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Bronx Dominicans gear up for 2012 elections

Four months ago, Bronx resident Maria Rosenda was robbed while visiting the Dominican Republic. The assailants followed her from the airport to her mother’s house in Bajos de Haina, jumping her as soon as she reached the front door.

Rosenda, who moved to the U.S. in 1988, said the mugging was typical of today’s Dominican Republic, a place so dangerous that “you can’t even walk safely in the streets.”

For Rosenda, the electoral coordinator for the Dominican Revolutionary Party in the Bronx, the way to change that is through politics. She is one of dozens of volunteers working to get Dominicans registered to vote in next year’s Dominican national elections. In the past few months, they have helped nearly 8,000 Bronx residents sign up.

While Dominicans abroad have been able to vote for the Dominican president since 2000, this time they will also vote for legislators stationed overseas. The Bronx, home to New York’s largest Dominican population, will have a big say in who wins.

About 150,000 Dominican-born residents, along with their children, live in the Bronx. Rosenda, who returns home several times a year to participate in local politics, is working to make sure each and every one is ready to vote next May.

The special education teacher has been going nonstop for months. When school let out last June, she took just four days off from work and spent the rest of the summer working at the campaign office from 9 a.m. until past midnight seven days a week.

Sitting in the campaign office in Mount Hope, Rosenda and other volunteers spend their evenings entering voter information into a database. The long hours bring them close together, said Elida Martinez, another volunteer.

“It’s like a big family here,” Martinez said.

The Bronx campaign office is unusual in that almost all of the volunteers are women. Martinez said they are all driven by concern for those back home.

“We have family over there, you know,” the 46-year-old homemaker said. “Before, we would send $100 over and that did something. Now, $100 is nothing.”

The overseas legislators will give Dominicans abroad a bigger voice back home. The legislators will represent three areas outside of Dominican borders: the northern United States and Canada, the southern United States down to the Caribbean and Europe.

Twenty-three people are running for the three available U.S. and Canada spots.

Seven of the 23 live in the Bronx. Arsenio Devares, a teacher of 20 years, is one them.

Devares’s brothers and sisters have all moved to the U.S., but the Morris Heights resident still has one foot back home.

“That’s one of the most important things for Dominican people,” said Devares, who teaches at PS 17X in Morrisania. “They always think about going back.”

Devares said the typical Dominican ideal is to retire back in the Caribbean. “We work hard over here to buy houses back there.”
Mount Eden resident Julian Melendez is one of Devares’ competitors. Melendez, a businessman and lawyer who has lived in New York for 14 years, worked at the Dominican consulate in New York for four years and saw the problems Dominicans face.

“I went to jail many times to visit Dominicans awaiting deportation.”

It will be several weeks before the party nominates its legislative candidates. In the meantime, everyone is still working to register voters, and there are many long nights ahead.

“We drink a lot of coffee here,” Martinez said as another volunteer arrived with the evening’s supply.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Featured0 Comments

Tour de Bronx 2011

Some 6,000 cyclists biked the Bronx on Oct. 23. Bike enthusiasts young and old took over the streets from Bronx County Courthouse to the Sheridan Expressway and Pelham Bay Park.


Posted in Bronx Life, Culture, Featured1 Comment

Juan Rios travels the world to return to the Bronx

Juan Rios travels the world to return to the Bronx

Juan Ramon rios looks through papers at his desk

Juan Ramon Rios works to combat smoking and promote health eating in Highbridge (NIGEL CHIWAYA/The Bronx Ink)

Hints into Juan Ramon Rios’s past and present are abundant.

The way Rios rolls the r’s in “Ramon Rios” speaks to his Puerto Rican heritage. The Yankees hat on his back shelf reveals a native allegiance to baseball. Photos of himself and students meeting with Sen. Ruben Diaz, Sr. hint at the appeal of political activism.

But it is the Harvard Law School banner that is the most curious. It’s the only reminder of his former life.

Rios, 45, was previously a litigation lawyer, a career that involved suits, ties and California sun. It was a life that thousands of law students dream of every year. But it kept the Mott Haven native away from the Bronx, and so it didn’t make Rios happy.

“My dream was to come back to the community and help,” said the dark-haired, bespectacled Rios. “But the work I was doing was interfering with that.”

Rios, who traveled the world to become a lawyer and escape the poverty of the South Bronx, found that the South Bronx was where he wanted to be all along. So Rios traded in the suit, tie and high salary to return to the Bronx improve the health of the children of the South Bronx.

