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BankNote building, in Hunts Point, South Bronx

Cryptocurrency Comes to The Bronx

BankNote building, in Hunts Point, South Bronx

One August weekend, a dozen 18- and 19-year-olds filed into a large, former industrial building in the South Bronx for a class on how to better manage their money. Once a factory where pennies were minted and paper money was printed in the early 20th century, the landmark Hunts Point BankNote building found a new purpose in 2014 when it was converted into office spaces.

And for two full summer days, an entrepreneurship incubator inside the former money factory became a boot camp about the 21st century’s answer to currency woes: cryptocurrency, a form of digital currency that allows people to make financial transactions without using a bank.

Cryptocurrency allows individuals to make peer-to-peer transactions whose authenticity is verified by a network of computers rather than a third-party institution like a bank. People using cryptocurrency can use digital wallet apps to pay for goods and services.

It’s often heralded as a solution for developing countries where banks are scarce, but Morrisania high school teacher Carlos Acevedo argues that the cryptocurrency industry could have just as much impact closer to home.

“My point of view was that you don’t need to go that far,” said Acevedo, who lives in the suburbs of New York and has taught English in the Bronx high school for the last seven years. “You’re four miles from the World Trade Center, and this is the unbanked right here.”

Acevedo hopes that the technology can help Morrisania and East Tremont, where 28 percent of the residents don’t have bank accounts, according to a 2013 study from the Urban Institute. That can mean paying additional fees when cashing checks or paying bills, and a higher likelihood to turn to predatory lenders in times of financial difficulty.

The Bronx has adopted cryptocurrency faster than almost anywhere else in New York because banks are so scarce, said Leighton Banton, a program assistant at BXL, an entrepreneurship incubator inside BankNote that hosted Acevedo’s class for the weekend.

“There are so many corporations that say they can’t make their way out here,” Banton said. “But I see people using Bitcoin ATMs all the time. They have more faith in the cryptocurrency than in the actual financial systems we have.”

The idea for this crypto boot camp came two years ago when Acevedo realized that even his most diligent Advanced Placement English students knew nothing about managing their personal finances. Many of his students’ parents had no bank accounts.

He began teaching voluntary classes after school hours to help them learn about bank accounts, credit cards and money management.

“Eighty to 90 percent of my students will have talked about having to send money home to family members,” said Acevedo, “or not being able to have a credit card, or having to pay money to get to a bank branch because they don’t have one near them.”

Acevedo said that in addition to a lack of financial knowledge among his students, there’s a noticeable absence of banks in the Bronx. In the four-mile stretch that he commutes every day, from Fordham University to the high school he teaches at in Morrisania, he barely sees any branches.

Despite more than two dozen ATMs, there are just six bank branches in his corner of the South Bronx, including one municipal credit union. Even other South Bronx neighborhoods are better served than Morrisania: Pelham Bay has 10 bank branches, eight of which are only a few hundred meters apart. By comparison, Manhattan’s Upper West Side has 38 branches.

“People get the short end of the stick and they don’t know what to do,” said Tashima Lee, one of the boot camp’s attendees and a former Acevedo student who became interested in cryptocurrency after one of the teacher’s financial lessons. “And they end up spending money because they burn it in a flash.”

For South Bronx residents, it made sense to find alternative ways to make essential financial transactions – like cashing a salary check – that didn’t involve paying to take public transport, or relying on restrictive opening hours.

Cryptocurrency provides a different way for South Bronx residents to make their financial transactions where banks are most scarce; despite the short time that the technology has been around, there are already seven cryptocurrency ATMs in Morrisania alone.

As a part of his education initiative, the Crypto Community Project, Acevedo rounded up eleven industry leaders from national firms including the Electric Coin Company and Gemini to speak to his former students about cryptocurrency and blockchain technologies (which underpin the security of cryptocurrency transactions) for a two-day boot camp.

In addition to lectures, the class gave students the chance to put theory into practice, using a digital wallet to purchase ice cream at the local ANC theater.

Leighton Banton said Acevedo’s initiative means that Bronx residents have a chance at becoming active participants rather than just consumers with cryptocurrencies.

“There are so many corporations that say they can’t make their way out here,” Banton said. “But I see people using Bitcoin ATMs all the time. They have more faith in the cryptocurrency than in the actual financial systems we have.”

Banton said Acevedo’s initiative means that Bronx residents have a chance at becoming active participants rather than just consumers with cryptocurrencies.

“Black and brown Bronx kids can get a $100,000 job without college if they apply themselves to this,” said Banton. “I know that someone from that program is going to be a millionaire one day, because of something they learned here.”

Jemima Joseph, an 18-year-old former Acevedo student, said that while she hadn’t spent the cryptocurrency during the workshop, she sees the potential it offers for when it comes to sending money to family outside of the U.S. She hopes that one day it will make it easier and cheaper for her to send money to relatives in Togo and Nigeria.

“This isn’t a short-term accomplishment,’ she said, when asked what the practical use of cryptocurrencies to her now. “It will take a while, but I see it gaining momentum.”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Featured, Money, Morrisania, Morrisania, south bronx, Southern BronxComments (0)

From Street Vendor to Shop Owner

A green photo album rests on her open hands. Inside, there’s a collection of carefully photographed flower arrangements.

“I love plants, sometimes I feel like they’re talking to me,” said Carolina Bernal, 54, a Mexican immigrant who has been running her own flower shop in the southeast Bronx for two years. Surrounding herself with flowers has become a safe haven for her, having left everything she ever cherished behind.

