CONCACAF Represent! From the Mexican Enclave in Spanish Harlem

The Match: Croatia v. Mexico

The Date: Monday, June 23

The Venue: Hot Jalapeño in East Harlem, Manhattan

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Hot Jalapeño on 116th St. in East Harlem. The sign says “Hoy Croacia vs Mexico!”

I’m rooting hard for Mexico to go deep in this World Cup for two reasons.  First, when a CONCACAF team succeeds, the whole region looks more powerful (We have to stay ahead of those Oceanians and Asians!). The US Men’s National Team’s recent success seems like a bigger accomplishment now that Mexico and Costa Rica are playing well.

Second, the Mexican team seems to be having fun. Coach Miguel Herrera stole the show last night when he tackled one of his players to celebrate a Mexico goal. Near the end of the match, Herrera and some of the players waved their arms to energize their supporters. It was the kind of thing you usually see from pumped-up NFL or NBA players. There was a lot of dysfunction in the Mexican side during the months leading up to the World Cup so it’s refreshing to watch their excitement.

The games are now at noon and 4 pm, which will make it hard for me to get to bars, restaurants and neighborhoods far from my job in Harlem. Each day, my coworker-friend Emily or I go to a food bank on West 116th St. to pick up meals for senior citizens who live in our supportive housing site. On the way to the food bank, I pass a collection of West African businesses, including a barber shop with large windows where men gather to watch games from the street. I originally planned to check out Cameroon at one of these pan-African spots, but Cameroon was already eliminated and their game against Brazil was meaningless.

So instead, I chose to visit the Mexican enclave of Spanish Harlem. The majority of Hispanics in Spanish Harlem are Puerto Rican or Dominican, but there is a growing cluster of Mexican businesses on East 116th St. between 2nd Ave. and the subway station at Lexington Ave. (I am not including the Taco Bell on 116th between 3rd and Lex). I left work at 5 pm and trucked over to El Barrio to catch the second half of the Mexico/Croatia match.

I scouted out several restaurants until I arrived at Hot Jalapeño, which was decked out with the tell-tale cord of international flags that signal “World Cup Here.” Eateries throughout New York City have strung the flags of every World Cup team from their awnings. It seemed like every restaurant in Astoria had them up.

I snapped a photo and slid inside Jalapeño a few minutes before Chicharito entered the game with the score 0-0. Turns out I arrived at the perfect time as Chicharito provided the spark that ignited El Tri’s 3-1 win.

Hot Jalapeno had two modest televisions hanging at each end of the restaurant. Like speakers at a tense press conference, groups of Mexican men sat side-by-side in order to watch the TV closest to their table. The working-class crew wore t-shirts and baseball caps with folded brims. One guy, wore a Barcelona jersey and matching cap. He was stoic as he spoke quietly with his table-mates. Many of the men leaned forward in their chairs, focused on the match and exhibiting their discomfort and anxiety.

Finally, Rafa Marquez, the captain, scored the match’s first goal and released the tension in the restaurant. The once-anxious men stood up and high-fived people at neighboring tables. I turned around, shouted ¡Enhorabuena! and shook hands with the two men sharing a bucket of Coronas behind me.

The room relaxed noticeably after that first goal. When Mexico notched their second, guys were chatty and smiling. I heard actual giggles when the TVs showed a replay of Herrera rolling on the ground with one of his players.

A beanpole Mexican with Eduardo Manostijeras hair and a tiny red Mexico jersey arrived a little while after the first goal. He checked the score, grinned and headed to a table in the back where I later saw him sipping some red menudo soup.

Hot Jalapeño had the trappings of a typical Mexican restaurant. The floor was sunk a few feet below the sidewalk and decorative wooden support beams stuck to the ceiling. The stone walls were adorned with photos of mariachi men and, of course, a statue of La Virgen de Guadalupe surrounded by horned flames. Cloth placemats printed with a bright Sarape patterns protected each table.

The place was classy (there were no piñatas hanging from the ceiling), but the cliched decor reminded me of all the stereotypes in the crowd during the World Cup match broadcasts. The camera showed several Mexican fans in luchador masks and cartoonish sombreros. One guy wore a costume of a bandit riding a donkey, which the internet calls the Hey Amigo look.

Japanese fans dressed like samurai. French fans dressed like Musketeers. An Australian fan saved a seat for his stuffed kangaroo. I’m sure there will be an American in an Uncle Sam costume at the match against Germany on Thursday.

I think it’s funny to imagine these people packing for their trip to Brazil:

“Hey honey! Do you think I should stuff my inflatable donkey costume into my carry-on or should I check it?”

“Do you think I’ll have enough room for souvenirs if I put the kangaroo in my checked bag?”

“Do you think I can rent a puffy Captain America costume in Rio or should I bring my own?”

I guess it’s important for all of us to identify with a culture and be part of a community, even if it means embracing cheesy cliches.

I recently read that the Mexican population in Spanish Harlem continues to increase even as other Hispanic groups leave the region. Although I didn’t see any luchadors celebrating en la calle after I left Hot Jalapeño, I did spot numerous fans in Mexico outfits along 116th St. While I walked to train, a kid in a green jersey pedaled a BMX bike down the sidewalk while his friend stood on the pegs and waved a large Mexican flag.

OVERALL ATMOSPHERE: 7/10. The fans at Hot Jalapeño seemed to care about El Tri. They complained about missed calls at appropriate times and waited until Mexico took the lead to cheer. It was a good place to watch among serious fans. 

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