Forty-Cent Tip

Stories of New York City Immigrant Workers

By the students of three New York public International High Schools

Introduction by Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco

January 2006 ♦ Paperback ♦ 72 pages, 30 b&w photographs ♦ ISBN: 0-9762706-4-1 ♦ $8.95

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Download (PDF) a New York Daily News article that featured the project.

Read an interview with one of the student contributors

Cleaning the floors of a dentistry office by night, a Colombian woman dreamed of the day her teenage daughter could become a dentist herself. An asbestos worker from the Czech Republic worried about "breathing my own death." An Afghani taxi driver, a Chinese manicurist, a laundromat worker from Indonesia, a hospital clerk from Cameroon, and a Bangladeshi street hawker-these are among the immigrant workers who have told their stories of struggle and sacrifice to the next generation in Forty-Cent Tip, a slim but electrifying volume of photographs and essays by 60 New York City high school students.

New to this country and still learning English themselves, their student interviewers all attended one of three "international schools" in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, small public schools enrolling only recent immigrants. Coached by their teachers and mentors, and equipped with voice recorders and digital cameras, they documented the lives of immigrant workers in their own neighborhoods, many of whom were their relatives or friends.

The book got its start as a class project of Noreen Perlmutter and Andrew Turner, teachers at the International High School at LaGuardia Community College in Queens. When the idea caught on in two Brooklyn and Manhattan International classrooms, the nonprofit What Kids Can Do, Inc. gave it a small "student research for action" grant, with funds provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In Brooklyn, the student photographers received coaching from a visiting artist at Elders Share the Arts, a community nonprofit initiative.

The book's production at Next Generation Press was coordinated by a summer college intern, Rosa Fernandez, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who herself graduated from Manhattan International High School and graduated with honors in 2007 from Wellesley College.

Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, a preeminent scholar of immigration studies at New York University, sets the book in historical context in his introduction. As the students chronicle "the eternal search for dignity, for respect, and for solidarity with loved ones," he writes, their book reveals "a story of dreams and the enormous sacrifices that must be made so the next generation can achieve a better place under the sun."

By turns bitter and fiercely determined, downcast and filled with pride and hope, the poignant accounts and photos collected in Forty-Cent Tip wake the reader to the painful realities of leaving one's past for the sake of the future. For some of the young documentarians who chose to interview their own parents, it was the first time they had heard these stories.

"I go to work and school, take care of my kids, and take care of my family in my country," says a man from Ivory Coast, who emigrated in 1994 and now manages a beauty supply store. "Life is not easy." A Colombian waiter with a university degree tells of the customer who orders a steak and a Coke every day, for $39.60, then leaves him a forty-cent tip. A disabled street vendor from Peru, selling crafts from a wheelchair, says, "I have talent and experience in selling things; one of my goals is to open up a store so I have something stable. I still haven't reached the American dream. But I am advancing, and little by little, I know I will get there."

The Queens Museum of Art mounted a three-week exhibit of the student photographs and texts in January, 2006. After that, the exhibit travel to various locations in the New York boroughs and beyond. For the general public and educators alike, Forty-Cent Tip has important light to shed on both society and schooling.

Some words from the immigrant workers of Forty-Cent Tip:

"I know that I am not part of my daughters' life. I barely see them. That is my greatest sacrifice: being there for them, but not physically as I wish.... Hopes and dreams keep my feet on the ground. I do not speak as much English as you do, but I understand more than you imagine." —Office cleaning person, from Colombia

"My dream is to become an artist.... I have been telling myself to wake up since my first day in this country. All I think about is how to make more money to support my family. Where is my dream? It is shattered by reality." —Hotel housekeeper, from China

"I am happy that my children are safe from wars, but it's human nature to want to be somewhere else. Living in the land of opportunities, I miss the manager's job I had in Afghanistan. I hope for a proud future for our children. But words are cheap, and I am a man of action. What I have been and done will help me wish for a new dream." —Taxi driver, from Afghanistan

"Sometimes, when you can't live from doing what you love, you have to do something against yourself. There was a huge transition in my life, from the time when I worked physically [at three jobs, in a laundromat, as a porter, as a delivery person] to the time when I left everything to do what I have always dreamed of. I'm glad that I live here. New York became my life." —Photographer, from Poland



“Using curiosity as their credentials, the teenagers—who are recent immigrants and still learning English—took tape recorders and digital cameras to document the lives of their neighbors, friends, and even family members. Forty-Cent Tip is the remarkable result.”
– Stephen Wolgast, NewsPhotographer