Ethnic Mysteries Revealed


Rajesh Kumar was managing fast food stores around Long Island in the mid-’80s when his wife, Geeta, decided she wanted a career of her own. She thought it would be nice to open a small Indian grocery on the Island, to give their community a place to shop closer to home than Jackson Heights.

The Kumars began scouting around for a good spot and wound up settling on Hicksville because it was central, not far from their East Meadow home, had low property taxes and was near a HIP office.

“There are quite a few doctors here— Indian,” Rajeesh Kumar says.

Their Modern Bazaar would become the stepping stone to putting Hicksville on the map as Little India.

Thirteen years later, Modern Bazaar has expanded twice, and there are now at least 15 Indian businesses in a mile-long strip of South Broadway— restaurants, grocery stores, clothing and religious-item shops, beauty salons and travel agencies. On Marie Street, the Hicksville Theater shows Hindi-language movies.

Rajesh Kumar, who left Jammu-Kashmir in northern India to study hotel and restaurant management at Florida International University in 1976, took the store over when it began growing quickly after the first year.

“It took a while, because everybody still wanted to go to Jackson Heights,” he says. “But one thing led to another.”

Modern Bazaar, which soon started carrying prepared sweets made from condensed milk and graham flour and sugar syrup, also began to stock basic items like milk and Coke and orange juice after customers said they would like to make it a one-stop shop. The first expansion to the south added more room for produce like baby eggplant and okra and mangoes, dry goods like prepared chutney and bhel mix and beauty products like henna and hair oil. Then came the expansion to the east, where Rajesh now carries music cassettes and thousands of movies on video in about 15 South Asian languages.

Census data don’t reflect the growing population of South Asians, whose numbers are expected to rise dramatically in the next count. The Indian population in Nassau County totaled 11,875, with about half living in the Town of Hempstead, and 5,648 in Suffolk, according to the 1990 census. While Hicksville had already begun growing as an Indian business district at the time, the official count of Indian residents was only 671, with larger numbers showing up in surrounding areas like Elmont, which had a count of 1,170.

In the Maharaja Supermarket, which stocks items like gooseberry pickle, breadfruit and mint chutney, owner Tushar Kshatriya says he opened four years ago to have “a feeling of Indian community.” However, “the community didn’t grow how we expected. This won’t be like another Edison,” he adds, referring to a Little India in north New Jersey that has become a residential as well as commercial center. The rental prices for businesses are higher here, he says, and there are too few apartments to move into.

Arun Verma, who has been chef and owner of the Rangmahal restaurant for six years, says he does see more and more Indian families buying houses in the area— something he and others credit to what they call a good school district.

Some of the other Little India business owners attempted to form an Indian business association at one point, Verma says, but it never materialized: “No one wanted to be in control.”

But the links among the businesses are inescapable. Verma has the spices for his restaurant imported from India. The rest of his provisions are delivered by the same truck that makes stops all along South Broadway. —Beth Greenfield

Hempstead’s Emerging Latino Nation

Softball, that most American and suburban of pastimes, served as the cradle for the community of Hispanics in the Village of Hempstead.

In the mid-1970s, Spanish-speaking players began gathering for informal games in a field alongside a Cuban-owned bodega on Main Street called Ramis. Now home to a Salvadoran grocery, Ramis served the Puerto Ricans and Cubans who began moving from the city to the Island in the 1950s.

The store filled more than plates and pantries. For recent arrivals, Ramis’ informal league and weekly games offered a precious social outlet. On the diamond and in the bleachers, players forged close ties and laid the foundation of a Spanish-speaking community for the tens of thousands of Central Americans who later poured into the area.

“The game was the catalyst,” says Rafael Picon, a Puerto Rican who is a leader of the Hempstead Hispanic Civic Association. “It was the thing that kept it as a community….We prepared the table for the newcomers.”

Together with La Fuerza Unida and the Nassau County Hispanic Foundation, Picon’s group grew out of those Sunday games. “At that time, the new people didn’t know how to organize for civic work,” Picon says. “Now you see the needs, and the answer to the needs.”

Lured by Hempstead’s Spanish-speaking businesses and churches, its factory jobs and bus lines, refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras began settling here in significant numbers in the late 1970s. They came seeking a new home, only to find themselves stuck in legal limbo, denied citizenship and the right to work or vote.

Locked out of the political system, Central Americans turned to business. They’ve played a key role in rejuvenating Hempstead’s ailing downtown. It can still be a grim and gritty place, but the downtown has been brightened by dozens of Hispanic diners, travel agencies, real estate offices, beauty parlors and nightclubs. In addition to three regional Spanish-language newspapers that circulate in the area, Hempstead boasts its own weekly, La Tribuna Hispana.

