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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Venezuelan migrants could soon create New York’s first ‘Little Caracas’

Pedestrians on Roosevelt Ave. in Corona, Queens, where thousands of newly arrived Venezuelan migrants are making their home in the city, on Nov. 27, 2023. Venezuelan flags and foods are the latest additions to a popular hub for Colombian, Ecuadorean and Mexican immigrants.

By Winnie Hu and Raúl Vilchis

Under an elevated subway track in Queens, Victor José Hernandez was whipping up the pepitos that he had perfected at a street cart in Caracas, Venezuela.

Layering freshly grilled chicken and beef with a half-dozen other ingredients on a split roll, he doused the heaping pile with homemade garlic sauce and grated cheddar cheese on top. Then he melted it with a blowtorch until it oozed.

The pepitos stand sprang up last winter on Roosevelt Avenue, a bustling commercial corridor that runs alongside the Spanish-speaking communities of Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Corona. Just steps away, an Ecuadorean restaurant now displays a big Venezuelan flag and offers karaoke with Venezuelan love songs. And the line for arepas and cachapas (sweet corn cakes) spills out the door of a Venezuelan cafe.

Could this be the makings of a Little Venezuela?

Although New York City was built on immigrant neighborhoods — Chinatown, Curry Hill, Little Italy and Little Haiti, among many others — it has never had a Venezuelan neighborhood. Historically, the city’s Venezuelan population was tiny and overshadowed by much larger Hispanic groups, including Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, immigration experts said. Many early Venezuelans also arrived with resources and connections and did not need to band together in a traditional immigrant enclave.

But that has changed as Venezuelans have become one of the fastest-growing immigrant groups in New York and around the United States. The Venezuelan newcomers — like generations of immigrants before them — have increasingly come together in the city, bringing their food, culture and identity to corners where there was none before and, in the process, taking the first steps toward staking a claim to a neighborhood of their own.

“It always starts with one restaurant or one food cart at a time,” said Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, an advocacy group. That, in turn, leads to other businesses and cultural institutions. These immigrants not only build a thriving community but also employ workers and generate revenues for the local economy, helping sustain the city through tough times such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2021, before the recent influx of migrants, just 15,182 New Yorkers among the city’s 8.7 million residents were of Venezuelan heritage, including 12,250 people who were born in Venezuela, according to a census analysis by Social Explorer, a data research company.

They have fared better than other Hispanic groups. Venezuelan households reported a median income of $74,936 annually compared with $48,866 for all Hispanic households, the analysis found. The median household income for all New Yorkers was $70,411.

But since the spring of 2022, more than 136,000 migrants — many from Venezuela — have arrived in New York, many of them in desperate need of help. About 56,000 migrants have been placed in Manhattan shelters and another 41,000 in Queens shelters, according to city officials.

Some Venezuelan recent arrivals have moved in with family and friends. Rayquel Delgado, 24, lives with his cousin in Jackson Heights. “I feel comfortable here since everyone speaks Spanish,” he said.

The new crop of Venezuelan businesses in Queens — started by or catering to Venezuelan immigrants — is one of the first steps in the process of establishing an ethnic neighborhood, said Robert Smith, a sociologist and professor at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs at Baruch College. “People are trying to make money, so you open a restaurant and then it becomes a social center as well,” he said.

Once large numbers of Venezuelan immigrants gather in one place, they will begin to have a visible “street presence,” from storefront signs in Spanish advertising Venezuelan foods to new churches and community organizations, he said.

Although this could happen over just a few months, it could still take years for a Venezuelan neighborhood to be recognized by others, because New York is such a “hyper-diverse place,” Smith said. “There are so many different immigrant groups already established, it makes it harder for them to stand out,” he said, unlike if there were “several hundred immigrants from the same country in a small town.”

Miguel Linares, 23, rented a room in Jackson Heights in February after moving with his family from Florida, and before that, Peru and Venezuela. When he spotted street vendors on Roosevelt Avenue, Linares, who had worked in flea markets in South America, saw an opportunity.

