A Migrant’s Relentless Determination to Make it in New York

Rawy Sanz stands in Times Square, Manhattan.

Rawy Sanz in Times Square in Dec. 2022. (Credit: Monica Montero)

I was born in New York, in the borough of Manhattan

Even the routine makes me sad

Rawy Sanz sang these verses in Spanish in tune to the salsa music that streamed out of his phone and down West 31st Street. Yet these lyrics couldn’t be further from the truth.

Sanz stood just a few feet from the entrance to the Wolcott Hotel, a century-old building with one of the city’s most lavish lobbies covered in colorful beaux arts-style marble fixtures and ornate chandeliers. It was also Sanz’s new home, as of November. Prior to that he was living in the men’s in-take shelter on East 30th Street. Just last summer, he was crossing the border from Mexico to Texas, seeking asylum.

Sanz is one of the more than 43,000 migrants that have arrived in New York City since last spring. The sudden influx put a strain on the city’s shelter system, leaving officials scrambling to find places to lodge them. Throughout the city, more than 70 hotels have been transformed to shelter these migrants. Each day they venture out in search of work in order to survive and to try to send money to the families they left back home.

“I always dreamt of New York since I was little, whenever I saw the city in the movies,” said Sanz. “But never, ever had the idea crossed my mind that I’d find myself in the United States one day. It was never part of my plans. Now, I can only be grateful to God. I’m here.”

He wore a black baseball hat, black jeans, black sneakers and an oversized red jacket to protect him from the biting winter wind as he wove in and out of the urban trellis on his motorcycle. Underneath this armor was a thin 21-year-old young man with hazel brown eyes and a tattoo of a mix of swirls just below his left ear. As he spoke, silver braces peeked out.

In the first half of 2022, thousands of Venezuelans trekked northwards towards the border with the United States. Until then, the dangerous Darien Gap, the jungle that connects Colombia and Panama, had been prohibitive.

“Routes began to open up in the jungle,” said Sanz. “More and more videos started coming up in social media. People began seeing that it was possible to cross that jungle.”

At the time, Sanz was in Ecuador with his former wife and their six and nine-year-old.

“It was not an easy decision to make. I spoke with my wife and we decided I should take the chance,” he said.

In September, almost 50,000 people went through the Darien Gap. Of them, eighty percent were Venezuelans. Sanz was in this group.

Sanz set out with a backpack and only $300. He traveled by foot and by bus through Colombia. It then took him seven days to cross the infamously dangerous Darien Gap from Colombia to Panama. He then continued along the curvy slither of land that leads from Panama to Costa Rica, where he stayed for a month and a half, borrowing his friend’s car to work as a delivery worker. Once he had enough money, he continued his way through Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, where he crossed the border into Texas. It was there that he was offered a free bus ride to New York organized by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

The first job he could find was in construction. “I was promised $120 a day from Monday until Friday,” Sanz said. “The contractor paid the middleman $160. He in turn was going to pay us $130, so he’d make a $30 commission off each of us. But, he blackmailed us and at the end of the week he would always come up with excuses why he couldn’t pay us”.

Next, Sanz managed to find some gardening work for three weeks.

“I sent my first pay back home to my family. With my second pay, I bought a motorcycle for $1,300.” A friend of Sanz’s who has an official delivery app account, rents his account to Sanz so that he can earn money.

“I like delivery work because I can determine my own schedule and I don’t have a boss that can cheat me. I can make good money, too. Over $1000 a week. Ideally, I’d like to send $400 each month for each of my two children to cover their school, transportation fees and lunches.”

Three weeks into his new job, Sanz made a fateful delivery to an apartment near 37th St. and 9th Ave., just a few blocks away from the Port Authority Terminal, where he had first stepped off the bus from Texas. He didn’t bother removing his black helmet, since he expected just another routine delivery. After leaving the food, Sanz zipped out the building’s front door and straight to his motorcycle, ready for his next delivery. But the motorcycle was nowhere to be seen. Someone had stolen it. For that delivery, he earned a total of $3.

Sanz was far from feeling defeated. “It was completely my fault,” he said. “I hadn’t locked it properly. I’ll never let this happen to me again.”

A friend, who had also been transferred to the Wolcott Hotel, lent him his motorcycle a few days a week. This allowed Sanz to save enough money to buy another second-hand motorcycle. On this new bike, Sanz was sure to add a GPS tracker and a stronger lock.

By late November, Sanz was back at it. A sturdy, cubic black plastic delivery bag and his helmet sat by his feet on the cement sidewalk. “You can’t imagine how soaked I got working in the rain today,” he said. “My sneakers were so heavy from all the water. But I’ve already made $150.”

He buzzed with optimism. His indomitable youthfulness helps him swallow the images of the dead bodies stuck in mud that he had to step over while crossing the Darien Gap jungle between Colombia and Panama. He was lucky to dodge the armed gangs that unpredictably rob and rape. But his optimism could wane as the cold months continue. But for now, the salsa plays.

The song that Sanz likes to sing is by Henry Fiol. “I love playing this song whenever I’m riding over the Brooklyn Bridge,” he said. The song’s titles is, “Now it saddens me,” and the lyrics go on to say:

Where dog eats dog and someone can kill you for one peso.”

About the author(s)

Monica Montero Lim is a reporter and visual journalist currently pursuing an M.S. in Journalism at Columbia University.