Friday, June 25, 2010

Descent Into Slavery, and a Ladder to Another Life

From the New York Times:

He wore a satin suit onstage, so new that a tag was still fixed to the cuff. His 2-year-old daughter wiggled in his arms. The crowd cheered. Lifting his right hand to his lips, Jose Gutierrez seemed to blow a kiss to the audience. But it was more.

Mr. Gutierrez had gotten to the other side of slavery, climbing a ladder of second chances.
More than a decade ago, he was part of the nameless, unseen cast of a horror story. Lured from Mexico on promises of prosperity, he and 56 other people lived as prisoners in two row houses in Queens. By day, they sold key chains and miniature screwdriver kits in the subways, at airports, on roadsides. At night, they turned over every penny to the bosses of the houses.

All of the peddlers were deaf. Mr. Gutierrez, the youngest, had arrived in the United States at age 15, fluent only in Mexican Sign Language.

On Tuesday morning, 13 years after two of the deaf Mexican peddlers walked into a police station in Queens with a letter describing the conditions, Mr. Gutierrez was honored for his diligent work at a company that has cleaning contracts with federal agencies.

Mr. Gutierrez’s assignment: janitor at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

“I remembered playing with a car when I was a little boy, and seeing a picture of her,” he said. “When I found out that I was going to work there, it moved me. Thrilled me.”

There are, it turns out, second acts in American lives. Mr. Gutierrez leaves his home in Astoria shortly after 5 a.m., catches a ferry at 6:30, lands on the island 15 minutes later. He cleans bathrooms, empties trash, dusts a giant globe that shows the journeys of people to the United States.

His own odyssey began in 1995, when he heard from a friend about opportunities for deaf people in the United States. He was the seventh child in a family of eight, the only one who was deaf. “My friend’s father drove us to San Diego,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “I was very awkward. I didn’t know anything. We were supposed to go around and sell things. The money we collected we had to give to the boss.”

After a year in Los Angeles, he moved to a house in New York City that ran under the same terms, led by the Paoletti family, many of whom were also deaf. They would order a box of novelties, like miniature balls and bats, paying $75. The items would be attached to cards explaining that the seller was deaf. The peddlers would spend 12 to 16 hours a day in subway cars, dropping the trinkets in the laps of riders. Each box would bring in $485 in revenue. The bosses would swap bundles of single dollars at Atlantic City casinos for $100 bills, making the money easier to smuggle into Mexico, where it was banked.

Mr. Gutierrez depended entirely on the bosses for a bed and food. They took his money. “We were like slaves,” he said. “It was very frustrating. We couldn’t talk to the cops. It was heartbreaking.”

One day in July 1997, two of the peddlers went into the 115th Precinct station house in Queens, bringing a letter they had composed with help from a couple they had met at Newark Airport. “The police brought interpreters in to get the story told,” said Maria V. Pardo, a job counselor for the deaf with Fedcap Rehabilitation Services. The police found $35,000 in cash in one of the houses and 57 imprisoned peddlers. Federal prosecutors indicted 20 people on charges that included slavery and smuggling, and ultimately, they all pleaded guilty to some wrongdoing.

The peddlers, who were in the country illegally, were subject to deportation, but the administration of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani stepped in; the era of zero tolerance for illegal immigrants had not yet begun. They were put up in a motel by the city, and slowly found places to live, schools to attend, jobs to go to. “They were given special permission to work,” Ms. Pardo said. Nearly 40 people decided to stay in the United States.

Mr. Gutierrez, 17 at the time that the slavery ring was broken up, went to the Lexington School for the Deaf. “The support I got there was wonderful,” he said, and he also fell in love with another student, Christina Gonzalez, who was born in the United States. “I had no family here; her family has been so good to me.”

She pointed him to Fedcap, which provides training and employment for people with disabilities. In 2007, Fedcap sent him to work on Liberty and Ellis Islands under a janitorial services contract administered by AbilityOne, a federal program. He makes $20 an hour plus benefits, and now has a green card.

So on Tuesday, Mr. Gutierrez was brought back to receive a special honor at the Fedcap graduation ceremony.

With him onstage were Ms. Gonzalez and their daughter, Gloria. He lifted his fingers to his mouth, as if he were blowing a kiss. His audience knew better: it was a symbol from American Sign Language, repeated over and over.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you.”

What an absolutely fantastic story. This case, for all of its particular depravity for targeting people with disabilities, is one that was important for the creation and passage of the TVPA; we reference it often during trainings. It is hard to imagine in today's climate around immigration, what would have happened to the survivors in this case if there were no relief options for survivors. As the article mentions, the Mayor's office (and I'm sure other advocates) had to step in and prevent their deportation and luckily, that was more feasible at the time because "zero tolerance" had not yet begun.

I think the story is important as well, because when people are quick to assume that victims are weak individuals and that is why they are "so easily manipulated," we see the personal strength and determination in so many survivors who go on to achieve great things.

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