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A County of Immigrants

Westchester is a rich county in many ways — especially when it comes to the diversity of its people.

By Sarah Longstreth​ | Photographs by Stefan Radtke

 

No matter the country of origin or the point of landing, the heart of the story stays the same: Driven by hope and circumstance, followed by friends and families, immigrants come to New York and the surrounding region in search of a new life. The history of Westchester is inseparable from, and in many ways defined by, the influences and contributions of our immigrant communities. Here’s a snapshot of just some of the mass migrations that have made us who we are today.

 

Mexicans from Michoacán

(New Rochelle)

In 1954, Antonio Valencia became the first Mexican immigrant to New Rochelle on a personal invitation from then-City Councilman George Vergara. Vergara and his wife, Allys, met Valencia on a visit to Mexico City and offered him a job as their personal assistant. George Vergara went on to become mayor of New Rochelle and Valencia’s lifelong friend.

Valencia hailed from Michoacán, a rural region on the western coast of Mexico. His relatives joined him soon after he arrived, and their success and support for people back home drew friends and neighbors to explore the opportunities New Rochelle has offered immigrants for its entire history.

Mexico is the second-most-common country of origin for a foreign-born New Rochelle resident, representing more than 7,000 people and approximately 10% of the city’s population.

Throughout his life, Valencia was a tireless advocate for the rights and needs of the community he helped establish. His unparalleled generosity and support for the Mexican community in New Rochelle made him a trusted resource for people seeking help with cultural and language barriers. The Valencias and the Vergaras were at one time active parishioners at Church of the Blessed Sacrament, on Shea Place, which has since become a county historic site and a place of spiritual significance for local Spanish-speaking Catholics. Each year, Blessed Sacrament hosts Procesión del Señor de los Milagros, a vibrant parade known to fill entire city blocks with balloon arches.

 

Alvin Clayton

Trinidad to New Rochelle

When Alvin Clayton was 14 years old, he made a bittersweet journey from Trinidad to the United States, where his widowed mother had gone to earn a new life for their family.

“It was exciting and fearful at the same time,” Clayton recalls. “And it was a culture shock, for sure.”

Drafted into college as a soccer player, Clayton later flew to New York on a friend’s advice to meet with a modeling agency. “They told me how hard it was for models of color, but they said they’d give me a try… and the rest is history,” says Clayton, who’s been in fashion editorials in GQ, Vogue, Esquire, Elle, and Glamour, among others.   

During his 25-year modeling career, Clayton achieved success and flexibility in New York, taught himself to paint in Paris, and made his first forays into the restaurant industry in Los Angeles. He and his wife, Gwen, wanted to raise their children on the East Coast (“As an artist, I love the changing seasons,” he explains), so, in 2001, the couple found a home in a city they’d often visited and come to love: New Rochelle.

Within a decade, Clayton became an instrumental figure in New Rochelle’s foodie scene and cultural life as the owner of Alvin & Friends, a thriving Caribbean/Southern restaurant and live-music venue in the heart of downtown New Ro. The restaurant opened in 2010 and expanded in 2013 to meet constant, enthusiastic demand.

Covering the restaurant’s walls are Clayton’s vibrant paintings, inspired by his hero, Henri Matisse. Clayton’s signature piece, hanging right beside the bar, depicts multicultural figures reenacting Matisse’s iconic La Danse. “In my restaurant, I see people of all ethnicities having fun and being comfortable,” says Clayton, who numbers Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Robert De Niro, and Don Cheadle among his art collectors. “Especially with all the divisions in this country right now, that’s my greatest source of pride.”

Clayton credits his roots in Trinidad as an integral part of the success he’s had in life. His grandparents and community modeled the value of the work ethic. “Coming from another country, you have a focus, and your focus is to make a better life,” he says. “You’ve got to do what you say you’re going to do.”

 

In 2001, the New Rochelle Public Library opened the Antonio Valencia Local History Collection to document the journey that began in Michoacán. Many of the collection’s photos, letters, and mementos came from Valencia himself. A distinguished exponent of his enduring legacy in New Rochelle is in the local landscaping industry.