Bernal is one of millions of Mexican immigrants who have risked their lives by crossing the border to the United States, trading their homes and families for an uncertain but promising future. Despite paying taxes and contributing to the U.S. economy, this group of undocumented immigrants lives in fear of deportation in an era of Donald Trump.

Flowers in the fridge


Life in the barrio

Bernal’s story as a hard worker starts when her life as a student came to an abrupt and unexpected end almost 40 years ago. Born and raised in Santa Cruz Meyehualco — a poor neighborhood in eastern Mexico City — she was the second daughter in a family of nine children.

Her mother kept pigs, geese, turkeys, and chickens to feed the family. Her stepfather provided for everything else.

When Bernal turned 17, her stepfather died, taking her childhood with him. He died of a liver disease. “He passed away from getting so terribly mad,” she said, holding her hands together, shifting her gaze to the floor.

As one of the oldest children, Bernal had to help her stay-at-home mother; she started looking for a job as an accountant’s assistant. The first man she interviewed with tried to sexually abuse her, so instead she took a low-paying shift in a plastic factory situated in the industrial belt that surrounds Mexico City.

Her life as a working high school student did not last; Bernal had to drop out of school to work both night and day shifts. She promised herself she’d only quit school for one year while things got back on track. But she ended up working for the company, Plásticos y Reparaciones de Monterrey, for the next 15 years.

Bernal began as a floor employee in a plastic injection plant. She had to work three shifts a day to buy one pair of shoes. It was 1982, she was barely 19, and Mexico was experiencing one of its most notorious economic crises.

As time went by, between one shift and the other, injecting plastic day in and day out, she slowly began to exercise leadership among the employees.

Ten years later, Bernal had worked her way up to quality control manager. She was in charge of making sure their main client, the rum manufacturer Bacardi, was happy with the product.

“At that time, I was negotiating millions of pesos. My signature carried weight,” said Bernal, as she sat on a plastic chair in the corner of her shop filled with flowers. “You know, engineers and businessmen would look at me and say ‘now, this woman is a motherfucker’ because I knew my business and delivered impeccable results”.

By this time, Bernal was 30 years old, and a single mother to a 5-year-old son. That’s when she married, had a daughter, and her life took a dark turn.

“A smart woman can go as far as she wants, until she falls in love,” said Bernal holding her now 23-year-old daughter’s hand behind the shop counter.

Her husband, she said, was jealous and possessive. She had a miscarriage and quit her job. Just like that, 15 years of her life came to another abrupt end.

Her daughter Gaby was born when she was still battling postpartum depression from her previous pregnancy. Soon after, she got a divorce. Bernal went back to work for Bacardi, but her responsibilities as a single mother of two children were overwhelming.

When she discovered the public school her children attended in Mexico City was illegally charging her a fee and putting her children to work mopping and scrubbing floors, she placed her kids in a private Catholic school.

In order to pay for the exorbitant tuition, Bernal moved in with her mother, went back to school, and started a business making school uniforms.

Five years later, her business collapsed when she lost her car in a crash and could no longer deliver the uniforms. With piling debts and no better options, she decided to cross the border into the U.S., making her way to 116th Street in Harlem. After sleeping in a church for a few nights, she moved to the Bronx.

That’s how, nine years ago, a 43-year-old Carolina Bernal crossed the Mexico-U.S. border through the dessert under a blazing sun. She was the oldest immigrant and only woman in the group of young men she was traveling with. Exhausted, one day she decided she couldn’t keep going, and asked to be left behind while lying on a hot black rock.Mexican flags

The boys wouldn’t have it. “Vámonos Doña Carolina”, said Bernal quoting her travel companions when they lifted her up from the rock. “That’s when people started calling me Doña”, she explained in Spanish, making it clear that her nickname was a sign of respect, due to her age.

Doña Carolina then became one of the 11.3 millions of immigrants without proper paperwork in the U.S. as of 2015, according to the PEW Research Center. Even if Mexican immigration has been decreasing since 2007, 49% of all undocumented immigrants are still Mexican; the majority of them work in service sector jobs, like flower design.


An unassuming entrepreneur

At age 43, and still without a high school degree, Doña Carolina found herself working as a nanny, a private cook, and a kitchen aid in several Mexican restaurants.

It was in 2007 after one of her long night shifts at the Pancho Villa restaurant that she took a cab home because she was too tired to navigate the subway. A drunk driver hit the taxi, and Doña Carolina was badly injured. She sued and was given a small settlement of $5,000, which she used to open Carolina Flower Shop.

Unable to work long shifts in the kitchen because of her new disabling column lesion, she looked for something that didn’t require as much physical work. Selling flowers was her solution.

Before owning her store, Doña Carolina sold flowers out of a bucket on the sidewalk. She stationed her mobile business in front of a small shop on Westchester Ave., in the shadow of the No. 6 line. But her life as a hawker only lasted a couple of months. Just when the flowers started freezing in the winter cold, the tenant of the shop moved out. Doña Carolina took the opportunity and used her savings as a down payment for the rent.

Doña Carolina had managed to secure a commercial space and open her own small business, but she didn’t know the first thing about actually arranging flowers. She taught herself quickly, using YouTube videos and practicing with fresh stems. Her customer service experience in Mexico prepared her for serving the clients.

