Building Power from the Ground Up: Mexican Civil Society in New York

Alfonso Gonzales


2265New York City May Day Rally, 2013. Photo by Alfonso Gonzales.

A man and woman speaking Nahuatl with facial features as old as the continent itself sell champurado and tamales at the entrance of a train station. The train beneath takes passengers across a magnificent city that sits on an ancient island with grandiose bridges connecting it to the surrounding areas that were once inhabited by these vendors’ indigenous relatives. This could easily be Mexico City, but it is not. This is New York City, where the Mexican community has grown dramatically. There are well over 300,000 Mexicans living within the city’s boundaries according to the 2010 Census. Moreover, according to a report released by the Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, the number of Mexicans living in the city and its surrounding counties increased from 96,662 in 1990 to 334,220 in the year 2000, and to 607,503 in 2010.1 The same report notes that Mexicans are poised to become the city’s largest Latino group by the early 2020s.2


The report has excellent, though not always encouraging, social and economic data on the Mexican community in New York, problematically concluding that “the political influence of Mexicans was miniscule” based on the community’s relative low share of the electorate in New York City. 3 While it may be true that Mexicans do not constitute a large share of the electorate, in September 2013, Carlos Menchaca became the first Mexican American to be elected to New York’s City Council. Menchaca, who is originally from El Paso, Texas, represents a district that encompasses Sunset Park, Red Hook, Greenwood Heights, Borough Park, Windsor Terrace, and Bay Ridge Towers.

While some progress has been made in the electoral arena, Mexicans have yet to develop effective electoral clout in New York City. However, the CUNY report, like most work in the field of Latino politics, assumes that the political is limited to the electoral realm, though this represents just one site of political power. Indeed, politics is about the struggle for power, and Mexicans in New York City are engaged in a daily struggle for power and dignity at the level of civil society—the private associations and organizations that are outside the formal apparatus of government or the economy.

The development of this Mexican civil society is the product of the unique nature of the community’s migration and integration into New York City. Mexican communities have been in New York as early as the 1920s, but the vast majority of Mexicans in the city today have come within the last 30 years.4 New York and the tri-state area have become one of the primary hubs for migration from the southern Mexican states of Puebla, Guerrero, Oaxaca, the State of Mexico, Tlaxcala, and more recently, Chiapas. Unlike their northern and central Mexican counterparts from states like Zacatecas, Jalisco, and Michoacán, who have been migrating since the Mexican Revolution, these migrants from the south have entered the migrant stream only over the last three decades.

Further contrasting with the large Mexican and Mexican American regions such as southern California, the south valley in Texas, or the much older mega-barrio region of Mexican Chicago, Mexicans in New York City are concentrated in comparatively small but densely populated communities such as East Harlem, Sunset Park, Bushwick, Jackson Heights–Corona, the South Bronx, and parts of Staten Island, where they often live alongside Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Ecuadorans, Colombians, and Central Americans. These Mexican communities have their own idiosyncrasies, cultural and community organizations, and unique migration patterns with direct ties to states, villages, and indigenous groups in Mexico (See Santos-Briones, this issue). Moreover, unlike most of their northern and central Mexican counterparts, most Mexican migrants in New York are indigenous people who are racialized and segmented into the labor force in unique ways, along with other indigenous migrants from the mountains of Ecuador, Guatemala, and other countries. Many of these migrants are native speakers of indigenous languages like Nahuatl, Mixteco, Zapoteco, Otomíe. In fact it is not uncommon to meet Mexicans who have learned Spanish while learning English in New York. Mexican integration into the city’s cultural, social, and political life has taken on its own path and its own unique characteristics.

Notwithstanding these differences, the key to understanding contemporary Mexican migration to New York—and to the rest of the United States for that matter—is that it is primarily a labor migration that cannot be separated from asymmetrical relations of domination between the United States and Mexico, or from the geographically specific racial hierarches that have defined the United States since its inception. Indeed, what most of the Mexican communities in New York have in common is that they have been launched into the migrant stream by the same processes of neoliberal globalization that have transformed both Mexico and New York City over the last 30 years.

