Mireya Delapena came to the United States from Mexico when she was six. Now, she runs a small business in East Harlem, helping Mexicans in both countries transmit money and packages. But after President Trump signed an executive order last Wednesday to build a wall at the US-Mexico border, she is worried that her business will be severely affected.
Yannis Glyptis, 48, and his two daughters Maria, 13,(left) and Thaila, 12, (right) waited for mother and wife, Marilena to pass by East Harlem to show their support for her first marathon. Photo by Ugonma Ubani-Ebere
As the sun peeked through the clouds in the afternoon, and used green cups littered the streets of East Harlem, many runners who had been running since the early morning, trudged on to finish the New York Marathon. Spectators, families, and friends from every part of New York City and all over the world, aligned the streets with signs and shirts dedicated to their loved ones, encouraging them to finish.
One of the spectators, Yannis Glyptis, 48, a Greece native, now living in Dykers Heights, Brooklyn, waited anxiously for his wife, Marilena Glyptis, 37, to pass through East Harlem at 117th Street and 1st Avenue. His two daughters, Maria,13, and Thaila,12, wore “Mommy Strong” shirts and held signs, as they waited for her.
“My wife has been running for three to four years,”he said. “She has done half marathons, but this is her first time running a marathon, and this is our first marathon as a family.”
Glyptis, who has run half marathons with his wife has always encouraged her as a runner.
“We always carry a sign that says “Mommy Strong” every time she runs,” he said. “Wherever she goes, when ever she runs, we have it.”
This year for her first marathon, Glyptis and his daughters have been following Marilena at every stop possible to encourage her every step of the way.
“We followed her from Brooklyn,” he said. “We did a stop in Queens, here at East Harlem, and now we are headed to the other side of Manhattan to follow her to the finish line.”
Glyptis proudly wore the Greek flag as a cape as people stopped to take pictures of him and his daughters.
“Brooklyn has a big Greek community,” he said. “But New York is the center for all cultures, and this marathon is for everybody because your soul decides what you can do, and what you can accomplish. “
Finally came running down the street. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail with a pink headband, and she wore her “Mommy Strong” shirt to match her daughters. Though she was sweaty, she took her headphones out of her ears, smiled and stopped to take pictures with her family.
“She’s such a good role model, and she sets just a really hard standard for me,”her daughter Maria said. “I really want to run a marathon myself when I grow up, so she is really pushing me to do well myself.”
Handing out water bottles and pastries Raquel Mendez, 75, of East Harlem and a native of Puerto Rico, stood outside the Jefferson Housing Projects in East Harlem with her organization Union Settlement to cheer on the 2011 New York City Marathon runners and walkers, including a few Union Settlement members.
“I live right there, “ she said pointing to one of the apartment buildings in the Jefferson Housing Projects behind her.
“And I come her everyday,” she said pointing to the James Johnson Weldon Senior Center, one of the places Union Settlement provides senior assistance.
Mendez has been watching the marathon for years.
“How long has the marathon been going on? That’s how long I’ve come out to watch it,” she said.
This year Mendez has something more to cheer about, her friend Maria Lapetina, from the Johnson Weldon Senior Center was participating in the marathon. For Lapetina, 80 years old, this is her first marathon and according to Mendez “she is very active. “
“I’m happy for her. I have two screws in my knee I can’t run too much,” she said.
Mendez has lived in East Harlem for 55 years. Years ago she said there was a lot of crime, but those memories were far away today. The East Harlem vibe was jovial with colorful banners lining the fences of Jefferson Park, a hip hop group performing a few paces away and blue ribbon fencing off the spectator areas.
“She is famous,” Maria Estelle Haddock, 67, a friend from the senior center, said of Mendez with a sly wink. “for the trips to Atlantic City. I’m just messing with her so she can give me another donut.”
For both ladies their favorite part of the race is seeing the first runner pass by.
“I get excited when I see the first runner. I like the energy for winning the prize. Some winners need the money to by themselves a little house,” Haddock said.
As a wave of runners approached the 19th mile a few ladies from the Union Settlement cheered them on.
“Keep going. Keep running. Keep walking. You can do it!”
“Que viva la raza, Puerto Rico!”
“Estan alimentando la vista (they are feeding their eyesight),” Haddock said of the ladies sitting on the sidelines.“There are so many handsome men running from all other the world.”
