I spent the first few years of my life in Jackson Heights, Queens, where the bulk of my Dominican family lived at the time. My folks left New York in the early 1980s for the almost unimaginably distant state of Texas in pursuit of work, maintaining contact with our New York family, but never returning east again in any permanent way.
The stories my folks told of Jackson Heights revolved around Dominican people in decidedly Dominican places. My visits during the 1980s seemed to confirm that, making it my own Dominican Republic, or something like that. At least I was sure it wasn't Mexican, the dominant Latino identity in Texas and the ethnicity with which I spent the greatest time negotiating during my childhood and adolescence.
People spoke Spanish (and Spanglish) the way my father did in Jackson Heights. They ate red beans or moros with their arroz blanco and tostones. The accordion was an unknown instrument there. Neither the term orale nor the term güey made up any part of the Jackson Heights vocabulary as I knew it. Jackson Heights was my personal claim to "Dominicanness" or, perhaps more accurately, to "non-Mexicanness" and "non-Texanness."
That link remained uncorrupt in my overly-proud mind until my late teens, when by chance I ran into another native of Jackson Heights. By the standard of my social context then, he was white -- white as it was possible to be, as he was a suburban doctor. But our conversation led to the discovery that we shared a common origin place, Jackson Heights. How different his origin place was than mine! His Jackson Heights was an Italian-American neighborhood, one that his family left not long after the flood of Dominicans that brought my family there had swept over that part of Queens. I nodded my head proudly at the mention of the replacement of people I considered white by the great brown flood, one that I'd not heard of before that moment. But the mention of a later brown flood, an influx of migrants from the Indian subcontinent, threw me for a loop. The story of Dominican triumph, developed in my mind only seconds earlier, fell, and quickly. I listened with greater humility then, as my claim to outside ethnicity crumbled and the notion of palimpsest arose in my mind for the first time. I was more than shocked when the doctor told me that most New York neighborhoods experienced such turnover. The white doctor became Italian-American that instant. He cured me of my cough and of a certain social blindness at the same time.
Since I returned to New York several months ago, I've lived in Corona, Queens (where my Dominican family now resides in the wake of the "other" brown wave), but I have made it something of a private mission to explore the place to which my Dominicanness was once tethered. More specifically, I've spent a fair amount of my spare time in Jackson Heights searching for Dominican "survivals" in terms of businesses, homes, and other material aspects. My Dominican family's world existed largely within the spatial confines of Roosevelt Avenue, near the Jackson Heights station, so my semi-ethnographic jaunts have been limited generally to the same area.
Since my first visit, however, my interests have moved quickly from seeking Dominican survivals (of which there are relatively few in that area) to studying the latest brown flood: the arrival (ironically for me) of Mexican migrants in great numbers. I've been told by many that this is a relatively recent phenomenon, most Mexicans in New York having been born in Mexico. Though I didn't quite expect it, the Mexicano presence, including the occasional "que onda guey," makes me feel more at home than any other aspect of New York City. And, getting to what this post is actually supposed to be about, the material symbols of Mexicanness have become a sort of conglomerate anchor for me, coming together in my mind bringing me a sense of familiarity in this otherwise confusing and often unfriendly city.
I understand the symbols I see in contemporary Jackson Heights. I know why the serpent chokes under the talon of the Aztec eagle. I know the Old English font wrapped around the Aztec Nacion storefront. I know many of the songs I hear on the new Roosevelt. I recognize its smells. I know its colors. I know its Virgen. Maybe I even know some of its thoughts. Whatever the case, I've come to see that while I'm Dominican in Dallas, I'm Mexican in New York. Viva la raza, pues. I've attached some examples of the symbols that helped me come to that realization, retethering my identity to Jackson Heights.
Contemporary Roosevelt Avenue, draped in a new red, white, and green standard. The photo suffers from lighting problems, but if you look closely you'll see that the Mexican flag floats in some form over many, many doors.
Restaurant in Jackson Heights just off Roosevelt. What a fantastic business name! It truly does represent the latest Chicano frontier!
A Mexican flag placed proudly in the window of a home on my old block.