Proper Names

October 15, 2014

BROOKLYN - I moved to the United States in 1983. The first six years, I missed Honduras very much and went back to visit almost twice a year. The truth is, although having more opportunities here in the U.S., the likelihood of no longer living in Latin America gave me anxiety. In 1989, I moved to New York and I felt much more at home: I stopped feeling anxious.

Aside from a brief absence, in the last twenty-five years my studio has always been in the same area on the banks of the Gowanus Canal. The main and parallel artery to the canal is Third Avenue. My current studio is found on the corner of Third Avenue and Third Street.

On September 17, 2014 I decided to make a pilgrimage by foot to Tortilleria Nixtamal  in Queens. This restaurant is the only place in the city where they make fresh masa every day. It’s 15 kilometers away from my studio and I estimated that it would take me three hours to get there.

I started walking along Third Avenue. After a few blocks I crossed Carroll Street, where I had my second studio from 1991 to 1993. Two blocks later, I arrived at the intersection on Union.

Union is one of those words that is spelled the same way and means the same thing in all of America, independent of which language is used. But in this case, the name Union is used in reference to the civil war in the United States. It has always interested me that places have proper names, and many times, these names refer to a history. The naming of a place is a way of remembering.

Today I notice that they have recently added a subtitle to this street: Raúl Vasquez Jr. Place. Clearly, another story has begun to insinuate itself into the English story. I pass Sackett Street, and later Douglass.

I hear a man speaking Spanish:
What is your name?
Wilfredo
What is your country of origin?
Puerto Rico

Along the way, a sign in a church states: Brooklyn Spanish. Perhaps it’s a new language that has emerged in this city.

In this new language, sabor is written Savor, and a refuge for immigrants is not called Casa Brooklyn, but rather, its name exists somewhere between Spanish and English: Brooklyn Casa. But windows are still called ventanas.

I cross Atlantic.

Spanish is present everywhere, in the speech of pedestrians, even in the official signs of the city and in the music coming from the cars that pass…

And right at the intersection on Flatbush, one can find the billboard for the Brooklyn Academy of Music that will present the music of Caetano Veloso in the near future.

I continue walking and Third Avenue changes its name to Lafayette, in honor of the French general who came to help the settlers of New England in their revolution and war for independence.

El Toro, Hoja Santa, and Bagel World, where the Caribbean is the blue eye of the bagel.

From Lafayette I make a left on Cumberland (a place in England) and later, a right on Dekalb (named in honor of Baron Johann de Kalb), and a left on Clinton (the name of Governor DeWitt Clinton).

What is your name?
María
Where are you from?
From Colombia

I imagine that one day, perhaps they will name a street María de Colombia. I make a right on Willoughby (named after Westel Willoughby Jr.).

Skillman, Bedford, Nostrand…

Manuel from Ecuador

After crossing Broadway, this statue appears in an unlikely place beneath some train tracks. The plants are overgrown so that I cannot read its legend on the pedestal, but no matter, I know its name: it is Libertad [Freedom].

In New York, Spanish and English mix freely: lunch, chivo, specials, rabo, small, pollo al horno, large, chuleta…

In the city, almost everything has a name, and in these names, one can read the city’s past, but also its present. The name of this building is Yolanda Lopez.

Lempira was the chieftain of Honduras who resisted the Spanish during the conquest. I make a left on Evergreen.

And a right on Troutman where some Argentines must live.

Troutman turns into Flushing, Flushing transforms into Grand, one street leading into another, and in the neighborhood of Maspeth, Polish translates into Spanish.

Your name?
Christian
And your country?
Mexico
And your team?
Real Madrid

Before arriving, I cross el Pacífico [the Pacific]

My destination after three and a half hours: Tortillería Nixtamal

Outside, a load of corn awaits…

…and for me there awaits a bilingual message on the door of the restaurant.

I do not give up; I knock on the door until someone takes pity on me. They open the restaurant and sell me seven pounds of fresh masa.

Back home, tired, using a recipe that I know by heart, but without nostalgia, I cook fifty tamales.