A few weeks ago I received an email from Monica Toledo, an illustrator and designer from the IDC department at Parsons, the department I graduated from. She asked me if I’d be interested in participating in her project. It entailed creating an image about the experience of being a Latino artist that lives or has lived in New York which she would then hand embroider. I said sure. The image at the top of the post is the one I created, I will post the one she did based on it soon.
For about a year and a half I lived in Sunset Park, in Brooklyn, where there is a large Mexican enclave. I was thrilled when I first found the neighborhood, and thrilled when I moved there. While living in Sunset Park I worked for a couple that was renovating a brownstone in Harlem. I’d ride the D train all the way from 36th Street BK to 125th Street Manhattan. I always took my sketchbook with me. These are some of the sketches I did:
I always tried writing the stop where the drawing started and the stop where the drawing ended. I got the biggest thrill from doing these drawings because I had to draw as fast as I could. I never knew where the person would get off and the drawing would end. I have two sketchbooks full of these drawings and I plan on filling more once I’m underground again.
When Monica told me about the project it seemed natural to me to draw a scene that takes place in the subway, with a variety of Latinos -the mom, the child, the workers, the hoodlum, the teenage girl, the artist- in this case all Mexicans, riding along.
Here is the full Sunset Park story, which I think also gets at the crux of what being Mexican in NY was like for me:
“I don’t know what the hell’s the matter with her. She’s crazy, me entiendes?” says a girl in her late teens. She’s wearing tight jeans, airforce ones and is bundled in a Baby Phat jacket. With that outfit she could be Dominican, or Black, or Chinese, –or anything, really; it’s that inner City public school outfit—but her features, the flags on the stores around us, and the street carts selling tacos and gorditas assure me that she’s Mexican.
“What is you say? Que esta loca?” says a guy walking next to her. He is wearing tight jeans instead of baggy ones, old black shoes instead of new Nikes, an awkward fitting denim jacket instead of a North Face, a baseball hat that buckles in the back instead of a New Era fitted one. He is Mexican too, but unlike the girl, a recent arrival.
I walk behind them for a couple of blocks before I reach a phone. I listen to them speak Mexican slang: chido, guey, pinche; words that you don’t hear other Latinos in the City say. They mix it with New York lingo –Word? For Real?—and I don’t know if it’s the contrast of sounds, the back and forth of slangs, or the mere sight of them, but something clicks. Something feels right. I’m moving to this neighborhood.
I’m on my last quarters, but I finally reach the guy. “Sorry,” he says, “the room is taken already,” and hangs up. I look around; a mother is about to cross the street. She is holding her children’s hand. They could be the kids that sell dolls and crafts at the market, the kids that watch the goats in the ranches. But instead they are here, surrounded by brick buildings and traffic lights. There is frozen snow on the ground and they’re speaking perfect Nickelodeon English.
I thought that Sunset Park was a big Cantonese enclave, but to my surprise, at least this large chunk of it, is not. Before I take the train back to my cousin’s place I buy myself some esquites –dos pesos—from a lady on the corner. The scolding hot soupy mix of corn, mayo, lime and chile burns my tongue, makes my nose drip and my eyes tear. It reminds me of home.
I pick Willy, my little brother up from the airport. He’s here for a few weeks. He has an interview scheduled at the small progressive boarding school I went to. We ride the train from the A to the F to the R, and drop his things off at my new place on 54th Street. My roommate, Angel, is not home. I’m surprised; he is usually here, sitting in the couch, half watching a bootleg DVD for the nth time and listening to Reggaeton while he instant messages on his Treo phone.
I liked the space and when I saw the Virgen de Guadalupe in the living room I was excited about living with him. Angel was born here, but his mom came from Puebla. He’s been there twice. The other day we were talking about Mexican legends and that was cool, and he says that he hits the salsa clubs on the weekends and I look forward to that; but I don’t know if it’s because of all the postmodern snobbery I’ve read, or the one too many Big Macs he’s eaten, or maybe it’s just the stars and we have different personalities, but the gap between us seems to be growing larger every day.
Willy and I walk over to Fifth Ave and I tell him that I’ll treat him to some food, but really the treat is for me. He eats Mexican everyday. I haven’t had any in months. And we have choices, from 36th Street, where the cemetery ends, all way down to 64th, the BQE, it’s nothing but Mexican Restaurants, groceries, DVDs and CDs stores, with some barber shops, churches, Associated supermarkets and the occasional Burger King and Footlocker between them; a lot of commerce and pedestrian traffic, actually. It’s a pretty happening neighborhood in its own way.
