Latinos Find the Beat in New York City

From Bushwick to Corona to Hamilton Heights, Latinos express their culture in diverse ways while making ends meet.

Just outside the Hamilton Meat Market in Manhattan’s Hamilton Heights, María Castellanos is packing up her wares — shoes, household appliances and baby clothes — while trying to find a “Señora Vargas” to return the blanket on which everything had been arranged for sale. Reluctantly, she agrees to speak with me. She says she is nervous that talking to me could cause her problems with ICE. She declines to be photographed.

A second-hand furniture shop in Bushwick has a sign in Spanglish, reading “The best in furniture!”. Lemons, limes, and avocados are abundant, central to many latin american recipes. Photos: Georgia Kromrei

María lives in Queens, near Corona, but on Saturdays and Sundays, she gets up early to take several trains to Hamilton Heights. Here, she says she can make more money selling her goods in the morning and collecting bottles on the street in the afternoons. Spontaneous street markets in Mexico, or tianguis, are informal markets where merchants sell their items arranged neatly on blankets and all transactions are a negotiation. This tianguis is in Hamilton Heights, but the idea is the same.

Deysi Flores, a cook at Taquería Cocoyoc in Bushwick, says she misses her mom, her 5 dogs, and her tree-filled patio— but says she has a better life here. Photo: Georgia Kromrei

María came to the U.S. 22 years ago when she was 45, leaving her two adolescent daughters at home with her mother. Gabriela, the younger one, had gotten sick, and needed expensive medical treatment that she could not afford with her salary at a hat factory in San Luis Potosí. She left her family and got on a bus to the United States, imagining that with even a modest job, the remittances she would be able to send would help her family. The gold star in her left front tooth shows when she smiles nervously; the U.S. is not everything she expected, and she misses the family that did not come with her. She has not been home since 1995, she said, and she doesn’t pause to explain that home is still Mexico.

What food does María miss most from México? It’s the bananas. There are bananas here, even bananas from México — but they’re not the same.

“It’s the freshness, the taste! Here, the bananas are dry on the inside, they’re not like real bananas.”

Before she left to come to the U.S., she thought she might have a small house someday, and be able to help her family. Now, she lives with one of her daughters in a small apartment and takes care of her two grandchildren, who understand that their grandmother could be deported at any time.

I speak to Ofelia Arango, from Colombia, who has lived in Bushwick for the past 20 years. She talks about her changing neighborhood, Bushwick, and why she’s ready to go back to Latin America. Photo: Sharon Lurye

Vicky Hernández makes herself perfectly clear when she says she would have stayed in her hometown of San Feliz if there had been jobs. She says she misses her country, where she’s from, and hasn’t been home in twenty years. 4 years ago, she opened her shop in Bushwick, La Esperanza.

I’m from the provinces, out in the country, like a lot of people here. That rural life makes you want to move here. It was really hard for me to learn English as an adult. As time goes on, you get used to it, and I’ve had a beautiful life. But it’s difficult in this country. Even when you are getting or already have papers, even then, you’re not free, because you can’t spend as much time with your family.
Vicky Hernández, from Puebla, Mexico, says learning English as an adult has been challenging. She owns a shop specializing in mexican products in Bushwick. Photo: Georgia Kromrei
An advertisement for divorces on Wyckoff Avenue is accompanied by a mural of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Photo: Georgia Kromrei

“Sacred leaf” and “verdolaga”, tunas from prickly pear cactus, mamey zapotes, and other regional mexican fruits and herbs not usually found in New York, are mainstays in Corona. Photos: Georgia Kromrei

Religious practices are central to latinos’ lives in New York City. Juan Carlos Orillete speaks to me about his shop in Corona that specializes in Catholic articles — and something very peculiar: a studio for repairing niños dioses, or god-child dolls. These dolls are used throughout the year during Christmas, Epiphany, and specific regional mexican holidays. Because they are blessed by a catholic priest, many times from the particular church in Mexico where its owners are from, they cannot be replaced easily. So when these dolls break, wear out, or just need some freshening up, Juan Carlos repairs them and gets them looking like new. He used to do the work just on a promise of payment, but now he asks for a deposit first.