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A Place Where Mexican Cowboys Can Suit Up

June 29, 2011

Mario Martinez, the owner of Rudy El Vaquero on the Grand Concourse, shows off an example of the embroidered Mexican cowboy clothing his store sells. Photo by Fausto Giovanny Pinto


Along the ethnically-diverse enclave that is the stretch of the Grand Concourse between 182nd Street and Fordham Road, lies African grocery stores, Dominican barbershops and a scene out of a Mexican-flavored Wild West movie.

Spurs, heavy-duty rope (to lasso bulls) and countless styles of cowboy boots and hats fill the shelves and walls that make up the niche clothing shop, Rudy El Vaquero.

“Here they have what I want, for good prices,” said Angelica Valerio, who has been shopping at the store for over a year. “And whatever they don’t have, they will get.”

The business opened 10 years ago as a record shop. Owner Mario Martinez said people were travelling as far away as Queens and New Jersey to get their Mexican music fix and he wanted to offer these tunes closer to home.

Then one day after the record shop opened, Martinez brought in a pair of cowboy boots, a style popular among native Mexicans, Martinez included.

A pair of boots grew to a few. Soon he had hats, shirts and a growing demand. Six years ago, he moved the record shop two stores down to a smaller location and opened Rudy El Vaquero in its stead.

According to the 2010 Census, Hispanics make up more than 50 percent of the Bronx population, including a fast growing number of Mexicans. From 2001 to 2009, the Bronx’s Mexican population nearly doubled, from 38,454 to 69,717. Martinez’s shops are a testament to that.

Originally from Puebla, Mexico, Martinez says business has doubled since his cowboy shop first opened. Families often come in together looking for clothes to wear at big celebrations, where more formal Mexican cowboy attire is often required.

While some people only prefer to dress the cowboy way on special occasions, Martinez says there are some such as himself who wear this type of clothing everyday. Recently he has noticed younger customers.

Rudy’s embroidered clothing is especially popular, Martinez says. Many regional Mexican bands come from as far as Connecticut and New Jersey for embroidered shirts, and hats adorned with hand-stitched logos.

Out of his shop, Martinez also advertises and sells tickets to shows, whether its bull riding in New Jersey or Ranchera-style music show shows along the Concourse.

Since opening, a new store has popped up nearby selling similar items. Martinez takes this as a compliment, saying, “When you do something right people will copy you.”

Ed. Note: Rudy El Vaquero is located 2359 Grand Concourse. They are open Monday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Crucial Featherbed Lane Program May Close

June 29, 2011

Kids participate in fitness classes at the Featherbed Lane Improvement Association, which is in danger of closing after its funding was slashed. Photo by Fausto Giovanny Pinto
















For single mother Haile Rivera the time her three young children spend in the after-school program at Featherbed Lane Improvement Association is crucial. She uses the time to attend college classes, run errands, and, after recently being laid off, look for a job.

Soon, however, Rivera, 41, may need to find a new place for her kids to go after school. Earlier this month, funding for Featherbed Lane was completely gutted.

“We had a contract manager here in April who said she was impressed by the work we do, nobody said we weren’t doing our job,” said Alcee James, the center’s program director. “Then, the next month, they send a letter [saying] our funding is cut.”

Featherbed Lane receives funding from the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS).

Besides tutoring, computer classes, dance fitness and running summer day camps, drug prevention is one of the organization’s primary goals. Every day students stand for a pledge that includes, “I will respect my body and not use [drugs].”

The program started in the nearby Sedgwick Houses by local resident Marvin York in the late 1980s as a way to rescue youth from the drug epidemic going on at the time.

Featherbed Lane, which picks up kids from nearby PS 109, is seen as a beacon for kids in a neighborhood riddled with crime and drugs. Previous attendees have come back as doctors and teachers and thanked program workers for their influence, James said.

One of those kids, Jennifer Rogers, now works at the center as a drug prevention counselor.

“It will just cause a trickle-down affect, it’s better to invest in prevention than work on the problem later on,” said Rogers, who said the program worked for her.

OASAS says Featherbed Lane was defunded because they did not meet their program goals.

