Our Ivanka, our America: a story of Latino immigrants

To the family she is just “Ivanka.” Not “Ivanka Trump,” not “Miss Trump”—simply “Ivanka.” As if the millionaire’s daughter and my family in New York of Latin American immigrants were old friends. In some way they are.

Some years ago, my mother told me on the phone that my cousin Marcela—who has been living in the States for almost ten years but only two years ago became a legal citizen—was working for Ivanka. “Who’s that?”, I asked my mother – to which she replied, indignant: “Well, Ivanka!”

Last year, as I was planning a visit to the family in Jackson Heights, their bustling neighborhood in Queens, my mother called to tell me that if I wanted to see another member of the family—whose name I should better not mention here, since after twenty years in New York he is still an “illegal”—I should change my route, because, “as you know” (I didn’t) “on Sundays he is with Ivanka.” That meant that he was working for her in one of the luxury stores she owns.

Actually, none of us has ever spoken to Ivanka in person. However, the word “Ivanka” has a very special meaning for my family. For us, the mere mention of the name reminds us that those of us who went to “America”—a word that most “Americans” use but no Latin American does—have, somehow, made it there.

Almost half of my family on my mother’s side left Colombia betweenen the late 1990s and the early 2000s for New York, New Jersey, and other cities along the East Coast of the United States. First that relative whose name must not be spoken, then three of my mother’s six younger siblings—uncles Pablo, Fernando, and Gonzalo—and, finally, cousin Marcela, who is two years younger than me.

They are part of the tremendous exodus happening in Latin America since the 1970s. Due to the follow-up immigration of partners and children, some marriages and the birth of a couple of sons and daughters, the five original relatives have built a vast extended family, which today is indeed bigger than the one that stayed in Colombia. Their story is that of millions of others. So-called “Hispanics” are nowadays the largest ethnic minority in the United States. Around 54 million people, 17 percent of the total U.S. population, have a Latin American background. In 2060 they will account for 31 percent.

Most of the approximately eleven million people that live and work in the United States as illegal immigrants are Latin Americans. I have no idea about what Ivanka makes of that. My cousin Marcela, in any case, does not want to accuse her of anything. Usually, when I talk to Marcela I get the feeling that she, in general, does not like to talk in a negative way about other people.

Marcela went to New York when she could not find work after getting her degree in Psychology in our city, Bogotá. When she still was an illegal alien she worked for almost three years as a clerk in one of Ivanka’s jewelry stores. At times she was responsible for the transportation of jewelry worth thousands of dollars, she told me recently. Aside from the meager salary, which was her final reason to quit, Marcela said this experience was a quite positive one. “Ivanka seemed like a good, polite person. Of course, I only saw her twice. But anyway, she didn’t seem to be arrogant,” Marcela told me in the timid way in which uses to answer to my questions every time we talk about her life in New York.

What Ivanka’s father, Donald Trump, the magnate and presidential pre-candidate for the Republican Party, thinks about Latinos in the United States (the word he uses to talk about them is “Mexicans”), and especially about those who are illegal, became clear some time ago. In one of his explosive speeches in the summer of last year, Trump famously said that when Mexico “sends its people, they’re not sending the best”. They’re sending “people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

To avoid a nasty generalization, Trump considerately added: “Some, I assume, are good people.” To this day, Trump’s public statements about Latinos—as well as about a quite long list of other ethnic and religious minorities—have remained along similar lines.

After Trump’s statements, the U.S. Congressional Research Service noted that the majority of illegal immigrants behave quite differently; crime rates within the first generation of immigrants are lower than in the rest of the population.

In an open letter to Trump, a young Mexican woman wrote that her father, who has lived illegally in the United States for years, and who “has worked 5-6 days a week since I was a child and I’ve never heard him complain about it one time,” was the greatest man that she knew.

Latin American politicians, artists and a starred chef from Spain criticized the billionaire. However, polls show that for many voters Trump appears as the best Republican candidate. I ask my cousin Marcela what she thinks of Donald Trump. Her answer to this question is slightly more vehement than the others. “I think that he has no idea what he is talking about,” she says. “Maybe he does not know that almost every waiter, every cook, every cleaning person in the restaurants and hotels he frequents is a Latino who probably was or still is illegal.”

I ask whether she believes that our emigrated family belongs to “the best” of our country. “I don’t think so!” she replies with a laugh. “But we are people who came here to live a decent life, and whose only dream is being legal. Of course, bad immigrants do exist. And the problem is that all of us are being discriminated against because of those few. That is just not right. We came here to work.”