Neoliberalism—the ideology of free-market capitalism—has guided the expansion of global capital through the regional integration of North American economies. The primary winners have been the dominant classes in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, all of which have gained more wealth and power, while working-class people have had to bear the brunt of austerity measures and dog-eat-dog competition in the labor market. As noted by Mexican political economist Raúl Delgado-Wise, there is a dialectic between migration and development. He uses this concept to explain how the implementation of the neoliberal development paradigm—which transformed Mexico’s economy from one based on import-substitution industrialization to one based on export-led development—is the structural cause of migration.5 According to Delgado-Wise, during the period 1990 to 1995, Mexico lost roughly 400,000 of its citizens to migration each year; from 2000 to 2005, that number reached 560,000.6 During a similar period, the number of foreign-born workers in the United States increased from 12.9 million in 1994 to 23.9 million in 2009, with Mexicans and Central Americans accounting for a large percentage of the total foreign-born workers.7

The growth of foreign-born workers in the United States does not entirely explain why New York became a primary hub for Mexican migration. As migration-control policies intensified in traditional migrant destinations and along the U.S.-Mexico border in California and Arizona, migration patterns began to change and the demand for cheap labor increased in New York, which was undergoing its own neoliberal transformation.


Neoliberal globalization has transformed both the Mexican countryside and the city of New York. As noted by scholars such as David Harvey, New York and other major industrial cities went through major transformations starting in the late 1970s, transformations in which their economies became dependent on services and flexible labor, rather than industry and unionized workers. According to Harvey, “Faced with strong market volatility, heightened competition, and narrow profit margins, employers have taken advantage of weakened union power and the pools of surplus (unemployed and underemployed) laborers to push for much more flexible work regimes and labor contracts.… More important has been the apparent move away from regular employment toward increased reliance upon part-time, temporary, or subcontracted work arrangements.”8 This new labor regime, which replaced the unionized and full-time labor contracts that characterized capital-labor relations from World War II to the late 1970s, has become dependent on flexible labor, especially in global city regions.

Mexicans in New York have entered the city as the quintessential flexible laborers who make possible the high-end consumption of the city’s affluent classes. Global cities like New York are characterized by high-end consumption for the city’s affluent—often white—residents, who depend on a highly flexible and racialized segment of the labor economy to meet their needs. Indeed, one finds Mexican workers in almost every kind of service employment—including restaurants, construction (as day laborers and casual workers), car washes, cleaners and laundry, fast-food delivery, and housekeeping. Moreover, Mexicans have also become a force in New York’s informal economy, in which the underemployed work street corners as day laborers and as street vendors, and offer other types of informal work. This flexible labor exists in the context of extreme social and economic inequality; thus, on the one hand, New York is home to the nation’s richest population, but on the other hand, it has 1.7 million people who live below the federal poverty line.9

Both academic and popular discussion about most U.S. cities today is riddled with concern about gentrification. This is especially the case in New York. The reality is that the gentrification and Mexicanization of New York are part of the same dialectical process. In a classic example of “creative destruction,” neoliberalism is destroying older communities in New York and, at the same time, creating new pockets of development and flexible accumulation. In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, it is not uncommon to hear people complain, “This neighborhood used to be filled with Puerto Ricans and Italians, now it’s full of Mexicans.” These racialized rants are all too familiar to anyone familiar with New York, but they reflect a contradictory common sense that recognizes that the city is rapidly changing. Brooklyn, for instance, has lost 49,000 black residents since 2000, while all of New York lost a total of 100,000.10 During this same period, the white population soared from 4% to 26% in northern Brooklyn, which has become a choice destination for the young, affluent whites who are gentrifying the city. Along with this increase in the affluent, white population, there has been an increase in the population of Mexicans and Central and South Americans, as well as Asians, who are also integrated into the city as flexible laborers. The more affluent group has a lifestyle that demands services—food, laundry, housekeeping, entertainment, taxis, etc.—while the latter groups have emerged as the flexible labor force to provide those very services. The more affluent sectors of the city frequent cafés, restaurants, fancy boutiques, and nodes in the service sector. Yet the open secret of gentrification, as with all high-end, conspicuous consumption, is that it is made possible only through the use of Mexican and other migrant’s flexible labor.


Mexicans are not, however, just flexible laborers with no agency. On the contrary, it is precisely in the highly racialized spaces in the labor economy where an emergent Mexican civil society is evolving to transform politics in New York, which by its very nature means transforming politics in the United States and potentially in Mexico.