“OASAS eliminated funding to prevention programs that could not attain more than 39 percent of their goals,” said spokesperson Jennifer Farrell. Featherbed Lane, she said, “attained only 28 percent of the work plan goals.”

Featherbed Lane staffers say OASAS’s data is wrong due in part to problems implementing a new computer tracking system last year. Farrell said Featherbed Lane never mentioned these issues.

Although OASAS says “we did not make across the board cuts,” similar defunding tales have recently popped up in Long Island and Albany County.

Staff at Featherbed Lane did not take the news lightly. They held rallies at the Bronx Courthouse and in front of OASAS offices in Albany. They garnered over 3,000 petition signatures protesting the cuts. Some parents have also sent letters directly to the governor’s office.

Local Assemblywomen Vanessa Gibson is fighting for Featherbed Lane in Albany. “Preserving the funding for Featherbed Lane Improvement Association is part of making sure our young people have the opportunities they deserve,” Gibson said in a statement.

While administrators look for alternatives, including the possibility of being funded by another city agency or finding foundation grants, Featherbed Lane has been given a reprieve. Their landlord is allowing them to stay rent free for the summer.

Robert Whetstone, the center’s executive director since 1989, isn’t giving up. “We’ve been up against a lot and forged through and it’s all for the kids and the community,” he said.

“This isn’t a luxury, this is a necessity,” Rivera said. “This is the other arm for me and many of the other single moms that bring our kids here. They shouldn’t be closing, they should be opening another one.”

Senator Looks to Shed Pounds, Promote Healthy Living

June 29, 2011


Dressed in Rocky-esque training attire — hooded sweatshirt, jogging pants and sneakers — State Senator Gustavo Rivera walked into the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center and challenged himself to a weigh-in.

Rivera was joined by Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. (sans workout attire) and numerous organizations, to launch the Bronx CAN Health Initiative.

CAN, which stands for Change Attitudes Now, looks to promote a healthier lifestyle among Bronxites, who often rank last on health polls. To help promote the initiative, which will encourage Bronxites to set healthy goals, Rivera said his goal was to lose 20 pounds by the end of the summer without using any gimmicky diet or workout program.

“There is no magic. Eat three-fourths of a plate, less fat, less sugar, less salt, less everything,” said Rivera.

Dr. Jane Bedell, assistant commissioner for the Bronx District Public Health Office, said one-third of Bronx adults are currently obese, she said. Even more startling was the prediction that if trends don’t change as many as 50 percent of Bronx children will develop diabetes.

“We have came together before when our children were in danger and now it’s time to come together again,” said Bedell, comparing how Bronxites passed laws in the past for child hazards such as lead poisoning.

She encouraged everyone to take a brisk walk for at least 20 minutes a day and substitute unhealthy snacks for better ones such as fruits and veggies.

The event included a mini-health fair and a healthy meal of baked chicken, steamed broccoli and fresh fruits.

“I’m Puerto Rican, I love me some pork, and some fried food,” said Rivera. “There’s all this temptation, but it’s about small changes, eating in moderation,”

After jumping on the scale and tipping the scales at 299 pounds, Rivera joked that the slimmer Diaz would be what his post-weight loss shot would look like.

Rivera said he hoped to reach 250 pounds over the next 40 weeks and would have public weigh-ins showcasing his progress each month at future Bronx CAN events. He encouraged all participants to accept a health challenge.

“I want to cut smoking and go to the gym for an hour a day, if anything, I’ll at least walk,” said local resident Laquetta Holmes, who signed up for the challenge, “It’s better than nothing.”

Students Hit the High Seas for a New Learning Initiative

June 29, 2011

Ryan Cooke, PS 306 teacher and creator of the Classroom Without Walls learning initiative, with a student and her catch on the Long Island Sound. Photo by Fausto Giovanny Pinto


At noon on a recent Friday, while most students across the city were hitting the lunch line, the students at PS 306 were busy tossing out fishing lines and reeling in fish onto a boat bobbing in the Long Island Sound.

