Street festival celebrates a community’s coming of age
The cry of “Viva Mexico!” rang out over and over again in front of the Mott Haven Library on Alexander Avenue, growing louder each time.
Three times, Carolina Ayala, 38, a representative of the Consulate-General of Mexico in New York, led the salute at the Mott Haven Mexican Independence Day Street Festival on Sept. 14.
Organized by the Mexican American Student Association (MASA), the street fair attracted 500 people, and marked the first public display of ethnic pride for the neighborhood’s growing Mexican population.
The number of Mexicans in Mott Haven has more than doubled since 2000, according to the 2010 census. The area is now home to the third-largest Mexican community in New York City, according to MASA founder Angelo Cabrera.
“It is a very unique, unified community,” Cabrera said. “They want to succeed.” And the key to that success, according to both Cabrera and Ayala, is giving residents better access to information.
Mexicans now constitute more than a third of all Latinos in Mott Haven, Port Morris, and Melrose, according to the census. But, said Cabrera, social service agencies and politicians have not caught up with that explosive growth, and have yet to offer the breadth of community programs that can be found elsewhere in the city.
The Mexican Independence Day Street Festival combined a celebration of culture with an opportunity to present Mott Haven residents with information about health care, education and civic involvement. Tables piled high with sombreros and Mexican flags sat beside neatly organized booths with stacks of pamphlets on everything from blood pressure tests to scholarships.
The crowd flitted from table to table, snacking on homemade treats prepared and sold by some of the MASA program’s parents and filling their purses and bags with free pencils, candy and literature.
Kaplan Test Prep, the Bronx Children’s Museum, the City University of New York and MASA provided education-related information at the fair, and healthcare providers such as Metroplus and HealthFirst offered healthcare resources. Residents received tips on healthcare options for undocumented children, on new higher education scholarship programs and on the rights of ESL students and their parents in New York City’s public schools.
Martha Namnum, 39, was running the booth for the city-sponsored provider of low-cost health insurance, MetroPlus Health Plan.
“A lot of people came from the community,” she said, adding the turnout was high compared to other similar events she works around New York City. She said she enrolled at least a dozen people at the fair, and was able to help many more find information. “More than enrollment is how we educate the community,” Namnum said.
According to Cabrera, the Mexican-American community in Mott Haven has not forged a relationship with local lawmakers the way the longer-established communities in Bushwick and Jackson Heights have.
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., Congressman Jose E. Serrano and City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito were on hand at the fair.
“It’s fun and substantial at the same time,” Diaz said, adding that he hoped the event would increase the appetite of local Mexicans to become involved both in entrepreneurship and in local civic associations.
J’neic Santiago, 9, and twins Paige and Felicia Evans, 10, came to the street fair together. The three girls have been friends for a month and were excited about the free school supplies and other items they were collecting at the fair. Sitting on the asphalt in the blocked-off street, the girls opened up their backpacks to show off their haul. Pencils, stickers and notebooks in primary colors were stuffed inside.
Jessica Coffrin-St. Julien, 25, walked by and dropped a handful of Starburst into one of the girls’ laps and, after portioning out the new treats, the girls ran off in search of one more princess notebook.
“It was a big success,” Coffrin-St. Julien, who volunteers as one of MASA’s board members, said about the fair. “It did what we wanted it to do.”