Jose Marti Park in Union City was created in 2008 as a tribute for the Cuban community in the area. Photo by Sophie Herbut
The Jose Marti Park in Union City, is a small, gated park named after the famous Cuban poet. It was once nicely decorated with a tile Cuban flag behind a bust of Jose Marti and lined portraits of famous Cubans. Now the tiles have been taken down and the small display has been weathered and barely recognizable.
But it is still a gathering place for the older local Cuban men. A place to smoke cigars, play dominos, talk about family, memories and Cuba.
These men came to America with nothing except an idea. They left their families, friends and the few things they owned for freedom. They came for a chance to work, earn and build a better life.
“Personally, my country is here,” Fernando Andreu said in Spanish recently at the park. “I have my children and grandchildren here. Cuba is lost now.”
Fidel Castro’s death in November shocked the Cubans of Union City. It was a day that brought, reflection and pain.
Many Cubans immigrated to Union City to seek political and economic freedom after Fidel Castro gained power. North Jersey and New York have the second highest Cuban population in the United States. Their influence gave Union City the nickname “Havana on the Hudson.”
Now after Castro’s death, many older Cuban-Americans are not expecting any liberation to come to the island.
“With the communism, there are different people who live there,” Andreu,66, said. “They don’t think the same as we do. [Cuba] is not the same.”
Born in the capital of Cuba, Havana, Andreu and his family left when he was eight years old in the 1960s, as Castro was gaining control of the government. Because his dad was taken as a political prisoner for working in the previous government, Andreu left Cuba with only his mom and his sister.
“When we came, we were political refugees,” said Andreu. “[Now] Cubans step foot here and automatically have [citizenship]. Many people from Latin America would love to have the same thing.”
Andreu and his family came with nothing and lived in poverty. They collected welfare until his mom was able to get a job at a factory to support the family. He learned what it meant to work and earn his own keep. After spending most of his life in the U.S., he’s disillusioned at the thought of a free Cuba.
Miguel Alonso, 60, doesn’t believe Castro’s death meant anything for Cuba’s freedom. He said the hold of communism on the country is far greater than the one man.
“Fidel died to me 10 years ago,” Alonso said in Spanish. “They are just announcing it now.”
Alonso grew up in Havana, under Castro’s government. He left when he was 24, by himself.
“I was young, I came on a boat with the desire to come to the United States for liberty,” Alonso said. “What all Cubans want.”
Alonso escaped through the port of Mariel on April 27, 1980. The port was opened temporarily and a large number of rafts and boats full of people entered the U.S. He said it was the quickest and easiest way to escape.
“I knew people in the United States,” said Alonso. “I knew here you had to work.”
Alonso immediately got to work in construction because that’s what he worked as in Cuba. He had the skills and the opportunity. He said while he grew up around communism, he still believed in democracy.
“No one agrees with communism,” he said. “Communism demands people to be communist. It didn’t work in Europe; it definitely would not work [in Cuba].”
Alonso also said that with Trump as president, he’s unsure where the future of Cuban-Americans are headed.
Francisco Guzman, 63, lit a cigar as he stood against the green fence of the park.
Guzman grew up in Havana and he came to the U.S. when he was 26, after he sought asylum in the Peruvian embassy.
“One Saturday when they said that people could enter, I just went,” said Guzman in Spanish. “I spent 13 days in the embassy.”
Guzman immediately started working when he arrived to the U.S., working in a factory at first in Philadelphia. When he moved to Union City, he started working in agriculture. Guzman’s parents and his brother escaped Cuba, but his sister is still there. He said she will never leave so he helps her with as much as he can.
“I send her clothes and I give her money so she can buy what she needs,” Guzman said.
He said many Cubans who used to live in Union City have moved out to look for jobs and start their families. The ones who’ve stayed have been there for most of their lives.
“The Capitalist goes wherever there’s a job,” said Rijo Alvarez, 50.
Alvarez sat on one of the tables of the park with a cigar poised in his hand. He spoke casually about his life as though it was as common as an afternoon walk. He listed all the jobs he had from construction to electrical work.