As part of a new learning initiative that takes kids out of the classroom and into the real world, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade Special Education students at PS 306 set sail on a day-long fishing trip. It marked the culmination of this year’s Classroom Without Walls program.

“We want to give them a glimpse of what’s out there so they can see it and take it further,” said Ryan Cooke, a 4th-grade Special Education teacher at the Mt. Hope-area school and creator of the innovative program. “These aren’t just field trips,” he added.

During the trip, as the students waited for a bite on the line, a special skill was subtly being emphasized: patience. Young kids, in general, have short attention spans. But a lack of patience is especially prominent for Special Ed students. Fishing, Cooke says, teaches them to control their feelings and focus on a long-term reward.

Silence on the boat was broken as cheers erupted from one side of the boat.

“I got one!” screamed 11-year-old Alexander Sanchez. “Reel it in!” yelled Captain James Whitten.

“I wish I had trips like these as a kid,” Whitten added.

As the crew of the boat helped Alexander reel in the fish, his fellow classmates cheered him on with high-fives.

“I didn’t think I was going to get it, I thought my pole was going to fall in [the water],“ said Alexander, a 5th grader. “I’m going to tell my mom to cook it.”

Students receive a handful of lessons of relatable material prior to the excursion. On the trip they received a mini lesson and afterwards were asked to reflect on the experience in a journal. For the fishing trip, the students studied Marine Biology.

The students have also saw a Broadway show, “The Lion King,” and went on a backstage tour. On a trip to the Museum of Natural History, students went behind the scenes to see how the fossils are put together.

Cooke, a former Special Ed student himself, says a different approach towards Special Education has been long overdue. He said since the program’s inception four years ago, students have been more focused and excited about learning.

“[As Special Education students] they have labeled stereotypes,” said Edgar Irizarry Jr, a paraprofessional at 306. “This gives them motivation and tells them you can do this. Ninety-nine percent of these kids have never gone fishing as well.”

The program, which works closely with the school’s parent association, raised enough funds to take a record number of kids this year, more than 100.

As the school bus pulled up to PS 306 on West Tremont Avenue, after a tiring and exciting day out at sea, one of the more vocal students turned to his teacher and spoke with the excitement only a child could exhibit.

“I’m happy I got to catch a fish,” he said. “I never did that before.”

Local Politicans All Ears at Recent Town Hall Meetings

June 22, 2011

From left, Assemblyman Nelson Castro, Councilman Fernando Cabrera, and State Senator Gustavo Rivera listen intently during a recent town hall meeting in Mt. Hope. (Photo by Fausto Giovanny Pinto)


In Mt. Hope, they asked about the mounting murder count. In Kingsbridge Heights, they asked about the plan for developing the Kingsbridge Armory and alienating parkland. And in Van Cortlandt Village, they asked about the Indian Hills nuclear power plant, just a few dozen miles up the interstate.

This spring, in a departure from recent history, local elected officials are holding town hall meetings throughout the northwest Bronx and asking residents to voice their concerns, questions and conundrums. Though attendance hasn’t been overwhelming, new State Senator Gustavo Rivera, who represents a sprawling chunk of the northwest Bronx, says the forums have been helpful and will continue as long as he is in office.

“The main thing is that I want everyone in my district to have access to me and my staff and have direct interactions with me,” Rivera said.

Last month, Rivera participated in a town hall forum in Van Cortlandt Village, along with other representatives of the area.

Rivera, who just recently opened up a district office on the Grand Concourse near Fordham Road, did not organize that forum, but he did set up two recent town hall meetings — one at BronxWorks’ Morris Senior Center in Mt. Hope and another at the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center.

Although there have been different concerns in the different locales, Rivera said there have been a few common themes: concerns about cuts to education, questions about the state budget and talk about the so-called millionaire’s tax, which Rivera says is necessary to save many state-sponsored programs, but was not included in the state budget.

On a late Wednesday evening, in a stuffy bright pink room in the basement of the BronxWorks Morris Senior Center, Rivera joined up with Assemblyman Nelson Castro and Councilman Fernando Cabrera.

Cabrera, who is in his second year in office and founded a church in the area more than two decades ago, called the meeting historical. “I don’t remember the last time this happened in the district,” he said.

