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Cinco de Bronx!

Cinco de Bronx!

Isaias Gonzales, Grupo Fenix

Damaris Hernandez, Our Lady of Refuge

Omar Corona, Metate Restaurant

Silvestre Rosas, Guadalupita store

Gregorio Castro, Mexico Sport Center

Margarita glasses clinked, and Corona beer flowed in bars and restaurants around the borough, as businesses lured their customers with Cinco de Mayo specials.

The date honors the victory of Mexican patriots over French invaders, at the battle of Puebla in 1862.

It is so widely commercialized and so often celebrated by non-Mexicans that some call it the least Mexican of Mexican holidays.

To find out how special this date is for Mexican Bronxites, we asked five local residents how they will celebrate Cinco de Mayo, and how they are bringing their Mexican culture to the Bronx. Click on each picture to find out more.

(Video by Camilo Hannibal Smith)

In growing Mexican American communities around the United States, DJs like Mister Zamba help make up the local sonidero scene. Mexico is probably the biggest home to the sonidero subculture of DJs. Notes from the crowd, in-person shout-out requests and text messages wishing love to girlfriends/boyfriends, even checking certain family names—gangs sometimes—makes this cumbia-playing soundman a kind of town crier for these transnational neighborhoods.

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Chilis and Piñatas

Silvestre Rosas owns the Guadalupita store in Belmont

Norteña music blasts from a boom-box at a Mexican grocery store in Belmont.  There is little space to move between aisles crammed with canned foods and bags of Mexican treats.

Bright piñatas hang from the ceiling along with metal pots used for making tamales. Piggy banks made of clay, sit snugly on a rack, just a couple steps away from lollipops covered with chili powder.

With so many trinkets and snacks to buy. What sells the most in this cluttered store?

Owner Silvestre Rosas glances at a five foot long freezer with avocados, fresh chilli pepers, tomatoes and nopal leaves.

“People come for the vegetables” he says.

Rosas points at a batch of green Guaje pods. “People open these ones and take out little seeds that are inside, they grind the seeds in the molcajetes –earth pots that are also on sale- they mix it with some chilli peppers and make a salsa.” he says.

A native of the state of Puebla, Rosas reckons he will be too busy tending his store to party on Cinco de Mayo.

Fordham college students may come in for a six pack or two, and just in case any clients want to get patriotic, Rosas is also selling Mexican flags. For more day-to-day necessities he also sells Ponds face creams and candles to light at church altars.

But none of this is as popular as the vegetables.

“Mexicans from the south use vegetables often,” says Rosas. “Like the Poblano chili peppers, which they fill with cheese and cover with salsa.  In my house, my wife cooks that for me too.”

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A Puerto Rican Cinco de Mayo

Isaias Gonzales (center) and Fenix group members Angel Gonzales and Jose Hernandez

The Luis Jimenez Radio show, which broadcasts out of the Univision headquarters in Manhattan on 96.3 F.M.  rarely plays Mexican music.  Its audience, like its staff, is mostly Puerto Rican and Dominican, so the show sticks to salsa, bachata and reggaeton.

Jimenez seems to enjoy Cinco de Mayo, however.  And his co-hosts are intent on marking the occasion with Mexican mariachi gritos, or shouts, almost every time they go on air.  In the early hours of the morning, they make prank calls to unsuspecting callers who are awoken to the tune of mariachi music.

“I hate you,” says a groggy recipient after she’s been hit for the third time.

During one of the commercial breaks, co-host Speedy puts on a black sombrero, he dons a fake mustache and a mariachi coat. Speedy places a pillow under his shirt that makes him look like a cartoonish Mexican cowboy.

Meanwhile, musician Isaias Gonzales waits for his turn to play some song snippets with his Mexican music band, Grupo Fenix.

A resident of Riverdale, Gonzales does not miss an opportunity to promote his group’s work. So in-between performances at Mexican clubs throughout the city, he tries to fit in radio and TV appearances.

“We want people to get to know us little by little,” he said after playing live for the popular show.