“I’ve done things here I wouldn’t have ever been about to do in my country,” said Alvarez in Spanish. “My [Cuban] brothers would have stepped on my head.”
Alvarez moved from Cuba to New Jersey when he was 14. His father was a political prisoner, but was able to take his entire family and leave the island. He was one of the lucky ones. Alvarez’s parents started working immediately when they arrived and Alvarez was enrolled in school.
“I follow a philosophy, not a person,” said Alvarez. “The philosophy to be free. I want to be free and do with my money what I think I should do with it. I wanted to think what I wanted and read what I wanted.”
Alvarez said Castro’s death didn’t faze him. He was American. For him, Castro has been dead for years. But he said that both the U.S. and Cuba would have to change.
“Things have to change [in the U.S.],” said Alvarez. “Cubans aren’t the only ones who deserve the treatment they’re getting. All the Latin American brothers also deserve it. We should all be equal”
The Christmas lights in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, are as bright as Times Square without the billboards.
“I love taking people to see these lights, everybody’s happy and they become a kid again,” said Angela Christianson, Tour Guide for A Slice of Brooklyn Bus Tours, which charges $50 for a tour of the spectacle.
The predominantly Italian-American neighborhood has become a mainstream holiday tourist attraction with thousands treking from Manhattan to Brooklyn each year to see a handful of houses that spend thousands on Christmas decorations. Front lawns are covered in decorations from a 15-foot tall Santa, to carousels, to snowmen, angels, toy soldiers, reindeer, and hundreds of lights in green, red, and white.
“We joke around Rockefeller Center? FUHGETTABOUDIT, but when you come here to Brooklyn you’re seeing what homeowners are doing whether they are doing it themselves or getting companies to pay,” said Tony Muia owner of A Slice of Brooklyn Bus Tours. “Its sort of like a different feeling than being rushed on those sidewalks of Manhattan to see something Christmas related whether it’s the windows or the tree.”
Many homes participate in the neighborhood Christmas decorating tradition, but some take it over the top.
The Karounos home sits on 84th Street between 11th and 12th Avenue in the heart of the neighborhood. Their two family home is decorated with a blow up Santa, nativity scene, and the words Merry Christmas written in green and red. The family has been living in the neighborhood for seven years. They had different decorations two years ago that fell apart, so they switched it up by adding the inflatable decorations.
“It’s always been going on and my Dad and us eventually did it too,” said Elias Karounos, 13. “We love it, we help decorate, and it’s really fun. Everyone comes down the block and it’s all happy.”
Two doors down from the Karounos’ lives the woman who is believed to have started the whole tradition in the area, Lucy Spata. During the tour Christianson, told the story of Spata and how she moved to Dyker Heights in 1986 and began her Christmas tradition by putting up 40 angels in honor of her mother.
Christianson said many neighbors complained about Spata’s bright decorations and wanted her to take them down, but she would just say to them, ‘If you don’t like them well then move.”
No one moved and Spata, in spite, began putting up even more decorations, Christianson said. Eventually more neighbors started putting up decorations and created competition.
“Someone started with one Santa then somebody came out with Santa and reindeers then the other came out with Santa, reindeers, and frosty,” said Joe Igneri, 62, of Dyker Heights.
Today Spata’s home is completely covered, head to toe with Santa’s, angels, bright colored lights, toy soldiers, and snowmen. It is so bright it takes a minute for onlooker’s eyes to adjust. There is a gentleman’s agreement and the lights go off at 1 a.m. so neighbors can sleep.
“She does this for joy, she’s done this all her life,” said Joe Spatola, a friend of Spata who helps her decorate. “Even if nobody came she would still do it.”
It takes a lot of time to turn Dyker Heights into Christmas Town.
“I spent $5500 on my decorations,” said Angelo Branciforte.
Branciforte hired B&R Christmas Decorators. The company has worked on over 80 homes in the area already this season and it takes them around 30 hours to finish a large home.
Some of the homes in the area are worth millions of dollars and tourists love to gawk at the Christmas bling.
“We were reading on the Internet and saw the lights,” said Laura Romera, of Madrid, Spain. “It’s very different and it’s very nice too.”
