Walking down the street with Vania, she points to her favorite places to eat: Bareburger on 31 Ave, Martha’s Country Bakery (although it has moved to Ditmars Boulevard). She reflects on how her beloved neighborhood in Queens has succumbed to the effects of gentrification, especially within the ethnic composition of its residents. Astoria, Queens has been the settling point for many immigrant communities. Greeks, Egyptians, Asians, and Latinos have called this diverse area home. In recent years, a shift has occurred in that Astoria has been evolving as a community. New developments have been rising along with new people. Nowadays, Astoria has been plagued with rising rent prices, higher property values, and an overall shift in the neighborhood makeup—all of which is driving immigrants from the place they call home—simply because they cannot afford it. However, for Vania, her neighborhood is a safe space—especially in the current turbulent sociopolitical climate. She hopes that Astoria stays true to its immigrant roots, despite the influx of white people moving in and despite the current administration’s attack on immigration.
Vania reminisces on the neighborhood she grew up in since she was two-years-old. “Back then, the process [of immigrating to the United States] was different because it was easier before. The hardest part, you know, is trying to find a home—trying to find somewhere to live for a while and get settled.” Brought here by her Mexican parents, she lived in California and Boston before settling in Astoria. Her dad found work in New York, hence their move to the Big Apple and to Queens.
Vania is a DACA recipient. DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is an executive action-legislation enacted by President Obama in 2012 that gives a temporary, renewable stay to children brought to the United States through unauthorized means. The current Trump administration has slandered the legislation and has spurred anti-immigrant rhetoric in the sociopolitical sphere. Despite efforts to repeal DACA, grounds on its repeal have been deemed unconstitutional. Common misperceptions of DACA recipients, or Dreamers, are that they freeload the welfare system, do not pay taxes, and do not work. However, Dreamers must meet certain criteria in order to maintain their legal residency. They must be enrolled as a student or work, they are ineligible for welfare programs, and must pay taxes like citizens. Dreamers like Vania are unsure of the future the United States has for them. Vania is faithful though, since New York has declared itself a sanctuary city, meaning that New York will not comply with federal prosecution of immigrants for deportation (it does not include immigrants who have committed serious crimes).
“I remember [when my family first came to New York,] living in an apartment with my cousins a few buildings down from where I live now. We’ve just moved up the block. It was two families: a family of five and a family of four living in one apartment.” Acclimating to New York City, however, was facilitated by her living with her cousins. “They knew more English so they taught us how to speak [it] and [gave us] a common ground about living here and getting roots here.” Since then, however, her family has grown. Her sister, Vanessa, was born in 2008. It seems like her neighborhood has changed drastically from the time she grew up to the time her sister will now grow up.
She remembers a time when Astoria’s streets weren’t lined with luxury condos and boutique coffee shops. “I remember walking to Costco when I was little with my parents and they would tell me to be careful because this area was dangerous.” In recent years, developments in Astoria have driven increasing property values. According to the New York Post and “local developer Perry Tsilogiannis, whose says [as of 2014] in the last seven years land prices there have almost doubled — from around $100 per buildable square foot to close to $200.” Vania says that the rent on the apartment she lives in with her two sisters and parents has also risen as a result of Astoria’s increased vibrancy.
But, she hasn’t always felt comfortable in the neighborhood she’s lived in—or even in New York City at all. She has felt like she was part of a community, though, which helped her acclimate and grow roots in her neighborhood. Vania was part of a dual-language program at her elementary school. This helped her realize, at a young age, that there were other people like her: who had an accent, who were immigrants, and who were also Latino. She says, “being in a dual language program helped me get a balance between being Mexican and being Mexican-American.” She still talks to the friends she met through the dual language program and even went to middle school with them too. She even met her best friend there.
As Vania grew up, she began to notice a communal aspect of living in New York City. “I guess in high school I realized how diverse New York is and how many immigrants there are out there. Taking the train, seeing different people in my high school, and in general, interacting with people, it’s different than interacting with just my neighborhood.” It wasn’t until high school that she was exposed to the city on a larger scale and began to find her favorite spots in the city. She prefers the quiet parts of the city like the High Line and Brooklyn Bridge Park, which allow her to reflect on the city’s positive aspects and on the life she’s made here.
“My least favorite place [in New York City] is Midtown—Times Square. There are too many people, no place to walk, or if you do walk, it’s into someone or someone steps on the back of your shoe. People are really rude and yell ‘Where are you going?’ Also, I hate those cosplay characters.” Even though she was born in Mexico and had to adjust to life in a big city, Vania is a native-New Yorker like all of us. She avoids tourist traps and is part of the hustle-and-bustle that runs through the blood of the city.
To other immigrants she says, “You’re safe here. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” She advises other Dreamers and unauthorized immigrants to take advantage of what the city has to offer. “Your children can go to school here and not have to worry about getting into school, despite the issue of commuting. There are jobs and education in New York City.” Despite the opportunities available for immigrants in New York, Vania does highlight a major flaw the city has.
“There is a lack of mobility [here]. The homeless on the MTA stay there and no one helps them, especially since they’re struggling. I guess that the city does all that they can to help them but it’s not enough. The same can be said about people of color. The 1% has a lot and [the less fortunate] tend to do all they can to stay there…” She acknowledges that the city isn’t perfect, but she still appreciates its uniqueness and vibrancy.
Astoria is a special place for Vania in a city that can be lonely and exclusive. She says, “There are a lot of people like me. You don’t see as many white people [in Astoria] as you do in the city. Here, I see lots of people of color and Latinos and everyone lends a helping hand. It’s a community.” Walking down Broadway, she points at stores she frequents. There’s a Chinese restaurant she loves, Brooklyn Bagel and Coffee Shop, and a Mexican restaurant that has the best tacos—all within two blocks. Further down, three new residential buildings can be seen under construction. A Starbucks and three ‘trendy’ coffee shops fill this particular block. The sole mom-and-pop shop that remains is a pharmacy.
Despite the continual development that has erupted and will continue to occur, Vania says that she can’t see herself moving from Astoria. She says, “at one point I do want to move. But it’s home. It’s where I grew up and where my sister grew up.” For Vania, Astoria is the place where she created her identity as a Mexican-American. Especially in the current political climate where immigrants are being targeted both physically and rhetorically, having a safe space is ever important.
Astoria is not only a salad bowl of cultures but it is also a taste of the spices New York City is flavored with. Vania’s Astoria is her home. For her and other Dreamers, it is confusing to deal with others saying that you do not belong when this place you’ve grown up in is the only place you remember well.
Vania will continue to go to college and work while her rights as a Dreamer are still in effect. She is optimistic that Astoria, Queens will continue to be the safe place it has always been for her, despite what the Trump administration says or does. “My New York is home. I don’t see myself living anywhere else. New York is different. New York is my future.”
Bonislawski, Adam. “New Developments Rise along Astoria’s Waterfront.” New York Post, New York Post, 19 Nov. 2014, nypost.com/2014/11/19/a-new-development-rises-along-astorias-waterfront/.