Shopkeeper Ben Henriquez remembers that the commercial district was pockmarked with vacant storefronts when he opened Ben’s Video in 1986, across Franklin Avenue from the oldest Salvadoran restaurant in town, Rincon Tropical. Henriquez has expanded his own empire to include tax preparation and Spanish-language music. Tucked in among the baladas, romanticas and salsa are racks of greeting cards and glass cases offering deodorant and cologne. At Ben’s, you can even outfit a soccer team, from cleats and shin guards to country flags.

“We started with a few customers— very hard,” says Henriquez, who left El Salvador for Far Rockaway, Queens, in 1973. As more Hispanics moved into Hempstead, Henriquez’s cash register started to ring and his inventory grew. “A lot of people say, ‘Why you don’t sell soccer balls?’ We say, ‘OK, we’ll get it for you.'”

By small steps, Hispanics are making a place for themselves in Hempstead. The village now has not only a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce but a Salvadoran chamber as well. A few landscape laborers have started their own services. Scores of former tenants have been able to purchase homes. The annual celebration of Central American Independence has grown into a festival featuring live music and a parade, slated to start this year at noon on Sept. 12 at the corner of Stowe Place and Main Street.

The responsibility for giant leaps rests with young adults like Rhina Ramos. Now 30, Ramos came of age in Hempstead, and she carries the burden of dreams long held by its Central American immigrants.

Ramos, a labor rights attorney with Hempstead’s Workplace Project, knows her Salvadoran elders expect young adults to make life better for the immigrant community. They expect her generation to strengthen the Spanish-speaking business district. They expect them to advocate for better schools, health care and working conditions. Above all, they expect them to step into civic leadership roles that were once out of reach for Central Americans.

“We’re working on getting into the political arena, getting a space for us,” says Ramos, who moved here from El Salvador in 1983. “There are many expectations for people like myself to remain here, to remain connected to the community, to give everything you can.”

Since many undocumented immigrants face the constant threat of arrest and deportation, getting newly arrived Hispanics to stand up for their rights has been difficult. By some estimates, nearly 200,000 Central Americans call the Island home, and Hempstead is the new capital— even if they don’t have much clout here.

In 1997, a federal court ruled the Town of Hempstead’s at-large system of electing the town board put black and Hispanic voters at a disadvantage, and ordered the creation of a minority-controlled district. While the town appeals that decision, little has changed on the street or in the voting booth. Short on political muscle, the village’s Latino community waits and watches and grows.

“If we get to be in numbers that can vote, we will change things,” says Picon. “We are not faithful to the two-party system. We are more faithful to ideas.”

No one has enjoyed the triumphs of the Spanish-speaking community more— or felt its shortcomings keener— than Cuban-born Max Rodriguez, who in 1995 was appointed a Hempstead village trustee by the Nassau GOP machine. Rodriguez, a Republican, was the first Hispanic trustee in either the village or county. He won election to a single term, then was defeated in March by an anti-machine coalition of Democrats and the Working Families Party.

“The more people you have in government and top jobs is the only way you’re going to get ahead and be recognized,” he says. “It’s important to have somebody there to represent you.” —Laura Conaway

Riverhead’s History in the Making

While the original settlers of Polish Town were drawn here by farming opportunities nearly a century ago, today’s new and steady stream of immigrants to Riverhead— from Poland, as well as Russia, Lithuania, the Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe— are becoming housekeepers, construction workers and retail or restaurant employees.

They choose Riverhead because it’s a solid, ready-made community where they can operate with relative ease.

“It’s basically because many people don’t know how to speak English,” says Marcjanna Stolarziewicz, owner of the Pulaski Polish-American Agency, who gets to know almost every new arrival.

Through her agency in a storefront office on Pulaski Street, Stolarziewicz, who came to join her already-working husband, an engineer, in Port Jefferson 12 years ago, offers translation service, money transfers, job-seeking assistance and discounts on bulk shipments to Eastern Europe.

She says the “flood of new people” are drawn to the area because it makes their transition easier. Many attend services at St. Isidore’s, the Catholic church that holds mass in Polish every Sunday morning.

Polish immigrants first made Riverhead their own when they came to New York via Ellis Island and were escorted to the East End by farmers needing field workers. By the turn of the century, many families eventually earned enough to buy farmland and open businesses.

But it’s the new wave that’s kept the area thriving, and, in just the past few years, two new businesses joined the Polish Museum and the 15 or so stores that sit mainly on the mile-long strip of Pulaski Street.

