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Ecuadorians in Brooklyn

David Camacho and Angela Ortiz

     On Manhattan Avenue in Brooklyn, people take life a bit more slowly than someone that goes to NYU is used to. Familiar faces greet other familiar faces with a kiss on the cheek and a warm smile. Music plays from open windows and freshly washed laundry hangs from clothes lines stretched high above the ground. One feels a sense of community, togetherness, and culture.

     We researched the area in Brooklyn using theses streets as our boundaries: Seigel St. to the South, Scholes St. to the north, Manhattan Ave. to the west, and Bushwick Ave. to the east. It becomes evident when you walk down these streets that the English language is not revered in the way it is, say, on the Upper East Side. Bodegas advertise their goods in Spanish, churches advertise their Bingo games in Spanish on fliers hung on the door. Restaurants offer Ecuadorian specialties and newspaper stands sell newspapers printed in Spanish. Classes offered at the local school consist of nighttime English as a Second language courses. Everything you find here has linguistic duality.

     Spanish is the primary language used in this neighborhood. English is the second language, but only by means of choice. Most people interviewed claimed they spoke English very well, but choose to speak Spanish because it is comfortable to them and they feel they can articulate better in their native languages. It makes them feel like they are better understood. Very few of the people we encountered spoke only Spanish, in fact, most felt they could communicate as effectively in English as in their native language.

     All of the younger children we interviewed were bilingual at different levels depending on how often their parents spoke English at home. Many of the very young children, ages 1-5, that could speak, did not speak very much English at all. Not until the children were old enough to enter school did they exercise their English speaking skills. Courses at a nearby primary school offer English as a Second Language courses to the parents and older members of the community who wish to improve upon their English skills. Teachers in this particular school claim to use a mixture of Spanish and English in the classroom, but the main emphasis remains on English. "The purpose of educating these kids is so they can move into society and further themselves in whatever opportunity that presents itself. If you only speak Spanish, that is definitely going to hold you back.", claims Sandra Rolas, a primary school teacher at the school. "If you speak both... [Spanish and English] then you'll be one step ahead of someone who only speaks English."

     Government agencies in the area understand that some of the local residents speak only Spanish. Many of those employed at the local police department are bi-lingual and hired not only because of their relevant technical skills, but because of their ability to ease in and out of each language. This system works well, because in order to serve a community, you must first be able to communicate with the people to understand what they need.

     Many of the routine medical check-ups are taken care of at the Alvarez Professional Building. The Alvarez Building consists of several doctor offices, one Dentist's office, a local real estate office, and several abogados, or small law firms. Just looking at the professional building gives one a feel for this community. Signs such as "Abogado" - instead of lawyer - suggest that the majority of this office's clientele is largely Spanish speaking.

     It seems that being bilingual would have to be a pre-requisite to work in such a neighborhood. In reality, only two of the four doctors on staff speak Spanish fluently. However, many nurses and members of the desk staff speak both Spanish and English. These medical personnel serve as interpreters when one is needed. There are no official interpreters, that is, people hired for the sole purpose of bridging the communication gap between a doctor and a Spanish-speaking-only patient. "I'm normally called over if Doctor A. is treating someone who doesn't speak English," says nurse Ramirez. "If I'm busy, then there are a lot of other nurses that help out. Most of the nurses on staff speak both Spanish and English."

     We should add that undeniably all of the people we spoke to were proud bearers of their heritage, whether they felt they had assimilated or not. When asked what her first language was, nurse Ramirez smiled proudly and replied, "Espanol!" She does believe, however, that it is necessary for the people in her neighborhood to learn English so they can obtain jobs that pay well. "Yes, it's great to be able to speak Spanish with your family, but you need to know English if you want to make a living here". Nurse Ramirez grew up in a neighborhood much like the one she now works in, where her family spoke only Spanish and her first concentrated exposure to English was in school.

     Many churches within this neighborhood hold masses in Spanish, few actually hold masses in English. We walked by a particular church on a Sunday, the door was flung wide-open, and in Spanish, a cantor was singing very peaceful religious music. The people joined in and together they finished the song in harmony, looking relaxed and happy to be away from work for a moment. We asked a man standing outside of the church if they ever spoke in English inside the church and he informed us that that wasn't usually the norm. "Spanish singing and Spanish speaking, todos en Espanol!" laughed the friendly, middle-aged man. But, we noticed a sign posted on one of the doors of the church spelling out a menu for a fund-raising dinner in English, and taped up right next to it was the same menu, in Spanish.

