Even the first 17th-century settlers in New York, organized by the commercial venture of the Dutch West India Company, were a diverse mix of Europeans, Africans and South Americans who spoke a total of 18 languages. Four-hundred years later, 37 percent of New Yorkers come from another country and speak some 800 languages.
In the city’s ninth annual Immigrant Heritage Week (April 17-24), the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and its partners (including WNET/Thirteen, the parent company of MetroFocus) honor the histories and traditions of the city’s immigrant communities.
But immigrants are also the innovators of contemporary New York. This week, MetroFocus profiles immigrants who are shaping the arts, activism and politics, and technology and science, today. Here we feature the activism and advocacy work of Abraham Paulos, director of Families for Freedom; Tania Mattos, advocacy coordinator of New York State Youth Leadership Council; Mohammad Razvi, executive director of Council of Peoples Organization; and Javier Valdes, co-executive director of Make the Road.
Javier Valdes is co-executive director of Make the Road New York, an organization which empowers and promotes the rights of low-income Latino and working class communities. His parents are Argentinian, but he was born in Boston, so he’s a U.S. citizen — the only one in his family. That doesn’t mean his situation wasn’t complicated growing up.
When he was three months old, his family moved to Caracas, Venezuela. When he was 12, they moved again, this time to a small town in Texas.
“I didn’t speak English, so I had to take ESOL classes for a year,” said Valdes. His parents spoke English and were able to help him learn, but he noticed his peers, almost exclusively immigrants from Mexico, had a more difficult time.
“The best way I can define my experience is what we call ‘living in the hyphen.’ In the U.S. you are never American enough, but when you go back home, you’re never Argentine enough,” Valdes explained.
While growing up in Texas, Valdes’ mother, a nurse, rented out two hotel rooms where she set up a makeshift healthcare clinic for undocumented immigrants. On weekends, he and his sister were the receptionists. That’s where he says he really began to understand the differences between haves and have nots.
After a stint in the Peace Corps in Guatemala, Valdes went on to become the director of advocacy for the New York Immigration Coalition.
Today, at Make the Road, he advocates for a wide range of policy initiatives that impact low-wage immigrants, related to housing, education, environmental justice, workers rights and small business legislation. The organization also runs a leadership school for its members to learn about politics. Make the Road was instrumental in getting Mayor Michael Bloomberg to pass an executive order requiring city agencies to provide translated materials, and in promoting the city law that prevents prisons from passing detainees off to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials. Make the Road is currently working to reform the NYPD’s stop and frisk policy.
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