Among New York’s vibrant tapestry of ethnic communities, there is a special place known as “Little Colombia.” This stretch along Roosevelt Avenue, from 79th to 84th Streets, has earned its nickname due to the significant Colombian population residing in the area.
Over the years, Colombian immigrants have made Jackson Heights their home, creating a strong and thriving community.
Since the aftermath of World War I, Colombians have sought a better life by immigrating to Jackson Heights. The suburb-like atmosphere and the prospect of building a new future attracted professionals, students, and families. Many Colombian immigrants were escaping the turmoil of the drug war and seeking safety and opportunities in this vibrant neighborhood.
The Arepa Lady’s Legacy
One iconic figure that embodies the Colombian spirit in Jackson Heights is Maria Cano, affectionately known as the “Arepa Lady.” In 1984, Maria and her family moved from Medellin, Colombia, to Jackson Heights.
As a single mother supporting her four children, Maria started selling traditional Colombian corn cakes called arepas from a cart in the subway station of the 7 train at night. Her entrepreneurial spirit and delicious arepas soon gained popularity, earning her the title of the Arepa Lady. Today, her sons continue her legacy by running a bricks-and-mortar restaurant on 37th Avenue that serves as a gathering place for Colombian expats, where they can reconnect with their roots.
Preserving Colombian Culture
To preserve Colombian traditions and pass them on to future generations, organizations like the Centro Civico Colombiano play a crucial role.
Founded in the 1970s by sixteen individuals, the Centro Civico Colombiano serves as a meeting place for Colombian immigrants. In addition to providing ESL classes, the center offers folklore dancing and guitar lessons for young people, ensuring that the Colombian heritage and customs are kept alive and cherished.
While the Colombian community in Jackson Heights has faced challenges, such as the rising cost of living and the migration of some community members to more affordable areas, their influence on local government is growing.
Catalina Cruz, an undocumented immigrant when she arrived in the U.S. as a child, made history as the first Dreamer and Colombian-born politician elected to the New York State Assembly. This milestone reflects the increasing importance of representation for the Colombian-American community and their desire to have a voice in shaping the policies that affect their lives.
Jackson Heights, with its vibrant Colombian community, has become a haven where Colombian immigrants have built new lives while preserving their rich heritage. The presence of businesses, cultural organizations, and Colombian-elected officials showcases the enduring impact and contributions of the Colombian community in the heart of Queens.
“Little Colombia” is not just a geographical location but a testament to the resilience, cultural pride, and spirit of unity that define the Colombian community in New York.