Millions of New York families are binational. They not only have two passports, but also cultural histories that cross borders. Can heritage protect them from neighbors and politicians who are critical of immigrants? And how are younger generations preserving the food, language, and culture of their grandparents?
Their feet glide across the garage’s dirt floor. Each step kicks up clouds of dust and centuries of tradition. They dance to violins, the sounds of a heritage they barely knew. They dance to Spanish, the language of grandparents that the children barely spoke. They dance to connect to a country and culture their parents left behind.
Maria Guadalupe Mendoza walks toward her 12 adolescent students to correct their posture as they flow through the traditional Mexican folk ballet. Off to the side, the parents watch proudly. This is Staten Island, New York. It’s a long way from the homes in Mexico where the parents were born.
Angelica Vazquez arrived in New York in the mid-2000’s. Every Friday, she brings her daughter Diana Martinez Vazquez, 11, to dance class. That has helped her feel a part of a community, uniting the younger, mostly American children with their Mexican families. “When I first moved here, life didn’t have meaning,” Vazquez says. “Now, I love it here. I love Staten Island. Now, I am in love with New York.”
“I know that [dancing] is a part of my mom’s culture,” Martinez Vazquez says. “It is also a part of me.”
In Staten Island, 18 percent of the population is Latino, up from 8 percent in 2000, according to census data. The increase in diversity has helped create a conservative backlash. Staten Island is considered the most conservative of New York’s five boroughs, and local representatives voted against classifying New York a Sanctuary City, tuition support for undocumented students, and protecting data in the New York City ID server from federal government requests. The Latino community believes safe spaces like the dance class are more necessary than ever.
Mendoza nods in step with each movement, calling instructions out and demonstrating the sequencing for the performance. The dance teacher watches as the children line up in their positions to begin, excitedly exchanging stories and gossip, switching between Spanish and English, before becoming still, ready to dance.
They called themselves Ñuu Davi, a Mixteco word meaning people of the rain, or people from the Mixteca region. Many of the families in this community are from the Mixteca regions in the southern and western parts of Mexico. Their traditional dance—known as ballet folklorico—bridges their parents’ history and their lives in America by encouraging understanding and respect for their culture and language.
“I think that we experience a double burden,” Mendoza says, explaining the significance of the dance practice. “We leave our family in Mexico, and we know they are suffering and missing us, and we miss them.”
Mendoza presses play on her iPad and the first notes of the familiar song reverberate against the stone walls. The children, careful to move as gracefully as possible through the parking garage, kick up dust as they flow through the movements. Mendoza covers her mouth and coughs. She keeps a keen eye on the feet of her students as they dance the zapateado, their strong and quick steps akin to tap dancing.
For the dance group’s instructor, Ñuu Davi represents the ability to build a community despite language barriers. When Mendoza began these classes, her students did not speak much Spanish, and Mendoza did not speak a lot of English. Through the dances, they worked to bridge the gaps in communication.
They share stories, language, and discuss how their heritage fits into the lives they lead in New York City. This is especially valuable for the undocumented immigrant parents who are unable to travel due to increasingly strict border enforcement.
“Solidarity and transnational organizing solves one of the most difficult impacts on forced migration in the Mexico/U.S. region, which is family separation,” says Marco Castillo, director of the not-for-profit Transnational Villages and its partner organization in Mexico, the Institute for Social and Cultural Practice and Research.
Castillo facilitates learning through dance initiatives and programming on both sides of the border to educate through cultural and artistic gatherings, and reunite families via cultural exchange programs.
Castillo believes that Staten Island is a clear example of how migrant communities come to contribute and help United States communities grow. In the 1980’s, families from across the Mixteca region began to move to Staten Island’s Port Richmond neighborhood, and through community networks, more families were encouraged to follow. According to Census reports, between 1990 and 2010, the Latino/Hispanic population in Port Richmond increased from 950 to 8400.
“Little by little, through their hard work [and] extensive hours of work for low pay, they have been rebuilding an area that has been abandoned,” Castillo explains. In the last two decades, Mexican immigrants have transformed a deserted portion of Staten Island into a business corridor.
