El Barrio and its Colors

A Community Through Small Businesses

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Puerto Rican flags hanging across buildings in El Barrio near 107th street. Photo: Melissa Z. Montero

Sometimes we gravitate to certain places or things when we are trying to find ourselves and that is what El Barrio was for me. I began visiting East Harlem as a college student. I wanted to be around other Puerto Ricans and have that Nuyorican experience I felt I missed while growing up in Queens, NY. Don’t get me wrong, I love Queens, and my childhood, especially the diversity but I wanted to somehow feel closer to my heritage. And so, visiting El Barrio became something frequent.

I’ve always enjoyed visiting East Harlem. It’s richness in culture and palette of urban colors has always spoken to me. From Puerto Rican flags hanging on apartment building windows to the food stand vendor selling corn on the cob and fruit juices, you only find these unique characters in El Barrio.

East Harlem is known for being a Puerto Rican community, however, in the past 10-15 years several other immigrant communities have settled in the area. One in particular is the Mexican community. Their presence is felt on several blocks with small businesses lined up such as flower shops, restaurants, taco stands and bodegas. During my childhood years, my parents were also small business owners. And I know that when large business chains start to move into a community and rents’ increase, challenges arise.

In the recent years East Harlem has seen rapid changes due to gentrification. Small mom and pop businesses close as property value increases and communities of color are displaced as well-to-do residents move in. But amidst the challenges, I noticed a few businesses still pumping life into El Barrio. I had the pleasure of speaking with some of these owners and photograph the surrounding aesthetics that only East Harlem has. Each business owner has a deep love for their community. It was evident while speaking to them. I could see their eyes light up as each person shared their story. Much of their lives are invested in their businesses and community.

Photo: Melissa Z. Montero

A small garden on Lexington Ave. between 104th and 105th streets. The mural on the brick wall is of Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo and Puerto Rican poet and revolutionary, Julia de Burgos painted by artist, Yasmin Hernández. Both figures are holding hands as a sign of solidarity between the Mexican and Puerto Rican communities.

 

Photo: Melissa Montero Padilla

Photo: Melissa Z. Montero

Michelle Cruz, owner of the East Harlem Café. I’ve always admired Michelle and how much her business has thrived. Every morning locals pick up their daily coffee. I visited East Harlem Café on a Saturday morning and it was packed. Michelle was raised in El Barrio but deals with her own challenges of viewing herself at times as a gentrifier. But I see her as a solution. East Harlem Café has been an instrumental business in supporting artists of colors (many from El Barrio) as well as the progressive activist community by opening it’s doors to numerous events. Her business has become a staple of the community.

“I wanted to open up a place that we [the community] would love… it feels great because this is home, it feels like I get to serve family.” - Michelle Cruz

 

Photo: Melissa Montero Padilla

Photo: Melissa Z. Montero

Richard Cruz, a retiree and long-time resident of El Barrio, is a faithful customer of the East Harlem Café since it opened 8-years-ago. He visits each morning to have his daily coffee and read the newspaper.

 

Photo: Melissa Montero Padilla

Photo: Melissa Z. Montero

The 116th Street stop on the 6 train in the heart of El Barrio during early evening hours right before sunset.

 

Photo: Melissa Montero Padilla

Photo: Melissa Z. Montero

Victor Barriero, long time owner of Casa Latina Music, the oldest music store in El Barrio with a span of 70 years in business. Victor and his wife own the whole building above their store and have been owners of the shop for 50 years. He attributes much of the store’s success to the Puerto Rican community. ”Not for nothing but the Puerto Rican community is a happy community. They love parties, they love music and they supported the business when I started…We maintain our customers because this is like a little boutique. Sometimes we have things you do not find on the internet.”
“The old timers keep supporting us because this is the way they have always shopped.” - Victor Barriero
Photo: Melissa Montero Padilla

Photo: Melissa Z. Montero

Street vendor stand on 116th Street between Lexington and 3rd Avenue. The Boricua presence making itself known.
Photo: Melissa Montero Padilla

Photo: Melissa Z. Montero

Eugene Herrera, manager of Casa El Rodeo. His parents have owned this well-known Mexican cowboy shop for 21 years. He grew up in this store and finds that the novelty and one of kind signature style has made this store a tourist attraction. His father opened it up on a whim. ”The benefit that we have been here for twenty-one years… but if this shop were to close and they open it up again, I am pretty sure the rent would double.”
“You have to adapt and go with the flow.” - Eugene Herrera
Photo: Melissa Montero Padilla

Photo: Melissa Z. Montero

A make shift of La Virgen de la Guadalupe standing in front of Casa El Rodeo created by Eugene Herrera. December 12th is the day Mexico’s patron saint is celebrated.
Photo: Melissa Montero Padilla

Photo: Melissa Z. Montero

Orlando Plaza, owner of Camaradas, a bar/ eatery located on the corner of 115th Street and 1st Ave. has been in business for 11 years. It was interesting to speak to Orlando about the trials and tribulations of gentrification and how it was a deciding factor when opening up his business. ”I’ve lost solid customers because of gentrification. The faces of those people tend to be brown and black. At the stage that we have gentrification in El Barrio, we are dealing with the shock troops of gentrification. And those people don’t spend money in the neighborhood, in the barrio.”
“The place has become something that contributes to the community, to El Barrio, to the Puerto Rican community. People have found themselves in Camaradas. The music has brought them in. It has become a place of commiseration.” - Orlando Plaza
Photo: Melissa Montero Padilla

Photo: Melissa Z. Montero

A food vendor posing for a photo with a local. We didn’t speak much but she agreed to the picture. I love her sincere smile and the bright colors.
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Melissa Z. Montero is a political activist, former professional salsa dancer, media professional, and filmmaker of Puerto Rican and Ecuadorian heritage from Queens, New York. She has a Bachelor of Arts from Hofstra University.

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The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by La Respuesta magazine. We encourage dialogue, debate, and learning in order to forge stronger, healthier Boricua communities and to strengthen alliances across social difference. 

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