Tag Archive | "South Bronx"

A Zone of Neglect

A pile of syringes found under a tree on a sidewalk on St. Anne’s Avenue. These were a few of 1,200 syringes and identifiable needle parts found by the Bronx Ink in the area surrounding the Hub at 149th Street and 3rd Avenue on September 10.

A lifelong resident of the Bronx Marty Rogers walked his familiar route on September 10 down Third Avenue to the Hub at 149th Street, the unofficial shopping and transit heart of the South Bronx. Rogers regularly visits this area dotted with orange plastic pieces of discarded syringes, neon lights alerting to all too familiar problem for the community. 

Knowing that students from 10 surrounding schools pass by all this danger and debris every day broke his heart. 

Antonio Merced, a volunteer at Brilla Middle School at Courtlandt Avenue and 148th Street, uses his cane to bend a syringe needle while students line up behind him to enter the school on September 10. Marty Rogers, a local activist, stands behind him.

“The subliminal message is just killing our kids,” said Rogers, 64, leader of a local grassroots movement called Take Back the Hub focused on bringing attention to this issue. “It wires our kids to become an addict of some kind.” 

The message, he said, is that drug use like this is a big part of what’s inevitable for these children.

On two separate days the week of September 10, a walk through the five block area fanning out from 149th Street and Third Avenue found nearly 1,000 pieces of needles and 200 intact syringes. The area observed by The Bronx Ink, included Patterson Playground and Lincoln Medical Center. 

In this same area are a total of 10 schools, spanning elementary to high school, both public and charter schools. 

The scope of the drug crisis is nothing new to residents of Mott Haven. The neighborhood has the third highest rate of overdose deaths in the city at a rate of 49.2 deaths per 100,000 citizens, according to Epi Data Brief by New York City Health.

“The rates of overdoses in the South Bronx are exceptionally high and if the the South Bronx was its own state it would have one of the highest rates in the country,” said Michelle Nolan, senior epidemiologist for the New York City Department of Health.

This data was gathered using death certificates and information from the medical examiner’s office, which is consistent with the Centers for Disease Control standards, according to Nolan. 

What is no longer tenable to the local grassroots activists is how the city’s repeated neglect. The members believe that a lack of quality services, such as police, sanitation and healthcare, is to blame for the opioid problem and the number of discarded syringes. 

Rogers calls the area a “zone of neglect.” 

Residents can report discarded syringes to 311, according to Dina Montes, Press Secretary of the New York City Department of Sanitation. 

“The Department of Sanitation of New York investigates reports of syringes on a City public street or public sidewalk. If any are found, our Environmental Police Unit will collect them and ensure their proper, safe disposal,” said Montes in an email. “Our Environmental Police Unit found and removed 16 syringes with sharps attached in that area of East 149th Street on Tuesday, September 10.”

The committee is not interested in “demonizing” those suffering from addiction, according to Rogers. 

“They are our brothers and sisters,” he said. “They had a very sad situation because they’re addicted, but the real victim is the child that has to walk past the needles and the defecation. That is the victim.”

Roger’s collection of neighbors aren’t the only ones concerned. Antonio Merced, a volunteer at Brilla Middle School at Courtlandt Avenue and 148th Street, regularly uses his cane to bend syringe needles and gather them in a pile on the block before the students enter and leave the school.

“This is what it comes down to: parents, volunteers and guys getting paid who swept the needles up,” Rogers said. “I would challenge anyone to walk three blocks around this area and not find a cap or evidence of drug use.”

The movement plans to hold a vigil every Tuesday in The Hub, at 149th Street and Third Avenue  to bring attention to the number of improperly disposed syringes. 

“The people who join in, we have to keep reminding them, this isn’t one time,” said Francine Rogers, Marty’s wife. “We have to keep going.”

The office of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. is aware of the situation, according to John DeSio, director of communications.  

“Our office is aware of the situation, and have been in regular contact with agencies, the police department, local businesses, non-profits and other stakeholders in the area to develop solutions moving forward,” DeSio said in an email. 

Meanwhile, the members of the committee are waiting for the political officials to call a rally and organize to end this problem. 