Today, Carolina Flower Shop, a couple of blocks north of the St Lawrence Ave. subway station, brims with bamboo bunches in different-sized pots and multicolored alstroemerias resting in buckets of water inside the fridge. She has good-luck pink mini cactuses sitting sturdily next to elegant orchids.

The green plants with leaves reaching up next to the wall are believed to bring prosperity to new businesses. Inside the fridge, carnations look like pompons shoved against each other and gerberas explode in a rainbow of colors. In the corner, white lily buds are about to bloom.

Flower trade

Illustration by Alejandra Ibarra

Back in early 2014, when Doña Carolina’s enterprise was on the pavement, she used to get her flowers from warehouses like Select Roses in Hunts Point. Those big depots have container-sized refrigerators where the flowers are stacked in boxes. The warehouse owners import a bunch of 25 roses for $2.

Nowadays, Doña Carolina gets her flowers from a Korean deliveryman who goes directly to the airport customs office and delivers boxes of flowers twice a week to the doorstep of Carolina Flower Shop. The Korean middleman sells the same 25-rose bouquet for $17 to the florists.

Doña Carolina buys each rose at 60 cents more than its original value. She compensates for the cost of shipment and delivery by producing creative merchandise like flower arrangements and bouquets.

Each bouquet has about 12 roses, adorned with cheaper flowers used as filling, and various green leaves of different shades and shapes. She sells the bouquets — perkily poised in their cellophane wrapping — starting at $70.

Creating value is not the only challenge faced by Mexican shop owners like Doña Carolina. She’s also had to learn how to revive a flower that has been kept in refrigeration for months.

Withered flowers are easily identified; their twigs don’t snap when broken, their leaves are pale and opaque, and their buds are often stuck in the opening phase, like a teenager in arrested development. In order to bring them back to life, Carolina slices their stems diagonally, making it easier for the plant to absorb water.

According to the Department of Labor, there were 2,980 floral designers in New York in 2015, the second most in any state after California. Florists like Bernal earn an average hourly wage of $14.49 and an approximately $30,140 a year. Floral designers in New York are not among the best paid in the industry. In nearby Connecticut, florists make more than $36,000 a year, on average.

Soon after her business opened, Doña Carolina’s daughter joined the family in the Bronx. With a college degree and her mother’s earnings, Gaby came to New York City, and now helps her mom run the flower shop. Gaby is in charge of finances, social media accounts, English speaking costumers and theme party paraphernalia. Doña Carolina manages everything else.

“In spite of all the problems she had, my mom is an independent woman who never needed a man to succeed,” said her daughter, Gaby.

When her daughter finally made it to the U.S., she hadn’t seen her mother in seven years. “When she saw me here, she found a grown woman instead of the little her she had left behind.” The two make a good team, they say. Sometimes they fight, sometimes they laugh, but they always support each other.

“I have to rinse her tears and tell her that she’s wrong, just as she does with me,” Gaby said.

With no previous experience in the flower business, Doña Carolina’s biggest asset is customer service. She figures out ways to accommodate her clients, like when the employees of a deli off Grand Concourse needed a bouquet delivered on Sept. 29. Doña Carolina charged $15 for delivery and then paid for her daughter to take a cab to the deli, tucked behind Bronx Criminal Court. The flowers were for a woman who was forced to retire after nine years because of health problems. Holding the bouquet with her arthritic fingers, the woman said she loved the red and white arrangement.

In late September, Feliciana Danielle popped into Carolina Flower Shop with her husband. They were looking for a centerpiece for a black and gold themed party. Doña Carolina quickly sprayed a couple of green branches with gold and black spray paint and gave Danielle time to think.

After the $90 order was placed, Danielle said she was a returning customer. “I had been here years ago, when I bought the flower arrangements for my wedding.” She came back, knowing Bernal would know how to put together an arrangement that met all her needs.

Doña Carolina opens her shop every day at 8 a.m. After all her ordeals, she won’t stop working until she achieves her final dreams. Her next challenges are obtaining legal residency, getting a car to expand her business, and buying a small house in which she can spend her last days.

“I’ve been run over once and again,” Doña Carolina said. “But no matter what comes my way, I keep getting up.”

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Nov. 6 Election May Determine the Future for Young Bronx Immigrants

Eduardo Resendiz woke up in Mexico City to his mother’s whisper. “My son, get your things ready, we are about to leave,” she said seven years ago. “We’re going to meet your dad in the United States.”

The next thing the lanky teen remembered were two grueling bus trips along 700 miles to the northern border, and a frightening trip with a dodgy coyote — a human smuggler — who would paddle the family of three for a fee in a small, inflatable raft over the Rio Grande River along the Texan border.

“We were like zombies, tired, hot and hungry,” said the now 22-year old junior at Lehman College from his apartment on University Avenue in the Bronx. All his life he had heard countless stories about migrants who never made it across.

Resendiz never imagined that seven years later he would still be living in a country where he was not able to work legally, where the threat of deportation is always looming. “I never really had a decision about this,” he said. “I didn’t really know what it meant, I just knew that we had to pack and go.”

But now, the executive order by President Barack Obama that offers deportation deferral to some young undocumented immigrants might dramatically change his future. If the offer of deferral extends to Resendiz, his immigration status would not be permanently resolved, but he would be able to apply for college scholarships.  More importantly for him, he would be able to work legally.

That’s if Obama is re-elected on Nov. 6. If the President loses, his opponent, Gov. Mitt Romney has promised to eventually put a halt to the program. The policy could be easily overturned because it was an executive order.

