The six men who live in the basement apartment are rarely—if ever—in the space together at the same time. Differing work schedules and no real desire for household friendship means these men are circumstantial roommates no different than guests at the same transient hotel. When their schedules do intersect in the hallways, they shuffle past each other without a hint of formality or friendship. It’s not harsh, it’s just all part of the transaction of living in an illegal underground apartment.
Amado is in his 50s and has been in the country for almost thirty years, and he’s been working the same job at a Jackson Heights Mexican restaurant for eleven years. He works 6pm-2am six times a week, and when he’s not working, he’s in his small room watching tv or texting with his wife Justina back in Coatzingo, a small Mexican town in the southern state of Puebla. Sometimes he just swipes through videos and photos of past visits home, the phone’s blue glow providing some of the only light in the dark apartment. His life in New York is quiet and practical, if not lonely, but he knows his purpose in the United States is to work and to provide a better life for his family back in Coatzingo.
But once or twice a year, Amado is able to make new memories in Coatzingo. In New York he blends into crowds with a variety of baseball caps, but in Coatzingo he dons a cowboy hat for the entirety of his visit, a sort of symbol that he’s a new man in a place to be himself. He sees family and slips an American $20 dollar bill to his aunt who runs a small bodega from her home. He visits the graves of his deceased parents, and checks on the construction of a new memorial for his father that he is paying for. He shows his step-daughters the remains of his family’s 150 year old ranch on the banks of the Atoyac River and walks along the water, the three of them hand in hand. He goes to parties, dances with his wife, and sometimes sleeps outside just to feel the cool night air–a regeneration from the stuffy pale underground in Queens. In Coatzingo, his life has everything but an income, so after two weeks away he returns to New York to continue the sacrifice. This story is about the people who live in underground apartments in Queens and the often great sacrifice it takes to live in the U.S.
This story was photographed and reported between January 2019 and September 2019, and here is a NYTimes Insider on how it all came together. Written by Nikita Stewart and edited and produced by Jeffrey Furticella