From cuchifritos to tacos, Mexican eateries flourish on 138th St.
When the Teatro Puerto Rico‘s doors were open in Mott Haven, there was a beloved Puerto Rican restaurant, called La Rosa, located just two businesses down from the theater. It was the spot to find famous Caribbean artists after shows, and the preferred place for the neighborhood’s biggest ethnic groups -Puerto Ricans and Dominicans- to dance salsa, play pool and some nights, if they were lucky enough, sing along to famous Puerto Rican singers.
Now that cherished spot has transformed into a Mexican cantina called Latino Restaurant, and photos of famous singers that once sang with La Rosa’s clientele sit in a forgotten corner in the manager’s office.
Like La Rosa, many businesses on 138th Street that once were owned by Puerto Ricans or Dominicans, have transformed and are now owned by Mexicans. But this was not a case of Mexicans forcing the Puerto Ricans out: Latino Restaurant’s owner, Juan Mendez, who came to the neighborhood from Puebla, Mexico more than 25 years ago, said that he and a Dominican friend decided to buy the business when the former owners wanted to close it down in 1999.
“But then my friend left, so I transformed it into a Mexican restaurant,” said Mendez.
According to the 2010 census, the number of Mexicans living in Mott Haven, Melrose and Port Morris doubled since 2000, from 4,758 to 9,423. In contrast, the number of residents claiming Puerto Rican ancestry declined from 33,995 to 30,114 over that same period.
Rodolfo Muñoz, owner of Jalisco Tacos, said that his was the first taqueria to open in the neighborhood in the late 1980s. In the past fifteen years, he said, many formerly Dominican and Puerto Rican businesses on 138th Street are now owned by Mexicans.
“Now you see way more bodegas and restaurants than before,” said Muñoz, adding that street vendors selling flowers and handmade tamales, something unseen two decades ago, are now popular.
One of the few Dominican groceries left on 138th Street is Borinquen Grocery. Its Dominican owner, Luis Medina, said many Puerto Ricans are retiring and leaving the neighborhood.
“They are looking to pass their last years in warmer states,” he said, adding that the neighborhood has become “more colorful” with traces of Mexico in recent years, from native products hanging on the walls of local grocery stores to the accent in conversations on the street.
Puerto Rican Hector Carrasquillo, who has lived in Mott Haven for more than 25 years and owns a building and a store on 138th Street, said many of his compatriots came to New York with little money, built successful businesses, and then moved out, selling their business to Mexicans. It’s just the way urban immigration evolves, he said.
“Everyone has a chance,” he said. “We had it. Now is time for Mexicans to have it.”
Andrew A. Beveridge, Professor of Sociology at Queens College, said that the “Irish came in first, then Italians, and then Puerto Ricans,” adding that “Mott Haven is reflecting the overall typical immigration patterns of the city.”
“People start showing up and more people of the same group follow, because they think it’s a reasonable place to move,” said Beveridge.