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Not Really Romanian?

James Grant and Quin Chia


     Going into this project blind, our job was to research a Romanian population living in New York City. Because the area we were designated to investigate in Battery Park City was closed off to normal traffic we were inclined to take advice from our fellow classmates to investigate the Romanian population in the Astoria Boulevard area, specifically along Astoria Boulevard, a ¾ mile street lined with shops intermixed with houses. Upon arriving in Astoria we expected to find a plethora of Romanians along Astoria Boulevard (if that is possible) going about their daily activity and would essentially complete the assignment for us. Unfortunately, when we, the six-foot two gay man and the five-tall black girl, walked into the Bohemian Beer Garden during Sunday afternoon drinking time and cheerfully asked "Is their a large concentrations of Romanians in this area," the firm answer of, "No," by the Czech bartender showed us we were no longer in the West Village and this was not going to be the project we expected to be doing.

     The Bohemian Hall next door and its flag were what caught our eye and drew us to the street thinking we might find Romanians in the area. Though we understood the flag was not Romanian we assumed an Eastern European influence by the writings underneath the flag and felt this area would be common ground. The Bartenders adamant response to the assumption that this might be a Romanian community forced us to consider who indeed lived here. It also made us begin to focus on minute details as to why not one but two of our fellow classmates would feel so strongly that this was a Romanian community. Our observations from then on would reveal the true members living in the modest area along with the LsOTE they might speak. We would gain an understanding of the sort of community activities taking place, what the people themselves feel about the changing mold of the community, and how the perception of nationality effects people in their daily lives.


     We were now rather bewildered, for the community that we expected to be dominantly Romanian was nothing of the sort. When the large bartender with a heavy accent very sternly told us that there were only Czechs and Slovaks in Astoria, our sense of this assignment became distorted. Our expectations seemed to have vanished and a sense of hopelessness in finding "our Romanian community" began to overcome us. Quin and I were not quite sure what to think, so we continued down the street looking for answers.

     It isn't every day that we walk up to random people on the street in search of Romanians, hence it took a little while for us to get over our fear of talking to strangers. This tentative nature came out as we began to ask people on the streets the things that we thought would help us find the answers we needed. We soon learned that we needed to discontinue our search for solely Romanians. As an elderly woman came walking by us on the streets, we decided to go for it. "Excuse me, ma'am, but do you live in this community?"

     "Yes," she said with a wary eye.

     "We're very sorry to trouble you, but we both are studying at NYU, and for one of our classes, we are looking into the concentration of Romanians in Astoria..." She interrupted me.

     "I don't know... I don't speak English very good." We jumped at this statement.

     "Oh, well, would you mind telling us what language you do speak?" She very proudly told us that she spoke Greek, and that there were "many, many Greeks" in the area, according to her. We got over our fear and now knew what we need to do; by saying a few words we already knew that the area held a large number of Greeks who inhabited Astoria.

     Anyone we saw that seemed to be a local, we spoke to. A woman in the park conversed with us in the same manner as this previous one, but she proved to be Italian, and told us of the "many, many Italians" that lived in the area. The multiethnic rainbow of the Astoria community was getting brighter and brighter and although we were yet to find any trace of Romanian inhabitance, we were surrounded by Czechs, Slovaks, Greeks and Italians. Wherever we went there was someone of a different ethnicity as we had already frequented the main street of Astoria, a local bar, and the nearby park. It was actually in that park that our sense of this community as a whole was put into perspective.

     Since our arrival, we had been talking to people who appeared to be the stereotypical Eastern European due to the fact that we were on a "quest" for Romanians. However, at that moment, a beautiful, tall black woman came walking our direction and we were compelled to speak with her. It was from her that we ascertained the breakdown of the LsOTE spoken in the community. She was Brazilian and identified with a large number of Portuguese speakers in her community. Having lived there for many years, she could attest to the fact that Astoria was comprised of many ethnic communities including Greek, Italian, Brazilian, Columbian, Indian, Czech and Slovak. She was very happy to assist us in our studies and told us that we could hear most of these languages spoken daily throughout the community. It was at this clarification that Quin and I came to understand that our goal for this assignment was no longer to search for Romanians, but to research the community as a whole, and all that it may hold.


     Returning to the scene of the local park in Astoria, after our encounter with the Brazilian woman, we continued to look for perspective candidates who could validate her assertions about the multiethnic makeup of the area. On a nearby bench sat a middle-aged man with his son. As his young boy played with his remote-controlled car on the playground, we approached him and began to converse. We were shocked at how willing this man was to speak to us as we simply explained the nature of our research and asked him what ethnicity he was. The form of response was similar to a small history lesson on the community.