Eduardo Resendiz, 22, is eager for the elections to be over. If Obama wins, he could legally work in America. (JIKA GONZALEZ/The Bronx Ink)

On Aug. 15, the first day that the policy was put into effect, Resendiz was among the thousands of young undocumented immigrants who lined up around schools, churches and consulates waiting to fill out applications for deferred action.

But unlike the thousands of hopefuls who jumped at the chance to change their immigration status, Resendiz’ application is sitting in a drawer, still waiting for his own signature.  He is waiting to file his paperwork until he knows the result of next week’s presidential election.

Deferred action for childhood arrivals, referred to as DACA, is meant for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children and teens. Applicants must fit specific criteria. They must prove that they were brought in to the U.S. before their 16th birthday and be under 31. They must be in school, have a high school diploma or equivalent. And they must have a clean criminal record.

Some legal experts understand the fears, but believe that simply submitting papers will probably not increase the possibility of deportation. “There are risks involved, but deportation is highly unlikely,” said Maaria Mahmood, a third-year law student at Brooklyn Law School, who assisted Eduardo with the application. “The government is saying that they won’t go after the families, but you have to understand that you are giving all your information to the government.”

While the president’s offer of temporary amnesty is promising, Resendiz remains skeptical. The politically divisive climate has led to anxiety, and while Republican candidate Mitt Romney has publicly said that he won’t reverse approvals, he has also stated that he will halt the program as soon as he’s in office. “I don’t want to put my family in danger,” said Resendiz, noting that his mother, father and sister are also undocumented. “I think it’s too risky knowing that Romney could reverse the decision.”

Applicants are screened by the U.S. Office of Homeland Security. Those who meet the criteria will be allowed to remain in the United States and work legally for two years. As the policy stands now, they will be able to re-apply after the initial two-year deferral passes.

With deportations at a record high, averaging 400,000 per year under Obama’s presidency, the new policy could benefit up to 1.7 million of the 4.4 million unauthorized immigrants, according to the Pew Research Center.

From 2005 to 2010 the department of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is overseen by Homeland Security, apprehended over 34,000 New Yorkers, according to a study published last July by the Immigrants Rights Clinic of New York University School of Law. Apprehensions have increased 60 percent since 2006, averaging at 7417 each year. The report also noted that 91 percent of those detained in New York are deported.

Resendiz fears that if he does not get approved, or if the policy is reversed, he could be putting himself and his family at risk of deportation. “I’m afraid of being separated from my family, afraid of having to go back to Mexico and having to start all over again,” he said.

Seven years after arriving to the United States, diplomas awarded for his academic performance line the walls of the young man’s room. He dreams of being a music teacher, and of being to others what his mentors have been to him.

“All the teachers remember him, even the principal,” said Ian Mustich, Resendiz’ former music teacher at New World High School, the school where Resendiz landed when he arrived as a teen to New York.

At the time he found walking around New York City was “unreal,” and settling into a new life in the Bronx, tough. “You don’t know how to get around, you don’t know the language,” said Eduardo. “You feel like you don’t belong.”

When Resendiz arrived to the U.S. with his mother and his 7-year old sister, his father had already been living in the Bronx for three years. His father had left Mexico in 2002 when Eduardo was only 12 years old.  He had come to make more money as a construction worker and support his family back home.

A photograph of the Resendiz family when Eduardo, his mother and sister first arrived to the United States. (JIKA GONZALEZ/The Bronx Ink)

Three years later, Resendiz’ mother decided that it was time to reunite her family. She felt that her children needed a father. “They needed to recognize who he was, they needed to know who was putting food on the table,” she said in Spanish.

The first day as a high school freshman was rough. Resendiz, who said he had always been a straight A student, found himself frustrated and unable to communicate. “All my classes were in English and I didn’t even know how to ask for permission to drink water or go to the bathroom,” he recalled. “I got home and I told my parents that I didn’t want to go back.”

Resendiz was disillusioned, but his parents pushed him to keep trying. Six months later he finally began to adapt. Mustich, who taught at the school for eight years, described Eduardo as an outstanding student. Three years after graduation the principal still has a picture of Eduardo and his friends on his desk.

Today, Resendiz feels at home. He identifies as both Mexican and American, but feels he cannot grow lasting roots in the U.S. as long as he remains undocumented. “I live here, I speak the language, I feel accepted,” he said.

As of Sept. 14, over 32,000 undocumented immigrants have applied for the Obama Administration’s deferred action. So far, 29 applicants have been approved, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Services.

“The chances that Eduardo won’t be granted deferred action are slim to none,” said Thanu Yakupitiyage, a communications associate at The New York Immigration Coalition. “He is a highly qualified candidate.” She calculates that once Eduardo sends his application, he would have the result in roughly six months time.

Yakupitiyage, who got to know Resendiz when he was granted a college scholarship through the coalition in 2012, was with Resendiz when he put his application materials together. There were hundreds of people inside and out of lower Manhattan’s St. Mary’s church. Resendiz gathered his documents quickly but did not leave when he was done, remembered Yakupitiyage. He stayed and offered his help to other deferred action hopefuls throughout the day. “He is very talented, very smart and very active in his community,” she said.

Pending the results of next week’s election, Resendiz will be ready to file his paperwork. “It’s necessary to have peace of mind and not have the fear of deportation always present,” he said. He wants to make his parents proud, graduate from college and get a master’s degree. “But when you’re not stable in a country, you can’t do much, you can’t put roots down.”

