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American Dreams

American Dreams

The story of a teenager in this country nine or 10 years sharing a cramped apartment with her mother, sister and two boarders sounds like it could have taken place a century ago, when the Lower East Side teemed with newly arrived Jewish immigrants.

It’s just as plausible that this girl could be a character imagined by Abraham Cahan, Henry Roth or Anzia Yezierska, whose fiction chronicled Jewish life on the Lower East Side. Any of those authors could have cast their teen as fluent in English and familiar with American culture, two traits her mother lacks, and whose role includes helping her mother understand the laws and customs of a new land.

The character almost certainly would have been destined for college and even greater success, fulfilling her mother’s dreams.

But Sheilys Mariajose Lago is not a name one would associate with the Lower East Side of the early 1900s. And although her circumstances, as well as her drive, often mirror those of earlier immigrants, Lago, 18, is from Venezuela and lives in Jackson Heights, Queens.

A student at the International High School at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, Queens, Lago spoke recently about her life to promote a project in which she and 60 other immigrant teens were involved.

Equipped with tape recorders and cameras, the teens (high-school students in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan) interviewed relatives and friends last year about their lives as immigrant workers.

Their compilation appears in a new 64-page book, "Forty-Cent Tip: Stories of New York City Immigrant Workers," that is now available in local bookstores and online at and

Their work was also on exhibit last month at the Queens Museum of Art, and will be shown again next month at the Julia Richman Education Complex, which houses six public schools on the Upper East Side.

Students interviewed, among others, day laborers, domestics, small-business owners and fast-food restaurant employees, said Noreen Perlmutter, an English teacher at the International High School at LaGuardia and one of the project’s two main organizers.

The project received funding from What Kids Can Do, a national, nonprofit group devoted to promoting the voices and views of adolescents.

The interviews "have given a certain legitimacy to their parents’ experiences," which often include low wages, unsafe working conditions and the infringement of workers’ rights, Perlmutter said.

She added that the students "have learned that they have something to say and can change things. There’s something noble and wonderful in their stories."

Perlmutter and the project’s other organizer at LaGuardia, Andrew Turner, both of whom are Jewish, prepared their students for the project by discussing the experiences of earlier immigrants, including Jews who arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Some of the students visited the Lower East Side, and both teachers shared information about their own families.

As an example, Perlmutter recalled a great-aunt, Yetta, who worked in sewing factories in Philadelphia and New York, and who helped bring to America a brother and two older sisters from Russia. The 59-year-old teacher also recalled a great-grandmother who spoke only Yiddish.

Perlmutter, who grew up near the Bronx Zoo, said her American-born father began working on the city’s docks at the age of 12 and later held a series of "awful jobs" that included selling appliances and photographing children.

Turner, 30, said his paternal great-grandfather had come to the United States from Georgia, in what was later part of the Soviet Union, and owned a pushcart on the Lower East Side before starting his own clothing business.

Both teachers said some of their students, who come mainly from Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America, originally had stereotypes about Jews, believing they were rich and exploitative. But hearing about the struggles of past immigrants changed their minds, they noted.

Lago, who recently corresponded with Elie Wiesel after reading "Night," his memoir of the Holocaust, agreed with her teachers about the similarities between today’s immigrants and those of the past. Both, she said, worked long hours for little pay and no benefits.

Lago’s own life has been tough, as well, although the teen speaks matter-of-factly about her personal situation and sounds grateful for what she has.

She shares a bedroom with her mother, a hairdresser, and her 14-year-old sister, while boarders occupy the apartment’s two additional bedrooms, an arrangement that helps her single mother afford the rent.

"We kind of got used to it," she said, "but sometimes everybody wants their privacy."

Although her mother is a "hard worker," Lago said, the family has received numerous eviction notices, and the teen has often accompanied her mother to housing court, where she has translated the proceedings and helped negotiate the bureaucratic maze.

Lago interviewed one of the family’s boarders for the project: a Peruvian man, confined to a wheelchair because of an accident, who works as a street vendor. The man, she explained, sells jewelry that he makes, earning about $30 a day.

Along with the hardships her family has faced, Lago shares another trait with many of yesterday’s immigrants: the desire to advance in this country, socially and economically, to please herself and her mother.

"I have goals" and really want to "break out of the shell," said Lago, who hopes to study design next year at the Fashion Institute of Technology. "I basically consider myself as American as I do Venezuelan, and I want the education my mother has struggled to give me to pay off."

Lago also has high hopes about the book and exhibit, a project dubbed "The American Dream" after a theme her class studied.

"If more people were aware [of the contributions of immigrants], they might have more consideration toward the workers," said the soft-spoken teen. "They have to work so hard and sacrifice so much to keep their families here, to make something better of themselves."

The exhibit at the Julia Richman Education Complex runs March 1-10. For information, call Gladys Dorilda Rodriguez, assistant principal of the Manhattan International School, at (212) 517-6728.

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