Linares and his wife, daughter and mother organized a makeshift flea market from vans parked around the corner, emptying bags of clothes onto blankets spread on the sidewalk. Other Venezuelans started selling toys and household goods beside them. “Everyone is looking to make a living,” he said.

Across the country, Venezuelans were the fastest-growing immigrant group over the past five years, said Julia Gelatt, an associate director at the Migration Policy Institute, a research group in Washington. There were 668,000 Venezuelan-born residents in the United States in 2022, or nearly double the 351,000 residents in 2017, according to census data.

Venezuelans helped build the city of Doral, Florida, which was incorporated in 2003 on former swampland west of downtown Miami. More than one-third of its 84,000 residents are Venezuelan, earning it the nickname “Doralzuela.”

They were mainly from the upper and upper-middle classes and could afford to buy homes and start businesses, said Doral Mayor Christi Fraga. A Venezuelan restaurant at a gas station, El Arepazo, became one of the first places for immigrants to gather for food, culture and political rallies.

“They really established the community we have today,” Fraga said.

In New York, Venezuelans have largely dispersed across the city. When Héctor Arguinzones arrived in 2014 from Caracas, “finding a Venezuelan on the street, it was almost impossible,” he recalled.

Arguinzones, now 51, and his family moved in with his sister-in-law in Harlem. He and his wife, Niurka Meléndez, went on to found Venezuelans and Immigrants Aid, a nonprofit organization that grew out of their efforts to share what they learned from starting over in New York.

In contrast, another recent group of immigrants did have a neighborhood to tap into. More than 5,700 Ukrainians have settled in the Brighton Beach area in Brooklyn since the spring of 2022, according to federal aid applications, following in the footsteps of earlier immigrants from the region.

“The fact that this is a Russian-speaking neighborhood is a very big draw,” said Sue Fox, executive director of Shorefront YM-YWHA of Brighton-Manhattan Beach, a Jewish community center, which has expanded its English-language classes for newcomers. Some Ukrainians also had local connections to family and friends, which made it easier to find housing, jobs and a support network.

Many Venezuelans have gravitated toward Queens, where more than one-third of all New Yorkers of Venezuelan heritage, or 5,390 people, have settled, according to the census analysis. Even before the migrant crisis, Donovan Richards, the Queens borough president and the son of a Jamaican immigrant father, had opened an immigrant welcome center at his borough office in 2021. “Every day we know that more migrants are coming to Queens,” he said.

Sandra Sayago, 36, was a doctor in San Cristóbal, Venezuela, before immigrating in 2016 with her young daughter. She found work as a server at a Mexican restaurant in Corona, and later married the owner, Alfredo Herrero. Homesick, she started making the arepas and cachapas that she had learned from her grandmother.

The couple opened El Budare Cafe in 2021 along a stretch of Roosevelt Avenue that is a hub for Colombian, Ecuadorean and Mexican immigrants. They welcomed Venezuelan migrants with free meals, and in recent months, they have seen many getting on their feet. “People who asked for help,” Sayago said, “are coming back now as customers.”

Over at Palacio De Los Pepitos, a desolate corner beside the No. 7 train has turned into a Venezuelan block party. The tent goes up, tables and chairs fill the sidewalk, and the grill is fired up to the beat of salsa baúl, a type of salsa music known for its romantic lyrics that is popular in Venezuela.

On a recent night, Hernandez’s pepito-making was being streamed live on TikTok as customers lined up. One man leaned over to give him a fist bump.

Hernandez’s boss, Marvin Ramirez, 34, was taking orders on a tablet. Ramirez, the son of a Colombian immigrant mother, grew up in Manhattan and discovered pepitos while playing professional basketball in Colombia. He decided to start his own pepitos stand after hearing from Venezuelan friends in New York that they could not find authentic Venezuelan street food.

Ramirez, who has been called “the king of pepitos,” said he set out to make good food — and ended up bringing Venezuelans together in a neighborhood that they could perhaps someday call Little Caracas.

“I think it’s time,” he said. “Everyone should have that place where they can feel that they’re not so many miles away from home.”

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