     "I am Columbian," he said, "and I speak Spanish." The area, though, according to him, was not always as we found it to be on that day in regards to its ethnic diversity. It had for a long time been solely comprised Eastern Europeans, meaning the Greeks and Italians. However, he said that lately more and more South Americans had immigrated to the area because it was a one of the better neighborhoods in New York City. In fact, many of the South Americans that had moved to this area were not solely immigrants. He continued to explain to us that Mayor Guliani had been endorsing the moving of Manhattanites out to Astoria, where they would find good living conditions at a lower cost than that which they were paying. He asserted that you could save hundreds of dollars in living costs in Astoria, while remaining a very short distance from Manhattan. "It's a very, very good neighborhood," he told us many times.

     Guliani's endorsement of the area was the greatest presence of governmental provisions that we could detect and even so, a few nudges from the mayor for people to move out to the boroughs hardly counts as a "provision." This community, as far as we were able to see, received no special treatment and while they may have their own language and culture here, should they enter the solely English-speaking world, we assume that they would be forced to assimilate. This is only our perception, but while there may be large numbers of people in these ethnic groups in Astoria, due to the greater number of monolingual English speakers, we presume that their own way of life would be subverted to the more dominant English language and society.


     Our conclusive observations about the community were that it contained a large Greek influence. This could be seen on 31st street right off Astoria Boulevard which had at least five community centers and Hellenic markets within blocks of each other and all on the same side of the street. This is opposed to the one Czech/Slovak operated center that we found, The Bohemian Hall. Yet, though Italian, Spanish and Portuguese were considered equally influential languages in the area we did not notice any centers dedicated to people who speak those languages. This might have been because of what the Colombian man noted that South American Spanish, and Italian speakers have only recently begun to flock to the area. Or perhaps the diversity of the people who speak Spanish, for say, keep them from uniting and forming centers. Or there just may be larger communities of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese speakers elsewhere that they do not feel the need to have such establishments in this community. Whatever the case, the community may be very diverse in its multilingualism, but because of the presence of the community centers with Greek writings engraved everywhere, the Greek culture at first glance would appear to dominate the area. This also included the Greek owned restaurant at which we had lunch, Neptune's Diner. There, they offered a wide range of Greek specialty foods along with Italian cooking and fine American hamburgers. We were able to listen to our Columbian waitress take an order next to us in Spanish, while the Italian family dined behind us dressed in their Sunday best. A visit to the corner Star Deli allowed us to take a look at daily newspapers written in Spanish and three publications in Greek. This store was run by a wonderfully lively Indian man who was proud to answer the question of what was his nationality stating, "The great India... the next super power in the world!... (quickly adding) and peaceful, multicultural country."


     Though the nearest governmental and hospital services were too great a distance from the area for us to reach within walking distance, we were able to visit the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in order to research the use of LsOTE. The churches newsletter revealed that there were numerous LsOTE being used for services. The church had a section designated to preach in Italian for the first service and Spanish during the second service while the main section of the church was held in English. The church was also able to accommodate confessions in English, Spanish and Italian on Saturdays and Maltese on the second Wednesday of every month. This system of LsOTE use also applies for baptisms and marriages specifically noting the requirements needed for marriages of those who were baptized in foreign countries.

     As we continued to observe this fascinating community we decided to interview any school age children we could find due to the fact it was a Sunday and the schools were closed. What we were able to ascertain from three Brazilian school aged girls, one just entering high school and the other two finishing off their last year in middle school, that LsOTE were not being used in schools for teaching purposes. Though, they did state that they spoke Portuguese with other students regularly and could detect the use of other languages such as Italian, Spanish, and what they referred to as Indian. One of the girls who had spent more of her primary education in this area than the other two was also able to share with us that her elementary school did offer bilingual education and instruction, which aided in her being able to function well with English and her native protégées. We assumed from this statement that bilingual education and ESL were devices used for younger children, however, in middle school and high school, children were expected to be proficient in English for study.


     Our trip of this community ended with these three Brazilian girls and began with the Czech bartender. These people may have view themselves as completely different but they did share one amazing characteristic. At first, they both spoke to us in standard English but as soon as it was revealed that we were interested in language and/or ethnicity study they both donned full flown Brazilian and Czech accents. One was in defense of his ethnicity, the bartender, while the girls showed ethnic pride by displaying their accent. During our search to find Romanians we asked the people whom we encountered if they knew of any Romanians in the area and received questioning looks. We later changed our statement and asked about people's ethnicity or the knowledge of other ethnicities in the area. We noticed that people were taken aback by this and were timid in answering our question. But when we decided to ask what nationality people were we got responses such as the one from the Indian storekeeper and the Brazilian girls. It wasn't until we used the term nationality that we noticed people had the most pride in asserting who they were and could associate better with their group and those who live among them.

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