“I think it’s fair to say that the community is more on top of this issue than the political officials,” said Rogers. “I’m not saying they’re not trying but they’re failing.”

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Bronx Puerto Rican Parade Embraces Diversity

The annual Bronx Puerto Rican Day Parade along the Grand Concourse will be filled with classic bomba dancers and bedazzled floats carrying pageant queens, as tradition has dictated for the last three decades. 

But this year, the Sept. 22 parade is expected to include a stronger than ever showing of the borough’s growing ethnic diversity.  The cultural medley is expected to showcase Falun Dafa Drum Dance Team, a Queens-based Chinese musical group that will be drumming alongside salsa music. Central Americans, led by local Guatemalan TV host Chapín, are expected to walk the route alongside African-American and Taíno Indian groups. 

The parade is the second-largest Puerto Rican parade in the United States, next only to Manhattan’s two million-strong event. 

“Being part of the parade makes me feel closer to Puerto Rico,” said Maribel Mercado, 45, this year’s parade president, who has been involved with parade planning for 12 years. But, she said, the drive to recruit groups like Dominicans, Ecuadoreans, Bangladeshis, Mexicans, African Americans and Chinese to the parade reflects the demographic realities in the Bronx.

Parade planners not only promote a unifying melting pot message, but it also helps boost parade attendance, which has been on the decline. Census data shows that the once-dominant Puerto Rican community has declined by 19%, from 338,000 in 1990 to 274,000 in 2017. Parade attendance has fallen suit. As recently as 2005, the parade drew around 50,000 attendees, according to police. This year, the police estimate 15,000 attendees.

Puerto Ricans have always had a strong presence in the Bronx, which is still the case, despite the declining numbers, said Juan Gonzalez, Puerto Rican journalist and author. “Some have left the city, some have moved upstate, some have retired to Puerto Rico and Florida,” said Gonzalez. 

Many work at key healthcare and educational organizations, such as Hostos Community College and Bronx Lebanon Hospital said Gonzalez. Puerto Ricans also dominate county politics. Three of the last four borough presidents have been Puerto Rican — though that might change as older politicians retire and newer communities mobilize politically. 

In many ways, the focus on multicultural participants is an extension of the founder’s original mission. A South Bronx math teacher from Salinas, Angel Luis Rosario, founded the event in 1987 as the first Puerto Rican parade in New York with the idea that any group—not just Puerto Ricans—should celebrate their identity. 

Mercado said that this year’s parade leadership worked to secure sponsorships from new organizations like  Havana Café, a well-known Cuban restaurant. 

Francisco Gonzalez, a former parade chairman who just retired, planned the event for 26 years and has witnessed the Bronx’s demographic changes firsthand. He is confident that new leadership will continue his work to honor the Puerto Rican community as well as to adapt to the changing Bronx.


“We are very proud to be Puerto Rican,” said Francisco Gonzalez, who spends part of the year in Yauco, his family’s mountain hometown in Puerto Rico. “But we follow the Puerto Rican belief that mi casa es su casa. We open our arms to celebrating differences.”

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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.”

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A Boxing Gym Owner Fights to Keep His Culture Alive

If you walk into El Maestro Boxing Gym at 5 p.m. on a Monday, you might find the gym full of young men, battering away at the bags and shuffling around the ring to the metronome of the round-timer.

Come in on the right Saturday night though, and you might find that instead of fighters shadow-boxing inside the ring, there’s a bomba band, or a fiery patriotic Puerto Rican poetry reading. 

“Boxing is not enough,” gym founder Fernando Laspina said. Boxers can end up broke and brain damaged, Laspina said, and that’s why he designed El Maestro not just as a gym where neighborhood kids could learn to fight, but as a place where they could connect to Puerto Rican culture and history.

But after 16 years, Laspina’s community center is now under threat. His landlord has put the squat two-story building that houses El Maestro up for sale.  Laspina has lost locations and been forced to downsize before, he said, but yet another move could be disruptive to what he’s managed to build at 1300 Southern Boulevard.

