Land of Hope and Dreams
The troubling disappearance of young Dulce Maria Alavez has obscured a very different story about the South Jersey town of Bridgeton: how Mexican immigrants are breathing new life into it.
It began when a girl disappeared.
Dulce Maria Alavez, five years old, was taken by her mother, Noema, to the park in Bridgeton, a small farming city of about 25,000 deep in the southwest corner of New Jersey. Noema, only 19 herself, also brought her three-year-old son and her eight-year-old sister. She stayed in the car with her sister to help with homework while her two children went off to play, eating ice cream she had just bought for them.
A half hour later, Noema realized she hadn’t seen the younger kids for a bit — part of the playground is obscured by a rise between the parking lot and the swings, perhaps 100 feet away. Noema got out of the car and found her son crying: His ice cream had fallen on the ground. Dulce wasn’t there. The boy pointed to a couple of maintenance buildings behind him, where a road leads out of the park. He couldn’t say where she was or what had happened.
That was September 16th. Dulce is still missing.
Her disappearance immediately led to something ugly: harsh criticism on social media of Noema’s behavior and of Mexicans in general. (Noema’s parents emigrated to Bridgeton from Oaxaca 20 years ago.) A teacher in nearby Vineland, for example, wrote on Facebook: “They’re Mexican, it’s their culture.” She added: “They don’t supervise their children like we do.” (The teacher would be forced to resign over that.) Speculation ran rampant: Why wasn’t Noema, who appeared on Dr. Phil, more upset? Maybe she sold Dulce into sex slavery. Or the abduction was gang-related. Or the father swept in from Mexico, where he’s now living, and took her. And how could she disappear without someone in the community knowing something about what happened?
Even readers of quintessential mainstream media outlet the Washington Post displayed a level of rage and xenophobia. From the comments on one Post piece about Dulce’s abduction:
Pregnant at 14. now Nineteen with two kids and no father? How is she supporting herself and family?
Welfare, paid by your taxes.
Usually it’s the lazy white trailer residents who take welfare.
Actually not, but if it assuages your white guilt to say so, have at it.
I’m guessing that she and the new boyfriend that she picked up on the street corner 30 seconds after the last one was detained by ICE are responsible for the child’s “disappearance” (READ: murder).
In Donald Trump’s America, Mexicans, of course, are the prime villains in the immigration wars, the ground-zero threat as the President holds out hope for his “beautiful wall.” Bridgeton history plays into that tension. For two centuries, it was a vibrant farming and small-industry city, straddling the Cohansey River, with easy access to the Delaware Bay. But Bridgeton went the way of so many small cities, losing Owens-Illinois, once the largest glass manufacturer in the world, in 1984 — that was the beginning of the end. By the early 1990s, the city, then predominantly white, was quite poor — in fact, many people living there were desperately poor — with attendant problems of drug abuse, families in upheaval, violence and little hope. I saw it firsthand, since I lived in rural South Jersey myself: It was a place on the verge of destitute.
But the national media, descending when Dulce disappeared, found a different city: something of a Mexican enclave, where American-born children enjoy a communal upbringing much like their parents knew back in Mexico. Bridgeton might be 60 percent Mexican at this point, with a reborn liveliness.
Indeed, while Dulce’s disappearance continues to raise questions and cause pain, there is, right alongside it, a very different story about Bridgeton from the one blaring on social media: how Mexican immigrants are saving a city.
Clair Miller owns 16 houses in Bridgeton, and he rents them almost solely to people from the Mexican community. Clair, in his 70s, is the husband of an old friend, and he’s lived all his life in Bridgeton. He agrees to give me a quick tour of the city.
Clair remembers a lively place in the 1950s, when he was young: three downtown movie theaters, a skating rink with an amusement park, department stores, and so forth. It was still the pre-mall era, when downtowns everywhere were destinations to shop and have fun.
That Bridgeton is long gone, but a different kind of energy has now replaced it. When we drive up Laurel Street, past the old glass factory that once employed 2,500 workers, Clair points out Mexican restaurants and markets and small gift stores. Mexicans have long come to the area to work the vegetable fields and peach orchards seasonally. Then, about two decades ago, they began to stay year-round — often without legal papers — and to beckon their extended families to follow. They found work in the area’s food-processing plants or at other blue-collar jobs.
