April 13, 2010 | Spanish
Colombia in Elmhurst and Jackson Heights
I visit an extraordinary Spanish-speaking community in Queens.
Today I took a field trip to the neighborhood of Elmhurst, in Queens, and an adjacent sliver of Jackson Heights, because I had read that there was a significant Colombian community there.
There was. And the visit was an amazing experience. Really spectacular. I didn’t know exactly where to go on the subway, so I just picked a station that seemed promising: the Elmhurst stop on the R/V subway lines. After exiting the train, I was making my way up some stairs towards the station exit when I came across a few underground shops, one of which offered baked goods and looked as though it might be Colombian.
It was. I struck up a conversation in Spanish with the friendly Colombian woman working there.
She told me about a few of the different foods (one of which I believe was called almojábanas) and explained how they were made. There seemed to be a lot of frying involved, though at least one of the offerings was baked. I asked about taking pictures of the shop, and she said she was new, that I should ask upstairs in a restaurant called La Gata Golosa.
So I went upstairs to the street and, looking around, saw enough Chinese establishments to realize I was not yet in the heart of the Colombian district. I decided to walk around more before spending too much time on photographs at this one corner.
After requesting and receiving directions in Spanish at La Gata Golosa, I walked along Broadway towards 82nd Street and Roosevelt Avenue, where I had been told I would find many Colombian businesses. On my way there, I was dazzled by the diversity of the various shops I passed, with signs in Spanish, Korean, Chinese, what I think was Bengali, and more.
I made a right on Baxter, promptly encountering the Tardes Caleñas Shop, a Colombian bakery. The proprietor, Diego Naranjo, was standing in front of it, and I chatted with him in Spanish for about 10 minutes.
He himself is from Colombia and is charming and delightful. He helped me with my Spanish and told me about his shop, the food, and the neighborhood. I have to say, without meaning disrespect to this or any other Colombian bakery I saw today (and I saw many), that the food did not appeal to me. But since I am currently dedicated to improving my running performance, I am an incredibly finicky eater and do not willingly put bread and cheese and miscellaneous fried foods in my mouth.
I said goodbye to Diego and continued to 82nd Street. When I saw it, I was blown away. It was lovely. The opening of the tree-lined street, which heads diagonally off of Baxter, was marked with a black banner reading, “Jackson Heights/Elmhurst 82nd Street Business Improvement District.” The storefronts were colorful and lively.
Besides Colombians, I saw significant evidence of a Mexican and Peruvian presence. For example, Casa Rivera, a grocery and deli, sells Colombian, Peruvian, Mexican, and maybe other Latin American foodstuffs. I spoke Spanish with the owner, who was sitting near the cash register and was, I would say, polite but wholly indifferent to my presence. The food was interesting nonetheless.
I continued to Roosevelt Avenue, which intersects with 82nd (the street I was already on). When I got there, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I found it beautiful. Roosevelt serves as a border between the neighborhoods of Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, and it was filled with light and music and stores and people and traffic. In some ways it reminded me of the Russian community at the Brighton Beach stop in Brooklyn, which also has layers of stores under elevated subway tracks, except that the focus here was Spanish. And it seemed louder and more energetic.
The sounds of Latin music were coming at me from all directions. People were speaking Spanish everywhere. There were Spanish signs for restaurants, retail stores, lawyers, dentists, a spiritual center claiming to help with everything from drug addiction to impotence, tax firms, insurance agents, nightclubs, banks, etc.—and it all looked extraordinary and dramatic with the elevated subway tracks acting as rusty urban ceiling overhead.
I walked into a number of restaurants and stores and chatted in Spanish with the people working there. With maybe one exception, people addressed me in Spanish, which made me very happy. In my neighborhood in Manhattan, where there are plenty of Spanish speakers, I sometimes feel as though I should first request permission to address someone in Spanish, because not everyone likes to speak Spanish with or in front of English speakers.
Here, though, I spoke Spanish with impunity! To my stunned senses, it felt as though in this one area the language really was 100 percent Spanish, even if that’s not the case, and that it was okay, even desirable, to dispense completely with English.
I loved it.