 Akmicar Torres, 33, whose son Joseph trains at the gym, said it would be unthinkable to lose El Maestro. When he first walked into the gym to sign his son up for boxing classes, he was struck by the huge mural on one of the walls. It depicts a mix of Puerto Rican nationalist heroes and scenes from Taino folklore.

“It was like I was looking at a history book from my third grade in Puerto Rico,” Torres said. He described standing in front of the wall and explaining to his son Joseph, then 10-years-old, what their connection to this history was. 

For many in the Puerto Rican community in this corner of the Bronx, El Maestro is a little piece of the old country. 

“There’s no other place in New York that feels like home,” said Akmicar. “When I feel homesick, I go to El Maestro.” Four years after signing up Joseph, now 14, he’s a New York Junior Olympic Champion. His boxing lessons, Torres explained, take place entirely in Spanish. 

Laspina’s path hasn’t been a straight one. A “jibaro” from the mountains of Puerto Rico, he moved to the Bronx at fifteen and quickly became a target for schoolyard bullying. He joined The Savage Skulls, a notorious black and Puerto Rican street gang, for protection. Within a few years, he’d risen to the rank of regional leader in the South Bronx. Fighting quickly became a part of his life. “Everyone always said I was good with my hands,” he chuckled. 

But a two-year stint in prison for extortion made him rethink his priorities. He resolved to change. Prison proved to be a crash course in community organization, as he and other Spanish-speaking inmates had to band together and use their collective voices to, among other things, demand a bi-lingual chaplain.

Once out, he’d channeled the skills he’d learned as a prison-yard organizer into a career in grassroots community activism and outreach, helping to lead a campaign to keep Puerto Rican-founded Hostos Community College open. He enrolled in college, eventually earning a masters degree from Buffalo State University in Latin Studies. More than 40 years later, Laspina’s ties to his community go deep. He runs El Maestro and works as an extracurricular coordinator for the New York City Housing Authority. 

Rising rent prices have caused the gym to have to move before: they’ve had four locations in the past 16 years. But now, the possible sale of the building, coupled with the discussion of zoning changes along Morrisania’s Southern Boulevard has many community members worried about what this might mean for El Maestro

Yet another move could force them into a smaller space, less easily accessible by train than the current location, which is just down the block from the 2 and 5 stop at Freeman Ave. In turn, this could shrink the programs the gym is able to offer, and take away a critical linchpin in the cultural landscape of the neighborhood. “This gym keeps kids off the street and out of gangs, people come here who have messed up their lives and are trying to straighten out,” said 16-year-old boxer Firdaus Abdulai. “People take this place for granted, but it would be terrible if the gym got sold.” 

Fernando doesn’t seem worried though. The Bronx has changed a lot in the years since the gym was founded, and they have always managed to survive, and if that means finding another location, so be it. Instead of dwelling on the potential sale of the property, he’s thinking about ways to grow. He’d love to launch a tutoring program for the kids who come to the gym. “That’s the dream, to have a space with computers where the kids could come and do homework,” he said. For now though, he’s happy to listen to the thud of gloves against the heavy bag.

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Protesters Denounce Majora Carter’s Wealth Protection Plan for Hunts Point Homeowners

Protesters outside Majora Carter’s homeowners’ meeting next door to her Boogie Down Grind Cafe.

“Majora Carter, we won’t let you sell us out! If you try to gentrify, we will come and chase you out!” cried jocular protesters on the evening of September 6 near her coffee shop, the Boogie Down Grind Cafe on Hunts Point Avenue. The group of about 25 Bronx residents and activists had converged outside Carter’s meeting for the Hunts Point/Longwood Homeowner Land Trust Working Group to protest its emphasis on private ownership.

Take Back the Bronx, an organization that advocates community control of the borough, marched down Hunts Point Avenue around 6:30 p.m. Thursday night to confront a meeting that Carter, a controversial urban revitalization strategist in Hunts Point, was hosting for local homeowners to talk with developers about wealth creation and protection.

The clash erupted over Carter’s Hunts Point/Longwood Homeowner Land Trust Working Group, which bills itself as “an avenue for local homeowners and aspiring homeowners within the community to strengthen their ability and resources to reinvest and support local wealth creation.” Invited speakers included non-profit lenders, who shared opportunities with attendees for low-interest loans to purchase a home.