Clair points out the Bridgeton Spanish Church, which had been Methodist before it closed for 25 years; it’s been rebuilt for Seventh-day Adventists, with hundreds of Mexican congregants. We pop into Azteca Internacional, vibrating with salsa music and bins of fresh chile jalapeño, cebolla blanca, pina, aguacate.
When we drive up Pearl, Bridgeton’s other main street, toward Clair’s rancher on the outskirts of town, the 100-year-old twins that line both sides all seem to sport satellite dishes (Spanish TV!), with several small pickups or vans parked out front or in back (extended families often crowd into single apartments) and a lot of large trash cans (see: extended families). Bridgeton is ragged but buoyant-seeming, with a fresh coat of paint over the long decline. Parents and kids hang on porches, easily moving from one property to the next. It feels friendly, certainly not the place I saw 30 years ago.
At that point, not only was Owens gone; other area mainstays had left as well: Seabrook Farms, which in the 1950s produced 20 percent of the nation’s packaged frozen food before closing in 1975; Hunt’s ketchup; a 7-Up bottler; printing and labeling factories — all gone. The fields outside of town remain, but the numbers on the city’s well-being are daunting: A third of residents in Bridgeton live in poverty, and only five percent have a college degree.
But Mexican residents I meet have stories of getting to America and the struggle to stay here that tell a good deal more about what’s happening in Bridgeton than those numbers do.
Cruz Martinez, a small, chunky, dark-skinned, smiling man of 44, is married, with a six-year-old son. He works as a roofer, he builds and maintains swimming pools, he pumps gas on weekend nights, he takes odd jobs such as tree trimming, he picks blueberries when that season hits, and in his spare time, he’s rehabbing the twin house he and his wife, Antonieta, bought a few years ago.
Cruz is a nonstop worker, clearly, but that’s only part of his story. Like most of Bridgeton’s Mexican immigrants, he’s from Oaxaca, a state some 300 miles south of Mexico City. He’s the oldest of seven children and barely set foot in school — even as a young boy, Cruz had to work in the fields. His family was desperately poor, living in a bamboo house; his father drank heavily and would often leave for long stretches.
By the time he was 20, Cruz knew he had to leave Mexico. An uncle had returned from L.A. to visit, and Cruz saw him as his ticket to America. Cruz’s mother begged him not to go; it was too dangerous.
Cruz and his uncle took a bus to Mexico City, then flew to Tijuana to wait for the coyotes who would lead them into the U.S. But Cruz got caught. In that era, the mid-’90s, immigrants nabbed at the border without papers would simply be returned to Mexico, Cruz’s lawyer, Elizabeth Trinidad, says.
He kept trying.
On one crossing, banditos came on him, slit his throat, and took his money. Bleeding profusely, Cruz was left at the border to die, but immigration officials found him and gave him disinfectant for his neck wound — “probably saving my life,” he says. Cruz shows me the scar, a grim white line across his neck.
Still, he kept trying. It would take him 11 attempts to make it into America. Cruz found his way to L.A., but he was in terrible condition, his sneakers so broken that he was basically barefoot. Cruz slept under a bridge but soon met a fellow Zapotec (a member of the southern Mexican civilization that dates back 2,500 years) who recognized him from their village, bought him clothes and sneakers, and gave him a place to sleep. Other Zapotecs knew of a guy driving recent arrivals east, to a place in New Jersey. But Cruz didn’t have the $500 fee.
So he bought the driver beer — “I remember,” he says, amused, “it was white cans of Miller.” While the driver was imbibing, just before getting into a van full of recent immigrants, Cruz sneaked in and wedged himself among them. This didn’t sit too well when the driver discovered him after stopping in Las Vegas:
“Where you come from?”
Cruz had only $125 but didn’t get kicked out of the van. He made it to Rosenhayn, New Jersey — not far from Bridgeton — where the driver shooed Cruz and three others out and told them someone would pick them up; no one did, and it was cold, so Cruz started walking.
Seven miles later, he arrived in Bridgeton. He soon found work at a mulch processing plant, then at a fish processor in Wildwood. Eventually he was offered a job in Camden, and he would spend the next seven years there, working in a fish restaurant and living upstairs with the Korean family that owned it. Once a month, on Sunday, his only day off for the entire month, Cruz would take a bus to Bridgeton, where the Zapotec community would make sure the few dollars he could spare would be sent to his mother.
That was Cruz’s life for seven years. It feels like he existed for a long time in a no-man’s-land, and I ask him about the absence of family or stability or love or any seeming possibility he was going to get those things.