The appearance was brief.  But Gonzalez managed to mention his upcoming CD called Quiereme (Love Me). He played parts of two folksy songs that are popular with rural Mexicans and also performed a bachata song, which he wrote himself.

“We have a lot of Dominican friends who listen to our Mexican music.” Gonzales said. “And for a long time they have been asking us when we would record something for them.”

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A futbol store for Little Italy

Gregorio Castro owns a soccer shop near Arthur Avene

An item emblematic of Mexican sports fans hangs from one of the racks of Gregorio Castro’s sporting goods store in Belmont. It’s a green wrestling mask with white borders around the eyes and a small Mexican flag sown on its forehead.

“Fans use those when they go to the national [soccer] teams’ games” says the 46 year old businessman, who runs the “Mexico Sports Center” store in Little Italy.

A lifelong fan of the Mexico City club Pumas, Castro opened his store three years ago after noticing his kids and their friends had to go all the way to East Harlem to buy their Mexican soccer gear.

Castro figured there were enough Mexicans in Belmont to sustain a soccer store. On his storefront he displays a beach towel with the colors of the Mexican national team and colorful cleats. Inside he sells the latest replica jerseys of Mexico’s most popular teams, which go for $80 each.

Strangely enough, Castro’s best selling jerseys are not the red and white striped Chivas de Guadalajara shirt, or the neon yellow Club America jersey. Instead, he has been most successful at selling replica jerseys of Barcelona, Manchester United and Real Madrid. “Perhaps the clients have forgotten about their favorite team,” he said with a smile.

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Lady of Dance

Damaris Hernandez, 17, teaches Mexican ballet in Kingsbridge Heights

By Manuel Rueda

Cinco de Mayo is usually a busy day for Damaris Hernandez and her Mexican dance group, the Ballet Nuestra Señora del Refugio (Our Lady of Refuge Ballet).

“We usually dance in Fordham Plaza for the President of the Bronx,” says Hernandez, referring to the Borough President. “But this year we are going to –Univision Channel 41.”

A Bronx native, Hernandez is just 17, but she is one of two teachers in this community dance group based in Kingsbridge Heights.

Hernandez shows kids the quick steps of Mexican ballet, in which dancers stomp lightly making a clicking noise when their heels hit the ground.  She makes sure her adult dancers follow precise choreographies.

“There’s a lot of interaction with a girl and a guy,” Hernandez says. “What I teach them is to look at the guy usually, to loosen themselves up.”

The group’s members are mostly Mexican immigrants and their kids. With their heeled shoes, they dance to traditional rhythms from Mexican states like Veracruz, Yucatan and Jalisco.

“The important thing about this group is for children to know their culture, to know where their parents came from” said group manager Ruth Barrera.

Hernandez, whose father is from Oaxaca, was brought to the group when she was six.  She initially resisted. But now she feels comfortable in her dancing shoes. Hernandez says Mexican ballet is good exercise and it helps her to let her emotions out.  “I like it” she said, “this is like my second home.”


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Green tomatoes and a chicken base

Omar Corona is a cook at Metate, a Mexican restaurant in Riverdale

by Mehroz Baig

Omar Corona, 28, works as a cook at the newly opened Metate, a Mexican restaurant in Riverdale. Originally from Mexico City, he moved to the United States when he was 15 years old and he’s been a Bronxite for the last six years. For Corona, keeping Mexican traditions alive is important, and one of the ways he marks his Mexican roots comes in the form of preparing Mexican dishes , especially his favorites,  fajitas with pipian verde, a green sauce served with a variety of meat.

“You have to put green tomatoes, cilantro, cebolla [onion], garlic and a chicken base,” says Corona.

His favorite Mexican food to eat also happens to be pipian verde, “because the taste is Mexican,” Corona added.

Corona remembers growing up in Mexico and celebrating Cinco de Mayo. “In Mexico, all the schools would close and we’d celebrate for like two to three days,” Corona said, adding that the Cinco de Mayo celebration in the U.S. is admittedly more subdued.

