Even for Spanish-Speaking Immigrants in New York, Spanish Can Be a Problem

Pablo Veadejo has carved a place for himself in New York City in the six years since he moved from the Dominican Republic. He lives in a Bronx neighborhood with immigrants from all over the world, but outside of the borough, he has found that New York can be a fast-paced and sometimes bruising city.

He believes improving his English will not only give him access to better opportunities, it will also help him assimilate and guard himself in situations where speaking Spanish might make him a target. He still speaks Spanish openly, but after taking English-language courses he feels as if he can better speak up for himself.

“There’s people that don’t want to speak Spanish out loud,” he said. “I’m not one of them, but I see it. I want to be able to speak English to be able to defend myself and others. I want to get a better job and have a better life.”

A recent video spread widely on social media captured a Manhattan lawyer’s tirade against Spanish-speakers in a Midtown deli. In it, he was seen threatening to report workers he thought were undocumented, and insulted patrons and workers he assumed were on welfare. The footage prompted an uproar, making for days of coverage in the city’s newspapers. It also spurred protests, with activists calling for him to be disbarred and dispatching mariachis to his Upper West Side apartment, where they played “La Cucaracha” in the street.

Arestaurant in the Bronx, sells traditional Puerto Rican foods like alcapurria, pastelitos and mofongo. JuliAnna Patino/NYT Institute

New York, a sanctuary city, has positioned itself as a counterbalance to the hardline policies championed by the Trump administration. A constant infusion of newcomers — whether Italians coming to the Lower East Side a century ago, or the people arriving now in Queens from places like Guyana, Bangladesh and Central America — has long been a defining element of the city’s history.

Yet this episode struck a chord because it has been a reminder that even here, animosity toward immigrants exists. For the working-class immigrants who are a driving presence in the city but who can also be overlooked, it has contributed to a climate that has forced them to question their relationship with their native tongue as they search for security and opportunity.

Ricardo, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who works at a restaurant in the East Village, said he approached the city with an abundance of caution. Already, he worried about being detained by the immigration authorities, and lately, he has started keeping a closer eye on news reports looking for outbursts like the recent one.

“One thinks about it,” said Ricardo, 29, who spoke on the condition of using only his first name because of his immigration status. “But I keep my head down and pray to God nothing happens to me.”

Benedict Verret of Haiti, left, and Jihye Ha of Korea serve themselves during last day of an English-language class in Queens. JuliAnna Patino/NYT Institute

Javier Pelco, 30, said that he was not feeling fear, but exasperation. For years, he said, there has been an unspoken truth among immigrants that racial incidents can happen anywhere, even in New York, where he has lived for eight years. He believes that the current political environment has emboldened the people who harass Spanish speakers.

“It’s all politics,” said Mr. Pelco, a native of Ecuador. “In reality, President Obama did a lot of stuff against us, too. But the president now publicizes what he thinks. He’s more expressive.”

After the episode last month, the lawyer, Aaron Schlossberg, said in a post on Twitter that he was “deeply sorry” for his behavior. “What the video did not convey is the real me,” he said. “I am not a racist.” Many of his detractors refused to accept his apology.

While not every instance may not be as explosive or as explicit, there have been other incidents that have reflected anti-immigrant sentiments. In April, a Latino man was reportedly harassed and pushed onto the subway tracks in an incident considered a bias crime.

The threat the lingering animosity poses is stacked on top of the other hurdles that confront new arrivals. Yet Mr. Veadejo has navigated the pushes and the occasional swear words, and hasn’t had problems feeling at home. But limited English skills, he said, put him at a disadvantage.

“I don’t want any problems,” he said. “The people in New York are very hostile. I can take the train and get yelled at like, ‘Excuse you!’ They aren’t friendly. It’s not a very happy place.”

JuliAnna Patino /NYT Institute

Immigrants in New York have also sought out spaces to connect and commiserate with one another. One such place was an English-language class at a library in Hollis, Queens, where students said they met friends and found help applying for citizenship.

The class meets on Thursday nights in a back room of the library. On a recent evening, the class gathered for a potluck marking the end of the class sessions, and students piled in with trays of food.

Héctor Martínez, 63, recounted as loudly as he could his recent trip to Colombia, his homeland. He boasted that it was “one of the most beautiful countries in the world,” and he swiped through the photos on his phone. Mr. Martínez has been in the United States for 34 years, becoming an activist engaged in groups advocating for civil rights and education issues.

JuliAnna Patino /NYT Institute

Mr. Martínez said Spanish-speaking immigrants in New York had faced more adversity in the past. English classes for adults were overbooked or not as easily accessible, and children were often placed into special education classes because they struggled with English.

“Today, you find a lot of resources,” Mr. Martínez said, noting that now he believes he encounters “a lot of people who get it.” “But back then,” he added, “it wasn’t as easy.”

Nemesis Alvarez, 27, felt vulnerable and lonely after she moved to Queens from Honduras. She could not work; she was waiting for her visa, and her English was limited. But with the language class, she has found confidence and community.

“I hear about racism a lot here,” she said. “Sometimes I feel that when people hear me speak Spanish they look at me weird. When I came here, it was really nice. I have people.”