There’s Polonez, a Polish-Russian restaurant (on West Main Street), and the Euro Deli, where the scent of floury rolls and puffy babka loaves mixes with the smoky whiff of kielbasa and herring.

“We wanted to see the United States,” says Grazyna Rusiecki, who owns the deli with her husband, Roman, about their journey to Long Island. Roman, who worked as a driver with a meat delivery business in Poland, followed the lead of some friends in 1985, around the time of the Solidarity movement upheaval, and came to areas of Long Island— like Copiague, Pt. Jefferson and Riverhead— where they had relatives, to find work. He landed a job as a worker in a junkyard and found an apartment in Copiague, then sent for Grazyna, who left their two young daughters behind with relatives for a time.

“The first year I was scared,” she says. The couple wound up waiting seven years until they were financially stable enough to have the children join them. “I can’t think about it now,” she says. “It was terrible.”

The family moved to West Babylon and, in 1991, they opened the first Euro Deli— specializing in kielbasa, cold cuts, pierogi and baked goods— in Copiague, which, along with Lindenhurst, also has a substantial Polish population. So many people came in from Riverhead to Copiague that they decided to open a store out in Polish Town four years ago.

Ten-year-old census figures, the most recent available, put the Polish population in Riverhead at 4,101, second only to those of German and Irish descent. The Nassau-Suffolk count was 198,403. While many young people in the Polish community leave to attend college and then settle somewhere else, many stay.

“You get the support you need over here. Then if you don’t make it out there, you come back to your family,” says Stolarzewicz’ son Erik. “But it’s safe to say that in 50 years, this place will still be here.” —BG

Great Neck’s Iranian connection

It’s no surprise that many members of Iran’s tiny community of Jews decided to get the hell out of there when Islamic zealots started fomenting revolution against the reactionary shah in the late 1970s. And it’s no shock that many of them wound up around New York City.

But why Great Neck? The new wave of Middle Easterners has changed the complexion of the already heavily Jewish area: There are three Iranian Jewish temples, a Syrian one and an Iraqi one— not to mention a couple of restaurants that serve as temporary places of worship for the overflow.

Raymond Iryami, a 27-year-old lawyer who left Iran in ’82 and grew up in Great Neck, has an insider’s explanation for the clustering of Iranian Jews on the North Shore instead of other Jewish areas.

“Iranian Jews are not quite as Orthodox as, from what I understand, the population in the Five Towns is,” says Iryami. Besides, many of the Jews who fled were merchants who had been preparing for the worst, so the high prices of the North Shore didn’t scare them off. And the reputation of the schools attracted them.

“It was considered dumb to go to the United States with no money,” says Iryami. “Apparently, word had gotten out that, ‘Look there’s a nice space over there, but you need money.’ That is not to say a lot of people didn’t leave a lot of wealth behind. But some people were smart enough to have money in a foreign account.”

Waiting for many of them was Fred Hawa, who in 1985 opened what’s believed to be the first Iranian Jewish market in the area. Hawa had come to the States in 1968 to study at NYU. Now, he runs the A-Z Super Market, a general store on Middle Neck Road featuring such ethnic wares as cooking pots, Persian tapes and CDs and a variety of dried nuts and fruits and spices, like sumac.

Current estimates are that up to 10,000 Iranian Jews now live in the area, but Hawa says he can always use more customers. “I used to be the only store,” he says solemnly, “and now there’s seven or eight.” —Stacy Albin

India Inc.

Cash puts one ethnic group on the fast track

by Laura Conaway

Asian Indians living on Long Island want a place at the political table, and they’re not fooled about what they’ll need to get one: connections, consensus and— most important— cold cash.

“We have been doing a lot of fund-raisers for politicians, and educating our community that you get involved in politics,” says Bhupi Patel, a Muttontown Democrat. “It seems we don’t have the numbers to make a difference in the election, so we must do it financially and get involved early on so we can have a voice.”

Patel, a physician who serves as chief of medicine at Mt. Sinai’s hospital in Queens, is one of a handful of prominent Indians who are poised to make serious runs for office. They’re being proudly groomed by Bobby Kumar, a Syosset entrepreneur who is a vice-chairman of the Nassau Republican Party. Under Kumar’s leadership, the rookies are fast becoming seasoned veterans of advisory boards and political conventions.

Kumar is also teaching them a thing or two about the importance of reaching across party lines. Lockstep loyalty to Republicans or Democrats is not part of the Indian agenda, for candidates or voters. “It makes them now the most important group because they’re not labeled as a Republican group or a Democratic group,” Kumar says. “They’re educated voters, that’s what I like to call it. They’re not monkey after monkey.”