My relatives belonged to Colombia’s lower-middle-class, which usually holds hard work, cleanliness, respectability, and family values in high regard. They have built a productive life in the U.S. And, like a huge number of immigrants in the States, they send money back to Colombia almost every week.

That’s how Marcela paid back the debts her mother had incurred to send her to college. None of my relatives has ever committed a crime (except, of course, being illegal themselves) and they would very probably perceive any trouble with the law as a disgrace for the whole family. Despite the common Colombian stereotype, none of them has ever been involved with drugs—except for Uncle Pablo, of course.

As a young man, Pablo was an notorious stoner who built his joints in such a masterly manner that his buddies used to call him “the architect.” Once I asked him about his infamous past. He told me, still ashamed, that he had lost many years to drugs, “and caused your grandmother many headaches.” But thirty years ago he found Jesus and became a pastor in one of the evangelical churches born in Tennessee or Alabama and that are now flooding all of Latin America. In the early 1990s Pablo and his wife were ordered by their church to go to Philadelphia and save the souls of Latinos. Today they live in Atlantic City with two daughters in college.

My other uncles emigrated for more mundane reasons. Fernando—known in the family for his calm temper and his funny dance moves when he has had something to drink—worked as a cab driver in Bogotá for years. One day he saw himself in his constantly vacant cab, surrounded by countless other vacant cabs and their frustrated drivers who had fled to the capital to escape the violence and lack of perspective in their provinces.

His two sons were in high school back then. Fifteen years ago, when I visited my family in New York for the first time, Fernando, still illegal at that time, had three jobs: from five to one he worked for a demolition company in New Jersey; from three to ten at night he worked at a recycling yard in New York; and almost every weekend he worked in a factory producing radiators. Today one of his sons lives and works in Newark, the other one studies in Bogotá. Fernando’s marriage, however, did not survive the long distance.

Uncle Gonzalo—a neat, diligent, and sometimes too serious man who is always the first one to congratulate me on my birthday every year and has the peculiar habit to tell waiters how to set the table correctly—was doing well as a bank employee in Bogotá. In the late 1980s he was laid off as part of a mass dismissal. He started working for a construction company that went bankrupt. So he opened a restaurant and then a bar—both failed.

One of his daughters was in college, the other one just born. In the first years after his arrival, Gonzalo—who was always proud of having an account with the Chase Manhattan Bank, which one can get as an illegal—worked as help in the kitchen of a yacht club on Long Island. Today he is the head waiter there. Both his daughters live close to New York; the elder married a Jewish lawyer some years ago and has now three children, the younger is in high school. Gonzalo’s marriage however, did not survive the long distance either.

My cousin Marcela tells me that getting the chance to work for Ivanka came “as a kind of liberation” from the first hard jobs, from cleaning toilets, from feeling like an extraterrestrial in the United States.

At first, she remembers, she was afraid to go to Manhattan: “I barely spoke English and all these people seemed so important! But it got better with time.” I ask how is it even possible for an illegal person to find a job. “That’s easy. You always know someone who knows where people are needed.” And how come they let you work? “Well, we are the perfect workers. We get minor salaries and if someone finds out that we are working with fake papers we get fired right away. After that the next immigrant is waiting in line and the whole process starts over.”

And what would my cousin reply if someone called her and the rest of our family criminals? “I would tell that person that we are no criminals. Yes, we have lived as illegals, but none of us wanted to be that.” I dig deeper: “But you knew that you were doing something illegal.” She is quiet. I ask again: “What would you say to that?” Then she says in a sad voice: “I don’t know what to say. I really don’t know what to say…” And then I feel very ashamed. We come from the same place. One day I also decided to leave Colombia, in my case for Germany, and to look for new perspectives, to begin a new life. I just had more luck.

A few years ago my cousin married a U.S. citizen. Last year they had a baby girl. Ivanka’s father stated some months ago that, should he become president, children of former illegal immigrants would not be accepted as U.S. citizens. I ask my cousin Marcela if she is afraid of that. “No,” she answer, “I am not afraid. My daughter will have it better than we did. There are more and more Latinos who are shaping this country. This is, too,” she says with a timid smile, “our home.”

This article appeared originally in German in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, August 23, 2015. Translation by Elisabeth Brenker and Hernán D. Caro.

Hernán D. Caro

Hernán D. Caro is a Colombian journalist who writes for the Sunday edition of the German newspaper “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” and for several magazines in Latin America. He has lived in Berlin since 2001.

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