One of the first challenges was navigating the twists and turns that lead you from Rensselaerville to the Rip Van Winkle bridge that crosses the Hudson River, a gateway to the surrounding valley known for agriculture, tourism, antiques, art, whaling history, and the bridges and highways that connect you to the rest of New York State. Just one wrong turn could easily lead you to the algae-covered swamps of Bear Creek, further and further into the quiet, woodsy crevices of the Helderbergs. On our first drive to Hudson to work with the street artist Earl Swanigan, who is creating art for the LongHouse barn, Molly said, “Know this way well.”
The next day, without iPhone maps, and guided only by memory, my gut began memorizing the rolling hills and sharp turns of the road, the way the telephone wires drape low here, the hand-painted sign for “Fresh Eggs” there. If I ever hit flat land, I know I am going the wrong way. The two-laned left at a fork called Smith Corners, past the white metal closet frame on the side of the road, the blinking light, and the Rip Van Winkle Inn, is the key to unlocking the “invisible stories” of migration from Mexico to the Valley. For the past several weeks, I’ve been following stories of the Mexicans who have established themselves here: farmers, cooks, and artists who are building a life through food.
Even before leaving Madison, Wisconsin, I’d heard that Poughkeepsie, 90 minutes southwest of Rensselaerville, is called “Oax-keepsie.” I’d read about two restaurateurs, a folk dancer, and Fel Santos of Poughkeepsie’s El Grupo Folklorico –and figured they’d be well-connected. So, after making most of the correct turns, there I was.
Balancing my video camera with one hand and sipping cantaloupe-sweetened horchata with the other, I was listening to Fel tell the story about the emergence, struggles, and triumphs of “Oax-keepsie.” He also told me how to tell a good tortilla from a bad one: It’s all about whether it stretches or breaks when you wrap it around meat and cheese.
Two home-cooked meals later, I had collected the oral histories of three Mexican restaurateurs, a Oaxacan folk dancer, her tortilla-making mother, and the owner of Casa Latina, the town’s original Mexican grocery.
I wanted to understand: “Why Poughkeepsie?”
Family was the answer.
“My mother was here.”
“My brother was here.”
“My whole town was here.”
But who came first?
Honorio Rodriguez says he was the first. Avocado-stained order in hand, he had no more than five minutes to talk with us. Following him back to the small kitchen of his Mexican restaurant, past Oaxacan wall weavings and a few tidy tables, he told us, “I was the first Oaxacan in Poughkeepsie.” When, in 1989, the owner of the restaurant where he was working in New York City decided to relocate to the Hudson River Valley, Rodriguez followed. He opened his own restaurant in Poughkeepsie. It is called El Bracero, Spanish for “farm worker,” and today still serves five types of mole to Mexican families and workers and adventurous Vassar students.
In the early 1990s, it was known as the only gathering place for the small community of workers arriving in Poughkeepsie from Oaxaca. After saving to send for their families, Poughkeepsie’s initial Oaxacan community of migrant workers began to change. Reyna Garcia, who owns Casa Latina, a Mexican grocery store just a block away from El Bracero, remembers that moment.
“When we started, we only stocked canned beans and canned rice, canned meals for the men who were working here.” After their families arrived, she said, she couldn’t stock enough fresh produce.