We settle for Restaurante el Charro, between 42nd and 43rd, right across the Park. A girl with a DF, a Mexico City accent takes our order. Willy, short for William Tlaloc Smith Hernandez, gets some enchiladas and I get chiles rellenos and a tamarind water. On a 1 to 10 scale, it gets a 7, and I’m being generous. The cheese is plasticky, the rice and beans are a little too mushy and acrid. But the portions are good and the price is right. The check comes and I pay. I leave a good tip, the way an older brother should.
We walk up the park. The grass is thawing and yellow. Its slopes look into the Jersey industrial shore. We turn around. The sky is silver and vast. On the right, lower Manhattan’s skyscraper peek over Brooklyn. It’s a gray, nippy day. We won’t see one of those beautiful fuchsia sunsets that give the park its name; not today.
Soccer balls start to fly as we reach the top. They are all Mexicanos, all paisas, playing on a large concrete slab next to the basketball courts. We could try to pick up a game, but Willy and I decide to roam some more. The neighborhood is just a new for me as it is for him.
We walk past an empty pool and then go down the park’s west end into streets lined with brownstones. Willy tells me about our little cousin Luis, the devil. He saw him yesterday at my grandma’s before my uncle put him on the plane. He tells me of little Luis’ “Chivas! Chivas!” battle cry before he kicks your shins. Then he tells me about Norberto and his other friends in San Miguel. I tell him that this semester is rough, that I’m scratching for money, but that I finally have a job as a cashier at an Indian fusion food place in Soho.
I ask him how Dad is doing, if he is recuperating at all and Willy is saying, “So-so,” when we reach Eight Avenue. So this is where all the Chinese people on the D train that I transfer out of on 36th street end up. It’s the mirror image of Fifth Ave, but instead of Spanish, the Restaurants, bakeries and groceries have big red and yellow signs with letters I can’t read. Instead of tortillas or mole the stores sell bok choi and crabs, and instead of tacos or tamales the street carts sell boxes of Lo Mein, Mei fun and fried rice for $1.25 a pop.
I’m used to it, its three years in New York now, but for Willy its something else. He is coming from our picturesque town, where the only foreign language is the English that ex-pats and bohemian gringos –our father being one of them—speak. As we reach a corner we see a white man, big like a polar bear, in a janitors outfit roaring Russian, or I don’t know what into his cell phone and Willy says, “Its funny how all these different people are here, but they are all in their own worlds.”
We head back to my place, to my bare room, to my flat air bed and take it easy. We have a quiet and uneventful night. In the morning after bagels with cream cheese –Willy didn’t want tamales—we head to the park. It’s a beautiful and sunny day. He does the talking and scores us a game. This is what he does; soccer is what his life revolves around back in San Miguel. I haven’t played for years.
It’s four on four, with four medium step goals and goals that have to be scored bellow the waist. “Where you from?” says a guy in our team.
“Guanajuato,” I say, “and you?”
“There are some people from DF arriving, huh?” I say. I can tell some of the other guys playing are from there also. They have that Mexico City grimy street wit and vampirey looks that the more indigenous looking guys from Puebla or Guerrero don’t have.
“Yeah,” he says, “we’re starting to come out,” and then goes, “Guanajuato? A chingaos? Where is that?”
We last three games before they beat us. Beto, the guy from DF, scored most of our goals, and me and Willy did all right. The only pissed off one is the Ecuadorian kid that played defense most of the time. He leaves. El cabrito, the older pale guy with the long sheep hair and the skinny legs, pushed him and fouled him one too many times.
We sit on the floor near the fence and wait for one of the teams to loose so that we can play again. I watch the goalie grab a can of beer from under a jacket, the goal’s post, and sip while the ball is away. “I was dying in there,” says Beto. “I’m all hung-over, you know?”
I nod and start thinking about my high school days, when I’d come back from boarding school and spend summers playing soccer and hanging out with the kids from my neighborhood in San Miguel. Then I start thinking about how those days are gone, about how long the train ride can feel every night; that maybe I should look into other neighborhoods where college kids are living. But then a soccer ball zooms right next to my face, and Beto says, “Orale, guey!” and Willy says, “Orale hermano! Nos toca!” They just scored; it’s our turn to go in. There’s a chilly breeze, but the sun is out. It has kept my bones warm. I stand up quickly, as fast as I can and think to myself that it’s good to be living here.