     Another church in the same neighborhood, Spanish Assemblies of God, was also holding mass on that particular Sunday. Rather than the quiet Catholic mass, usually associated with many Spanish-speaking groups, a loud evangelical event takes place here every Sunday afternoon and evening. It is the weekly Pentecostal church-service that blasts its message into the neighborhood with a holy vengeance. The doors were open, conceivably forced open by the sheer strength of faith present in the tiny building. Loud guitars, drums, and tambourines accompanied a microphoned singer who was joyously leading the congregation in lively Spanish hymns. The congregation's excitement and bliss - coupled with the opened door - seemed to invite passers by to join in on the pure merriment of praising the Lord, if only for a few hours a week.

     While the congregation at the Spanish Assemblies of God consists mostly of Puerto Ricans, there are many Central American and South American people attending the weekly services. The church is, on a smaller scale, a representation of the different heritages present in the community. Although it is a Spanish-speaking community, it is also a community of many varying nationalities. The majority of the population is Puerto Rican with lesser numbers of Ecuadorians and other Latin American ethnicities cohabitating in this area of Brooklyn. Sheer numbers dictated the difficulty in finding specific Ecuadorians to speak with. However, there were a few Ecuadorian owned businesses, including one store specializing in mobile communication, and an Ecuadorian restaurant that enjoys a fair amount of business in the predominantly Puerto Rican area. The Barzola restaurant, on Meserole St., shines its brightly colored storefront into the street every night. "We specialize in Ecuadorian cuisine, but we also serve traditional Puerto Rican dishes like arroz con habichuelas and tostones." says the son of the restaurant owner, who looks after the front half of the restaurant while his parents help out in the kitchen. "Sometimes we get Ecuadorians in here looking for specific Ecuadorian dishes, but mostly we get other types of Hispanics looking for authentic Latin American food." He states, however, that business does well and no one in the area rejects their specific culture. "I'm not sure if it's this way in other neighborhoods, but here, if you speak Spanish, no one really asks questions."

     In a bodega on the corner, the sign advertises products in Spanish and the locals stop in to chat with the storeowner over the counter in Spanish. It seems this is just another way to tell us that this isn't Kansas anymore. Spanish publications lined the storefront window. Newspapers like Noticias Del Mundo and El Diario La Prensa (Spanish Daily), inform the Spanish reading world of events from an Hispanic point of view.

     We wondered as we walked through these streets time after time, "Where are the general goods stores?" Stores along the lines of K-Mart, Target or even Century 21 seemed to be missing from the patchwork of the surrounding area. Many small stores decorate the streets, but for major needs, a resident of this neighborhood must travel elsewhere. Perhaps the stores could not survive in what they might consider a low-income neighborhood.

     We did not find any organizations arranged in terms of nationality or languages of immigrant groups. No one we asked seemed to understand what we were talking about. They mentioned the occasional group of men who get together on Friday nights to play dominoes and drink beer, but unfortunately, that wasn't what we were referring to. All the same, we appreciated the information.

     The majority of people we spoke to were very kind and willing to give a few minutes of their time to assist us in our research. One older woman, after speaking to her for perhaps fifteen minutes, invited us up to dinner with her family. We asked ourselves, "Would that happen in Soho?" The answer seems to point to the highly unlikely side.

     Perhaps that's just one characteristic of the people once indigenous to Ecuador, who now inhabit one of the greatest cities on earth. The sense of community is overwhelming, even for us, strangers who walked in one day and asked a ridiculous amount of odd questions. We didn't speak the language, we were unfamiliar with the customs, we weren't even sure where we were, yet many people went out of their way to help us. Perhaps that is worth mentioning-that passion for all humanity that is born into people of Hispanic decent. Maybe what seems to set them apart is not their language, or their food, but their compassion for people in general. Maybe we learned more than we were looking for. But, maybe that's what we should have been looking for all along.

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