Little Oaxaca: How Mexican Immigrants Revived Poughkeepsie

(Image via Diario de Mexico)

(Image via Diario de Mexico)

The nickname “Puebla York” identifies the Big Apple as the home of a large immigrant population born in Puebla. However, New York City is not the only enclave with a Mexican face in the state. In the Hudson Valley, the city of Poughkeepsie is known as “Little Oaxaca,” and the Guelaguetza Festival is included in Dutchess County’s tourist guide thanks to its cultural and gastronomic wealth.

According to the U.S. Census, 19.5 percent of Poughkeepsie’s 30,371 inhabitants are Hispanic. Of those, 5.41 percent are Mexican. Still, residents and community leaders estimate that, in reality, the numbers could be higher.

“Many Mexican immigrants do not register in the Census, but we know of families who have lived in the city for at least 30 or 40 years. We have second- and third-generation Mexicans here,” said Oaxaca-born Felipe Santos, director of the traditional dance troupe Grupo Folklórico de Poughkeepsie. “The Mexican population has grown rapidly in the last few years. Even though we have immigrants from Puebla and Veracruz, most of us come from Oaxaca, particularly from the Valles Centrales [Central Valleys] region.”

According to the Census, 228 Mexicans lived in Poughkeepsie in 1990, but the population has increased steadily in the last 25 years. The American Community Survey (ACS) recorded 1,643 Mexicans in 2015.

When Humberto Rodríguez migrated from Mexico 23 years ago, the city of Poughkeepsie was mired in the “deepest economic and social decay,” remembers the radio host and cofounder of La Super Latina FM Radio. The community radio station, founded in 2014, was the first to broadcast Spanish programming in the area.

Humberto Rodríguez and Rocío Pérez, two residents who have seen Poughkeepsie’s transformation. (Photo via Diario de México)

Humberto Rodríguez and Rocío Pérez, two residents who have seen Poughkeepsie’s transformation. (Photo via Diario de México)

Rodríguez, 53, said that Main Street used to be “no man’s land,” plagued with closed businesses, drug dealing and prostitution.

“The first Mexican immigrants in the Hudson Valley settled in nearby cities and would only come to Poughkeepsie to work in the factories. Few of them moved here. There was fear; it was too unsafe in those days,” said Rodríguez. “Some day laborers worked seasonally in Poughkeepsie and returned to Oaxaca in the winter. Decades ago, it was easy to cross the border. The border control situation changed after the 2001 terrorist attacks.”

Mexicans reactivate the economy

Rodríguez recalls that the first Mexican stores opened a few years after he moved here from Mexico City, and that they changed the economic dynamics of the area. Before Mexican and Latino entrepreneurs opened the doors of their bodegas and restaurants, immigrants used to travel to the neighboring city of Newburgh to buy Mexican products.

“I remember that the first Mexican stores were La Poblanita, La Oaxaqueña, El Gallito and Covarrubias. They opened along Main Street, which brought a lot of vitality to the city, and the local economy improved,” said Rodríguez. “Mexican immigrants started to rent apartments, and then became the owners of their own homes, shops, restaurants and construction and cleaning companies. Other Latinos followed suit: We have big Honduran and Salvadoran communities.”

According to the residents, Poughkeepsie’s Main Street went from being a dark and desolate area to a vibrant commercial district with Oaxacan flavor.

Rocío Pérez, radio host at La Super Latina, said: “It’s ‘Little Oaxaca’; everyone in the Hudson Valley knows that. Pueblans conquered New York City, and Oaxacans took Poughkeepsie. Anyone who wants tlayudas or mole negro comes here.”

Also from that part of Mexico, Cristóbal Ortiz, owner of the Mole Mole restaurant chain, said that the Oaxacan community revived the deteriorated economy of the area not only by creating businesses and jobs but also through their culture and traditions.

“We are a benchmark in the Hudson Valley. We put the city back on the map. The police and the government are more interested in our needs because they acknowledge that we are an important source of income for the city. Our culture attracts tourists; people come by looking to try our food and to see our traditional costumes and dances,” he emphasized.

Ortiz arrived in the area in 1985 and opened his first restaurant in 2000. The first of his four establishments opened on Main Street.

Cristobal Ortiz of Mole-Mole (Photo va Diario de Mexico)

Cristobal Ortiz of Mole Mole (Photo va Diario de Mexico)

“Mexicans and Latinos replaced the old infrastructure with new businesses. We gave Poughkeepsie a new face,” he said.

La Guelaguetza, Poughkeepsie’s new identity

La Guelaguetza – an ancestral indigenous festival celebrated every year in Oaxaca’s capital city, Oaxaca de Juárez – started being held in the backyard of the St. Mary’s Church eight years ago. The event, which began with 250 spectators in 2008, has transformed into a staple of Poughkeepsie, attracting more than 5,000 visitors in 2016.

“What was first organized by Oaxacan families to preserve their traditions is now one of the city’s tourist attractions. It is Poughkeepsie’s new identity. Our dances have conquered the Hudson Valley. Even Mayor Rob Rolison named an official Guelaguetza Day,” said Santos, who is also the festival’s organizer.

The office of Mayor Rolison recognized the role of the Mexican and Oaxacan communities by highlighting the fact that, like the other Latino and immigrant communities, “they have contributed to the transformation and progress of Poughkeepsie, creating a more diverse, inclusive and vibrant city.”

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