Josafat Moreno likes to go by Josco, pronounced hose-co. He has the slender build of a 17-year-old but he’s actually 46. Josco’s mustache sprawls across his upper-lip. It matches a small patch of hair under his lower lip and his neat chin-beard. His black hair appears to have a mind of its own. Sometimes he tames it with a rubber band, which reveals a buzzcut on the sides. Otherwise, the long locks across the top of his head dance around freely.
Based on his physical appearance, some may call Josco a “hipster” who lives in a newly gentrified part of Brooklyn. Others may assume that he’s just another European footballer with a trendy haircut. He thinks of himself as an artist. But out of the many things that Josco can be labelled, most people won’t guess that he came into America as an illegal immigrant.
Josco doesn’t really flinch or quiver when retelling the story of his adventure that brought him to the United States. This may be because he now finds himself living in a snug apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens. Or maybe he’s just shared this story so many times that it’s now a part of his whole chasing-the-American-Dream narrative. Whatever the case, Josco has gone through a series of changes that have transformed him. New York City has melded and morphed him from an illegal immigrant into an aspiring artist.
“I left my town 25 years ago. It was spring in 1991. We first took a bus from my town to Mexico City,” Josco recalled. His Spanish is still flecked with small melodies when he speaks. This is common for most people from Izúcar de Matamoros, Josco’s hometown, in the Mexican state of Puebla. Josco and his friend, Gerardo, both left Mexico to look for something better.
At the time, Josco’s two older siblings had already moved away from home. Xochitl, pronounced so-cheel, Josco’s eldest sister, ventured away from Izúcar in 1989. “We didn’t have a dad in our lives,” Xochitl explained. As the oldest sister in a family of five other siblings and no present father, Xochitl felt like she needed to provide. She came to New York City with nothing but a phone number. She was to work as a nanny in the West side of Manhattan for a wealthy family of lawyers.
“He reached here like any other immigrant, with a dream for better things,” Xochitl said of her brother. Most of the time, Xochitl pronounces Josco’s full name minus the “t,” “Josafa.” She recalled picking up a scruffy-looking Josco from the airport. “I remember well—very thin, no suitcase,” she laughed and remembered how he was carrying a plastic bag with muddy clothes from his border expedition.
But Josco’s expedition wasn’t a simple stroll across an imaginary line. His adventure started at a Taco stand in front of his hotel in Tijuana—a prominent spot for those who wished to hop over into San Diego. He and Gerardo carried a small stash of American dollars which they wanted to save for when they got to their final destination: New York City. So they opted for cheap, street Tacos for their last dinner in Mexico. But the gastronomical variety at their whereabouts was endless, Josco remembered. He put on a half-smirk and told the tale of “la señora de los Tamales,” or the “Tamales lady,” standing close to the border fence and hawking hot delicacies. A Tamale is corn-based dough wrapped around meat, chicken or vegetables and cooked in a banana leaf. If it’s a cold morning, most working-class Mexicans will accompany this with Atole, a warm milk-and-corn-based drink, which the señora was also selling. “They were selling you carbohydrates to endure—to run,” Josco said.
Even though times were tough in Izúcar, Josco was leaving behind a loving family and a potential future as an architect. “I always liked designing and creating, so architecture was appealing to me,” he said. “As a child, he was always very talented, you would always see him drawing,” Xochitl recalled.
At 12-years-old Josco began exploring his creative potential by making and selling piñatas to schools in Izúcar. Three years later, he found himself painting murals that depicted Mexican revolutionary heroes—a common sight in small Mexican towns. But Josco didn’t like to see his mother struggle to make ends meet. He chose to follow his older sister’s path. It was his turn to help out. There was no more time for art or creativity.
As dawn broke, Josco’s group accounted for 30 people, including a heavily-pregnant woman. Juan, the liaison for the border crossing package, charged $300 dollars per head.
But Josco and Gerardo had to cough up an additional $600 because they wanted to get to New York, where they had familiar faces.
