A ‘Little Guatemala’ Emerges in Bensonhurst

Take a look through the posts on Voices of NY and you’ll find stories of the Nepalese living in Queens, Africans, Albanians and Bengalis in the Bronx, Poles in Ridgewood and Maspeth, the Guyanese in Jamaica and the Burmese in Brooklyn. Now, reporter Carmen Molina Tamacas from El Diario La Prensa introduces us to the Guatemalans of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where family, traditions and religion take precedence. Below is a translation of the article.

Nohemi Ixmata and her kids

Nohemi Ixmata and her children, Yulmi and Aarón. She is from the Altiplano (highlands) region of Guatemala and arrived in Bensonhurst nine years ago. (Photo by Carmen Molina-Tamacas/EDLP)

Nohemi takes a card from her pocket, places it in the machine’s slot, and notes how much time she needs to wash various items of clothing.  This is her third load because this week, all the laundry has piled up; her eighth month of pregnancy has made her very tired.

While she waits, her children Yulmi and Aarón gallop around the Monsterwash laundromat on 18th Avenue, one of the busiest commercial districts of Bensonhurst, in the southeastern corner of Brooklyn.  The kids are enjoying their Easter vacation.

She confesses that she has no plans to cook today; if she does, it will be something quick.  One of the advantages of living here, she says, is that she can find practically all the ingredients to put dishes of her native Guatemala on the table, especially pepián, a meat stew with a spice base loaded with pepitoria – calabash seeds – chicken in salsa and even tamales.

Bensonhurst is host to a growing community of Guatemalans, most of them from the Altiplano (high plains) region.  Mayan faces add new colors to the melting pot of this traditionally Italian, Russian and Asian area.

There are various places to witness this growth, several of them along 18th Avenue: Milestone Park, where men and youths share conversation and cigarettes; Garibaldi Playground, where Guatemalan mothers take their children, most of them under 10; Jireh Restaurant, where on Saturdays and Sundays traditional dishes are served.

The Pentecostal church Jóvenes Cristianos (Young Christians) is considered the primary meeting place for Brooklyn's Guatemalan community. (Photo by Carmen Molina Tamacas/EDLP)

But the main meeting place here for the Guatemalan community is the church of the Evangelical Missionaries, Jóvenes Cristianos (Young Christians), a Pentecostal ministry with a membership of over 900 people, most of them Guatemalans.

Invisible?

Until 2000, Hispanics represented only a small portion of Bensonhurst’s population.  According to Brooklyn Community District 11’s online profile, of its 172,129 inhabitants, almost half were born outside this country, but only 8.1 percent in Latin America, and most of those Mexicans or Ecuadorans.

Still, there was a Guatemalan presence as early as 1993, said Missionary Church’s founder, Erick Salgado.

“An Italian landlord was the first one to allow Hispanics to occupy apartments in this area,” he said.  Five years later, Salgado founded the third of his congregations; now there are 20.

Luis Ixmata arrived in 1999 and remembers that when he and several friends emigrated from the Guatemalan highlands to the apartment in Bensonhurst where his older sister lived, they were the only five Hispanics on that 79th Street block.  In 2003, he met Nohemi, a small young woman with long hair, with whom he now has a family.

Most of the “chapines” [note: Guatemalans’ name for themselves, like the Dominican “quisqeya” and Puerto Rican “boricua”] who arrived around this time established themselves in Bensonhurst because of its relatively low rents, and most importantly, an express subway line and several bus routes that allow them cheap travel to their jobs, mostly in construction and restaurants.

Francisco Con, a construction worker who came to the area in 2008, says that many of his compatriots succeed in making more than $7.25 an hour – the state’s minimum wage – at construction sites in Brooklyn and Queens.

“We make a little more here, and there are trains and buses, so we don’t have to depend on a vehicle,” he explained.

Francisco and three of his countrymen rent an apartment for $1,500, which includes the water fee.  They pay extra for gas, electricity and cable.

“For four of us, it works out OK,” he said.  He is able to save and send money to his wife and children in Guatemala.

According to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center in 2009, New York was home to 60,000 Guatemalans and New Jersey to 42,000, but an unofficial tally by the Pentecostal congregation indicates that as many as 50,000 might be living in Brooklyn and Queens alone.

Single men, heads of families, make up the largest part of the parish and of the members of this community.

“They seek the Lord so they can remain focused, not go astray, nor lose sight of the reason they came to this country, which is to find sustenance for their families in Guatemala,” said Pastor Salgado. “They seek to combat the solitude.”

Among the problems that plague them — a result of the change in foods, the lonelieness and their worries — are gastrointestinal illnesses.

“They need health services, but there’s no chance because of their immigration status and because of a lack of health insurance,” said the preacher. “Even though they have the means to pay for the services (in hospitals or with private doctors), they don’t take on the responsibility of doing so.”

Magdalena N., in a traditional altiplano dress, stopped for a moment to pose while she was walking on 18th Avenue. (Photo by Carmen Molina Tamacas/EDLP)

The women dedicate themselves fundamentally to caring for their children, and those who are still single work in factories and workshops. Both men and women work at a lower pay scale as cooks and waiters, according to Elías García of the Mesa Guatemalteca in New Jersey.

At fairs, markets and festivities, one can see women from the Guatemalan highlands dressed in their traditional clothing, the colorful corte (skirt) and huipil (blouse).

Many of the earliest immigrants have already moved or returned to Guatemala with the hope of bringing back their wives and families, says Luis Ixmata.  But the community continues to grow.  According to Salgado, more than 60 children are born into it each year.

One Comment

  1. hi is good too see people from other countrys special they food and custums

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