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How to Respect Your Elders: Supporting an Aging Migrant Generation

Our economy relies heavily on exploiting immigrant labor but our welfare state systematically excludes immigrants.

Fidencio Sanchez, 89, pushes his popsicle pushcart through Chicago's Little Village neighborhood. He recently attempted to retire but had to return to work to make ends meet after the death of his daughter. (Photo: Joel Cervantes Macias / GoFundMe)

The popsicles that Fidencio the Paleta Man sells on a hot summer day in Chicago go for about $1.50 a pop. He does a slow but steady trade with his Poncho Popsicle pushcart in a neighborhood called Little Village, shuffling down the sidewalk in a pert baseball cap under the blazing sun. His arched back and withered face show how it gets a little harder to hold his head up each year.

But over the past few weeks, his daily income of about $50 to $60 got an unexpected boost: about 240,000 paletas worth of cash from some unexpected patrons.

The windfall was the gift of Joel Cervantes Matias. The young Chicago native spotted the popsicle vendor on the street and was moved to post a snapshot of 89-year-old Fidencio Sanchez hunched over his cart on social media. “It broke my heart seeing this man that should be enjoying retirement still working at this age,” he noted in the caption. The image was shared widely, eventually inspiring a grassroots crowdfunding effort to help give Fidencio a lift.

Within days, an online fundraiser page went viral and drew more than 17,400 donors, building a nest egg of over $385,000 for Sanchez’s retirement, far more than what Matias imagined when the site launched with a $3,000 goal.

The viral photo led in this case to a miraculous random act of kindness and international headlines. Soon CNN and the BBC were featuring Sanchez’s story as a story of compassionate strangers coming together online to honor a hardworking elder. However, the media sensation sheds light on a troubling social landscape on Chicago’s streets. Sanchez, a Mexican migrant, is part of a rapidly growing population of aging immigrants, and as they roll into their final years, a cascade of hazards awaits them.

Sanchez plies his trade proudly from early morning past sundown, but he recently attempted to retire. Then came the sudden death of his daughter, who had helped support the family. So he and his wife went back to street peddling to make ends meet, and when his wife recently fell ill, Sanchez went back to working the block this summer, his little cart still a familiar fixture to neighbors.

But Sanchez is no stranger to struggle. Orphaned as an infant, he has worked various jobs since the age of 13, starting in the agricultural fields and eventually finding his way to Chicago in 1990 — part of a massive influx of Mexican migration over the past two generations.

“I like working all jobs,” he told CNN. “And today I keep working because I like it. And also because I need to work to pay the bills, to pay rent, to buy food, and that’s what makes me work.”

Blanca Gutierrez, the owner of the popsicle business that supplies Sanchez’s vendor cart, told CNN that Sanchez worked year-round, and while she was worried about his age, she also feared he might be worse off if he couldn’t work anymore: “He says he wants to die walking.”

But today, Sanchez conceded, “I am 89 years-old and I feel my body is giving up.”

While Sanchez’s “work ethic” attests to the “American Dream” that newcomers have been chasing for centuries, his plight also represents intersecting crises of migration and aging. Chicago’s over-65 Latino population swelled by over two-thirds during the 2000s, following dramatic growth in the Latino community fueled by earlier waves of immigration. Nationwide, according to the Population Research Bureau, between 1990 and 2010, the senior immigrant population soared by about 70 percent, from 2.7 to 4.6 million. By one estimate, the population of over-65 immigrants could quadruple to more than 16 million by 2050 — around the time people of color become the nation’s new majority.

While politicians are concerned about the current “gray wave” of baby boomers entering a less secure age of retirement following a generation of relative prosperity, older immigrants face a financial cliff as they approach “retirement age” (which, for many like Sanchez, just means more work until your body gives out). Aging immigrants of color are heavily concentrated in cities fractured by gentrification and economic segregation. So it appears that one’s status really is determined at birth and aging brings acute risks of worsening inequality for people of color.