Having a vibrant Mexican civil society in the city, one that is independent of the major political parties (both in the United States and in Mexico), is a critical step toward building Mexican political power in New York. This does not mean that Mexicans and Mexican Americans in New York should discard traditional electoral politics or civic institutions in the United States or Mexico. On the contrary, it means they should engage with these institutions but from a position of power exercised from below in the form of organized social bases in civil society. Indeed, Mexican and Mexican American civil society-based organizations played a pivotal role in the ethnic coalition that got Carlos Menchaca elected to the City Council. However, it is still too soon to tell if Carlos Menchaca will produce favorable results for the Mexican American community. It is almost certain that without a politically autonomous and organized Mexican civil society to hold him—and future Mexican American elected officials—accountable, he will likely be a disappointment, like many Mexican American politicians throughout the southwest.

Given their own unique evolution, the Mexican and Mexican American communities of New York are positioned to build their power in civil society in the country’s biggest and most influential city. With this in mind, there are several sites of economic and political struggle in which Mexicans and Mexican Americans are building their organizing capacity in civil society. We will focus on just a few of those sites: car wash workers, day laborers, street vendors, and Mexican youth. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of the sites of Mexican migrant organizing in New York but rather a discussion of just some of the organized sectors that have emerged in Mexican New York over the years.

Car Wash Workers: One of the most visible and effective sites of struggle for Mexican and Latino migrant labor has been among car-wash workers, known as los carwasheros. The carwasheros are being organized in a campaign known as Workers Aligned for a Sustainable and Healthy (WASH) New York, which is a collaborative effort by New York Communities for Change, in partnership with Make the Road New York, Retail Wholesale, and the Department Store Union. The carwasheros are Mexican, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan workers who face some of the most exploitative conditions in the city. Nonunionized carwasheros are expected to work at least 50 hours per week for as little as $5.50 per hour. Moreover, they are regularly exposed to dangerous chemicals and are expected to work in extreme temperatures. Nonunionized carwasheros also face regular abuse on the job, including theft of tips, late paychecks, and sometimes checks without funds, and often face emotional and psychological abuse from employers.

The WASH campaign emerged in 2012 to improve the conditions among car wash workers. This has resulted in paid overtime, paid vacation time, paid sick days, guaranteed annual salary increases, and the proper sharing of tips for workers. The WASH campaign has won seven out of seven National Labor Review Board cases (one of which was won unanimously), won four contract negotiations, and is in the process of winning two more. Most critically, Los Carwasheros have reclaimed their dignity and respect in a segment of the labor economy that was known for treating workers like cattle. These changes have led to improved working conditions, not just for the unionized workers but also for car-wash workers across New York who now report improved labor conditions.

Day Laborers: Another important site of struggle for Mexican and Latino migrant workers has been in the day-labor movement. This sector has become increasingly important to contractors and most non-unionized construction sites in New York because day laborers (jornaleros) can be hired on a temporary basis and paid in cash and below market rates, while employers do not have to offer them benefits or safety equipment. Day-labor corners are prominent in every borough of New York. There are a number of community organizations that organize day laborers throughout the city, including New York Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) and the Latin American Workers Project, among others that are affiliated with the National Day Laborer Network (NDLON). Moreover, there are independent day laborer organizations, such as Los Jornaleros de Woodside (Queens) and dozens of independent day-labor corners throughout the city. These organizations work to defend the rights of day laborers, who often face wage theft, police harassment, and exploitative working conditions. Day-labor corners and day-labor organizations vary in their political orientation; some are service providers and others are actively engaged in day-to-day organizing, functioning as social movement organizations with the capacity to mobilize local and transnational solidarity actions with worker struggles elsewhere in the city and in Mexico.

Street Vendors: Street vending has proved to be an important alternative to working for a boss and facing exploitation and labor abuse for Mexican migrants in New York. Moreover, street vending for many indigenous communities has been a source of income for generations. Mexican street vendors often sell tamales, champurrados, tacos, and ice cream, among other items. They often work long hours, starting at four or five A.M. and under harsh conditions, especially in the summer and wintertime. Street vendors face constant police intimidation, harassment by “established businesses” that often seek to use police and in some cases vigilante violence to run street vendors, whom they see as competition, out of business. The NYPC and the Sanitation Department often give them tickets that could reach up to $2,000 and result in the immediate confiscation of their carts and products. Just one ticket can easily put a street vendor out of business and into debt. In response, street-vendor organizing has proliferated throughout the city, with organizations such as VAMOS-Unidos, the Street Vendor Project, and others that have emerged to organize Mexican and other Latino street vendors. Such groups provide strategies and recourse to help street vendors defend themselves from police harassment in the form of ticketing and intimidation. As with day-laborer organizations, a number of street vendor organizations are independent.

