Manhattan has Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Italy… and now also a Little Mexico

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Mexicans are the third largest Hispanic population in New York City, only surpassed by Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. According to the latest data from the United States Census, 514,000 Mexicans live in the Big Apple —and approximately 1.5 million in the State of New York—. If one wants to delve into popular Mexican food, close their eyes and teleport for a few minutes to the country of tequila and cacti, they can do so in East Harlem. There lies what is known as Little Mexico, a New York neighborhood with a Mexican soul, which formed in the nineties and grew until it consolidated. It is not yet a tourist attraction of the magnitude of Little Italy in the Bronx or the two Chinatowns —in Manhattan and Queens—, but its function is more valuable: it offers immigrants the experience of feeling at home. About 50,000 Mexicans have already built their home there.

One of the first Mexican entrepreneurs to open a business in the neighborhood is Jaime Flores, owner of Euromex, a store where you can get soccer kits from both Latin and European teams, and who also owns the Azteca Unisex barbershop. Flores opened his first business back in 1994, when he was less than twenty years old and had just arrived from Mexico. “The immigrants made me grow, but now I also have customers born here and they buy from me in other States like California, Chicago, or Texas.” As he recalls, it was a visit from former Mexican President Vicente Fox that began to give fame to the neighborhood, which has already started to gentrify. “Many Latinos have had to migrate to the Bronx because they have doubled the price of rents,” he says. But his business remains in the same location after thirty years and he feels he has succeeded. He works seven days a week because he has customers every day and is proud to say that he has been able to send his three children to university: “New York has treated me well, but I have worked hard.”

The Mexican community is entrepreneurial in New York: 18% own their own business, many related to restoration. The boom responds to, and is responsible for, the boost in Mexican gastronomy in the city over the last few years. By 2020, there were almost a thousand Mexican restaurants with high-quality offerings in any of the five districts of the city. There are 20 of them recognized in the Michelin Guide. Among the most outstanding are Casa Enrique, the first Mexican restaurant in New York to receive a Michelin star; Oxomoco, the only one that currently holds a star; and Cosme, which three years ago ranked 22nd among the 50 best restaurants in the world.

But one cannot visit the neighborhood without stopping at Hot Jalapeño, Quesadillas Doña Maty, or the Tacomix taqueria, whose manager, Marlene Ruiz, explains that although “the clientele is mainly Latino, during weekends or when there are events on Roosevelt Island (the adjoining island, where music festivals like The Governors Ball are held) the restaurant fills up with white people.”

The famous street food, the smells, and the most authentic sounds are concentrated in this corner of northern Manhattan. It is no coincidence that Little Mexico has flourished there. Historically, East Harlem is called Spanish Harlem because it concentrates a good part of the Hispanic population of New York since a first wave of Puerto Ricans settled there after World War II.

There is the Museo del Barrio, the most important museum of Latin American art in the country. And from that facade facing Central Park, Little Mexico extends, covering the entire east, so that from 96th to 125th street, the Latin spirit is felt in the colorful streets, in murals like The Spirit of East Harlem or the Graffiti Hall of Fame, in community centers, or in the music that escapes from establishments without asking for permission.

Little Tenochtitlan, as it is also called, has its center on 116th street, cutting through second and third avenues, where it is common to find street vendors of horchata, tamales, and elotes. There are taquerias, bakeries, and bodegas where you can buy fresh ingredients, from tortillas or moles to cacti and all kinds of chilies and spicy sauces. But it’s not all about food. If you need a haircut, the barbershop, like almost all businesses on these streets, is also run by Mexicans. If you’re looking to update your wardrobe, you can buy clothes with prints of the Virgin of Guadalupe, traditional suits, and even a shirt from the Mexican soccer league. There are stores with traditional brands where you find everything that is sold in Mexico: from cleaning products to sweets, handicrafts, amulets, or religious figures to the classic birthday piñatas.

St. Paul’s Church, also in the area, is frequented mainly by the Latino community, with masses and catechism classes in Spanish. And every year, for the quintessential celebration of Mexican-American cultural syncretism, May 5th, the streets become even more colorful and the street food stalls multiply to accompany the parade that begins at noon in Central Park West to the rhythm of mariachis.

Although there is also a large Mexican population in neighborhoods like Sunset Boulevard or Jackson Heights, today Little Mexico is undoubtedly the place to soak up Mexico in New York. The first American metropolis thus follows in the footsteps of other major cities in the country such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, or San Francisco, which offer Mexicans the joy and warmth of their homeland, a piece of their own in a foreign country.

Source: El Pais