An Urgent Kind of Hope

By Cecilia De La Macorra

At four in the afternoon, Esperanza Chacon answered a phone call from a nurse at Brooklyn Methodist Hospital.

"There's a Mexican lady here whom we've been treating," said the nurse. She explained that the woman was pregnant and suffering from high blood pressure and complications from diabetes; she was also distraught. "She is looking for her husband," the nurse said. "He worked in the World Trade Center."

Chacon struggled to find a piece of blank paper among the piles of documents accumulated on her desk. After scribbling some notes, she sent a representative from Asociacion Tepeyac, an agency on 14th Street in Manhattan where Chacon has a title that explains why she is so much in demand -- urgent services director.

Arriving at the hospital, Tepeyac's representative found a 32-year-old woman who was in her fifth month of pregnancy. Anguish and desperation were putting her health and that of her baby at risk. In Mexico on September 11th, when she heard about the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, she remembered that her husband, who had come to New York in the summer, was working there. With the help of a smuggler, she crossed the US-Mexican border a few days later.

Asociacion Tepeyac took her case, saw her through her hospital stay, raised money to provide her with food and lodging, helped her to open a bank account and obtain her Mexican passport through the Consulate, and walked her through the grim official procedure for registering her husband's disappearance. Now, she waits, like the relatives of about two dozen other Mexican immigrants b elieved to have been lost in the attack. She no longer expects that her husband is alive, but she hopes that Congress will pass an amnesty for the families of the victims of September 11th, entitling her to further financial aid and residence in the United States.

Esperanza Chacon's first name means "hope" in Spanish, and that is exactly what she tries to bring to thousands of the Mexicans who have immigrated to New York City. Although almost two-thirds of the Mexican population in the United States are legal permanent residents or American citizens, the number of undocumented Mexicans continues to grow. In fact, half the undocumented immigrants living in this country are Mexican-born. In New York City, the number of Mexican immigrants has increased significantly in the last decade, to an estimated half million. Their often-undocumented status makes them vulnerable to exploitation

Asociacion Tepeyac (named for the hill where the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's most important religious image, appeared in 1531) is the only non-governmental organization protecting the rights of Mexican immigrants in New York. Through her work at the agency she helped to found, Chacon often deals with cases of Mexican New Yorkers kicked out of their homes, fired from their jobs or denied their paychecks. These immigrants tend to work long hours for miserable salaries, may encounter verbal or physical abuse at their workplaces, and are victimized by those they go to for help -- lawyers take money and promise to obtain resident permits, but seldom deliver. The United States government seems only to add to their troubles: In 1998, Asociacion Tepeyac realized that 84 percent of detentions by the Immigration and Naturalization Service involved Mexicans, far more than other ethnic groups with higher percentages of undocumented aliens. Many live in constant fear of being deported.

The phone rings constantly in Chacon's office at Asociacion Tepeyac, where she listens to one grievance after another, mostly about an exploitive workplace. Sometimes she will call up employers prodding them for better working conditions. Other times, she talks to the Labor Department. If nothing else works, she organizes boycotts of companies that exploit immigrants. One such campaign involved the green groceries, largely owned by Koreans. With the help of New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the owners finally agreed to provide adequate compensation to the employees. But most often she listens and then offers advice, frequently legal advice. Chacon never graduated from high school, but she has been through 11 years of aiding undocumented immigrants, and, perhaps even more of a qualification, she once was one of them.

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Esperanza Chacon grew up in a house that lacked running water, in a town of dirt roads called San Pedro, Coahuila, near the United States border. She was one of eight children, and she had to drop out of school at the age of 15, working long hours at a shoe store, an ice-cream parlor and an auto-assembly line.

Residents in border towns like San Pedro have special documents to allow them to move back and forth across the border without a special visa, as long as they stay within the local area. When she turned 22 years old in 1989, Chacon decided to walk across the border and keep on going. She obtained a permit to go to Houston, where she took a plane to New York. A year as a babysitter worked miracles at home - her family back home now had water, electricity, even a small refrigerator.

But in New York , she felt alone, afraid, and pushed aside. Eventually, she discovered a church on 14th Street that provides services in Spanish for a Mexican congregation, Nuestra Se÷ora de Guadalupe. It was here that she found other Mexicans who had had similar experiences and, especially in the youth group she joined, they began to develop a sense of family.

Though she continued to baby sit, and began cleaning houses for a living as well, her true vocation became her work with the Mexican community. She spent her free time trying to help other young Mexicans, sometimes just by listening to their stories, sometimes by referring them to others for help, but more and more by finding solutions to their problems. She offered directions to Mexicans who were lost, translated documents to those who could not speak English, obtained emergency medical aid, took her fellow immigrants to lawyers, She started to learn the law so that she could explain it.

The more she worked with the Mexican Consulate, New York's Small Claims Court and the U.S. Labor Department, the more Chacon realized that the community needed its own institution. She knocked on many doors in search of a helping hand, until finally the Archdiocese of New York lent her space on 14th Street, known as the Centro Guadalupano. She also met Brother Joel Magallan, who was researching the problems of Mexican immigrants. One thing led to another and some five years ago, she was part of a coalition that included some 300 community leaders and 40 organizations from all five boroughs that created the Tepeyac Association.

"In New York, the Mexican community has had two phases, says Billy Tipacti, a friend of Chacon who works for the Spanish-language TV network, Univision. "Before Tepeyac, and after Tepeyac."

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Tepeyac, which is a social service agency, a human rights group, and even a cultural institution, now has some 10,000 members. It has become powerful enough for Vicente Fox to have sought its support while he was running to be president of Mexico. But it remains grassroots enough to have refused to give it to him. Chacon wonders if this had been a mistake. "When he won we weren't included in his immigration discussions."

Chacon herself last year received the Women's Award from El Diario La Prensa, at a breakfast at the Plaza honoring Hispanic Women. Volunteers at Tepeyac speak of her with deep admiration. "She's a great leader and I'm very proud of her," says Andres Mares. "She knows how to speak softly when someone calls crying," says Liliana Rivera, "but she also knows how to be firm and honest when she has to deal with employers and politicians."

Chacon herself thinks she could learn to be more diplomatic, but she has come a long from the frightened young woman who arrived in New York a dozen years ago. "I feel stronger, braver, more mature," she says. "Although I still experience fear sometimes, now I know how to overcome those feelings."

What she has not overcome is her memory of what it was like when she first arrived, and that is a good thing. Though she now has legal status, "I'm able to see problems from their perspective, since I once was an undocumented migrant, often subject to discrimination." She knows what it was like as an undocumented immigrant to try to get medical care; each time she wanted to see a doctor, she would have to wait as long as six hours. Obtaining her legal status, she eventually applied for medical insurance, and then suddenly, the long waiting times evaporated. She saw how people reacted to her because, while she learned to speak English fluently, she kept a strong Mexican accent. "If you speak without a foreign accent, they tend to treat you better."

She knows now that the undocumented have some rights, rights that are routinely violated. "Even if immigrants are undocumented, they have to get paid for their work," she says. Even if they are accused of a crime, she says, they have a right to a legal defense.

And they have a right to her help. It was late at night when Esperanza Chacon answered the phone. "Could you please come and pick this girl up?" the person on the other end of the line said. "She seems to be Mexican. She's lost." Chacon helped her find her way.

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