“Not a majority, but a pivotal minority are in a position to purchase a home,” said James Chase, the Vice President of marketing for the Majora Carter Group and Carter’s husband. “To me, it’s a tragedy that so little has been done to maintain home ownership, especially among minority homeowners.” According to the Department of City Planning, only 6.8 percent of Hunts Point residents own their homes. The rest are renters.

By contrast, Take Back the Bronx advocates for Community Land Trusts. “CLTs for the people!” chanted protesters outside Carter’s meeting. Community Land Trusts act as publicly owned land. “CLTs give the people a say in how public resources are used and how their neighborhoods are developed,” according to the New York City Community Land Initiative.

“As far as I can tell, they do not allow for personal wealth creation,” said Chase of Community Land Trusts.

South Bronx Unite, an organization allied with Take Back the Bronx, wrote a statement of support prior to the protest.  The group argued that decisions about who owns land and housing should include everyone in the community, particularly the poor, the homeless, or the soon-to-be homeless. “They are not served by the private market or for profit developers,” the statement said.

Carter often employs the term “self-gentrification” when speaking about development in the Bronx, meaning that residents should want to improve their own neighborhoods. “Majora stresses talent retention as a way to economically diversify,” said Chase.

“Our community should feel proud that a woman like her has taken it to the next level and the next step,” said José Gálvez, social impact strategist and consultant with the Majora Carter Group and PhD candidate in Public and Urban Policy at the New School. “And that she’s not selfish enough that she wants to keep it for herself but that she wants to help her community do the same.”  

Protesters hold signs accusing Carter of displacement.

Critics believe that Hunts Point needs housing more than it needs a coffee shop. “I’m a business owner, and I’m happy that she is one. But don’t ever say I wanna bring a business before you bring a building,” says Larissma Jacobs, owner of Larissma Jacobs Daycare in Hunts Point. Hunts Point residents have named affordable housing as their most pressing concern for the last three years, according to the Department of City Planning.

Carter has also argued that residents against development are stuck in a mindset of poverty. “People with ill hearts are putting in the hearts of young kids, a really bad mindset so they cannot escape from the cycle of poverty mindset,” said Gálvez. Some residents have taken offense to the statement, which echoes former longtime New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s infamous argument about a stultifying culture of poverty within black families and communities. “Actually, Bronx culture is about fighting poverty,” said Shellyne Rodriguez, an organizer of the protest.

Once a hero of the South Bronx, many residents feel that Carter has abandoned her beliefs. Carter started Sustainable South Bronx in 2001, an environmental non-profit that undertook many successful initiatives like the opening of Riverside Park and the co-founding of the Bronx River Alliance. She won a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 2005 for her efforts. In 2008, she left Sustainable South Bronx and opened the Majora Carter Group, a consulting firm located in Hunts Point.

In 2012, FreshDirect hired Carter to aid their move to the Bronx. Their facilities opened in Port Morris in July of 2018 with the support of Bronx borough president Rubén Díaz, Jr. despite community backlash. Those who fought FreshDirect’s move argue that their trucks pollute neighborhoods already suffering from exorbitantly high asthma rates.

Carter’s Boogie Down Grind Cafe was littered with flyers that protesters handed out depicting her as a carnival-like figure with snakes on her head. The flyers read “Majora Carter the Sellout of Hunts Point.”

Outside the Hunts Point Landowners meeting on Thursday night, protesters held a banner that read, “Majora Carter $ell$ the Bronx Out! One coffee at a time!” Carter’s staff donned shirts that read “if Majora Carter is a sell out then so am I.” They yelled back at protesters, “nothing but love.”

Protesters pressed signs against the large glass windows where the landowner’s meeting was taking place. Carter largely ignored the protest, but at one point turned around and blew kisses to the demonstrators outside the window, while mouthing “this is my ‘hood” and shrugging.

According to Chase, he and Carter make a habit of inviting those who protest against her to sit down and talk. “We say, hey it looks like there might be some confusion and we want to listen to you and we want to tell you what we’re doing so there cannot be this animosity,” said Chase. “We all live in the South Bronx so it’s not hard to get together, we even built a cafe. Coffee’s on us. Or we’ll meet in a neutral space.”