Eduardo Resendiz, 22, a music major at Lehman College: “When you’re not stable in a country, you can’t do much, you can’t put roots down.” (JIKA GONZALEZ/The Bronx Ink)




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Bengali enclave grows in Norwood

Mohammed Hussein estimated he helped bring about 34 family members from Bangladesh to the Bronx. (JASMEET SIDHU/The Bronx Ink)


During the recent Islamic holiday Eid al-Adha, 62-year-old Mohammed Hussein sat in a loud, crowded Norwood apartment surrounded by his children, grandchildren, and several members of his extended family.

They spoke in rapid Bengali to each other, cleaning up remnants of an early day feast, and made plans to visit the homes of several other Bangladeshi families around Bainbridge Avenue and 205th Street, which sits at the end of the D-train in the northern Bronx.

“In three or four blocks, 72 of the houses are Bangladesh people,” said Hussein, who owns a bodega on nearby Perry Avenue.

Hussein, who first moved to New York City from Bangladesh in 1981, has seen firsthand the rapid growth of Bangladeshi immigrants to the Norwood neighborhood of the Bronx, particularly in the last few years. Walk along Bainbridge Avenue, which cuts right at the heart of this north Bronx neighborhood, and you can spot several Bangladeshi-owned bodegas that proudly tout signs in their native language, selling mustard oils and pastes, bags of lentils, halal meats and other typical staples of Bengali cuisine. Hussein himself estimated that he helped to bring about 34 members of his own extended family from Bangladesh to the Bronx, many of who now live within a few short blocks of his home in Norwood.

“There is close communication in the community,” Hussein said. “When I brought all those relatives, we want to live close to each other.”

Hussein’s story is typical among Bangladeshi and other South Asian immigrants in New York City. But while Parkchester in the Bronx and Astoria and Jackson Heights in Queens have long been known for being home to the Bangladesh diaspora, Norwood is also quietly becoming an attractive destination for these recent immigrants into the city. This growth has been spurred on by cheaper rents in the north Bronx, the prospect of a new four-story mosque in the neighborhood, and a tight-knit community that works to bring relatives from Bangladesh into the neighborhood.

A Bangladeshi-owned bodega in Norwood. (JASMEET SIDHU/The Bronx Ink)

According to data from the U.S. Census, the Bangladesh population in the Bronx has nearly doubled between 2000 and 2009, from about 3,900 residents, to 7,500 residents. The area around the Williamsbridge Oval Park near Mosholu Parkway in particular has seen a sharp rise in the number of Bangladesh-born residents, growing nearly 500 percent in the last 10 years, while the overall population in the area has remained steady.

“In the last few years, they are growing pretty quickly around the Mosholu Parkway,” said Mohammed Islam, President of the Bronx Bangladesh Society.

“The rent is expensive elsewhere, so people are coming from Parkchester and Queens over there, because of relatives and family members.”

Many of the local Bangladeshis in the neighborhood have similar stories.

Inteshar Choudhury, a 48-year-old bodega owner on 206th Street, one of about a dozen Bangladeshi-owned bodegas crowded within the same block, came to Norwood from Bangladesh a few years ago through a family connection. He said he plans to bring many more relatives to the neighborhood as soon as he can.

“After five years, when I become a citizen, I’ll apply for my relatives,” said Choudhury, adding that more than 70 percent of the Bangladeshis in the neighborhood came from a single regional district in the country, Sylhet, because of this chain of family immigration sponsorships.

“That’s the way everyone comes,” Choudhury said.

The growth has been so rapid among the predominantly Islamic Bangladeshis that construction began a few weeks ago to build a new four-story mosque to handle the neighborhood demand. The new mosque, which is being built on an empty lot on the corner of 206th Street and Rochambeau Avenue, is estimated to cost more than $2 million and is expected to be open for worship in two years. Until then, the Williamsbridge Oval Park often attracts hundreds of Muslims for outdoor prayer services on special holidays, like Eid.

“There is a big population here now, and a personal need. Where are all the Muslim people supposed to go?” said Hussein, who serves as secretary for the expanding North Bronx Islamic Center, which now occupies a small first floor apartment building on Perry Avenue. “It’s going to attract more Bangladeshi people here. People will want to be near the mosque.”

Although there were tensions in the form of racial epithets yelled by strangers on the street immediately after 9/11, many of the practicing Muslims in the Bangladeshi community said the community has for the large part been accepting of their plans for the mosque, and their growth in the community.

“It’s actually a very nice neighborhood,” explained Syed Jamin Ali, president of the North Bronx Islamic Center. “Right now we have no discrimination on our mosque. We feel free.”

For long-time residents of Norwood, the growth of Bangladeshis in what used to be a predominantly Irish and Jewish neighborhood doesn’t faze them – it’s simply just the latest ethnic group to call this small pocket of the Bronx home.

“There have always been a lot of immigrants here. It’s nothing new,” said Ralph Martell, a resident of the neighborhood for nearly 40 years. “The Bangladeshis are very nice people.”

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Advocates to Obama: Keep your promise

Around 400 concerned Bronx residents, politicians, and clergy marched down 159th Street and the Grand Concourse on Sunday imploring President Barack Obama to finally sign an executive order reforming America’s immigration laws.

It was an election promise the president failed to keep, the activists said. “Before he became President he promised us he will fix the problem with our immigration system in one year,” said Joel Bauza, pastor at Calvary Church in the Bronx and one of the organizers. “Three years later, we’re still waiting for him.”