Mexican Youth and Students: Beyond the distinct sectors of the labor economy, Mexican and Mexican American youth and students—most of whom are also workers—form another important sector of Mexican civil society in New York. According to a recent study on Mexican youth by the Community Service Society, 46% of Mexicans in the city are under age 25, and three out of ten are under 16.11 The same study notes that Mexican immigrants have the highest rate of labor participation but are concentrated in the lowest-paying jobs. Recent studies also reveal that Mexicans have the highest school dropout rate in the city. Mexicans drop out of New York public schools at a staggering 49%. This is much higher than any other ethnic group in New York.12

But despite all the painful statistics about Mexican youth in New York, a relatively small but influential group of Mexican youth has emerged to play a major role in nearly every social movement imaginable in New York. Indeed, we must remember that carwasheros, jornaleros, and many street vendors are under age 30. Youth, especially undocumented Mexican youth, have played a major role in the migrant rights movement throughout the city in a plethora of organizations and capacities. Although they often belong to student organizations that do not have a “Mexican identity” per se, undocumented Mexican youth play a major role in groups such as the New York State Leadership Council, an organization that has fought for the Dream Act and for in-state tuition for undocumented youth in the city and state university systems. Over the years, Mexican American youth organizations have emerged, such as the Mexican American Student Alliance (MASA), the Raza Youth Collective (RYC), and the Mexican American Youth Advising Students (MAYAS). Collectively, these youth organizations have begun to forge an important link between the first and second generation, and have taken on the role of facilitating the integration of the Mexican community into the educational and social systems in New York. Some, such as MASA and MAYAS, focus more on educational access issues, while others such as RYC focus on building the political and organizational leadership of young Mexicans. Indeed, there is an entire generation of young Mexican American leaders and intellectuals throughout New York. Although this sector has yet to develop the organizational capacity to organize Mexican youth outside the five boroughs, it will continue to grow and influence the development of Mexican civil society in New York.

Transnational Organizations: Beyond local organizations that are engaged in politics in the city, a vibrant transnational Mexican civil society has emerged in New York, which has witnessed the trans-local manifestations of social movements in Mexico, such as the Yo Soy 132 New York movement. At the height of its popularity in 2012, the latter mobilized hundreds of Mexicans to emergency protests to denounce the election and alleged fraud of Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto. Yo Soy 132 and other Mexican migrant organizations and religious leaders have supported numerous caravans for peace and human rights in Mexico, and its members regularly attend the actions of local Mexican migrant organizations.

In one recent powerful display of how Mexican migrant organizations and leaders are often engaged both locally and transnationally, a group of roughly 100 Mexicans, including car-wash workers, day laborers, Yo Soy 132 activists, and students, together with their allies from the Philippines and other parts of the world, gathered outside the Mexican Consulate on September 10, 2013, to support a caravan of former braceros—Mexican workers who were brought to the United States from 1942 to 1965 and suffered foul treatment at the hands of the U.S. government, employers, and the Mexican government.


All these distinct sectors, including carwasheros, jornaleros, street vendors, and undocumented Mexican youth, face distinct conditions in their respective social sectors. Yet as the action in front of the Mexican consulate illustrates, Mexican civil society in New York is evolving into a complex, multi-sector social movement that is expanding beyond narrow interests and immediate campaigns and becoming conscious of its place in the city and as part of a broader historical struggle of Mexican migrant workers in the United States and social movements in Mexico.