“It was hard,” he tells me, but he says it like a recent law-school graduate who just passed the bar exam says, “It was hard.” A rite of passage, nothing so out of the ordinary. “The Koreans were like family,” Cruz says. Eventually, though, he would move back to Bridgeton.
As more and more Mexicans began staying year-round in the ’90s, Bridgeton was a little slow on the uptake. As recently as a dozen years ago, City Council’s attitude toward undocumented immigrants was routinely “But they’re illegal” when anyone objected to a city ordinance limiting how many people could live in a rental. Elizabeth Trinidad’s husband, Pedro, an Aztec Mexican, tells a story about being stopped repeatedly in their old Jaguar by city cops so they could mess with him.
But the atmosphere began to change, the Trinidads say, about the time one of the cops who had harassed Pedro got in trouble for beating up a Mexican guy. That made a big stink, and the cop would eventually do prison time. Now, many locals I talk to in Bridgeton say City Council has evolved with new members, that the current mayor and police chief are sensitive to the immigrant community. Though that ordinance limiting the number of people per apartment is still on the books.
There’s one other problem the Mexican community continues to endure: the random-seeming intrusions of agents from ICE, the federal immigration enforcement agency, pounding on doors at dawn to deport those those with criminal records. Property owner Clair Miller hangs a sign on the doors of many of his rentals to ward off intrusion both by the city trying to count heads and the feds looking to deport: DO NOT ENTER THIS HOUSE WITHOUT PERMISSION. FROM CLAIR MILLER LLC
Soon after Dulce Maria Alavez’s abduction, suspicion turned close to home, to both Dulce’s mother, Noema, and her current boyfriend, the father of the baby she would have in March. Undocumented, he was detained by ICE (before being released), which certainly didn’t boost other immigrants’ confidence that they could come forward with clues without the federal agency questioning their status.
Noema has admitted to struggles with alcohol and marijuana when she was younger; she once posted pictures of herself smoking dope on Facebook, as well as shout-outs to Mexican gang members. (Gang violence, a problem in Bridgeton a decade ago, has quieted down in recent years.) Her mother kicked her out of the house and was raising Dulce. Now, at 19, Noema has three children. Even Bridgeton’s police chief, Michael Gaimari, said publicly that there were “rumors the mother orchestrated this.”
Noema has said she’s cleaned up and had nothing to do with the abduction of her daughter. But “people think I’m not going crazy enough,” she told the Inquirer.
One Sunday in February, I talk to Dulce’s grandmother, Norma Perez Alavez, at the park where Dulce disappeared; Norma’s eight-year-old daughter and Noema’s three-year-old son play nearby. Norma works in a food factory, and her husband, Camillo, at a nursery. They emigrated from Oaxaca in 1999, leaving their oldest child, age one at the time, with family there; four more children, including Noema, were born here.
Norma is a small woman wearing a sweatshirt and baseball cap, and she seems to stay within herself, as if the barrier of language — she speaks little English — and her anguish over Dulce’s disappearance are keeping her utterly self-contained. She barely looks up as Jackie Rodriguez, a family spokesperson, translates for us. We talk sitting on a bench.
Norma says that when the kids go off to school, she stays home, and she gets thoughts in her head, things she doesn’t want to think of. Of running out of the house and never coming back. Of harming herself.
Is it hard to come here, to the playground where Dulce disappeared?
Yes, Norma says. She starts to cry, quietly.
Do you think, I ask, that Dulce’s father, Edgar Perez, who is now in Mexico, could be behind Dulce’s abduction?
Norma claims that Perez had harassed her and threatened to take Dulce away plenty of times when he lived here, before he left for Mexico less than two years ago.
(Jackie turns to me and says: “I didn’t know that.”)
Norma used to allow Perez to visit Dulce, she says. She doesn’t know why he left for Mexico, but there was a point when she stopped allowing him to visit. And that’s when he got mad and started harassing her about taking Dulce away.
What prompted you to stop allowing his visits?
When Dulce was born, Norma says, Perez didn’t claim her as his daughter, and she was told by a lot of people to be careful. She became frightened, and that’s when she stopped visitation.