While only a handful of residents and the staff of the elected officials attended the meeting, Rivera encouraged all those who came to bring two people with them at the next meeting.

The threesome, all relatively new to elected office (Castro was the only one who had been re-elected), shared a Rat Pack-type friendliness, exchanging banter in Spanish.

Longtime resident and community activist Louella Hatch wanted to know what was being
done to curb the recent string of shootings in the area.

Cabrera said he was working with the NYPD to install security cameras throughout
the district, but added his long-term goal is to provide activities for youth in order to keep them busy and out of trouble.

After the recent success of a program in Washington Heights, Castro said he is in talks to have the Guardian Angels patrol the area.

Rivera reiterated a plan he first mentioned at Community Board 5’s last monthly meeting.
Called Operation S.N.U.G., the program brings relatable mentors, such as a reformed gang members, to counsel troubled youth. The program has been successful in parts of Yonkers, he said.

At the end of the meeting one resident spoke up saying, “I have been living here for 20
years and this is first time I have seen anything like this, Thank you.”

Living Wage Bill Gets a Hearing

June 22, 2011

Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. at a rally in May to support a bill that would require developers who receive city subsidies to provide living wage jobs. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Ruben Diaz Jr.)


The City Council held a long-awaited hearing on a controversial living wage bill last Thursday, with both sides of the debate testifying about the potential effects of the legislation in a session that lasted over two hours.

The Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, sponsored by Bronx Council Members Oliver Koppell and Annabel Palma, would require developers of projects receiving taxpayer subsidies of more than $100,000 to pay workers $10 an hour with benefits, or $11.50 without.

The bill, which sprang from the living wage fight that derailed a plan to develop the Kingsbridge Armory into a shopping mall, has the support of every Bronx Council member, with the exception of James Vacca, who had said he was waiting for a hearing on the issue before taking a side.

“He’s wary of any legislation that might prevent jobs, and I’m not sure he’s convinced,” said Vacca spokesman Bret Nolan Collazzi, in a phone interview after the hearing.

“We’re not planning on signing on at this time,” he said.

The legislation currently has the support of 30 Council members; 34 are needed to override a mayoral veto.

The assertion that a living wage mandate would kill jobs was put forth in a report released by the city’s Economic Development Corporation last week. The 44-page study concluded that requiring employers to pay a higher wage would ultimately stifle commercial development and job growth.

“That is a cost we cannot afford to bear,” said Tokumbo Shobowale, chief of staff for Robert Steel, Bloomberg’s deputy mayor for economic development, in his testimony at last week’s hearing.

“Despite our initial recovery from the recession, unemployment remains too high and private investment remains too fragile to erect additional barriers to job creation,” Shobowale said.

Supporters of the living wage legislation debunked the EDC’s study, saying several of the economists who worked on it, from Boston-based consulting firm Charles River Associates, are known living wage critics, and that the report was “rigged” to comply with Bloomberg’s well-known opposition to a wage mandate.

“We knew the findings of this rigged study long before it was released,” reads a statement from Living Wage NYC, the coalition that’s campaigning for the bill. “That’s because the Bloomberg administration has openly opposed living wage standards. This is the same administration whose failed economic development policies have resulted in higher rates of homelessness, higher rates of hunger and higher rates of long-term unemployment.”

Two years ago, Bloomberg butted heads with Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., and a coalition of other Bronx advocates over plans to fill the long-vacant Kingsbridge Armory, where the mayor was pushing to build a shopping mall.

The project was eventually killed in the City Council after the developer, Related Companies, would not guarantee to pay workers there living wage, despite the fact that the group was to receive millions in taxpayer funded credits.

Diaz testified before the crowd at last week’s Council hearing, calling passage of the bill “a matter of economic justice.”

“It is the responsibility of elected officials to use taxpayer dollars in a manner that leads to the best return on investment for those same taxpayers,” he said in his speech.

“When billionaire developers beg for taxpayer handouts to make their projects work, they must do better by the people they hire.”

This article originally appeared in the Norwood News May 19-June 21, 2011.

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