There are many campaigns that could be used to build the social-movement capacity of Mexican civil society in New York, ranging from immigration reform to housing. But perhaps the greatest opportunities for building this power are at the intersection of the criminal justice and migration control systems, especially since Mexicans comprise the largest national group apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in New York City between October 2005 and December 2010.13

Deportation affects street vendors, day laborers, students, and youth, all of whom face police harassment in a city that aggressively polices black and Latino youth. This could have violent and deadly results for Latino youth regardless of their legal status. For the undocumented in particular, interaction with the police often leads to deportation proceedings because of New York’s participation in the Secure Communities Program and its cooperation with ICE detainers. Under Secure Communities, an undocumented person who enters any local, state, or federal detention facility will have his or her fingerprints run through FBI and DHS databases, which will in turn lead to Immigrant and Customs Enforcement’s putting a “detainer” on the individual. Detainers ask local authorities to hold the individual for 48 hours until ICE can pick them up and put them in immigration proceedings, which in most cases results in deportation.

Secure Communities and the ICE detainer program cannot be viewed in a vacuum; although these policies have been implemented at the federal level, Mexican migrants—and most people of color—experience them at the street level with the New York Police Department, which is notorious for using stop-and-frisk and other forms of zero-tolerance policing, such as Operation Impact (see García, this issue). Organizing around the intersection of the immigration and criminal justice systems could strengthen the bonds between the distinct sectors that I have discussed in this article. Once again Mexican organizers are in nearly every major immigrant rights organizations in New York City and are well positioned to take on this fight.

It would be a mistake fraught with political consequences to argue that Mexicans in New York should reproduce older models of organization and community empowerment that have been applied by Chicanos in the southwest or more established Latino communities in New York City, such as the models used by Puerto Ricans or Dominicans. Every political strategy must be based on the concrete conditions facing the particular terrain of struggle in which those seeking empowerment live. Yet at the heart of all of these distinct Latino movements is the struggle for self-determination and the forging of what Ignacio García calls a militant ethos: “a common set of strategies, ideas, and rationalization” that a “community uses to combat racism, discrimination, poverty, and segregation, and to define itself politically and historically.”14 While García was speaking about Chicanos in the southwest, I suggest that there is a new militant Mexican ethos developing in New York with its own identity, organizations, intellectuals, lawyers, artists, and cultural workers who will draw on their own unique genealogies of struggle that are rooted in southern Mexico and in New York City to shape politics and culture for generations to come.



1. Laird W. Bergad, “Demographic, Economic, and Social Transformations in the Mexican Origin Population of New York City Metropolitan Area, 1990-2010,” Latino Data Project, Report 49, September 2013.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid, p. 60.

4. For more on Mexican migration to New York, see Robert Smith, Mexican New York: The Transnational Lives of New Immigrants (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), and Alyshia Galvez, Guadalupe in New York: Devotion and the Struggle for Citizenship Rights among Mexican Immigrants (New York: New York University Press, 2009).

5. Raúl Delgado-Wise, “Forced Migration and US Imperialism: The Dialectic of Migration and Development,” Critical Sociology 35, no. 6 (2009): 793–810.

6. Ibid.

7. Hector Cordero-Guzman and Desire Nunez, “Immigrant Labor and the U.S. Economy: A Profile,” New Labor Forum 22, no. 2 (2013):18.

8. David Harvey, quoted in Robyn M. Rodriguez, Migrants for Export (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2010), 27.

9. Sam Roberts, “Poverty Rate Is Up in New York City, and Income Gap Is Wide, Census Study Show,” New York Times, September 19, 2013.

10. Sam Roberts, “City’s Hispanic Makeup Shifts as Dominicans Leave, Mexican Arrive,” City Room (blog), New York Times, May 10, 2012, available at

11. Community Service Society, Young Mexican Americans.

12. Louis E.V. Nevaer, “New York Struggles to Educate Indigenous Mexican Immigrants,” New America Media,” January 5, 2012, available at

13. “Insecure Communities, Devastated Families: New Data on Immigrant Detention and Deportation Practices in New York City,” Families for Freedom, Immigrant Defense Project: Immigrant Rights Clinic (IRC) of Washington Square Legal Servcies, Inc. July 2012, 7.

14. Ignacio M. García, Chicanismo: The Forging of a Militant Ethos among Mexican Americans. (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997), 4.



Alfonso Gonzales ( is the author of the Reform without Justice: Latino Migrant Politics and the Homeland Security State (Oxford University Press, 2013). He is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Lehman College. He would like to thank his usual reviewers, Esther Portillo-Gonzales, and the editors at NACLA, as well as Rocio Valerio, Janet Pérez, and Maria Huerta, who provided valuable feedback on this article. 



Read the rest of NACLA's Winter 2013 issue: "Latino New York"




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