After Allys Vergara’s death in 1998, Valencia was ultimately unable to afford continuing to live in Westchester. According to some sources, he moved to a religious community in Connecticut before retiring to Mexico, where he remained until his death. But the community he fostered in one of Westchester’s most vibrant cities continues to flourish and grow. As of the 2000 census, after Jamaica, Mexico is the most common country of origin for a foreign-born New Rochelle resident, representing more than 7,000 people and approximately 10 percent of the city’s population. Today, third- and fourth-generation Mexican-Americans in New Rochelle remember Valencia as el padrino (“the godfather”) who helped make hundreds of American dreams come true.

 

Patricia and Mauricio Guevara

Ecuador to Bedford

In 2006, an economic crisis drove Patricia and Mauricio Guevara from Ecuador to Bedford. “We had no money in our pockets, none of the language, no knowledge of the area, and three daughters,” Patricia recalls. “The language barrier was the biggest obstacle, because we didn’t really know what would be possible.” The family rented an apartment and found jobs via the Katonah Community Center. Working overnight shifts to clean the Katonah Art Center, the couple saved money to provide a good education for their children.

From there, the Guevaras were referred to jobs as housecleaners, and Mauricio found further work in construction, where he learned about working with reclaimed wood. Eight years ago, with support from his boss, he began taking his own custom-woodworking clients in whatever time he had on weekends. In 2015, on a trip upstate to buy more wood, the Guevaras decided to take a leap of faith by opening their own business. They found the ideal spot for their own showroom in Mount Kisco, an area they knew well. Weeks later, they had invested their savings to open the New England Antique Lumber Company.

Now, after three years in business, the company serves a distinguished client base from all over New York State. Even star athletes and Hollywood celebs — some of whom, including Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively, used to employ the Guevaras as housecleaners — now purchase the Guevaras’ products as clients and refer their friends. “We went from cleaning their houses to having them as valued customers,” Patricia says with pride. “We worked very, very hard to get where we are,” adds Mauricio. “But we believe that anyone can make it here.”

Arriving in the US and facing the unknown is immensely challenging, “especially when you come as a family,” Patricia notes. “But in this county, there are so many opportunities for people to reach their aspirations.”

The Guevaras have a message for the Westchester community and for anyone who can relate to their story. “We are all owners of our dreams,” Patricia says. “To have the job you want is not impossible. If you have the dream and work hard, it can come true, and to achieve it will be all the more rewarding.”

 

Italians from Avellino

(Dobbs Ferry)

In 1885, six Italians lived in Dobbs Ferry. By 1920, well after the mass migration of Italians to Ellis Island and the US, Italian immigrants and their families made up an estimated 60 percent of the village’s 4,400 residents. From a little landlocked province in Southern Italy to the shores of the Westchester Rivertowns, this particular immigrant wave dramatically altered the county’s demographics for generations.

Italians who concentrated in the village of Dobbs Ferry almost all came from the southern province of Avellino. Following a common migration pattern, immigrants arrived and sent for their families and friends back in Avellino’s medieval hill towns.

Portrayed as criminals and job-stealers, Italian immigrants often faced discrimination in the US. But as Dobbs Ferry grew from modest way station to thriving Riverside community, Italians’ labor proved instrumental in shaping its beauty. Immigrants’ transformative effect on the village’s landscape and architecture was documented by local historians in the 1980s, at which time at least 85 percent of Dobbs Ferry’s population had Italian heritage.

Italian laborers told the story of their homeland in stucco and stone. Shrines and sculptures of the Madonna propagated all over town as craftsmanship was handed down through generations. Terraced gardens twined along Main Street.

Dominic Altieri, a stonemason, brought memories of his birthplace to his new home. In 1922, using Westchester’s local stone, he built a replica of the cathedral in a village of Calitri in Avellino. Our Lady of Pompeii Church still stands on Palisade Street as a testament to his legacy.

 

Our Immigration Timeline

>6,000 B.C.: Thousands of years prior to European colonialism, indigenous nations prosper across America. The area now known as Westchester County belongs to tribes of the Wappinger people, including the Kitchawank, Sintsink, Siwanoy, and Weckquaesgeek.

1609-1625: Europeans begin colonizing the area that becomes New York.

1639-1643: Dutch colonists escalate violent land-grabs, wiping out about half the Wappinger people in two years.

1662: Quaker colonists leave Massachusetts and begin settling Siwanoy land in what is now Rye, Harrison, and Purchase.