Following the Great Recession, which has hit seniors of color especially hard, an estimated 90 percent of Latino senior households lack the retirement funds needed to sustain them for the remainder of their lives. About one in four Latino families nationwide have savings in a retirement fund, compared to about two-thirds of white families, and 60 percent Asian and 40 percent Black families. A 2013 study of New York City seniors found that the median income among immigrant seniors was just $9,900, about half the median income of the native-born, and about a quarter of immigrant seniors lived in poverty, compared to 15 percent of the native-born.

While the economy relies heavily on the exploitation of immigrant labor, the welfare state systematically excludes immigrants past their prime working years. Social Security and Medicare are generally off limits if they are undocumented. Even green card holders face a five-year “waiting period” to qualify for programs like Medicaid and food stamps — one of many arbitrary strictures based on the stereotype that migrants are benefits spongers.

Legal barriers exacerbate social pressures on second-generation children who struggle to hew to cultural traditions of providing for elders. Traditional obligations chafe against modern lifestyles that emphasize independence, while the economic instability plaguing many young adults makes caregiving a near-impossible burden for those barely able to meet their own needs.

As neighbors pass by Sanchez’s popsicle cart, the sight crystallizes a migrant struggle that feels both beyond our reach and uncomfortably close to home. Whatever filial obligation second-generation immigrants may feel toward parents and grandparents, their elders’ needs for decent care and economic stability exceed the scope of what any one household can offer.

Sanchez’s narrative seems to embody a cultural ideal we all want to rescue — maybe by volunteering at a senior home, donating online, buying a few extra popsicles. But beyond GoFundMe, immigrant seniors need an infrastructure that allows them to live with dignity. The real solutions come through strengthening public services for the aging community — and rebuilding social welfare to be cognizant of structural racism and historical inequities. Seeing an elderly man like Sanchez pushing his cart should evoke sympathy, yet it’s not just misfortune, but enforced inequality, that weighs upon the weary bodies of migrant elders.

Meaningful financial safeguards would be a basic step toward equity, with measures for debt relief and legal assistance to fight housing distress and eviction in communities of color. The foreclosure epidemic, the recession’s fallout, compounds decades of systematic predation, payday lenders and other exploitative credit systems that feed on poor communities and has hit older Latinos at twice the rate of their white peers.

The Social Security system historically has helped support low-income seniors of color, protecting many from falling into poverty after they stop working or are forced into joblessness by disability. Though it provides a relatively paltry sum — about $15,000 per year on average — Social Security keeps roughly 30 percent of Latino seniors out of poverty. The entire system of taxes and benefits distribution needs to be strengthened for a demographically complex aging system — especially to address long-term funding gaps and the higher disability rates prevalent among workers of color. Still, in the more immediate term, other public policies are required to ensure there is life for seniors beyond the end of work.

Creating a culturally competent care system requires a sustainable care workforce, including home health care and elder care services. Senior-focused social and recreational facilities rooted in historically marginalized communities would help elders remain close to family and friends as they age. Public funding for home care could also be a meaningful investment in immigrant communities through living-wage jobs, as many migrant women of color work in the rapidly expanding home health care sector (and currently earn deeply inadequate wages as aides, with anemic health and retirement benefits). And for all working immigrants, policies that boost wage standards and programs that broaden benefits for family caregivers, such as paid leave programs, will help ease the social and economic hardships that often fray the intergenerational social fabric of diaspora communities.

The photograph of Fidencio Sanchez pushing his paleta cart, delivering treats to another generation of kids, captures a glimpse of this crisis. His story should be viewed as more than a singular heartwarming anecdote: It’s a reminder that community, family and the welfare state are inseparable when it comes to supporting families across the life cycle. Caring for aging immigrants means correcting the historical economic and racial injustices that they’ve braved on our behalf.

While we can admire our seniors for their decades of selfless toil, genuinely repaying society’s gratitude means paying it forward for future generations, so that one day, communities can give every elder in their final years, what a life of labor could not: a well-deserved rest.

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