As a wave of mostly male runner made their way to 116th Street encouraged by the ladies, Mendez shrugged and continued to hand out food and water to the locals.
“I’m too old for that,” she said.
It’s hard to tell that Jose Cintron butchers meat for a living. A severed pig’s head keeps watch on customers from the bottom of his glass cooler, but Cintron’s pristine apron bears no bloodstains, no evidence of the slaughter.
These days, Cintron doesn’t carve as much pork as he used to. He doesn’t even have enough customers to keep his hands dirty.
Cintron is part of a small group of vendors at La Marqueta, the historic Puerto Rican marketplace on Park Avenue in East Harlem. In the 1950s and 60s, Puerto Rican families from all five boroughs flocked to La Marqueta to buy specialty foods from hundreds of stalls.
But in the 70s, economic decline began to drive vendors out of the neighborhood. The Puerto Rican population dwindled and was replaced by a flood of Mexican immigrants unfamiliar with the market’s traditions. A series of fires hastened its demise, and it was eventually reduced to a shell of its former self.
Over the last 20 years, numerous attempts to revive the space have failed. The newest revitalization plan, a kitchen incubator program for immigrant women run by a Brooklyn nonprofit, will launch later this fall.
For now, only five vendors occupy the building during the week, and the prosperity and Puerto Rican heritage of La Marqueta have nearly vanished.
Cintron, 62, remembers the good days of La Marqueta fondly. He began working for his uncle at the market when he was 17. During those busy times, vendors sold everything from dried beans and bananas to clothing and spices.
Everyone at La Marqueta turned a profit, including visitors whose business interests were less than legitimate.
“In those days, even the crooks made money,” he chuckled, his eyes lighting up from behind his glasses. “The pickpockets had more to choose from.”
Today, would-be thieves have few pockets to pick. Most of the stalls are empty and closed off by iron gates. The few open stalls are lined with plastic to keep dust out.
Cintron hawks every cut of pork, from large shoulders to pig tails cured in buckets. Another vendor sells Puerto Rican flags and religious items. Benny, the oldest vendor, keeps his stall stocked with bacalao — salted and dried cod.
Throughout the day, a handful of customers wander into Cintron’s store. Most of them are regular clients who pay their bills on a monthly tab.
“Normal customers who come here to buy, I get only three or four of those a day,” he said, shaking his head and running a hand over his stubbly gray beard.
Henry Calderon, president of the East Harlem Chamber of Commerce, isn’t surprised by the lack of customers. The city’s Mexican population nearly quadrupled in the 1990s, according to the New York City Department of City Planning. Many of those Mexican immigrants settled in East Harlem, and Calderon said they were unfamiliar with La Marqueta’s rich history.
“A majority of the people who live here now weren’t here 30 years ago,” he said. “The Puerto Rican grandmother will remember, but the Mexican grandmother won’t because she didn’t live it.”
The vendors of La Marqueta make their own entertainment when customers aren’t around. Inside the market, a radio blared Latin music. Behind Cintron’s counter, a TV set flickered mutely on an episode of “Family Feud.” His assistant poured a beer into Styrofoam cups to share with a customer while he barked orders at a construction crew.
The good times ended when Puerto Rican immigrants began to leave the neighborhood, Cintron said. The multi-ethnic corner stores dotting the streets now stock many of the staples that used to be available only inside the market, rendering it unnecessary for everyday shopping.
But Cintron noted that the fresh food sold at those bodegas is too pricey for East Harlem residents. He lamented that La Marqueta is no longer a source of inexpensive, fresh food in a neighborhood devoid of healthy options.
“This neighborhood, for poor people, it’s too expensive,” he complained, his chin jutting out over the top of the butcher counter. “Bacon used to be 79 cents; now it’s five dollars.”
If Cintron is bothered by the slow business, he doesn’t show it. He jokes with his clients, and his sly grin transforms the gaze of a businessman looking forward to retirement. Next spring, he’ll hand the business off to his son, just as his uncle gave him control of the business when he retired.
Cintron accepts the reality of the present-day Marqueta, but is disappointed that many young neighborhood residents aren’t interested in the market’s culinary and cultural history.
“Most of the older people, they used to buy chitlins and old-fashioned stuff,” he said. “Kids now, they go to McDonald’s, Burger King, pizza. They’re not going to come here and buy a steak.”