Rios runs the center’s Healthy Highbridge program where he, among other things, has championed the city’s recent smoking ban in parks and beaches. Rios also created a health curriculum for the students of P.S. 73.

Rios stresses healthy habits to Bronx kids because he’s seen the effects of the bad ones. The son of two Puerto Rican immigrants, Rios grew up in the Mitchel housing project in Mott Haven and came of age during the Bronx’s low period in the 1970s, when crime, drugs and arson committed by landlords crippled the borough.

“A lot of my friends from that era,” said Rios, “are either dead, in prison, or they fell into substance abuse.”

Rios avoided falling into those same habits in part because of his parent’s work ethic. Neither of them spoke English fluently, but his mother taught herself while his father labored as a factory worker.

According to Rios, this dedication to hard work translated to their children. Rios’ older sister, Angela, graduated from Columbia University with an engineering degree.

Rios took a different route. He joined the military after high school, touring the world as an emergency medical technician in the Navy. Though he was stationed in California, Rios’ tour took him through Europe, Asia and Australia.

After four years in the Navy, Rios returned to New York and worked on Wall Street at Smith Barney, starting as a clerk and working his way up to the position of assistant broker despite never having gone to college.

The lack of a higher education degree caught up with Rios a few years later, when Rios said he “saw the ceiling” in finance. So Rios enrolled at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where he studied government and philosophy and graduated with a 3.98 GPA – good enough to get him into Harvard Law School.

Timothy Stroup, a philosophy professor at John Jay, recalled Rios’s time at the college. Stroup, who taught Rios in an ethics and law class, noted that Rios “was always the first to volunteer” in class.

“He just has an unquenchable love of learning,” said Stroup, 68.

Stroup noted a mock affirmative action debate he held during the final class of the semester. The students were to argue against their natural belief. Rios was one of the three debate captains. Stroup was so impressed with the performance that he struck up a friendship with Rios and the two other captains, who went on to attend Boston College law school. With all three students in the Boston area, Stroup and his wife, Alice, would visit the students and take them out to dinner once a semester. Though the tradition has lagged in the past year, Stroup, who has been a professor for over 40 years, still speaks highly of Rios.

“He’s one of the students of which I’m most proud,” Stroup said.

After law school Rios went west, where he worked for the law firm Jones Day in California for two years.  He followed this up with a two-year stint at Gary Wright in New York.

According to Rios, life as a lawyer was tough. Rios said he waded through piles of documents and law books, researching complex trade laws and advising big clients.

The job came with a big paycheck, which Rios, who originally wanted to become a criminal prosecutor, needed to pay off the Harvard student loans, but it also came with a culture shock. The poor Puerto Rican kid from the Bronx was now a big-time lawyer, hanging out with other rich lawyers and seeing the disparity between where they lived and where his family still lives. Rios said that this “dark contrast” began to gnaw at him.

“It was really an eye-opener,” Rios said, “to see that certain classes have more than others. It instills an understanding that you have to come back.”

Stroup was unsurprised by his former student’s struggle to cope with the world of law, saying, “It’s one thing to play devil’s advocate in class. It’s another thing to have to actually represent real devils in business. Juan found it inconsistent to work for big corporations.”

Rios said he began to wonder what he could do to help those back home in the Bronx. He settled on children, realizing that if he couldn’t work as a prosecutor to keep criminals off the streets, he would try to reach them before they became criminals.

And so, in 2005, Rios changed careers again. This time he left law behind to become a New York City teaching fellow. Rios returned to the Bronx and was placed in Christopher Columbus High School in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx, where he taught social studies to grades 9 and 12.

Rios, who now owns a house in Morrisania, said that he earned more satisfaction from his five years at Columbus than during his time as a lawyer. Rios is especially proud of his work with Columbus’ high school seniors, for whom Rios said he wrote “dozens” of college recommendations.

After his teaching licensed expired last year, Rios didn’t get it renewed. He decided to give one last shot at law, trying to run his own private practice. However, Rios said that “difficulties” led him to dissolve the partnership. Once again, Rios could go in any direction. Unsurprisingly, he decided to help the community.

Rios said he heard through friends that the Highbridge Community Life Center was looking for a program assistant that would help promote health in the neighborhood. With nothing to lose, the former medic decided to give it a shot.