Some neighbors like the tours.
“It brings a little satisfaction to them when they see that people come to the neighborhood,” said Tony Muia, owner of A Slice of Brooklyn Bus Tours.
But others find it chaotic.
“Just talking about the lights, we really like that people come, but sometimes it’s just really hectic,” said Noel Girgenti, 22. “You get the attention but then you have to deal with it, to pull out of the driveway is the hardest part.”
The Girgenti family, who have lived in the area for 50 years, do their own decorating. They have seen more and more people venture to Dyker Heights each December. But as more people come there is more traffic and parking spaces have been taken away for home owners and replaced by tour buses at night.
But not all the homeowners fill the need to join the display.
“My wife and I she feels like inside is better than outside,” said Igneri. “I’m not here to show off or anything. It’s a more personal thing than a more elaborate thing.”
Every year, on the second Friday in December, high school seniors from across the country march their application materials through their communities to a local post office or mail truck. The College March began in 2011 at NYC Outward Bound’s network school, the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS). In one year, participation spread throughout the network and continues to grow annually. It is a day that allows students to enthusiastically approach the college application process, rather than feel intimidated.
This year, over 2,700 seniors will march at 35 schools across 12 cities.
Jessica Duran, who completed the 2016 TCS New York City Marathon in 10:00:12, proudly displayed her medal near the finish line (the timer pictured reset after 10:00:00). This was the 35 year-old Bronx-born Staten Island resident’s first marathon. Picture by Eli Kurland.
With tears streaming down her face, Jessica Duran fulfilled a life-long dream by crossing the 2016 TCS New York City Marathon’s finish line. She completed the event with the closest time to exactly 10 hours, coming in at 10:00:12.
But race time mattered little to Duran or her husband and three daughters, all locking into a group hug the moment both her feet stayed planted on the ground.
“I didn’t have any expectation but I knew I had to finish,” Duran said. “I needed to show my little daughters that if I can do this, they can do this. I did it because of them. I didn’t think I was able to fulfill this dream until God and my heart took me to the finish line.”
Duran, 35, was born and raised in the Bronx but lives in Staten Island now. Completing her first marathon in New York City elevated this experience even higher for her, especially since it began in Staten Island.
“Your first marathon has to be in New York City,” she said. “There’s nothing like it. I cross the Verrazano Bridge (connecting Staten Island to Brooklyn) every day to go to work and now I’ve ran it. My husband’s from Brooklyn and the vibe there today was fantastic. And when I got to Queens I saw my dad, and I had a moment. He just told me, ‘Keep going. Keep going.’”
And she did. But she almost didn’t.
Thirteen miles in, at an emotional low point in her run, Duran noticed a “sweep bus” picking up runners who decided not to continue. These buses follow the marathon at a pace meant for the slower runners, so it hurt her self-esteem to be in the presence of one. Cold and hungry, she seriously debated quitting.
“But I had to accomplish what I’ve wanted to accomplish for a very long time.”
Duran pressed on.
“I doubted myself for a split second but seeing my family and friends – their support for my crazy idea I could do this – a girl who never finished college, a stay at home mom whose priorities are her kids – this is her and her children’s moment.”
She plans to run another marathon in July.
NYC marathon runner Yolanda Roman stands near the finish line with her family including brother Juan, mother Viviana, boyfriend Charlie Santos, cousin Sonia Ariza and her husband Eli Modesto, and nieces Madelyn and Melanie. Photo by Rebeca Corleto.
Yolanda Roman ran her first marathon today. She finished the New York City Marathon in about five and a half hours, but her time was not the first thing on her mind.
“I’m running for my daughter and now my grandfather.”
Roman’s baby daughter, Chloe, passed away from a brain disorder. It was shortly after her daughter’s death that she took up running, as something to hold onto and get through her grief. Her grandfather also passed away this year.
“It means everything to be able to run for her,” she said. “Everything. It was hard but I’m doing it for her.”
Roman’s brother, Juan Roman, came to cheer her on. The Roman family are lifelong New Yorkers. They live on 62nd Street, just a few blocks from where they waited to meet Yolanda after the race. He waited with their mother Viviana and Yolanda’s boyfriend, Charlie Santos, at the family reception area after the finish line.
