Essay: Finding Mexican East Harlem


Like in many parts of New York City, the presence of Mexicans is ubiquitous throughout East Harlem. However, along 116th St between Lexington and 1st Ave the presence of Mexican businesses is highly concentrated. This is the heart of Mexican East Harlem, of El Barrio Mexicano. During Mexican Independence Day the streets become the scene of a cultural festival celebrating Mexican Independence and Meixcan presence in East Harlem.

However, studies with and about Mexicans in East Harlem are few and far between. Although there is widespread acknowledgment about the presence of Mexicans in El Barrio their life experiences here are not widely documented. Furthermore, literature on Mexicans is usually found in short newspaper articles or on food blogs reviewing local restaurants. The goal of the Mexican East Harlem Digital Archives (MEHDA) is to provide a platform to discuss and document the impact of Mexicans in the present and future of East Harlem.

In this short essay I will briefly focus on migration to New York City and then I discuss identity formation and the concept of Mexicanidad. Finally, I will discuss the methodology used to create the MEHDA’s first exhibit “Finding Mexican East Harlem” and I will reflect on this initiative by considering insights from an interview with Leticia Pérez, owner of a local restaurant, on Mexican identity and daily life for Mexicans in East Harlem.

Mexicans in New York

Although Mexicans have been the largest Hispanic population in the United States, until the 1980s Mexicans were a small ethnic minority in the city. Between 1980 and 1990 the population doubled and between 1990 and 2000 it tripled (Dallas, 2001; 30). According to Paloma Dallas (2001), the Mexican population that arrived in New York comes from the Mixteca region of Mexico which is comprised of the states of Puebla, Guerrero and Oaxaca (32).

According to Professor Robert Smith, there are various push and pull factors—reasons why immigrants leave a place or come to some place—that guided this immigration pattern from the Mixteca. The financial crisis of the 1980s and the devaluation of Mexican currency of 1994 affected the region severely and these pushed people out of the region (Dallas, 2001; 32). While California was embattled with contentious immigration politics around health care and education, the friendlier political climate New York City of the region was a pull factor for these immigrants (Dallas, 2001; 32).

Thus, by the year 2000 the presence of Mexicans was hard to ignore, especially in El Barrio, where there is one of the largest concentrations of Mexican owned businesses in the city. According to Dallas (2001), in 2000 there were more than 77 Mexican-owned businesses in El Barrio, many of them along 116th St (34). For more extensive documentation see 116th St. East to West in our exhibit.

Nevertheless, this settlement of Mexicans in East Harlem comes at a time when rising land values and housing prices might push out many people and small businesses. According to Brash and Smith (2011), the city does not have an adequate housing policy for the neighborhood and gentrification as a housing policy threatens to displace communities that are housing insecure.

Leticia Pérez, owner of the Café Ollin restaurant on 108th and First Avenue, told me of a similar story. As rent prices increased in the last decade her family had to close their business on Second Avenue. Their landowner doubled their rent in one year and they had to close their small convenience store. Now their restaurant is on 108th St and they pay the same for a place that is half the size of their old store.

The forces of finance capital and real estate development circulate East Harlem like vultures waiting to prey on a dying animal. But the communities of immigrants in El Barrio are not dying off. They are changing and evolving however. As Mexican families continue to thrive in the community they begin to assert their presence with more confidence. One of these ways is through a visually distinctive culture.

Identity and Mexicanidad

According to John Mraz, a Research Professor with the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades at Benemerita Universidad Autonoma de Puebla, Mexico, the question of identity, especially national identity, “is a slippery in the best of cases” and “a potential minefield that blows up in the faces of those who tread there” (2009; 1). Taking heed from such warnings, I have decided to work loosely with the question of Mexican and Mexican-American identity formation in El Barrio/East Harlem and his flexible definition of identity is useful for this project. In his book on visual culture and national identity, Looking for Mexico (2009), he contends that “identity does not grow up from the ground, nor drop down from the skies. Identity is not something given once and for all, nor is it discovered; it is constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed endlessly. There is no Identity; there are only the different positions adopted in producing it” (2).

Mraz’ definition is informed by Stuart Hall’s concept of diasporic identifications. I find this concept helpful since it works well with the theories of production of space and place that we have discussed in the class. Stuart Hall states that “…instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished historical fact… we should think of identity as a ‘production,’ which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation” (Hall quoted in Mraz, 2009;2). Here, the inclusion of representation is important. Representation in this project is defined as one’s ability to influence a process—in this case that of identity formation.

Of course, such a definition leaves the door open for Orientalist stereotypes of Mexican identity. Some of these have been documented visually in this exhibit. The goal of the MEHDA is to trouble such problematic representations and caricatures. Instead the focus of this digital project and archive is to record and relate aspects of Mexican and Mexican-American identity or what I call mexicanidad through a conscious attempt to avoid Orientalist tropes of image makers.

For this, I have set out to adapt mexicanidad to the goals of this project and also to the context of East Harlem and the immigrant experience more broadly. mexicanidad and the representation of the Mexican is contested ground. Mraz (2009) sets out to study its Orientalist manifestations as well as its politically conscious nationalist expression (76-85). For this project, mexicanidad is not as contentious. Instead of understanding the concept as a political move to affirmatively center the indigenous within identity production, in this project it is understood as diasporic.