Protesters said they became alarmed last week when the federal court in Alabama upheld a strict law requiring police and public school officials to verify the immigration status of detainees and students.

“The idea that just because you are brown skinned, you will be asked to show immigration papers is ridiculous and wrong,” said Bauza, from his perch in the back of an old pickup truck, where he was leading the marchers in chants. “They’re punishing all immigrants for the wrongdoing of a few.”

New York has approximately 625,000 undocumented immigrants, the fourth largest population in the nation, according to the Pew Hispanic center, a nonpartisan research organization. Half of the city’s undocumented residents live in the Bronx.

New York State Sen. Ruben Diaz, Sr., who called the March for Dignity of Immigrants, walked in front of the demonstrators arms linked with elected officials and ministers from the Hispanic clergy organization. The protesters chanted, “Yes we can, no more deportation, Obama, keep your promise, and no more separating families.”

The rally showed a growing disillusionment from the president’s key supporters in the last election. In 2008, an overwhelming 89 percent of Bronx voters cast their ballot for Obama. Sen. Diaz, Sr. warned that could change in 2012.

Others were more blunt. If the president doesn’t sign an immigration reform bill, he’s going to have to leave in 2012 said Dr. Hector Chiesa, a senior pastor at the Church of God on Third Avenue.

A contentious debate over immigration rages on the campaign trail among Republican contenders. Activists in the Bronx said their concern is bigger than who wins the next election.

“The government that is for the people will remain, it doesn’t matter the party line,” said Bauza. “Everybody is trying to make immigration into a Republican, Democratic, liberal or conservative movement, what happened to the people?”

Since Obama took office in January 2009, more than one million immigrants have been deported from the United States. That has raised many eyebrows around the country. During a roundtable discussion with Latino media last month, Obama sought to explain the staggering number of deportation saying the statistics is deceptive.

“With the stronger border enforcement, we’ve been apprehending folks at the borders and sending them back,” said Obama. “That is counted as a deportation even though they may have only been held for a day, or 48 hours.”

Activists insist separating loved ones is not a way to promote family values. “Deportation had left broken homes, children without fathers and mothers, families without hope,” said Diaz, Sr.. “The President can’t simply blame the Republicans or members of Congress for inaction. He can put this issue to rest if he wants to.”

The protesters welcomed the recent weeklong nationwide sweep that resulted in the arrest of 2901 convicted illegal immigrants, but cautioned that each case should be considered separately.

“Did they get arrested for criminal activities or simply because they were jaywalking?” asked Bauza.

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Immigrants hope for an even better DREAM

When Melissa Garcia Velez started attending Lehman College last fall, she knew her dream of becoming a social worker might he harder to obtain than her fellow classmates.

“I’m an undocumented student,” said Garcia Velez, 18 who lives in Richmond Hill, Queens.  Unless new federal legislation is passed, she will not be able to use her degree in the United States after graduation.

Garcia Velez’ mother immigrated to the U.S. first, looking for a better life and worked as a waitress, babysitter and house cleaner, “whatever she was able to get a hold of to help us back in Colombia,” said Garcia Velez, who immigrated in 2001 at the age of eight with a family friend.

The college student attended public school and learned English as a second language.

Garcia Velez is vice president and co-founder of the Dream Team, a student-run group at the college for students to come together and talk about the Dream Act, a currently defeated piece of legislation that could open up the gateway for undocumented students to become legal citizens.

The Dream Act was the central topic at the immigration conference this week at Lehman College at Lehman’s Center for Human Rights and Peace Studies.  The proposed legislation also known as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, is a bill that would give undocumented young people who entered the United States under age 16 the opportunity to obtain legal status through two years or either military service or college.

The Dream Act did not win enough votes in 2010 to overcome a filibuster and is currently stuck in the U.S. Senate.  Still, it energized students at colleges and university campuses around the country, many of whom say they are not giving up on the legislation.

Since the fall, the Dream Team at Lehman has grown from 10 to 25 student members.  “I felt a lot of people joined because they wanted to,” said Garcia Velez.  “They are young people, they have a vision of creating change.”

New York State senator Charles Schumer is currently working on passing Comprehensive Immigration Reform that would tighten border security, mandate all undocumented immigrants to register with the government and create a biometric-based employer verification system.

“Schumer’s proposal, it gives a limited pathway to a small select group of people that are here,” said Alfonso Gonzalez, a political science professor at the college who emigrated from Mexico. “The Schumer plan will not address the causes of immigration.”

Gonzalez, says that despite the recent setbacks in implementing new immigration policy, change will come.  “Every year more and more Latino youth become eligible to vote,” he said during the conference.  “Those youth are going to become long term agents for change.”

Linda Green, director of the Center for Latin American studies at the University of Arizona and associate professor of anthropology said that despite its defeat, the Dream Act has succeeded in mobilizing young people.

But Green does have concerns about the bill in its current form.  She is worried that students who can’t afford college would choose to go into the military first to earn their college tuition.  “It sets migrants up as fodder for us,” she said.

Liliana Yanez, an immigration specialist who works with CUNY Law School students at the Immigration and Refugee Rights Clinic said that advocates of the measure should be conscious of those it might exclude.  Though Yanez supports the Dream Act, she hopes the terms will be re-negotiated. “The Dream Act to me seems like crumbs,” she said.