“I’m used to this,” said Juan Roman. “I was born in New York City, so I know the marathon, but this is the first year we’ve been involved. After my sister’s daughter passed away, we have a reason to be here. And she has a purpose to be here—her daughter and our grandpa.”
Juan Roman proudly explained that to get here today, his sister had to complete trial runs with qualifying times. She began her training schedule a year ago.
Their cousin, Sonia Ariza, and her husband, Eli Modesto, along with their daughters Madelyn,7, and Melanie, 4,, came from Brooklyn to support Roman. Madelyn and Melanie played and ran around while they waited to greet their aunt. Ariza and Modesto took turn holding high a pink sign with glittering letters spelling out, “RUN FOR CHLOE.” When Roman finally reached her family, she was greeted with hugs, tears, and congratulations.
“We saw her running when she ran through Brooklyn,” said Ariza. “We live in Brooklyn, so we wanted to watch her there, and then we came here to see her at the finish line.”
There were two moments along the 26.2-mile run that stood out to Roman. The first occurred during a difficult section of the race.
“In the Bronx, my leg started cramping,” she said. “It was cramping so bad and then I saw on the side of the path, there were Mexican people rubbing people’s legs. That helped me get through. And then, crossing that finish line,I didn’t believe it when I crossed the line. It was a good day. A good run. I’m so happy I finished and saw my family here.”
Roman’s spirit is strong. Even after completing the longest run of her life, she had no intention of resting tonight.
“We’re going to celebrate,” she said.
Keith Claxton has been attending the race for the five years in a row. A person he met on the sideline gave him the sign, but Claxton cheers for everybody.” – Photo by Lisa Setyon
For the fifth year in a row, Keith Claxton, 53, of Eastchester Road in the Bronx, stood near the Willis Avenue Bridge encouraging the runners soaked in sweat to finish the race.
“I love the sport and I think it is something awesome that people run 26.2 miles,” Claxton said. “I just come to show my support for them. It is the least I can do.”
Today , 21 miles away from the finish line, Claxton, an accountant originally from the Virgin Islands, was among the thousands of spectators, waving, cheering and pushing the runners to get through the Bronx. Every year Claxton arrives at 8 a.m. and stands by himself, in a red track jacket, grey sweatpants and Nike sneakers.
While most of the other spectators are in groups and at the bridge to support a friend or family member, Claxton is there to support everyone.
“I cheer the last person to come across so I’m going to be here until the night,” Claxton said. “It just gives me a good feeling to be here, to be able to cheer them on, because, if they can run 26.2 miles, what is it for me to just turn up here and cheer?”
Claxton has lived in the Bronx for the past 25 years. For him, having the marathon in his neighborhood is also a way to add color to an area that has often been discredited.
“It gives people an opportunity to see a little part of the Bronx,” Claxton said. “I wish they could have gone more inside the Bronx so they get a better understanding of what the Bronx is.”
Claxton also sees it as a good way to gather communities together.
“Young, old, black, white, all nationalities are here,” Claxton said. “A sport like this bring everyone together. It just supports one cause, no division, just a marathon.”
Ten years ago Claxton used to run. But with a new job and taking care of his two children, Claxton stopped. But as he watched runners run past him, Claxton was envious and felt it was time for him to run again.
“I got caught up with just life,” Claxton said. “Sometimes you tend to put your hobbies on hold just to make a living. Now my two boys are 29 and 22. I feel like it is just time for me to go back out there and do me.”
His goal for next year is to run the marathon.
“My part right now is just to cheer,” he said “Hopefully next year, I’ll be running and I’ll have someone to cheer for me so I’m excited about it.”
If Claxton was looking forward to attending the marathon, the highlight of his day was seeing marathon winner May’s Keitany’s performance.
“She was sprinting and killed the hill in a sprint,” Claxton said. “I almost didn’t even see her, nobody was nowhere close, she really dominated the field this year. This a repeat for her, the third times she wins that in a row, it’s a big deal.”