One year later, Rios has already drafted the health and wellness curriculum for P.S. 73. The program, which features bilingual lessons on healthy eating, the dangers of smoking and the merits of exercise, debuted for fifth graders last year and was expanded to include fourth grades this year. Rios teaches the courses himself, fittingly placing him back in the classroom.

In addition, Rios has championed the smoke-free New York campaign, lobbying in Albany for a ban on smoking in parks, plazas and beaches. The law was successfully passed in February.

Outside of the Highbridge center, Rios is still active in the area. He sits on the community board four health committee and said he never misses a general meeting.

When asked why he works so hard for the children of the Bronx, Rios’ answer hints at a slight selfishness. Though Rios, who is engaged, doesn’t have any children of his own, he said he does have to look out for his former students.

“You could say,” Rios noted,  “that I have 8,000 kids.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Bronx Tales, Southern Bronx0 Comments

Why is Heritage Field still closed?

Why is Heritage Field still closed?

Heritage Field's green ballfields sit empty

Heritage Field sits idle in the footprint of the old Yankee Stadium (NIGEL CHIWAYA/The Bronx Ink)

Yankee Stadium was empty on October 7. The home team’s season ended with a heartbreaking loss the night before. The ballpark on the other side of 161st street was empty too, but for an entirely different reason.

By most accounts, Heritage Field, the 11-acre complex of ball fields and playgrounds that sits on the site of the old Yankee Stadium, is finally ready to host its first pickup baseball and softball games. However, almost a year later than scheduled, the park is still closed.

“It’s looked finished for about two, three months,” said Paul McCaffrey, who was having lunch at Billy’s Sports Bar down the road from the field on 161st street. McCaffrey, who works nearby at HW Wilson in Highbridge and passes by the field most days, shrugged when asked why the park wasn’t open yet.

“I don’t know why it’s not ready,” McCaffrey said.

The city has long maintained that Heritage Field would open in fall 2011. But with the crisp October weather hitting the area and baseball’s playoffs in full swing, any Yankees fan knows that fall has already arrived.

When asked about the field, Parks spokesperson Zachary Felder said that everything is right on schedule, and that the department has not yet set an opening date.

The opening of the field cannot come soon enough for Bronx residents, who lost 22 acres of Macombs Dam Park space when construction began on the new Yankee Stadium in August 2006. According to the parks department website, Heritage Field was designed to return the lost space to the neighborhood as part of the Yankee Stadium Redevelopment Program.

The new Macombs Dam Park features three ball fields — one in the footprint of the old Yankee stadium — as well as four basketball courts, fitness equipment, handball courts, a soccer and football field, a racetrack and a 600 seat grandstand. The track and soccer field, built on top of the Rupert Plaza parking garage, opened in April 2010.

The city originally promised that the ball fields would be ready by December 2010, but had to keep pushing the date back because it took far longer than promised for the Yankees to remove their old stadium. It wasn’t gone until May 2010, and the city held a groundbreaking ceremony for Heritage Field on June 2010.
How long the parks department takes to select an opening date will determine how much use the field will get. Baseball in a summer sport, after all, and the temperature will only go down from here.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Southern Bronx, Sports0 Comments

Castle Hill crack cocaine trade on trial

Three alleged gang members face trial in Bronx Supreme Court for a series of drug crimes in Castle Hill. (CELIA LLOPIS-JEPSEN, Bronx Ink)

Jury selection continued yesterday for the latest round of a murder and conspiracy case in which prosecutors indicted 25 defendants for a series of crimes related to the crack cocaine trade in the South Bronx.

Kalieh McMorris, 23, and two brothers, Khalil Harris, 29 and Shariff Harris, 26, were among the few defendants who did not plead guilty. The three defendants face charges of conspiracy, assault, robbery and murder in Bronx Supreme Court.

The court is expected to hear testimony from more than a dozen witnesses in the trial that could last well into December. The prosecution plans to present transcripts from tapped telephone conversations as well as DNA and fingerprint evidence related to the murder of Russell Allen, 24, an alleged drug dealer.

Twenty of the original twenty-five defendants pleaded guilty and received sentences ranging from a year in jail to 10 to 20 years in prison. McMorris and the Harris brothers pleaded innocent and face at least 15 years in prison if convicted of the top charges against them for conspiracy.

Assistant District Attorney Adam Oustatcher said the crimes covered in the indictment began in February 2006, when McMorris allegedly shot two drug dealers at Castle Hill Houses, the same location where Allen was shot dead two years later.