The fast food restaurants that draw Cintron’s customers away are prominent signs of a neighborhood in transition. In July, the East River Plaza mall opened on the edge of 116th Street, bringing big-box stores to the neighborhood. The new development attracts foot traffic, but few of those visitors are aware of the old traditions that made La Marqueta the beating heart of El Barrio.
“A lot of the stuff that I grew up with has been forgotten, like going out shopping with your whole family,” said Luis Garcia, 41, a lifelong East Harlem resident and Marqueta shopper who visits several times a week.
A wireless headset flashed in his ear as he reminisced about the old-world appeal of the market, where his mother bought holiday foods for his family.
“Now people go to the Best Buy and the Costco,” he said.
Cintron said there are few members of the old generation, like Garcia’s mother, left to shop at La Marqueta. His friends view his butcher business as a relic from a bygone era, and often counsel him to move.
He thinks they’re just jealous.
“People ask me now, what are you still doing over here? Are you making any money?” he said defiantly. “They can’t tell me how to run my business. Really, everybody’s envious of me because I’m one of the only ones left.”
He hopes the incoming kitchen incubator project will draw vendors and customers to a space that still holds name recognition in the neighborhood. When the city signed a deal to create the new kitchen incubator, Cintron’s rent dropped to $300 per month from $1,300 per month.
At that price, Cintron may not be so eager to retire.
“My son says, ‘Pop, when are you leaving?’” he said with a grin. “I tell him, ‘Soon — don’t worry about it.’”
Local governments across the country, including New York City, are spending millions to promote environmentalism in low-income communities, from recycling to organic eating to energy conservation. But many of those who live in the communities say those programs feel distant and irrelevant to the daily realities of their lives.
“A lot of Spanish people really don’t care,” said Neal Figueroa, 17, of East Harlem. “Around here, it’s like a joke.” Figueroa said he and his friends frequently litter on the streets.
The New York City government is investing money for Green advertisement campaigns, programs and buildings, and more New Yorkers are taking steps to join the trend.
Posters encourage subway commuters to “Switch & Save” and programs such as the Manhattan Borough President’s Go Green initiatives aim to show that going green is for everyone — even those who think they can’t afford it. However, change has been slow for some families.
Waiting outside Andrea’s Hair Design in East Harlem for her hair appointment, Anna Lanza and her friends Sandra Martinez and Aramonita Seda talked about going green. The Puerto Rican women discussed one component of the environmentally friendly movement: organic foods.
“If you going to die, you going to die,” said Seda, a 53-year-old from Central Halrem. “Doesn’t matter if you eat organic.”
For Lanza, 50, it’s a matter of cost. She said she prefers to shop at corner stores and fruit stands because the food is cheaper.
“I can’t afford organic food,” she said. Lanza lives with her husband and four boys, ages 18, 17, 16 and 14, in East Harlem. Her family spends $1,000 per month on food, on top of paying for rent, utilities, credit cards and car payments. “We’re barely making it.”
But going green is not just about eating organic food, said Manhattan Deputy Borough President Rose Pierre-Louis. It is also about carbon footprinting, which is “the impact of how we’re currently living our lives (and how it affects the environment), whether it’s how we’re eating or about congestion.”
Going green refers to any environmentally friendly activity that conserves energy, reduces pollution and saves money. Reducing trash and saving money through sustainable practices, like reusing and recycling, is especially important in low-income communities.
For Lanza’s family, making the effort to go green by recycling seems like a waste of effort and time.
Lanza said it is difficult to recycle because many buildings in her neighborhood do not reinforce it. According to Pierre-Louis, it is the law for every building in New York City to recycle, but in Lanza’s apartment building, there is no recycling bin.
“I don’t mind going green,” she said. “I understand we have a lot of garbage. But they put it all in (the trash), so what’s the point?”
Lanza and her son, Figueroa, both believe environmentalism is too expensive for their family to afford. For example, Figueroa mentioned the extra expense buying trash bags for recycling — money that is wasted because the apartment building does not sort out recyclables from trash.
“It’ll all come down to the neighborhood you live in and your income. Nothing’s (going to) change,” Figueroa said. “I don’t (want to) learn about (going green). I don’t believe in all that stuff.”