(Norma seems frustrated that authorities haven’t done more to pursue the possibility that Perez is behind the abduction, but that seems highly unlikely, since the FBI made contact with him in Oaxaca back in September. Elizabeth Trinidad, the attorney, is vehement that Perez sweeping Dulce off to Mexico could not remain under wraps: “In Zapotec culture, everyone knows everything. To think Dulce is there and no one knows anything is absurd.”)
Do you think, I ask Norma, that some people in the Bridgeton Mexican community, afraid of being deported, are not coming forward with what they might know?
Yes, says Norma, she does think that. She’s scared of that, too.
Afraid that you will be deported?
Why do you think your family is being criticized in social media?
She says people don’t know them, and she doesn’t understand why they’re being criticized. All she does is pray for the critics and ask God to forgive them, because there is no reason for the criticism.
Do you think Mexican people are accepted in Bridgeton?
I think of a last question: What’s your favorite thing about Dulce? Please tell me what she’s like a little bit.
Dulce is very caring, Norma says. She always hugged her, that’s the thing that she misses and loved, how Dulce is very caring, was always on top of her.
I say that others have told me that she laughed a lot.
Elizabeth Trinidad says the Mexican community is much more afraid that their children are now in danger of abduction by an unknown predator — in light of Dulce’s disappearance — than of the federal government ramping up pursuit of undocumented residents. It does seem, anecdotally, that ICE has backed off some in recent years. Still, I hear stories of ICE picking up undocumented Mexicans in Bridgeton to send them back, and these stories die hard.
One of Clair Miller’s renters, Rosie, who has two young daughters, sublets rooms in her twin house to Mexican men. Rosie works in a local canning factory and is undocumented; at dawn one morning four years ago, four ICE agents came in, ostensibly allowed to enter by one of Rosie’s tenants. Rosie tells me, through an interpreter, that she was in bed with her daughters, four and three at the time, and the agents came into her bedroom and ripped the covers back; the girls were terrified. ICE was looking for someone who had once lived there but had moved out; they ended up arresting two others who were there but not Rosie.
The fear of deportation remains for undocumented Mexicans, something they have to live with.
Eddie (he asked that his last name not be used) is 40, intense and a take-no-prisoners thinker, it’s immediately apparent. He’s been in Bridgeton for 25 years now, and he owns a two-story home with a sizable yard just outside of town. Eddie came to the States at 15 because his father was ill; since Eddie has seven brothers and sisters, the family’s situation in Chiapas was dire.
He arrived in New Jersey with an uncle at the end of growing season in 1995; the uncle soon returned to Mexico and left Eddie at the door of a distant relative in Bridgeton, who took him in. Eddie had envisioned America as the land of riches, but he would put down his sleeping towel — “The towel was red, I still remember that” — in a basement crawl space. After getting up at four in the morning for his first day of work at a fishery in Cape May, he lay in the cold basement next to another Mexican boy that night, crying for hours. This was worse than home.
But like Cruz, Eddie would persevere and eventually apprentice with a tile installer, his introduction into construction. Now Eddie runs his own small construction business and rehabs houses; in his backyard lies the flotsam and jetsam of his work: old toilets, piles of wood, ladders, junk. He owns three homes in Mexico, where he’ll end up one day, he says. Eddie has done well.
He doesn’t want to get into his legal status — Eddie is undocumented, still. But as we talk for a couple of hours in his living room with his 15-year-old son listening, it builds as the elephant in the room, and Eddie finally helps me understand what it feels like, the fear of getting deported: “I don’t know if it has happened with you when it’s dark — you walk into a room and feel like somebody is behind you.”
Sure, I say.
It’s living with that feeling constantly, Eddie says. Not to mention practical aspects like not being able to walk into a bank to get a loan without a Social Security number. The fear ramped up when Donald Trump was elected: “The more scary part is what’s going to happen to him,” Eddie says of his son. Early in the morning, Eddie would look in on his son and daughter as they slept, and then, as he was leaving the house, wonder: “Am I coming back?” He says, “I’d close the door and look at the sky and think: Please help my kids. I’d think that every day.”
His deportation could happen easily, Eddie says: All it would take is, say, somebody plowing into him when he’s driving; then the cops come. In theory, local cops aren’t allowed to play informer for ICE, and when I ask Police Chief Gaimari about that, he says it doesn’t happen. “But they have a way to do it,” Eddie says.
His son, who has been quietly taking in his father’s story, which he knows well, now talks about the terror he feels: “I’m 15, I look up to my dad, he’s like my hero. And for him not to be here, it’s like, what am I going to do? I was crying all night when Trump got elected.”