1686-1710: French Huguenot refugees from the town of La Rochelle arrive and settle on the Long Island Sound Shore. Elements of Huguenot symbolism endure in present-day New Rochelle.

1696: Affluent English colonists begin settling the area of New Castle.

1716: Moses Levy, the county’s first documented Jewish settler, purchases land in Westchester.

1724-1727: Quaker colonists expand their Harrison settlement and form a farming community known as Purchase. Quaker communities also emerge in Scarsdale, Mamaroneck, and New Rochelle.

1755: The British military expels a group of French-Canadian colonists, known as the Acadians, from Canada. Some Acadians settle in Purchase.

1770s: Harrison’s and Purchase’s Quaker colonists convert from slaveholders to abolitionists and cede the roughest lands of northwestern Harrison to their former slaves. The Hills, as it was known, became one of the nation’s oldest communities of free African-Americans.

1785-1788: Philipsburg Manor, a vast estate which included the present city of Yonkers, as well as Greenburgh, Mount Pleasant, and Ossining, is dissolved. The township of Greenburgh is founded in its place, occupied mostly by people of Dutch descent.

1825: Only an estimated 125 indigenous people remain on the Sound Shore.

1845-1850: The Great Famine impels millions of Irish people to immigrate to New York.

1848: Civil unrest in Germany sets off an immigration wave. In the mid-1850s, so many German immigrants settle in western New Rochelle that the area is renamed Dutch (as in Deutsch) Hill.

1880-1920: Facing poverty and persecution, one-third of Eastern European Jews leave their birth countries. Westchester’s Jewish population grows from <1% to 5-6%.

1882: The American government passes the Chinese Exclusion Act, making immigration by a specific ethnic group illegal for the first time ever.

1885-1920: Economic and environmental troubles drive waves of Italian immigrants to New York.

1887-1899: Jewish immigrant families form congregations in Yonkers, Port Chester, New Rochelle, and Tarrytown.

1890s: As German-Americans assimilate and move away from Dutch Hill, the neighborhood becomes an Italian immigrant community.

1890s: Jewish, Italian, and black Americans settle in Mount Vernon and later become the city’s majority populations.

1900-1930: Ellis Island immigrants take northbound trains from New York City and disembark at the first few stops. Westchester County’s total population nearly triples, from 184,257 to 520,947.   

1920: Luigi del Bianco, future head carver of Mount Rushmore, from Italy settles in Port Chester.

1924: To “preserve the ideal of American homogeneity,” the US government sets strict quotas on immigration from Italy, Greece, and Eastern Europe, and bans virtually all immigrants from Asia. Northwestern European and Latin American immigrants are not restricted. Ellis Island becomes a detention and deportation center.

1930s: Port Chester businesswoman Lillia Kavey secures affidavits to help 125 families escape the Mediterranean and Baltic states before and during World War II.

1954: Antonio Valencia, considered the “grandfather” of Mexican immigrants in New Rochelle, arrives in the Sound Shore city and later becomes a US citizen.

1955: Jordanian immigrants move to Yonkers, often as factory workers, and form the base of the city’s Arab-American community.

1965: A new federal law changes immigration quotas, easing the 1924 law’s discrimination against Eastern Europeans and Asians. However, the new law restricts immigration from Latin America for the first time ever.  

1970s-1980s: Multigenerational families emigrating from the Middle East join the established Jordanian community in Yonkers.

1973: OCA, an Asian Pacific American advocacy organization, opens its Westchester-Hudson Valley chapter.

1980s: The Westchester Muslim Center opens in Mount Vernon, Westchester’s first permanent Muslim place of worship.

1989: The Westchester Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is established in White Plains. The county’s first Spanish-language newspaper, La Calle, begins publication in Tarrytown.

1990: Bipartisan federal immigration reform creates new paths for naturalization and ends the US’ ban on gay immigrants.

1990-2010: Hispanic immigrants move to and open businesses in Port Chester, revitalizing the town’s economy after a two-decade slump.

1991: Frank Rey, whose mother emigrated from Spain, becomes the first Hispanic mayor of North Tarrytown (now Sleepy Hollow). The town’s population was one-third Hispanic at the time.

