Wendy Reyes prepared the usual order of “res,” a type of meat used in Mexican cuisine, for a customer at her family-owned bodega. Familiar products from home, like “res,” papalo and extra spicy jalapenos, bring comfort to her neighborhood customers, many who recently immigrated here from Mexico.
The bodega, Guadalupita II Mexican Deli and Grocery, sells specialty Mexican products at Fifth Avenue and 39th Street in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. For more than 13 years, Reyes has listened to her customers talk about issues such as their Mexican heritage, gang violence and anti-immigration laws that affect the neighborhood’s Mexican community.
Reyes, 32, is the owner’s daughter. She works the deli counter and register every day.
Originally from Puebla, Mexico, she immigrated to the United States with her family when she was 15.
“We left Mexico looking for opportunities and a better life. The only thing you can do in Puebla is to farm,” Reyes said.
Visiting Guadalupita II, like many of the bodegas in Sunset Park, is like crossing the border into Mexico. As you walk in, there is the smell and allure of jalapenos. Lively Mexican music and ceilings lined with brightly colored banners called “papel picado” give the place a fiesta vibe.
“We have a lot of specialty items that you only find in Mexico. We sell rare Mexican cooking herbs like papalo and pipicha, which has a ‘sabor fuerte,’ ” Reyes said.
Reyes’ family came to Sunset Park because they knew Mexicans were already living in the neighborhood and thought it would be a good place to start their business.
“I came over illegally with my family through Tijuana and then entered through California into Los Angeles. We came with a coyote smuggler,” Reyes said.
According to Reyes, many of the residents in Sunset Park are here legally, but there are some recent immigrants who have crossed the border illegally. Reyes and her family now have work visas and green cards, but no one has become a U.S. citizen.
“They come here because they need work,” Reyes said. “If not, why would you come? The majority have come illegally.”
The journey to Sunset Park is not easy, she said.
“After crossing the border, it was hard because we had to walk and walk all through the night,” Reyes said. “We would get on the ground when we saw the helicopters and hide behind trees.”
The family lived in Los Angeles for a month until her aunt told them to come live with her in Manhattan.
“My dad bought a rickety old car to take us across the country,” Reyes said. “It was my mom, dad, sister, brother and I driving with a map and without knowing English from Los Angeles all the way to New York.”
Reyes has experienced a lot in the neighborhood. She says it is a safe area, but admits there have been some incidents of gang violence.
“They are young hoodlums here. A long time ago, my friend’s brother was killed after leaving a dance party because he was dancing with a girl who one of the hoodlums liked. They shot him 20 times,” Reyes said.
Despite occasional violence, however, NYPD data for the 72nd Precinct clearly shows a shift away from the crime-ridden times of 20 years ago. The creation of the Sunset Park Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District helped create this decline in violence.
Reyes, who leaves the store daily at 9 p.m., has never been robbed or seen any violence firsthand in her neighborhood.
Julia Fierro, owner of Maria’s Mexican Bistro in Sunset Park, also feels safe living in the neighborhood.
“Two years ago, there were a lot of gang fights and we couldn’t send out delivery boys at night because they would rob them,” said Fierro. “But now, we stay open late at night and have never experienced any problems.”
The community in Sunset Park is predominantly Mexican, with a mix of Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Salvadorians and Chinese. Many of the Mexicans have been here for years and have had started families.
The community is not deaf to recent anti-immigration sentiments in the U.S. The new Arizona anti-illegal immigration law, known as SB1070, which proposes, among other things, to deny citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants, scares many Mexicans in the neighborhood.
“There is fear that the law will come here and affect their children and families,” Reyes said as she stole a glance at her young son sleeping peacefully in a stroller behind the counter.
As a family business owner, she worries about how the law could affect her business if something similar passed in New York.
“For my future, I want to have my own business of the same style as my family’s. Who’s going to come buy Mexican products at my business if the people start getting too scared to be associated with Mexicans?” Reyes said.