Lanza agreed. Her husband makes about $40,000 a year, and she works part-time at American Greetings, earning about $18,000 a year. Her rent is $2,089 a month, and Section 8 pays for 30 percent of it. But even with a dual income and subsidized rent, it is difficult to make ends meet.
Additionally, Lanza now faces the extra financial burden of paying for college. Her oldest son, a high school senior, wants to go to a school that costs $45,000 a year.
To help those with income disparities go green, the borough president’s office created initiatives that work to develop agendas and leverage resources
specific to each community.
A large part of the problem with living in one of these low-income neighborhoods is that “we get the burdens without any of the amenities,” said Elizabeth Yeampierre, president of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and executive director of United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park.
These burdens include harmful emissions and the health problems that can arise because of them. Sunset Park and Red Hook, for example, are home to a sludge treatment plant; several power plants and waste transfer stations; three highways; and truck traffic — all of which contribute to pollution that can cause health problems like asthma, Yeampierre said.
Additionally, Yeampierre cited the lack of amenities, such as gardens or parks. Amenities are a key component to improving the physical well being of residents in low-income neighborhoods.
“When you have a community that’s struggling, the last thing they (want to) do is plant a tree for the sake of making their neighborhood look good,” she said. “Our kids don’t get enough exercise because there aren’t open spaces. For us, open space is really a quality of life issue.”
Go Green East Harlem has worked to help the community deal with its health burdens while providing more amenities. Since the first Go Green initiative was launched in 2007, Borough President Scott Stringer has spent at least $7.6 million to develop parks, playgrounds and an Asthma Center in East Harlem to help residents who suffer from the harmful effects of air pollution.
The Manhattan borough president’s office has improved access to healthy fruits and vegetables for people at all income levels, Yeampierre said.
“One of the things we’ve done in East Harlem, for example, is start the first ever weekend farmers’ market in East Harlem,” she said.
According to the Manhattan borough president’s office, poor neighborhoods are suffering health risks, such as obesity and diabetes, because of insufficient access to healthy foods.
“East Harlem … has the highest number of fast food restaurants per square mile than anywhere else in New York City,” Pierre-Louis said. “That gets into the issue of ‘food deserts’ meaning that within a close proximity of your home, to be able to access a green market or grocer is a challenge.”
Residents can now purchase fresh fruits and vegetables from vendors with their Electronic Benefit Transfer cards, an electronic system that allows card carriers to purchase products through government benefits.
Araceli Bandoja, 29, said she bought food from the farmers’ market at Franklin Plaza and was pleased with the low cost and high quality.
“It’s a little more cheap and more fresh, and they give a lot,” she said. The vegetables and fruits look “different” from those she bought at nearby neighborhood markets, but “in a good way.”
Still, not everyone knows these options are available in their neighborhoods. Lanza said she is not familiar with the Go Green East Harlem initiative and farmers’ market, but expressed an interest in affordable green options.
Yeampierre said there is a strong interest in low-income, ethnic neighborhoods to learn about going green — not because it may seem trendy, but because those communities recognize they are the ones who suffer most from environmental burdens.
Environmentalism refers to the consumer aspect of going green, which often comes with high price tags, according to Yeampierre. Products that are advertised as green or sustainable may not be affordable, but a sustainable lifestyle can help people save money—a concept many low-income families are already familiar with.
“Poor people are the most sustainable people there are,” Yeampierre said. “We’re the ones most likely to make food stretch or use our materials in creative ways because we’ve always had to do a lot with a little.” Shopping for old clothes at thrift stores, for example, is a sustainable practice.
This creativity with reusing cheap, available resources translates to environmental consciousness. Going green has to be relevant to their everyday lives and struggles, she said.
“That’s how we get communities to participate and get involved,” Yeampierre said. “All of them care about their children and the health of their elders.”
Not everyone in East Harlem is against the green movement.
“In our building, we are almost the only one family that recycle,” Bandoja said. “We like to live better to get a better future for our kids.”
Bandoja lives in an East Harlem housing project with her husband and two children. She has not heard about the Go Green East Harlem initiative, but her family tries to be green by recycling. She and her husband have taught their children about recycling and energy conservation. Her two sons, Axel and Oswaldo, are also learning about going green at school.
“You have to recycle the newspapers and bottles and any glass,” said 8-year-old Axel. “If we don’t recycle, the earth is not going to be healthy and clean.”