By Loren Pacheco, Geography Major, Class of 2024.
In 1990, the Mexican restaurant El Bracero opened on Main Street in Poughkeepsie. In the decade that followed, the city’s Latinx population more than tripled, going from 3.8 percent to 10.5 percent in 2000. By 2020, the U.S. Census figured that 21.1 percent of Poughkeepsie’s population was Hispanic. A large portion of these new residents were from a small region of southern Mexico –– the state of Oaxaca. Poughkeepsie has a strong historical connection with Oaxaca, both cultural and economic. Both communities have shaped each other in a cross-border transculturation.
How did the Oaxacan community arrive in a small city in the Hudson Valley? The answer is in a story of chain migration, a process by which migrants form communities in an area, providing support and resources for friends and family seeking opportunities. The daily lives of many Oaxacans rely on funds called remittances sent by migrants to their families. A 1995 study suggested that nearly a quarter of the population of the Oaxacan village of San Agustín traveled intermittently to the Hudson Valley for work, a demographic mostly made up of young men. These men would spend their days living and working together, often in restaurants, at farms, or doing landscaping, for months or years before returning home.
The two regions are entwined by this transnational economic exchange – Oaxacans filling jobs in Poughkeepsie and money from Poughkeepsie being sent to Oaxaca as the cultures of the two places bled into one another. This dynamic earned the city the nickname “Oaxakeepsie.” El Bracero was a consistent community hub in this network, connecting new migrants with jobs, culture, and community, with owner Honório “Pie” Rodriguez frequently acting as a community spokesperson and leader.
Still, the Oaxacan community remained invisible to many in Poughkeepsie, especially given the precarious nature of undocumented workers’ residences. This changed following the death of the father of four Jaime Gil Tenorio, who was killed in a hit-and-run while bicycling. Tenorio, like many other migrants, came to Poughkeepsie to earn money from temporary work that could be sent back to his family. Detective Skip Mannain, who investigated Tenorio’s death, held a fundraiser for burial costs, ultimately raising $28,000 for his wife and children. The publicity of this tragedy changed how the Oaxacan community was seen by Hudson Valley residents, opening dialogues about immigration in local media.
The influence of the Oaxacan community on Poughkeepsie is evident. Many grassroots community organizations have come out of the Oaxacan community as a means to celebrate culture and provide resources to one another. Since 2008, the Grupo Folklórico de Poughkeepsie (GFP) has run a local version of a famous annual Oaxacan festival called La Guelaguetza. The Zapotec festival highlights the eight regions of Oaxaca with traditional dance and food. The festival has grown in size and is now sponsored by many community organizations including La Voz magazine, and Arts Mid-Hudson. The GFP, who also performs at the event, has received grants from the Oaxacan and Mexican governments for its cultural contributions. In 2023, this group was joined by performers from New York and New Jersey as well as musicians and presenters from Oaxaca and Mexico City.
Perhaps even more significant are the economic contributions that Oaxacan residents have created to provide for their neighbors, including money transfer shops and restaurants along Main Street. Francisco del Moral opened the Mexican supermarket Casa Latina in 2001 to provide culturally important foods and other items that are hard to get elsewhere in upstate New York. When the Casa Latino opened, it was the only grocery store in the city of Poughkeepsie, providing relief in what was otherwise a food desert. Amid urban renewal efforts that often seem to harm residents more than help them, Poughkeepsie’s Oaxacan population has contributed to organic urban revitalization that caters to the needs of the community. After 32 years of business, El Bracero shut its doors in March of 2022. Still, the legacy of the restaurant continues in the proliferation of Oaxacan art, commerce, and culture throughout Poughkeepsie.
Getting there: 581 Main St., Poughkeepsie, NY 12601. The Roatan Honduras Restaurant has now replaced the Bracero, once located at the corner of Main and Pershing Streets.
To learn more:
Mano, Jo Margaret and Linda L. Greenow. “Mexico Comes to Main Street: Mexican Immigration and Urban Revitalization in Poughkeepsie, NY.” Middle States Geographer, 2006, 39, pp. 76-83.
Meza, Nohan. “The Guelaguetza of Poughkeepsie.” La Voz, 2023, July 2023.
Mountz, Alison and Richard A. Wright. “Daily Life in the Transnational Migrant Community of San Agustín, Oaxaca, and Poughkeepsie, New York.” Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, vol. 5 no. 3, 1996, pp. 403-428.
Pleiffer, Mary Beth. “Poverty Driving Mexicans to Valley. Poughkeepsie Journal, 16 July 1998.