According to Yanez, minimal military enlistment for new recruits is eight years.  She’s concerned that the Dream Act would set up a “pipeline” for the military. “Whose going to be serving in the military?” she said, “a lot of people who don’t want to serve?”

Yanez also spoke in favor of repealing the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which expanded crimes, forcing mandatory detention on immigrants caught jumping turnstiles or pretty theft.

“Human rights are not just something that happens in far away places, it starts at home,” said Victoria Sanford, chairwoman of the center.  “For our community immigration is a human rights issue.”  The center bridges the school with its past – 65 years ago, the United Nations Security Council met in the U.S. for the first time inside the college’s gymnasium.  During the meeting, the council started to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

For Lehman College’s Dream Team formal legislation can’t come soon enough.  “We want to be considered human in the legal sense,” said Garcia Velez.  “We don’t want to be in the shadows anymore.”

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In the shadow of stadium, a Yemen-born Yankee vendor waits out winter

Abdulla Abdulla tends to the Yankee Shop on 162nd St and River Ave.

By Alex Eriksen

Most of 161st and River Ave. is hibernating. The streets are deserted and the shops are all shuttered. Well, almost all of them.

On the corner of 162nd St. beneath huge portraits of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and CC Sabathia, the lights are on in the Yankee Shop.

It’s the only link in a chain of stores on River Avenue to defy winter and remain open.

Abdulla Abdulla, a twenty-one year college sophomore, is behind the counter. “We thought we’d have a lot of customers like last season, it’s not like last season,” he says.

With the season not set to begin until March, and an average of only six customers a day, Abdulla says his father, who runs the store, is tempted to close until the Bronx Bombers return, and with them, the legions of fans and tourists.

Winter hats and jackets have been a popular seller since December, less so the beach towels and pool toys.

Unless there’s stock to move or displays to rearrange, Abdulla is on his own most of the time. To pass the hours, he dusts the glass cases, shovels the sidewalk if necessary, or reads from his sociology textbook. Sometimes he practices his signature in English, writing it over and over on the back page of an old newspaper. “Sometimes my friends come and visit,” says Abdulla.

To anyone else it might seem boring, tending to an empty shop, but Abdulla much prefers it to life in the Yemeni village where he grew up. Near the City of Aden on Yemen’s southern coast is the village of Al Klaya. Electricity is a new luxury and running water something of a distant dream, Abdulla says. “Ever see the old movies where they dig water out of the ground? It’s like that,” says Abdulla. He says on his last visit things had improved, they’d dug a small canal to move more water.

He first moved to Yonkers five years ago with his father and two brothers, leaving three more behind in Yemen with their mother. Abdulla, his father and brothers, now all U.S. citizens, hope to bring the rest of the family to America.

One of the more peculiar aspects of American life for Abdulla was that the national sport was not soccer. In Yemen, the closest thing to baseball is cricket, and that sport isn’t even very prolific. Once he began working at the Yankee Shop, Abdulla became enthralled with America’s pastime. When the old stadium was still standing, he’d get someone to take his place at the shop so he could go and watch the game. “I like the rules to how they play, it’s very interesting to me,” he says. He goes on average twice a month when the Yankees are in season.

Robinson Cano used to come in and talk to his father, Abdulla says, but hasn’t in a while. Abdulla’s favorite player is Nick Swisher, who is a notch above Jeter in Abdulla’s book. He likes Swisher because he can smile while he’s playing; Jeter can be a bit stone-face, Abdulla says. “I’d love to meet both of them,” he says.

While he’s taking classes at Bronx Community College, Abdulla dreams of attending medical school. He wants to volunteer at a hospital before applying. Back in Yemen, he says, many of the parents in Al Klaya keep their kids home to help with farm work. “I wanted to be a doctor since I was born,” says Abdulla.

Across the street, Yankee stadium is asleep on a bed of dirty snow. A passerby comes into the Yankee Shop and asks for directions to the post office. It’s the first time in an hour anyone has so much as stopped in front of the store. “By April, the people will be back,” says Abdulla.

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Theater with a Latin Twist Thrives in the South Bronx

by Alex Abu Ata

The Mariachi Academy performing after "Viva Pinocho!" at Teatro Pregones - Photo by Alex Abu Ata

The Mariachi Academy performing after "Viva Pinocho!" at Teatro Pregones - Photo by Alex Abu Ata

A large prop of Uncle Sam with glowing red eyes appears above the stage.  In a booming, deep voice, the threatening figure reprimands a wooden puppet for not working enough. “Go back to work!” orders the voice, making children and adults in the audience laugh. The scene is part of “Viva Pinocho!” (Pinocchio´s name in Spanish), a musical and puppet show that premiered last Friday at Teatro Pregones in the South Bronx. In an original twist of the children´s tale, Pinocchio is Mexican and immigrates to the United States to earn money instead of going to school.

The musical uses puppets, special effects and colorful props to tell a Latino version of the traditional tale. Instead of the fairy in the original story, there’s the Lady of Guadalupe, a 16th-century icon of the Virgin Mary. Pinocchio is re-named Pino Nacho (“pino” is pine in Spanish, and Nacho is the contraction of the name Ignacio), which is shortened to “Pinocho.” The plot unfolds in a mix of English and Spanish, reflecting the local community. “Our audience lives and understands each other in many languages,” said Jorge Merced, 44, an associate artistic director.