2001: Muslim and Christian Arab-Americans in Yonkers, Mount Vernon, and Chappaqua report experiencing violence, harassment, and police scrutiny in the wake of 9/11.

2001: Neighbors Link, now a multi-award-winning resource center for Westchester’s immigrant community, opens in Mount Kisco.

2010-2015: 631,000 people immigrate to New York. Of these, about 4% settle in Westchester County.

2016: Westchester Magazine reports that around 1,500 indigenous people, mostly on reservations in Wisconsin, trace their ancestral homes to Hudson Valley lands.

2017: Mike Khader, the son of Jordanian immigrants, is elected Yonkers’ first Arab-American City Council president.

2017: HIAS New York, an organization that assists refugees and immigrants with resettlement, opens an office in Westchester.

2018: Westchester County Executive George Latimer signs the Immigrant Protection Act, a measure to safeguard Westchester’s immigrant community from unjust treatment by federal agents.

 

The Great Migration to Yonkers

Countless people came to New York in the 19th and 20th centuries to seek hope and opportunity. But for many Americans, this didn’t mean arriving on the Ellis Island shore.

Known as the Great Migration, African-Americans’ exodus from the South to the North was the largest relocation of its kind in US history. Between the 1890s and 1960s, more than six million black Americans journeyed north as jobs dwindled and persecution persisted in the post-Civil War South.

A bustling industrial center and suburban alternative to the five boroughs, Yonkers was well positioned to draw groups of people in need of a place to live, work, and study. Early in the 20th century, one of the New York-metro area’s first middle-class black suburbs emerged in what became known as the Nepperhan-Runyon Heights community. For decades to follow, “Nepperhaners” enjoyed not only community solidarity but also considerable political influence.

 

Sonya Pushkina​

Russia to Mount Kisco

Sonya Pushkina remembers hiding in her bedroom with her sister, listening to the bombs fall on Leningrad. “We experienced everything… the hunger, the cold, the bombing, the shelling,” she says. “When we heard the shells exploding in some other place, we relaxed and said, ‘Today we are okay.’”

As the siege ended, leaving 600,000 people dead, a new normal emerged for life in Leningrad. Pushkina graduated from university and started a family but remembers life in general as uninteresting. “I didn’t read the newspapers,” she says. “It was all the same. They were lying, lying all the time.”

Although her family could travel within Russia, leaving the Soviet Union during the Cold War was next to impossible. But amid the tumult of the Iron Curtain’s fall, the opportunity finally came to start anew. “From the very first moment I came here, I accepted the United States of America,” says Pushkina. “For me, it was not difficult to accept a new life.” In 1992 she moved just outside Washington, DC, where she taught Russian to employees at the World Bank/IMF and volunteered at the prestigious Kennedy Center. When her daughter, who works for the United Nations Organization, moved to New York with Pushkina’s two grandchildren, Pushkina followed and settled in Mount Kisco, where she has lived since 2007.

“The area here is green; the air is clear; and I have good friends — both American and Russian,” Pushkina says. “It’s very important to make new friends when you come to a new country.” A devotee of arts and culture, Pushkina never lacks for entertainment in Westchester. She and her friends make regular trips to watch opera broadcasts in White Plains and see films at the Jacob Burns Center in Pleasantville.

Although she’s kept up with Russian news and enjoyed teaching the language, the country of her birth hasn’t felt like home in a long time. “I’ve been here 25 years, you see,” Pushkina says, “and I feel myself to be an American.”

 

Educational opportunities for black and female students had begun to expand during this period, yet in many ways racism manifested much like it did in the South. Even with college degrees, black Americans often found their work opportunities restricted to menial jobs. Employment opportunities for migrants in Yonkers were often factory jobs, such as at the Otis Elevator plant. Job discrimination and high rent cut African-Americans off from equal career and housing opportunities, the effects of which can still be felt to this day.

The church was often a community cornerstone for African-Americans in the urban North, representing shared histories and values. Organists and gospel choristers enlivened services at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in Yonkers, which is still active today.

The importance of cohesion and community endured in Yonkers, too. In an oral history project mounted by the Hudson River Museum in 2002, 15 Yonkers residents shared their memories of triumph and struggle on the road north.