Chase admits, however, “we may be a little tone deaf in that a lot of people probably are experiencing pressure, they’re fearful they feel it’s unjust, all of those things are valid.”

“We want her to know that if she’s not for us, she’s against us,” said Monica Flores, a photojournalist and activist.

This article was written with additional reporting by Lucas Manfield.

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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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Naloxone: A Life Saver in a Neglected World

Organizers passed out purple candles at St. Ann's Corner of Harm Reduction in the South Bronx Aug. 30 in memory of those who have died of heroin overdose.

Community members lit candles Aug. 30 in memory of those who have died of heroin overdose in the Bronx.

MOTT HAVEN–Walking through the streets of the South Bronx one afternoon in July, Tino Fuentes, 53, said he sensed trouble across the street.

“You get this little gut feeling like something’s not right,” Fuentes said.

He found a man on the ground, unresponsive, drawing faint, shallow breaths. Bystanders said the man had been unconscious for several minutes, and his breathing was getting weaker as time passed. Amidst the chaos, a woman leaned over and whispered, “He did a bag.”

Fuentes, who knew she meant the man was likely overdosing on heroin, said he sprung into well-rehearsed action. An ambulance had already been called, but in the case of an overdose, every second matters. An injection of the drug Naloxone can reverse the effect of opioid overdose, but the success rate depends on rapid response.

Fuentes had a Naloxone kit across the street. After retrieving it, he removed the orange top of the vile, filled the syringe with its contents, and plunged the two-inch needle into the sinewy part of the man’s shoulder. Fuentes said he was rolling the man over to begin rescue breathing when he came to — brought back by the medication Fuentes injected.

“It’s such a selfish feeling, but I feel great. I just saved someone’s life,” Fuentes recalled.

Fuentes claims to have saved more than 75 lives with Naloxone since 2006, though he said he has lost count. He is not an EMT or doctor. He just makes sure he always has a kit on him when he is walking around New York.

“I do this because I came from these streets,” Fuentes said. “I gotta find a way to give back, you know?”

Fuentes serves as the co-director of the Syringe Exchange Program at St. Ann’s Corner of Harm Reduction in the South Bronx, where he also trains other people to administer Naloxone. Under New York State law, anyone can carry the medication after undergoing the twenty-minute training and earning a blanket-prescription.

“There is really no reason not to get trained,” Fuentes said. “We’re reaching out to try to train everybody.”

Between 2014 and 2015, Mott Haven and Hunts Point had the highest rate of heroin overdose in New York City by a significant margin. The death rates have steadily increased in recent years. Joyce Rivera, founder and executive director at St. Ann’s, said socioeconomic status and race cause people to ignore this public health crisis in the Bronx.

“The only people who really pay the price for using drugs are poor, working class people,” Rivera said to a crowd on National Overdose Awareness Day at the end of August. But she said harm reduction programs and Naloxone are saving lives in marginalized communities. “Every life matters. Who’s life is expendable?”

Across the country, heroin is becoming increasingly deadly. New reports confirm that heroin is now commonly cut with prescription Fentanyl, a drug 100 times stronger than morphine, causing users to underestimate the potency of what they inject.

“[Dealers] put whatever they put in heroin to stretch it out, to make more money,” Fuentes said. “Not too many people know what’s being put in there.”

According to Fuentes, the man he saved in July was a frequent user, injecting up to five bags a day. The day he nearly died, he was only on his first bag, which he had sniffed rather than injected. Since those are not the conditions that generally lead to overdose, Fuentes said he suspects Fentanyl was present in the mixture. Naloxone is still effective against Fentanyl-laced heroin though experts say in those cases it might take more than one dose to revive the person.

Since the Naloxone program began at St. Ann’s in 2006, awareness around heroin overdose has increased dramatically in New York. Now, all police officers in Mott Haven carry Naloxone. Overdose response trainings are being held in local prisons. Laws around prescription to carry have changed to give easier access to the life-saving medication.