Through their partnership with Castillo’s not for profits, the dance group has been able to send some of the children to Mexico to perform with local dance groups. This reinforces their dance practice as a deep part of their heritage, and gives families an opportunity to reconnect with relatives living in the United States. The Ñuu Davi dance group travels across the boroughs, spending almost every weekend performing at festivals, community meetings, and parties.
Mendoza’s niece, 14-year-old Vanessa Mendoza, has been a part of the dance group since its inception, treasuring the connections that dance has afforded her.
“There is a lot of racism and criticism towards Mexicans and other Latin or Hispanic countries,” she says. She hopes people can see the beauty in each culture instead of perpetuating negative and untrue stereotypes. “My grandparents are a really big part of my life and they are over there. So dancing here is connecting me to them and to understanding our culture, even though we are miles apart.”
Unlike Staten Island, the Bronx has a proud Latino heritage, with over 56% of the borough identifying as Latino, according to the 2016 Census. 58.8% of the population of the Bronx speaks a language other than English. Here, we meet a father whose supportive neighborhood helps him feel proud to be an immigrant.
Polling data: DNAinfo’s 2016 Election Results | Population/ language data: United States Census Bureau
Bronx resident Esteban Estevez owns a small upholstery business and dedicates his spare time to the city’s vibrant and growing indigenous migrant community. Estevez migrated to the United States in 1990, but after some challenges, returned to Mexico. In 2000, he returned to the United States, determined to make a life for himself and his family.
“I think we are very rich in culture, in our traditions, and so we’ve been participating very directly with other families–with migrant families,” Estevez says. “And so it is a matter of pride to be an immigrant.”
Estevez has cultivated a community of people bound by tradition, culture, and language. He believes that the distance from his hometown of Teopantlán, Puebla, has, ironically, brought him closer to his roots and traditions.
“My father didn’t let us speak Nahuatl,” Estevez explains, referring to his mother tongue, an ancient Aztec language. His father told him that it would not be useful in his life, but when Estevez moved to the United States, he was overcome with a longing for his language. Coincidentally, during his time as a volunteer at the Mexican Consulate in New York City, Estevez was approached to help a woman locate her family who could only speak Nahuatl.
“I sat down with her and used fragments of the Nahuatl I remembered to learn her name, where she was coming from, and what she needed,” Estevez says. “I mostly listened. I couldn’t speak it well, but I understood.”
Seeing the need to connect with other immigrants who didn’t speak Spanish led Estevez to attend workshops and relearn his mother’s language.
“I now sit with my daughter, and I teach her our language,” Estevez explains. He and his wife, Guadalupe Rivera, work to ensure they support their daughter’s understanding and connection to Estevez’s indigenous language, as well as the food, dances, and customs of his native Teopantlán.
According to the North American Congress on Latin America and the Mexican Consulate in New York, 250,000 Mexican immigrants identify with their indigenous background and speak one of Mexico’s 68 recognized indigenous languages. In some cases, immigrants bypass Spanish and find themselves navigating New York City in their indigenous tongues. In those instances, access to community members who can translate are not just a matter of common identity, but also of survival.
“Every little piece we have been able to bring to this great city, New York, from our culture, our dances and our traditions… helps us to find each other and helps us to share who we are,” Estevez says.
The family spends most of their week together in their upholstery business with their daughter, Jaslyne. The business space serves as a crossroads for the community and a meeting place to develop further community engagement in the Bronx, including the St. Santiago Apostol Festival.
This year Esteban used the space to plan New Yorktlan, a five-borough-wide event that brings together families who have been divided by the border for decades. Through a series of proposals to the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, families highlight cultural heritage such as language, weaving, and intricate embroidery to obtain cultural visas and visit family members living in the United States. New Yorktlan, Estevez says, is a celebration of family reunification.
These events promote discourse within the Latino communities and engagement with non-Latino communities eager to gain a deeper understanding of diverse groups.
“People see us Mexican immigrants as the same, but we aren’t,” says Estevez. “Regionally, we all have a rich heritage. Each very different and important to understand. Preserving my roots is about loving my culture, but also about knowing it in order to better understand and support.”