 

Asako and Zoher Saour​

Japan to Mount Kisco

Asako and Zoher Saour have had a journey full of starting over. Asako survived the ravages of WWII and near starvation as a child in Japan and pursued an education that would help her see the world. Nearly 60 years ago, at a university in Tokyo, she met Zoher, an architecture student from Iraq who had worked since childhood to buy textbooks and learn everything he could.

After earning his master’s degree, Zoher visited his family in Iraq and could not return to Japan. He sent for Asako, who knew nothing of the country. “I was brave then,” she says. “I liked the challenge of new things.” Asako remembers Iraq for its sandstorms, bustling markets, and skies full of stars. But Iraq’s dictatorship made the country feel more like a prison.

“My son cried with the sound of machine guns,” Asako recalls. “In the morning, it became quiet, as if nothing had happened, but we could see traces of gunshots on walls made of stone.”

“I thought, What is the end of this?” adds Zoher. “The children’s safety, their education, their future… what will happen?”

While Asako was pregnant with their third child, she and Zoher made a daring escape from Iraq back to Japan, a country Asako thought she’d never see again. They brought only one suitcase, some money, and the children’s toys. Zoher got a job with a Japanese construction company, where he was the only foreigner out of 15,000 engineers. He designed and built Japanese-inspired buildings all over the world but had little chance to see Asako and their growing family.

All three of their children went to study in the United States, where each excelled. “They did their best and could decide their futures,” says Zoher. “‘I realized, Here is a place we can live!”

“It was very difficult for Japanese citizens to get American visas,” Asako explains. “We waited nine years, and our dream to go to America to join our kids almost faded.” In 2007, when their visas finally came, Asako and Zoher were told they had only three months to leave Japan. Once again, they left nearly everything behind.

The couple arrived first in White Plains, to stay with their youngest daughter, who currently lives in Larchmont and runs a financial-services company in New York City. Eventually, Asako and Zoher found their own home, in Mount Kisco. “We are so lucky to live in Mount Kisco,” says Asako. “It is a small town, but it has everything. We decided to stay here as long as we live.”

After waiting five years to qualify and passing an exam, Asako and Zoher finally became US citizens in 2013. “In Japan, they don’t say ‘immigrant’; they say gaijin — literally, ‘human from outside.’ The color of my eyes, my skin, my hair were different,” says Zoher. “But in the States, everyone is foreign. Everyone comes from outside. My color, her color — we look the same as Americans.”

“Our hearts are in Mount Kisco, and we find peace living here,” Asako concludes. “Our journey was long, but it looks like a dream.”

 

From Minas Gerais to Mount Vernon

Poços de Caldas, a Brazilian city known for its natural hot springs, has an unlikely relationship with the city of Mount Vernon. In the 1940s, the American defense industry entered Poços de Caldas to extract bauxite from the mines of Minas Gerais. Following this contact, Brazilians began moving from Minas Gerais to America in the 1960s, forming a significant community in one of Westchester’s densest and most diverse cities.

In the 1980s, a period of military rule ended in Brazil, and an economic collapse led to hyperinflation that made financial solvency extremely difficult. For citizens of Poços de Caldas, whose tourism and mining industries were vulnerable to frequent shifts in Brazil’s economy, the established Brazilian community in Mount Vernon represented a chance at stability that was increasingly hard to achieve in Minas Gerais. From the sunny summers of southwestern Brazil to the cold winters in Westchester, people moving from Poços de Caldas to Mount Vernon became an economic boon for both cities.
In 2006, an estimated one-tenth of Mount Vernon residents had Brazilian heritage. About two-thirds of Brazilian residents were from Poços de Caldas. Recognizing the Brazilian community’s contributions to Mount Vernon’s economy, which grew 20.5 percent from 2000 to 2006, Mount Vernon officials formally agreed to become a sister city of Poços de Caldas in 2005.

The US economy had its own collapse later that decade. Some Brazilians returned to Minas Gerais, and many more were prevented from coming to America as immigration policies tightened. But the Brazilian community in Mount Vernon remains a vital presence, and not all new dreamers are deterred.

Editor's note: Special thanks to Barbara Davis (New Rochelle Public Library), Cindy Beer Fouhy and Liz Dieter (Mount Kisco Senior Center), and Patrick Raftery (Westchester Historical Society) for their substantial contributions to this feature.