Beneath an elevated subway track in Queens, Victor José Hernandez prepared the pepitos he perfected in a street cart in Caracas, Venezuela.
Layering freshly grilled chicken and beef with a half-dozen other ingredients on a split roll, he drizzled the pile with homemade garlic sauce and grated cheddar cheese on top. Then he melted it with a blowtorch until it oozed.
The Pepitos stand popped up last winter on Roosevelt Avenue, a bustling commercial corridor that runs along the Spanish-speaking communities of Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Corona. A few steps away, an Ecuadorian restaurant now flies a large Venezuelan flag and offers karaoke with Venezuelan love songs. And the line for arepas and cachapas (sweet corn cakes) overflows out the door of a Venezuelan cafe.
Could this be the makings of a Little Venezuela?
Although New York City was built on immigrant neighborhoods – Chinatown, Curry Hill, Little Italy and Little Haiti, among others – it has never had a Venezuelan neighborhood. Historically, the city’s Venezuelan population was tiny and dwarfed by much larger Hispanic groups, including Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, according to immigration experts. Many early Venezuelans also arrived with resources and connections and did not need to cluster in a traditional immigrant enclave.
But that has changed as Venezuelans have become one of the fastest-growing immigrant groups in New York and the United States. New Venezuelan arrivals – like generations of immigrants before them – are increasingly congregating in the city, bringing their food, culture and identity to corners where there was none before and, in doing so, taking the first steps to claim a neighborhood. of their own.
“It always starts with one restaurant or food cart at a time,” said Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, an advocacy group. This in turn leads to other businesses and cultural institutions. These immigrants not only build a thriving community, but also employ workers and generate revenue for the local economy, helping to support the city during difficult times like the Covid pandemic.
In 2021, before the recent influx of migrants, only 15,182 New Yorkers among the city’s 8.7 million residents were of Venezuelan origin, including 12,250 people born in Venezuela, according to a census analysis by Social Explorer, a data research company.
They fare better than other Hispanic groups. Venezuelan households reported a median income of $74,936 per year, compared to $48,866 for all Hispanic households, according to the analysis. The median household income for all New Yorkers was $70,411.
But since spring 2022, more than 136,000 migrants — many from Venezuela — have arrived in New York, many in desperate need of help. About 56,000 migrants were placed in Manhattan shelters and another 41,000 in Queens shelters, according to city officials.
Some recently arrived Venezuelans have moved in with family and friends. Rayquel Delgado, 24, lives with his cousin in Jackson Heights. “I feel comfortable here since everyone speaks Spanish,” he said.
The new wave of Venezuelan businesses in Queens — started or aimed at Venezuelan immigrants — is one of the first steps in the process of establishing an ethnic neighborhood, said Robert Smith, a sociologist and professor at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs from Queens University. Baruch College. “People are trying to make money, so you open a restaurant and it also becomes a social center,” he said.
Once large numbers of Venezuelan immigrants congregate in one place, they will begin to have a visible “street presence,” from Spanish-language store windows advertising Venezuelan foods to new churches and organizations communities, he said.
Although this could happen in just a few months, it could still take years for a Venezuelan neighborhood to be recognized by others, because New York is a “hyperdiverse place,” Professor Smith said. “There are so many different immigrant groups already established that it’s harder for them to stand out,” he said, unlike if there were “several hundred immigrants from the same country in a small town”.
Miguel Linares, 23, rented a room in Jackson Heights in February after moving with his family from Florida and, before that, Peru and Venezuela. When he spotted street vendors on Roosevelt Avenue, Mr. Linares, who had worked in flea markets in South America, saw an opportunity.
Mr. Linares and his wife, daughter and mother organized a makeshift flea market from vans parked on the street corner, emptying bags of clothes onto blankets spread on the sidewalk. Other Venezuelans began selling toys and household items alongside them. “Everyone is looking to make a living,” he said.
Nationwide, Venezuelans are the fastest-growing immigrant group over the past five years, said Julia Gelatt, associate director at the Migration Policy Institute, a research group in Washington. There were 668,000 Venezuelan-born residents in the United States in 2022, nearly double the 351,000 residents in 2017, according to census data.
Venezuelans helped build the city of Doral, Florida, which was incorporated in 2003 on former swampland west of downtown Miami. More than a third of its 84,000 inhabitants are Venezuelan, earning it the nickname “Doralzuela”.
They were primarily from the upper and upper middle classes and could afford to buy a home and start a business, said Christi Fraga, Doral’s mayor. A Venezuelan restaurant located in a gas station, El Arepazo, became one of the premier gathering places for immigrants for gastronomic, cultural and political gatherings.
“They really established the community we have today,” Mayor Fraga said.
In New York, Venezuelans are widely dispersed throughout the city. When Héctor Arguinzones arrived in 2014 from Caracas, “finding a Venezuelan on the street was almost impossible,” he remembers.
Mr. Arguinzones, now 51, and his family moved in with his sister-in-law in Harlem. He and his wife, Niurka Meléndez, then founded Venezuelans and Immigrants Aid, a nonprofit organization born from their efforts to share what they learned starting over in New York.
In contrast, another group of recent immigrants had a neighborhood to draw on. More than 5,700 Ukrainians have settled in the Brighton Beach area since spring 2022, according to applications for federal aid, following in the footsteps of previous immigrants to the area.
“The fact that it’s a Russian-speaking neighborhood is a really big draw,” said Sue Fox, executive director of the Shorefront YM-YWHA of Brighton-Manhattan Beach, a Jewish community center, which has expanded its classes. English for newcomers. Some Ukrainians also had local connections to family and friends, making it easier for them to find housing, employment, and a support network.
Many Venezuelans have turned to Queens, where more than a third of all New Yorkers of Venezuelan descent have settled, or 5,390 people, according to the census analysis. Even before the migrant crisis, Donovan Richards, the Queens borough president, son of a Jamaican immigrant father, opened an immigrant reception center in his borough office in 2021. “Every day, we “We know that more and more migrants are coming to Queens,” he said.
Sandra Sayago, 36, was a doctor in San Cristóbal, Venezuela, before immigrating in 2016 with her young daughter. She found work as a waitress at a Mexican restaurant in Corona and later married the owner, Alfredo Herrero. Homesick, she began making the arepas and cachapas she learned from her grandmother.
The couple opened El Budare Cafe in 2021 along a stretch of Roosevelt Avenue that is a hub for Colombian, Ecuadorian and Mexican immigrants. They welcomed Venezuelan migrants with free meals, and in recent months they have seen many get back on their feet. “People who asked for help,” Ms. Sayago said, “are now coming back as clients.”
At Palacio De Los Pepitos, a desolate corner next to the No. 7 train has transformed into a Venezuelan block party. The tent goes up, tables and chairs fill the sidewalk and the grill lights up to the rhythm of salsa baúl, a type of salsa music known for its romantic lyrics and popular in Venezuela.
Recently, Mr. Hernandez’s pepito making was streamed live on TikTok as customers waited in line. A man leaned down to punch him.
Mr. Hernandez’s boss, Marvin Ramirez, 34, took orders on a tablet. Mr. Ramirez, the son of a Colombian immigrant mother, grew up in Manhattan and discovered pepitos while playing professional basketball in Colombia. He decided to start his own pepito stand after hearing from Venezuelan friends in New York that they couldn’t find authentic Venezuelan street food.
Mr. Ramirez, nicknamed “the king of pepitos,” said he aimed to make good food and ended up bringing Venezuelans together in a neighborhood they might one day call Little Caracas.
“I think it’s time,” he said. “Everyone should have that place where they can feel like they’re not so many miles from home.”