New Brunswick, and Camden, where crime can threaten them more than it might have in their countries of origin.
Some manage to create their own affordable housing in Princeton by crowding into small apartments. A while ago, a fire broke out in the basement of a boutique cupcake shop in the center of town. Forty-one people poured out of six apartments above the shop. The overcrowded residents included both students and underpaid immigrants. Underpaid, but not in a position to complain. The income disparity between the richest and poorest people in Princeton is among the highest in New Jersey.
They are not all illegal, though. Two-thirds of the Latinos in Princeton were born in the U.S. My Brazilian housekeeper Maria fled the favelas in São Paulo and then embarked on the long and costly road to legality. She remembers well how it was. Always be alert, stay on your guard. Never do something to draw attention to yourself. Stick to every rule. Always go out of your way to avoid a police officer. She was terrified that she would be separated from her children, who were born here and thus automatically entitled to American citizenship. She lived in constant fear that, if she were deported, the children would be put on a plane to go to a foster home and she would never know what happened to them.
And since the presidential election, she tells me, all her friends and relatives are terrified. Even if you are here legally, there is always a cousin or grandmother who is not. Stories about immigration raids are everywhere. People are pulled from their beds. Police arrest them on the street. Parents are afraid to run errands, to leave their house to pick up children at school. They dare not even go to church anymore. She shows me a card that you can slide under the door if the police arrive: “You cannot just pick me up. I have the right to call a lawyer.”
For the past few weeks there is no one to be seen at La Mexicana. The men are waiting every day in a different place while looking for work, running the invisible economy of our town.
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her bestselling memoir, “Charlotte,” will be published in the U.S. in July. She can be contacted at piadejong.com.