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So Far From God, So Close to Ground Zero

Mexican Immigrants Are Transforming New York City's Latino Presence, Even as They Cope With the Usual--and Some Unexpected--Pitfalls

August 03, 2003|Eric Pape | Eric Pape last wrote for the magazine about three lawyers who chose to defend accused terrorists and war criminals.

It all seems so familiar: a rectangular park with uneven grass where men with Mexican accents kick soccer balls, shoot basketballs and kiss their girlfriends or wives. Nearby, bodegas sell dried chiles, mole, chipotle salsa and cheap, poorly printed tabloids with scantily clad women on the covers. Families unite on weekend afternoons over ceviche, enchiladas and sopes, and laborers take breaks over warm-weather beers in front of paintings depicting Aztec deities and fields of corn. Sidewalk vendors sell Mexican flags, plastic snow domes with the Virgin of Guadalupe inside and T-shirts with images of Latino youths in full gang garb. A deflated pig's head glares out from a butcher's window up the block.

An Angeleno could be forgiven for confusing these images with countless neighborhoods in greater Los Angeles and America's Southwest. But here, in winter, snow dots the stoops of brownstone apartment buildings nearby and the sweeping view is that of the Hudson River. This is the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Across the river, Spanish Harlem (also known as "El Barrio") is being transformed. In a neighborhood now known as "Little Puebla," barbershops such as the Azteca cater to a new clientele, Cantinflas hams it up on the cover of cassette boxes at video stores, and restaurants with names such as Oaxaca and Guerrero tout regional fare. Zapatista slogans appear in murals, and spray-painted gang tags increasingly advertise the likes of the Vatos Locos (Crazy Guys), Sons of Mexico, Wild Chicanos and even Los Pitufos (the Smurfs).

"El Barrio was Italian and Puerto Rican. It is now becoming Little Mexico," says Robert Smith, a Barnard College sociologist. He notes that the same process is happening in parts of Queens, where in 1999 an illegal Mexican rodeo made headlines when a bull escaped and went on a rampage through the streets of Long Island City. "You can buy a decent taco in most neighborhoods in New York," Smith says. "That's a big change from when I got here in 1987. Thank God!"

In a city whose Latin flavor has long been provided by Nuyoricans and Dominicans, the Spanish accent is changing rapidly. Sunset Park "is like a Mexican village in terms of eating, drinking beer, shopping," says Jerry Dominguez, a community leader based in East Harlem. Similar neighborhoods have sprouted up elsewhere in New York state and much of the Eastern Seaboard. According to Dominguez, who arrived in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant in the mid-'80s, parts of upstate New York, and even nearby states such as Connecticut, are Mexico.

Except that in New York City, Manhattan's skyline replaces dusty villages, cramped brick apartments substitute for adobe huts and rickety buses have been swapped for creaking subways. But otherwise, Mexicans re-create the familiar. They tend to live, socialize, eat and work with their compatriots. Mexican gang members even tend to rob other Mexicans; undocumented immigrants rarely call the cops. Soccer matches draw vast crowds and Cinco de Mayo is feted by the masses, celebrities and politicos in New York. Madison Square Garden books Mexican singing legends Vicente Fernandez and Juan Gabriel, and is about to host a mariachi concert. For some, the city has a new nickname: Manhatitlan--a play on Manhattan and Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital that became Mexico City.

Fueled by the familiar search for employment, the Mexican population in New York City more than doubled in the '80s and tripled in the '90s, according to Smith, who was hired by the 1990 census to estimate the number of undocumented farm workers in the Northeast. Following the 2000 census, Smith conducted his own research, focusing on New York City's Mexican population. Nearly 200,000 Mexicans have been counted in the city, but Smith says that the true Mexican population, including all undocumented immigrants, is probably closer to 300,000--eighth among U.S. cities. If growth continues as expected, Mexicans will become New York's largest Latino community in about 15 years, he adds, supplanting the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans.

Amid the changing immigration tides and the many distractions of life, most New Yorkers are barely aware of the Mexicanization of the city, and if they are, it is usually through the new Mexican restaurant in their neighborhood. Still, the city's top Spanish-language radio station, WSKQ-FM (97.9) (La Mega), now grabs a higher audience share overall than K-Rock 92.3, the station that carries Howard Stern's morning show. While La Mega hardly offers a Mexican voice--its DJs are from Caribbean countries--its audience growth in recent years has largely been Mexican.

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