Corona also celebrates another traditional holiday, Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead. He says that during the October holiday, he creates an altar in his house with traditional offerings of milk and flowers.

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[Video] An Easter tradition thrives in Tremont

[Video] An Easter tradition thrives in Tremont

By Manuel Rueda

St Joseph’s Church is attended mostly by Hispanic immigrants. Since 1971, members of this parish take to the streets of Tremont during Good Friday to re-enact the passion of Christ. The 14 stations of the cross are carefully replicated by community members dressed in biblical garb, as a pre-recorded voice leads prayers from a loudspeaker and describes the challenges faced by Jesus on his way to crucifixion.

Rafael Gonzalez played the son of God this holy week, dragging a massive wooden cross around the neighborhood, for the sixth consecutive year. Gonzalez is proud to serve in his community, but he is aging and this could be his last year in this role.

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DIGITAL BRONX: Brothers bypass record labels to promote music online

Rebel Diaz's Rodrigo and Gonzalo Venegas sell their music online

By Manuel Rueda

Gonzalo Venegas and his brother Rodrigo have been rapping about social inequalities since the 1990s.

Based in the south Bronx—the cradle of the hip-hop movement—the two brothers use the Internet to share their work with fans across the world.

Known in hip-hop circles as the Rebel Diaz duo, the Venegas brothers blend hip-hop and Latin rhythms in songs about inner city youth, corrupt government and the problems faced by recently arrived immigrants.

The sons of political refugees from Chile, their songs are often bilingual, with lyrics in English followed by a chorus in Spanish or an English verse punctuated by Chilean slang.

The name Rebel Diaz is a take on the Spanish word for rebels, rebeldes.

Raised in Chicago, the Venegas brothers have created an online community—and built a fanbase— using the most common web tools of the modern age: Facebook, Twitter and their own web site.

On their Twitter account, they update their 1,500 followers about their upcoming concerts and share small snippets of their lives. Last Thursday, for example, the brothers informed followers they were watching their Chicago Bulls “put the bats” on Boston.

On Facebook, the duo will occasionally share articles on civil rights protests with their politically conscious fans.

But in other ways the Venegas are anything but typical web musicians.

Rebel Diaz does not promote its work on digital stores like iTunes. Despite being relatively well known in hip-hop circles, the duo doesn’t do deals with record labels to market their music on the web.

Albums go for $10 on the Rebel Diaz site

“If we wanted to take a route to give us mass exposure we would,” says 26-year-old Gonzalo. “But you have to remember, those labels are controlled by corporate interests that don’t want to hear the type of message that we’re putting forth.”

Instead, Rebel Diaz sells its material exclusively through its website, with tracks going for $1 and an album for $10.

And unlike online retailers like iTunes or Amazon that only provide short previews of the songs they sell online, Rebel Diaz lets you listen to the whole track for free. You only need to pay if you want to download the song or the album into your computer.

“Our experience as producers of music and consumers is that if people want to buy your music, it doesn’t matter if they listen to three seconds or one minute,” says Gonzalo Venegas, who goes by the artistic name, G1.

The younger of the two brothers, G1 explains that the group makes most of its sales “hand to hand” after their concerts. He believes that most of those buying Rebel Diaz’s records online are people who were not able to get their hands on a CD after one of their shows.

“Most people aren’t really hearing our music on our website. They’ll hear it on Democracy Now (a radio news show) or a friend will tell them about it, and at that point they’ll go to the site,” he says.

The band’s web presence helps the duo promote itself and sell albums, but the brothers make no secret about the fact that they rely on live performances to make a living. Last year, the duo rapped at 100 shows. And in May, it kicks off a month-long European tour that will take it to Germany, Greece and the United Kingdom.

For some extra income and to give back to the community, the Venegas brothers hold workshops on the history of hip-hop for students and youth groups in low-income neighborhoods.

“Even though the Internet is very important to us as a tool. It’s not the be all and the end all,” says G1. “The person to person contact, is probably the most important thing that we do.”

One of the group’s recent videos

Click here for more stories on the Digital Bronx.

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