The poverty-stricken South Bronx seems an unlikely soil for nurturing theater, but Teatro Pregones has defied the odds for three decades by rooting its productions in Puerto Rican and Latino culture. Its goal is to reach an audience that is often ignored. The formula is clearly a hit with the locals. Pregones celebrated its 30th anniversary last month with a musical entitled “Aloha Boricua,” inspired by a short story by the late Puerto Rican writer Manuel Ramos Otero. The show was so successful that tickets sold out early, so Pregones plans to bring it back next spring.

The theater group’s origins were much more humble, even by the standards of the South Bronx. In 1979, a group of young Puerto Rican actors living in New York decided to produce plays inspired by artists from their homeland. The result was “La Collecion, 100 Anos de Teatro Puertorriqueno 1878-1978” (“The Collection, 100 Years of Puerto Rican Theater 1878-1978”).  At first, the shows were performed in an Off-Broadway theatre provided by the husband of one of the actresses. In 1982, the Bronx Council of the Arts offered the group an office in an abandoned school in the Bronx, and Pregones settled for good in the borough. Between 1986 and 1994, the group worked in St. Ann’s Episcopal Church.

Despite this continuous struggle, Pregones grew and finally found a permanent home on Walton Avenue in 2005. With donations from individuals and non-profits like the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, Pregones built a 130-seat theatre. The group now includes eight full-time professional artists and a dozen designers, technicians and artists on contract, and has received numerous awards and recognitions for its important cultural role in the borough. “We’re very happy, our neighbors are very happy, and the community is very happy,” said Alvan Colon Lespier, another artistic associate director at Pregones. “It’s a joy to be able to do this.”

Pregones has performed in 37 states, 18 countries and more than 400 cities. “We’ve become ambassadors of the Bronx,” said Lespier. The group’s aim is to show people that the Bronx is not the dreadful area that most think, explains Lespier. But even in the U.S., Pregones has been an ambassador of Latino culture. Fifteen years ago, recalls Lespier, the group was the first Latino group to perform in Whitesburg, KY. “They had never seen a Puerto Rican live, in the flesh,” said Lespier with a chuckle.

Lespier, 61, has been with the company for 26 years. During his first years with the group, in addition to taking care of the technical parts, Lespier performed in some of the plays—but he doesn’t miss acting. He is now in charge of the productions, and supervises all the productions showed at Pregones, whether theirs or the production of another company.

Pregones often works in collaboration with other Latin American cultural groups. In addition to its 50 original plays, Pregones presented over 100 visiting companies over 30 years, and has performed in other Latino theatres as well. “We try to support each other,” said Jorge Castilla, the production manager and assistant to the artistic director of Teatro Sea, a Latino children’s theater group and the creators of “Viva Pinocho.” The production was written, produced and performed by Manuel Antonio Moran, the founder and director of Teatro Sea.

The stories may evoke laughter from the audience, but they also carry a serious message.  “We’re touching a lot of social and political stuff, but in a fun way,” said Castilla, 40. In “Viva Pinocho!,” the mischievous puppet follows the advice of a coyote and immigrates to the United States. “I saw similarities between Pinocchio, who runs away from home, and Latino immigrants, who seek a better life in the U.S.,” said Moran, who started thinking about the story three years ago. In the musical, Pinocho crosses a Mexican border heavily guarded by American authorities before being hired in a circus as puppet and working under the watchful eye of Uncle Sam.

The story is inspired by the experiences of immigrants, who lose their cultural identity after leaving their country, explains Moran. “I try to be as respectful as possible, but also to motivate dialogue,” he said. In the end, Pinocho understands that the American authorities are simply doing their jobs and following the rules, and saves them from drowning.

The audience clearly identifies with the theme. Vicente Roman, who came to watch the musical with his wife and three children, learned about Pregones through a newspaper ad. Roman, 38, arrived in this country 16 years ago, and had to work two jobs at once in order to support his family. “Life is too expensive in the U.S.,” he said. Like Pinocho, Roman’s dream of obtaining a better life was replaced by the harsh reality of economic struggle and difficult integration that immigrants typically face; he now works as a driver and lives in Brooklyn.

But, at least for one night, Roman’s family can forget about these difficulties and enjoy the musical. Snacks and drinks are served in the lobby, which is decorated with Puerto Rican photographs and the many awards that the group received over the years. While waiting for the musical to begin, children run around, impatient to see the show. The audience, predominantly Hispanic, is a tight-knit community: many spectators know and greet each other and the theater staff as they arrive. Daniela, 7, Roman’s youngest daughter, is excited to see the musical, even though she doesn’t remember the story of Pinocchio. There’s a another draw: her 11-year-old sister Ana will be on stage with the Mariachi Academy of New York, which has been invited to perform at Pregones after the musical.

Like Teatro Sea, the Mariachi Academy, now in its seventh year, often collaborates with other Latino groups, explains Jorge Martinez, 39, a member of the board of directors of the academy. Ramon Ponce, the director, appears minutes before the musical begins. After Pinocho’s adventures, Ponce and a dozen children, all wearing traditional Mariachi costumes, appear on the stage forming a single line and play “Canta y no llores,” a famous Mexican song. The audience, familiar with the song, sings and claps along.

After the musical, the audience streams out . The children are excited about the story, and recall their favorite moment. “I like when Pinocho goes to the other side,” says Daniela, beaming. But Daniela doesn’t realize the “other side” was the country she is now living in, where her father works hard as part of a minority. Oblivious to the political implications, Daniela will go home with the memories of Pinocho’s new adventures, and a happy-ending: how Pinocho returns to Mexico, and becomes a real boy.

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