The Many Languages (and Foods) of Jackson Heights

Queens Neighborhoods United organizer Tania Mattos Jose tells how to find the best of her home neighborhood, without trampling on it


Tania Mattos Jose is an organizer with Queens Neighborhoods United, which works to promote sustainable development without displacement in Corona, Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights. Mattos is an unabashed cheerleader for the neighborhood where she grew up — and hopes that visitors arrive with an eye toward honoring its residents, their culture, and the community they’ve built.

Myself and my family migrated from Bolivia to Miami to Jackson Heights, and I’ve lived in the neighborhood for thirty years now. My aunts lived here, so we lived in their one room — me, my brother, my dad, and my mom — we stayed there for a few months so we could get on our feet and get an apartment.

What I love is that it’s a very tight-knit community. Even though there are so many cultures and languages and people from different countries, for the essential things that matter to people, we overlap each other. No matter what language you speak, we all have that in common: We think the rents are too high, our children need a good education — and we try each other’s food!

Honestly, all of Roosevelt Avenue is a destination. If you get off the subway on 74th Street and walk all the way to 103rd, you are going to have the experience of your life. There is everything for everyone there. I love all the shops between 90th Street and 88th Street on Roosevelt Avenue. However, I highly recommend one bakery in that area, Market & Bakery La Estella (8804 Roosevelt Avenue). They have some amazing Mexican products and goods. The owner, Sergio Ruiz, works around sixteen hours a day to produce fresh-baked goods every day.

The street vendors on 82nd Street and Roosevelt Avenue, as well as on Junction Boulevard and Roosevelt, are a neighborhood staple and have fed the working class and poor for years. Manhattan Cocktail Lounge, formerly Tempo Libero Bar (88-08 Roosevelt Avenue), is a local bar and a great place to hang out. The owner, Hector, is always there and is super friendly.

DRUM — Desis Rising Up and Moving (72-18 Roosevelt Avenue) — is a local organization that builds empowerment within South Asian low-wage immigrant workers, youth, and families in New York City. They are a fantastic organization, so please donate or volunteer for them.

I’m co-founder of a group called Queens Neighborhood United. We are community members — local residents, small business owners, and street vendors — and we live either in Jackson Heights, Corona, or Elmhurst. We work around issues that have to do with community control over land use, police abuse, and also immigration policies. We successfully fought off a proposed Jackson Heights Business Improvement District, and now we are fighting against this development called the Shoppes at 82nd Street that is set to be built by Sun Equity and Heskel Group at 40-31 82nd Street. They are proposing a Target that will kill the small businesses in the area — as well as housing and community space. The developers were asking Community Board 4 (46-11 104th Street) to vote on upzoning, but the community showed up by the hundreds — and the community board voted no, and actually motioned a proposal to downzone the land that the development is on.

There’s a huge LGBTQ+ community in the neighborhood, and in the summertime, soccer matches where you’ll see people coming out for their country. On 74th Street, you get to experience parts of Asia — not just restaurants, but the culture, the language, the people. You walk all the way down, and you see Colombians, and Ecuadorians, and Peruvians, and Dominicans, and Mexicans. And then on the Asian side, you see Bangladeshis and Indians and Pakistanis.

We invite everyone to come in and experience this, but the one thing we ask is that people respect our cultures, respect our streets, respect our people — and know that you didn’t discover it, that this has really been a vibrant neighborhood for many years.

The Village Voice is exploring one borough per day for the week of April 2, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Neighborhoods Week 2018 page.