Most of Kumar’s protégés have decided not to vie for small-time municipal posts like town boards, preferring instead to aim for slots on Capitol Hill. Patel explains that his generation spent their 30s and 40s building financial security for their families and an Island community of 26,000, so they don’t have decades left to piece political résumés together.

Patel says younger, American-born Indians can take careful steps up the governmental ladder. Patel’s generation will open the door— by kicking it down.

“We are a force to be reckoned with, because of our contributions,” says Patel, who despite his Democratic party label has hosted a fund-raiser for GOP Nassau County Executive Tom Gulotta. “It’s time for the Republican Party to invest in us and give us a seat. In another five years, 10 years, you’ll definitely see one of us go to Congress.”

Some Indians aren’t waiting that long.

Ashok Pradhan, a wealthy Huntington Station marketing executive who serves as president of the Indian Association of Long Island, says he may run for the House as soon as 2000. If GOP Rep. Rick Lazio ever is allowed to make a real move for the seat being vacated by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan next year, Pradhan will be ready to try to replace Lazio.

Pradhan, a Republican, estimates he’ll need to spend at least $5 million to win, and possibly twice that amount. He’s not afraid to cover much of that expense himself, but he says his peers will be ready to contribute. “I have the desire to run,” he says. “The community would stand behind someone who really wanted to go for it.”

Sheer financial power may not be enough to overcome deep-seated prejudice against Indians here. Glen Cove Mayor Tom Suozzi, a veteran Democratic leader, says he thinks an Indian candidate could soon win office, but not without having to counter racism. He compares their situation to that of other immigrants, like Italians, who used tight-knit social groups to break into politics and beat back attempts to keep them down.

“They are very well-organized, and when you’re well-organized, you have clout,” Suozzi says. “Will they face hurdles because they look different and their accents are different? Of course, just like everybody did.”

Kumar admits that LI may not be ready to send an Indian to Congress, but he says the wait won’t be long. “It’s a matter of a couple of years— and we are not far from a couple of years,” he says. “The base is already built. It’s just a matter of introducing the base.”

Despite its reputation for conservatism, Long Island may be an ideal launching pad for America’s first Indian member of Congress. Rockland County Legislator VJ Pradhan, Ashok’s younger brother, says he thinks an Indian could win office on the Island— especially if the candidate is willing to begin a career by running for local, county or state positions.

After losing attempts at the State Senate in 1994 and Clarkstown Town Council in 1995, Democrat Pradhan captured his county legislative seat in 1997. He says running those races gave him a chance to convince voters that he cared about the concerns of all constituents. The failed runs also provided him ample time in the spotlight, where he showed that his accent was not a barrier to communication.

VJ Pradhan says the strong, affluent Indian community on the Island makes it likely a candidate could win. “Long Island is the place where people should come out, where there are Indians who could support their candidate,” he says. “Somebody should take more steps and go ahead and do it.”

From Portugal to Mineola

Anyone who has even a casual acquaintance with Mineola can see the village’s Portuguese roots. And for the rich heritage that goes far beyond the Iberian eateries along Jericho Turnpike, you can thank a humble delivery man named Antonio Paes.

Paes was living in the Beira Alta region of Portugal in 1919, working for a cheese maker, when he decided to go to New Bedford, Mass., to try to stake out a better life for himself and his new bride. New Bedford was already a long-established center for Portuguese immigrants, but jobs weren’t plentiful at that time. Paes heard there was construction work in a place called Long Island, so he and a friend checked it out.

They found jobs and they found boarding houses in Mineola to stay in. In 1924, Paes brought his wife and daughter down to Mineola, where they were the first Portuguese family to permanently settle. Word of mouth brought others here, especially as times got tougher in New Bedford and suburban life boomed on LI.

That’s the story told by former professor Neil Miller of Adelphi University, and it’s confirmed by members of Mineola’s thriving Portuguese community. You can check it out at Candy Maia’s venerable Lisbon @ Night, said to be the first Portuguese-owned restaurant in the village.

Seventy-five years after Antonio Paes discovered Mineola, the Portuguese influence in Mineola is strong. Locals estimate that perhaps 5,000 Portuguese and their descendants live in the village, augmented by a second wave of immigration from the mother country in the ’70s.

And, like many groups of immigrants, the Portuguese settlers came for a slice of the good life— and they got it. Paul Pereira, who was born in Portugal and came over as a child in 1976, now is a social studies teacher at Mineola High School. He knows his roots.

“What you basically have,” he says, “is rural immigrants who have a fourth-grade, fifth-grade education. If my parents had been rich, they wouldn’t have come here. That’s just the nature of immigration.” —SA