“He wants to go to college,” Eddie says — an opportunity that could be lost in a heartbeat if the family got broken up.
For both father and son, though, a funny thing happened: They discovered that Donald Trump’s bark is apparently much worse than his bite. In fact, Eddie now supports him. I’m surprised, but he’s able to compartmentalize: The economy’s flowing (we’re speaking just before the coronavirus hits), and Eddie likes Trump’s views on abortion and other social issues. In fact, his real anger now is reserved for Barack Obama: “If one day I see him, I’m going to tell him to his face, you’re not good because how in the world — you are an East African American, you should understand us. He didn’t do nothing.”
You can see Eddie’s plight in a couple of ways, depending on your point of view. He came to America illegally; his continuing risk in staying here is of his own making. That’s one view. The other is that he’s a law-abiding, taxpaying, successful businessman with a family, and he still pays a steep price for jumping the border at 15, as he and his family continue to live under the cloud of what they believe could happen.
Melissa Helmbrecht believes something large is happening in Bridgeton. She runs Hopeloft, a nonprofit that invests in education and business development in the city, and having grown up near there, she gets the challenges. But Melissa points to what’s happening all over the country — how immigrants have brought a jolt to neighborhoods in urban areas in Chicago, Dallas, Denver, New York and Philadelphia. And in small cities as well: Hazleton, in northeastern Pennsylvania, is the same size as Bridgeton. It was a dead mining town 30 years ago, but it’s been reborn thanks to a Hispanic influx. Melissa sees this as the latest version of the American Dream.
“Why not in Bridgeton?” she asks. Why can’t Bridgeton once again become a city as dynamic as the one of Clair Miller’s youth?
Which takes us again to Cruz Martinez. He had just arrived back in Bridgeton in 2009 after visiting Mexico; returning required, of course, another illegal border crossing. Early one morning, before dawn, there was a pounding on the door of the house where he rented a room, and then, Cruz claims, ICE agents smashed the door in. He believes the woman he was renting from was running a scam to sell green cards, and that’s what drew ICE. Cruz was arrested and deported, dumped into the dangerous border town of Reynosa with nothing, no money; ICE agents hadn’t even let him put on his shoes when they picked him up. He managed to call his cousin back in Bridgeton to have him wire several hundred dollars Cruz had hidden in his truck there. Though he tried to make things work in Mexico, Cruz crossed back into the States 10 months later.
Cruz tells me a dozen more stories: crossing the bleak, snake-infested Arizona desert; hiding in a jasmine bush that threw border patrol dogs off his scent; being transported from Tijuana to San Diego as he hid under the large, flowing skirt of the driver of a van. Now Cruz finally has legal footing to stay here. It stems from being attacked twice on the street in Bridgeton for no apparent reason — he was almost killed by a stab wound — and those incidents and his cooperation with police in trying to find his assailants have given him what Trinidad calls “humanitarian status.” Next step: green card. After that, citizenship.
He’s got a remarkable story of perseverance, which nails what’s happening in Bridgeton. It’s a city that’s still quite poor and not well-educated. But it’s a place at a new starting point. Saving the city is a big load to put on the backs of recent arrivals, though certainly Cruz is quite willing to do whatever it takes: When he was being driven across the desert in Arizona, hiding underneath a woman’s skirt, she would whack him whenever he so much as twitched, he tells me with a laugh. Whatever it takes — a faith in plugging away is what he and others share, and therein lies a healthy dose of hope for Bridgeton.
I go, once more, to Bridgeton, after the coronavirus stay-in-place edict hits, just to drive around, on a sunny day in March. The city looks pretty normal, with people out and about, just a little sparser than usual, with some shops and restaurants closed.
Then I head to the park where Dulce Maria Alavez, whose sixth birthday was April 25th, disappeared; the search for her goes on. Normally teeming with parents and kids and soccer games, the park is virtually empty, creating an eerie feeling. Here, everything is different. I get out of my car to walk across a lawn to Dulce’s memorial at an oak tree near the playground where she was abducted. Angels and candles and cuddly animals are laid at the trunk, and I remember something Cruz Martinez told me.
He once lived on the same street as Dulce, and he would see the family come out their door: first Dulce, and then her grandmother, and then her mother, in that order. Out into their day. And it was always Dulce, smiling Dulce, first.
Published as “Land of Hope and Dreams” in the June/July 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.