In those days, most illegal immigrants would settle in the southern states, Josco said. Juan normally charged $300 for a simple border crossing deal but Josco and Gerardo’s package would require fake identifications and the actual cost of transport from San Diego to New York. One of Juan’s men—Josco called him “the Coyote”—would be tasked with leading the group across. He was responsible for moving these 30 “pollos,” or chickens, from the Mexican coop to the American coop. Josco shook his head as he told this part of the story. “For them, it’s all about money,” he said.
The Moreno family may not have been financially rich but they had vast artistic talent. Both Xochitl and Josco fondly remembered their grandfather, their mother’s father, as a very creative man. “He would make sculptures of Christ and the Saints,” Josco said. The Moreno grandfather was a man of god and a man of tradition. Every second of November he would walk around his dead family members’ graves and clean them meticulously. Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is widely celebrated in Mexico. It is a day completely dedicated to the dead, during which family members will visit their loved ones’ graves and bring food and drink and spend quality time with them.
A lot of Josco’s artwork depicts imagery from this specific holiday. “The Mexican perspective of death is very different from other cultures,” Josco said. Some of his happiest and earliest memories of creating art happened on The Day of the Dead. He and his brother would collect wax from the many candles placed around gravestones, to make small skull sculptures. A lot of his more recent work still features skulls, devils and crows. But unlike his grandfather, Josco is frank about his lack of interest in religion. He doesn’t go to church. He simply likes celebrating The Day of the Dead so that he can get together with his family.
On that cold March night in 1991, Josco may have been far away from his family, but he did not forget their values and principles. He noticed another young family within the group. The mother, probably in her last phase of pregnancy, clutched her seven-year-old son’s hand. The father carried their baby daughter on his shoulders. The group trudged through thick reeds and dense scrubs. Josco immediately relieved the young father of the family’s heavy suitcase, “I remember that not a single person from the 30 person group dared to help them.” On the border, it was every man, woman and child for themselves, he said. Josco soon came to regret this decision when a border patrol car surprised the group and blared its sirens. The thirty members scattered in a blink. Josco took the seven-year-old boy’s hand and sprinted into the desert. He was still dragging that family’s suitcase.
Sasha and Marissa, Josco’s daughter and wife, are well-versed in his wild adventure. “We met at a party in Queens, in Sunnyside,” Marissa said while giggling. She recalled seeing a 30-year-old Josco with spiky hair dyed-red and big platform boots, “initially, I was like, who is this guy?” That party and 20-year-old Josco fleeing border patrol on the Mexican-American border were worlds apart. Yet they’re both a part of his life.
Fifteen years later, Josco and Marissa share a two-bedroom apartment with wood floors and an eight-year-old daughter who’s equal parts American and Mexican. Both Sasha and Marissa are fluent Spanish speakers. Josco is very strict about one rule: Spanish must be spoken in their Jackson Heights residence—no English is allowed. Yet, occasionally Josco will end his conversations by saying “anyways.” Marissa, a Virginia native, came to New York to study Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University. “I didn’t have any gray hair when I met papi,” Marissa told Sasha and cackled.
But years before Sasha could ask her dad about getting a dog, Josco was dragging another seven-year-old through the dry Californian desert. They eventually stumbled onto another group of immigrants hiding in a patch of reeds. Josco’s young mind hadn’t prepared him for this situation. He sat there contemplating his next move when his train of thought was interrupted by a border patrolman’s loud bark. “Fernandito, come out of there. We have already caught your parents,” the voice said. Josco turned to the boy and asked if his name was Fernando. The boy nodded in agreement. Josco considered sending the boy out alone but he simply couldn’t do it. “I was far away from home, in another country and already in trouble,” he recalled. Both Josco and Fernando walked out into the patrol truck’s blinding beams. Their night had come to an end.