Allen’s relatives were in attendance during the jury selection. His cousin, Ashley Jones, said she came to seek justice for her family.

“They killed my cousin,” Jones said. “We lost a family member and he’s never going to come back.”

McMorris is charged with murder, robbery, assault, conspiring to sell crack cocaine, and using teens under the age of 16 to assist him. Shariff Harris faces robbery, burglary and assault.

McMorris’ attorney Cesar Gonzalez said his client should be tried separately from the other defendants, as guilty verdicts against the Harris brothers, who are not charged with murder, might sway the jury on the additional charge against McMorris.

“What happens when you knock down one domino?” Gonzalez asked.

McMorris’ father, Jude Leon McMorris, said yesterday outside the courtroom that his son was not a murderer and that the DNA and fingerprints would prove that.

“He is a good kid,” said Father McMorris, a chaplain at Rikers Island. “He was going to school and doing the right thing. He wasn’t in any gangs.”

Father McMorris said his son hadn’t always listened to his parents, but that he had “made peace with God” during the three years he’s spent awaiting trial at Rikers Island, and was well respected there by inmates and guards alike.

“He’s been planting the seed that gang life is not the right path to take,” Father McMorris said.

The case against McMorris and the Harris brothers stems from a six-month wiretapping operation during which 24 lines were tapped and 140,000 phone calls were intercepted.

Two more defendants, including a third Harris brother, 28-year-old Hassan, are also awaiting trial.

With additional reporting by Steven Graboski

Posted in Crime, Featured1 Comment

What Terror Threat?

What Terror Threat?

A woman speaks to a firefighter at Tercela Iglesia Bautista in the Bronx

Nonfe Garcia gives members of Ladder 17, Engine 60 crosses to thank them on the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Photo: Celia Llopis-Jepsen, Bronx Ink.

Bronx residents attending nine September 11 memorial services across the borough on Sunday said they were unfazed by the “credible, but unconfirmed” Department of  Homeland Security reports that al-Qaeda members were planning to use car or truck bombs against targets in New York City and the nation’s capital.

“I’m  not scared at all,”  said Paul Reverson, 18, who was attending a service at the Bronx Museum of Art on the Grand Concourse. Since terrorists haven’t struck New York since 2001, “they won’t do it today.”

Philipe Gaston, 22, whose cousin escaped from the Twin Towers ten years ago, said he felt secure because the city had ramped up its security operations over the years. “There have been so many changes as far as security is concerned,” said Gaston, who works at the information point of museum. “The security in New York just skyrocketed.”

On Friday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg informed city residents of the possible threat and urged everyone to be vigilant. “Over the next few days,” Bloomberg said, “we should all keep our eyes wide open.”

In response, Gov. Andrew Cuomo added what he called “a significant increase” in state police officers to the city.  The effect was felt in Manhattan, as security checkpoints set up by the New York Police Department brought traffic around midtown to a virtual standstill.

No roads were closed in the Bronx, however.

Amidst the extra security, Suzanne Russell and her husband gathered in Melrose at Engine Company 71, Ladder 55 to honor the nearly 3,000 victims, including 143 Bronxites,  who died ten years ago in the World Trade Center attacks. When asked about the possible threat, Russell said that no matter what happened she’d be fine as long her firefighter husband was at her side.

“Terror alerts won’t bother me this morning,” Russell said. “This time I have my husband with me. Waiting for the phone call would’ve been the worst part. But for now, we’re all together.”

Julio Gonzalez, a pastor at Tercera Iglesia Bautista Espanola in Mott Haven, gave a more spiritual response.

“We all carry the fear of another attack like 9/11,” said Rev. Gonzalez.  “But we have faith in God.”

Additional reporting by Celia Llopis-Jepsen, Diane Jeantet, and Janet Upadhye contributed to this report. 

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods0 Comments

The Bronx Remembers 9/11

The Bronx Remembers 9/11

Ten years ago, nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon along with the crash of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pa.

The lives of many New Yorkers were never the same after Sept. 11, 2001.

In the Bronx, at least 143 residents were reported killed. The loss extends beyond immediate family members and friends of the victims. The Bronx Ink interviewed residents who were also deeply affected by the attacks. One Bronx firefighter shares his experience at Ground Zero. A police officer describes the horror at the scene. Still another, a Palestinian refugee from Jordan, talks about his change of heart after being rebuked by his mother.

Hear these voices from the Bronx as they share their memories.


Posted in Featured0 Comments

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