Mexicanidad in East Harlem

In this exhibit, mexicanidad is understood as a search for similarities of place, culture and language that express a Mexican and Mexican-American identity as a process in formation. Thus, uprooted from a national place and space and recontextualized in El Barrio, mexicanidad is in the process of being defined by those who participate in its production—be they Mexicans or of Mexican ancestry or not.

This first exhibit is able to pick up some aspects of that process. Between the locations of 116th St, Café Ollin and Lexington Avenue there is a noticeable difference on the ways mexicanidad is expressed and presented. That difference seems to be of two kinds of mexicanidad, one more ‘refined’ than the other, or rather more defined. For example, the faux ‘adobe’ architecture of El Paso Restaurant and its artisanal décor. In contrast, 116th St and Café Ollin seem much more autochthonous and unrefined.

Nevertheless, there are similarities throughout both expressions of mexicanidad. For example, nostalgic visual references to rural and indigenous people, “papel picado” and the national flag are unifying monikers. The most prominent unifying symbols are the altars and statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe. In an interesting way, this religious figure combines all other monikers-peasant, indigenous, national and spiritual—with unmatched intensity.

Another trend that I noticed was one of remixing. There are two aspects to this remixing, one within Mexican regions and one between Mexico and East Harlem. It seems that the symbols and expressions of mexicanidad that I recognized are essentials of the entirety of Mexico even though the Mexican immigrants of East Harlem are from one region of Mexico. In the exhibit we can see charro gear (cowboy) comfortably mixing with narcocultura and indigenous representations with baby Jesus. This remix put history in a time warp and to flatten geography.

The second aspect of remixing was between Mexico and East Harlem. One of the best examples of this is the outdoor mural by Yasmin Hernandez titled “Soldaderas.” This mural id in the Modesto “Tin” Flores Community Garden and it shows Frida Kahlo and Julia de Burgos sitting next to each other and holding hands. In the mural both of their hearts are connected as well as their national flags. This is a consciously political mural and it is a welcoming sign to Mexican immigrants by Puerto Rican residents of East Harlem. Nevertheless, I did not see other examples remixing mexicanidad. It seems that Mexicans have yet to make such explicit overtures to Puerto Ricans but I don’t think they’re far behind.

For Leticia, mexicanidad is just something that is apparent, something she does. When I asked her about her décor she says that her altar of the Virgin of Guadalupe is a tradition that she takes wherever she goes. The one in her restaurant was a gift from a friend. The other paintings and decorations throughout the restaurant were not really thought out, they just seemed to fit. But mexicanidad is something she notices. For example, when her sister first arrived in New York she was able to feel at home when she could purchase Mexican sweet bread and other products from Mexico here in El Barrio.


As noted by the visual culture theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff (2011) “… visual materials of all kinds are as complex and significant as print culture… [and] the visual image is an archive in its own right” (xv). With this in mind, the MEHDA has set out to build and record a visual archive in order to establish the rudiments of a collective memory for Mexicans immigrants, which is what the Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora have been able to do for Puerto Ricans in El Barrio.

For now, this first exhibit has been able to coherently portray mexicanidad albeit in a limited way since it limited itself to storefronts and specifically restaurants. Perhaps because these self-identify as Mexican food their décor must also “look” Mexican. As the pilot exhibit of this digital archive this choice proved fruitful. Yet several challenges remain within the methodology.

In the section on Poor Richard’s Playground for example, the essence or presence of Mexicanidad is missing. I could not find any symbols or images that I could relate to it and yet there were Mexican children running around and playing. Visually I could not capture its essence and through sound I could not record its presence. This of course does not mean that Mexicanidad does not have a sound. In fact it was easy to pick up Mexican music in restaurants. This does mean though that the methods used for this project have some limitations and this is one of them.

Nevertheless, this experimental project has successfully captured the process of identity production through soundscapes, or soundscaping, since this method asks the audience to imagine the sounds recorded. Hence, by focusing on this different way of knowing, I hope to bring awareness to the interactions between people and things that make the sounds that shape and produce place and by extension identity.

By way of conclusion

Through this essay we have discussed immigration, identity formation and the creation of the MEHDA and the tools used to put it together. We have also discussed the concept of Mexicanidad and the processes by which it is being expressed and remixed in East Harlem, within Mexico and between Mexico and East Harlem. Through this essay it has also become apparent that there are certain symbols that Mexicans of East Harlem choose or use to represent their identity. Finally, we have discussed the rationale for the different data gathering methods used for this project. While there were a few shortcomings, as a pilot program it demonstrates the tremendous potential that exists to expand such an initiative as a digital archive. Of course, this has always been a success from the start since it has been part of a personal journey to further explore identity formation not just by Mexicans of East Harlem but also by those of us involved in this project at large.

Proceed to the first exhibit “Finding Mexican East Harlem”

Sources Cited

Brash, Julian and Smith, Neil. “Harlem: The New Frontier? A Brief History of Gentrification Uptown.” Accessed: 04/28/2013. <>.

Dallas, Paloma. “The Big Apple’s Mexican Face.” Hispanic. Vol. 14. 7/8. 2001: 30-34.

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Mraz, John. Looking for Mexico: Modern Visual Culture and National Identity. Durham: Duke University Press. 2009