Nothing good came of that cold March night. Josco found himself sitting in an immigration detention center after handing Fernando over. “I remember that I was in a room that wasn’t very big. There were about 200 people there and only one bathroom without a door. It was like jail; it smelled bad—stunk like urine, shit, everything.” Inside he befriended Gordito, a pudgy youngster, who was also in the group of 30. Josco laughed as he told this. “It was funny because he was really chubby and he told me that they caught him because he couldn’t run.” But Josco never saw Gordito again. In those days, immigration detention officials would break up groups of friends and acquaintances so that it’s harder to regroup if they wanted to try crossing again, Josco said. Later that day Josco wound up in Tijuana yet again.
He encountered an angry Juan, back at the Tijuana hotel, who scolded him for helping the heavily-pregnant woman’s family. “He said ‘no you only have to look out for yourself, you shouldn’t help anyone else. No one helps anyone here.’” Struck by Juan’s lack of care for his fellow Mexicans, Josco buckled down and when the time came, he ran like hell across the border the following night.
After reuniting with his friend Gerardo in a San Diego safe house, they decided to call another Izúcar native, who was living in Los Angeles. This man scoffed at how much Juan was charging Josco and Gerardo to get to New York. He told them to only pay Juan $300—the standard border crossing rate—and that he could get them to New York for a cheaper price. In turn, Josco and Gerardo left a very disgruntled Juan in Los Angeles and made their way to New York.
Twenty-six years later, Josco turned back once. He initially hated the city. He hated the low wage jobs and his dangerous Spanish Harlem residence. But he attributed this to homesickness. “I missed my mom’s cooking, my friends and the things that I did there—like playing basketball. I didn’t do anything here, so I didn’t have that passion for art.” So much so that he went back to Mexico after four years of gruelling away in restaurants and laundromats. During that brief stint, he initially took up a window clerk job at a small bank in Mexico City. He soon quit because of the small salary—he was accustomed to earning dollars, a much stronger currency than the Mexican Peso.
He ended up going back to Izúcar, which he regretted upon receiving a phone call. It was his old life catching up to him. “Hi, Victor speaking. I’m looking for Josafat, does he still live there? Is this his number?” It was his friend from the Autonomous University of Puebla. Victor had actually finished the architecture program and was working on some projects around town. He remembered that some of his architecture friends had nice SUV’s. They were making money. “And I said, what have I done? I fucked up.” Josco regretted everything. “If I would’ve stayed, I would’ve been an architect now,” he remembered thinking. But he used this feeling of regret as motivation to go back to New York and to keep working at his dream. That was the only time he turned his back on New York.
At present, Josco’s days are different. He no longer waits tables or washes dishes. He has come far from that smelly immigration detention center. That’s all in the past. Josco is currently attending CUNY LaGuardia, a community college, deep in the heart of Queens. He is studying Business Administration. “There’s a lot of people that are on the streets who have potential but they don’t know anyone in the industry,” Josco explained. He wants to help other artists build their brands. As for his own brand, Josco is still at it. He’s always working on something new. Sometimes he gets commissioned work, but for the most part he works on his own.
Marissa is proud of her husband’s artistic talent. “I don’t think that someone who spent their entire life in Puebla and never left, could make this,” she said of Josco’s latest pieces. He’s been working on “Árboles de la vida,” or “trees of life,” which are a staple in the Puebla art world. But Josco’s trees are made with paper-mâché rather than clay. Though his trees are adorned with skulls, the colors that Josco uses are bold and bright. “There’s a New York flavour to it. A lot of the colors are street colors. They’re like New York graffiti colors,” Marissa explained. But Josco’s pieces go far beyond catchy colors. Each tree is loaded with hundreds of tiny details. From afar, the details give the trees volume—it’s almost like the difference between watching a 3D movie without the correct glasses. Up close, one can quickly tell that Josco is in complete control of his talent.
Marissa’s job at Planned Parenthood supports the family financially. It also supports Josco’s dabbling in the New York art scene. He’s been featured in small, independent galleries like Méxtasis in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Some of his colorful trees of life have been sold to private collectors. Others have wound up as gifts to friends and relatives.
But Josco isn’t looking for fame or for money. “At some point, I want someone to say, oh, this is Josco’s or Josco did this.” He simply wants to be recognized as an artist.