Organizers at St. Ann’s say the shift in awareness and action was influenced by the changing demographics of heroin use and abuse throughout New York State. In 2013, more white New Yorkers than black or Hispanic New Yorkers died of overdose statewide.

“The progress we have made, the general tipping point we have passed, has to do with all of the white people who have overdosed,” said Bill Matthews, clinical director at St. Ann’s.

For Fuentes, it’s frustrating to believe nobody cares about the Bronx. But he said the most important thing is that progress is finally being made, and it’s helping people and saving lives.

“This is hurting everybody,” Fuentes said.

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Bronx Street Art Speaks Many Languages

 

John “SinXero” Beltran learned quickly that street artists from all corners of the earth know about the Bronx.

The 46-year-old Bronx native began inviting artists to paint legal street murals in the Bronx in 2012, and in 2014 founded a non-profit called TAG Public Arts Project. Since then, dozens of artists have painted for Beltran, a number of them foreign.

One, an Italian artist named Barlo, came to Beltran with a proposal to paint a giant, gold-outlined bird whose wings would be composed of images of feathers from species specific to the Bronx. Beltran had never heard of many of the birds, but the proposal confirmed his belief that artists from across the globe would be eager not only to paint in the Bronx, but also to delve into its history, culture, and even wildlife. The mural now stands on a wall on Ferris Place, in Westchester Square.

"Feathers of NY," a mural by Italian artist Barlo. Photo by John "SinXero" Beltran

“Feathers of NY,” a mural by Italian artist Barlo. Photo by John “SinXero” Beltran

The borough’s tradition of creating iconic graffiti on building walls and subway cars in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and its role in the rise of hip hop have made it a desirable destination for street artists from around the world. Beltran, an abstract artist himself, has welcomed them with open arms. “When we do feature international artists,” Beltran said, “they feel proud being given the opportunity to be part of the history of the Bronx.”

Beltran’s latest mural project brought the French-born and London-based female street artist, Zabou, to a wall in a parking lot behind a Port Morris McDonald’s. Zabou painted a mural of the legendary Bronx-born emcee Grandmaster Flash holding a boombox and peering defiantly over his shoulder.

Zabou was recommended to Beltran through a mutual friend, but she still went through TAG’s selection process, in which artists submit a specific proposal to fill the space Beltran has acquired.

“When I saw the location of this spot,” Zabou said, “I kind of thought okay I need to look what’s happening here in this district, and if there’s any special features anything that would talk to the people directly.”

A self-described “huge hip hop fan,” Zabou knew immediately that she wanted to pay homage to the Bronx’s role in the rise of the genre. She settled on depicting the figure whom many consider its pioneer. Flash has also been gaining prominence in the past month among her friends in London, Zabou said, for his role in “The Get Down,” the Netflix series dramatizing the birth of hip hop in the Bronx.

Zabou's finished mural of Grandmaster Flash. Photo by Mike Elsen-Rooney

Zabou’s finished mural of Grandmaster Flash. Photo by Mike Elsen-Rooney

Beltran said that both fellow artists and the Bronx community have given the mural “rave reviews.”

Chris Landy, 32, and his brother Raliekh, 27, who grew up in the area and frequent the McDonald’s near the painting, found the mural moving, and felt it fit in well with the surrounding area.

The elder Landy, a music producer, immediately recognized Flash, calling him “an integral part of the hip hop community.” The mural, he said, has the potential to impact people in different ways depending on their background and perspective. As a member of the music industry himself, Landy reasoned that if Flash “can make it, I know I can.”

Raliekh Landy was surprised to learn that the artist was French, and said that Zabou “must know about the culture” in the Bronx.

Audrey Connolly, a photographer who documents New York graffiti and street art, was excited not only by the presence of international artists in the Bronx, but also by the increasing international recognition Bronx street art is getting. “It’s about time that people in the rest of the world realized that the Bronx has heroes,” she said.

That realization, according to Beltran, is long overdue. He made clear that he, and the artists he invites, are not trying to make art in the Bronx more serious or legitimate. They are building on a long and proud history of artistic creation in the borough. “When people said, ‘we want to bring Fine Arts back to the Bronx,’” he said, they misunderstood that history. “There’s always been Fine Arts in the Bronx.”

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