The tale of New York and Neza York

Folks in Nezahaulcoyotl joke that they’re the Mexican version of New York, only now they live in the US version too

New York

CIUDAD NEZAHAULCOYOTL, Mexico — It's an overcrowded, working-class city that abuts Mexico's capital and has some of the best graffiti south of the border. It's famed for nightlife and street culture, a melting pot that attracts people from all over. The sidewalks form grids and its people have attitude.

It's a city that never sleeps, just like New York. Call Ciudad Nezahaulcoyotl what some of the locals do: Neza York.

Bonded by immigration and grit, New York and Neza York have now become a true tale of two cities, with inhabitants flowing back and forth between the two.

While the 2010 census identifies Mexicans as the fastest growing Hispanic group in and around New York, most of the estimated more than one million people originally hailed from rural parts, according to the Mexican consulate in Manhattan. However, a growing contingent are arriving from Neza York.

A fruit stand, left, in the New York neighborhood where residents of Nezahaulcoyotl, Mexico have immigrated. On the right, a fruit stand in Neza York, their hometown.
Left, Katie Orlinsky for Al Jazeera America; Right, Alicia Vera for Al Jazeera America

“Ciudad Nezahaulcoyotl is an enormous city, so you can expect it would be easier for these immigrants to adapt,” explained Carlos Gerardo Izzo, a spokesman for the consulate. “There’s a lot of common ground between the two places.”

He estimated that 5 percent of Mexicans in the greater New York metropolitan area came from Nezahualcoyotl. As with most migrants, remittances to send home are a big draw, but so too is the culture, which is accessible to those raised amid cement and hustle.

“That’s my dream, my mecca,” said Jorge Corona, 27, a hip-hop artist from Neza York.  “A rapper has to go to the source.”

Adjusting his oversized black T-shirt over low-hung camouflage pants, he stood by a skateboard park and rattled off lyrics that could apply to either metropolis:

Jorge Corona is a hip-hop artist who sings of Neza York but considers New York his "Mecca.''
Alicia Vera for Al Jazeera America

Son nuestras calles

Unas son padres

Unas son desmadres.

(These are our streets

Some are cool

Some are out of control.)

If one trains the eye at street level, and ignores the high-rise nature of New York, the two cities look remarkably similar. Both are lined with nail salons and money-wiring parlors that support the economy back home. Carts hawk carved mangos, and the taco joints have shrines to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the symbol of Catholic Mexico. Even the posters advertising tropical bands look the same; musicians in New York order them from designers back home in Neza York to keep the style consistent.

In Neza York, the city embraces its grafitti and holds competitions.
Alicia Vera for Al Jazeera America

There are, of course, deep differences, starting with the dignity city fathers award to Neza’s spectacular graffiti. Instead of spending a fortune to whitewash it, they hold regular competitions so that spray-can artists cover entire blocks with wall murals. Unlike New York, the buses are sparklingly clean.

Reminding everyone that they are in Mexico, a giant red sculpture of a coyote maintains watch over the city to pay homage to the warrior poet from which it takes its name. (Nezahualcoyotl, or “The Coyote Who Fasts,” was the ruler of the pre-Colombian city state of Texcoco.”)

Modern-day Neza residents who make it to the Big Apple often head to the Juan Bar, a magnet in the heavily Hispanic neighborhood of Corona in the borough of Queens. Over skyscraper high “tortas,” or sandwiches, the house specialty, homeboys organize soccer meets of their expatriate team, the Neza Toros. Chef Galindo Molinero reflected on his 25 years of “dual nationality,” as he put it, as he switched on a flashing green light behind his Guadalupe statue. Citizenship in this case referred to Neza York and New York, not the countries in which they exist.

Chef Galindo Molinero found it easy to transition from Neza York to New York and jokes he has a dual nationality.
Katie Orlinsky for Al Jazeera America

Like many transplants, Molinero followed relatives already in New York in search of bigger earnings. He found, to his surprise, that he felt at home, something that is not the usual experience for a person who arrives from a foreign land not speaking the language. 

“Maybe I will live out my final days on a small property in Neza York, but for now I’m just fine,” he said, welcoming some visitors to the bar. Overhearing the conversation, they nodded in agreement. 

Molinero admitted to missing, just a bit, the street parties in his hometown, which fill entire plazas for all-night dancing. But the scene wasn’t so bad in New York, either.

“Folks from Neza know how to party and we can do it anywhere,'' he said. "We’ve had some amazing bashes in apartments.”

Another cluster of Neza Yorkers settled in Washington Heights, in the upper reaches of Manhattan. There, Raul Velez manned his “Tacos Neza” truck outside a beauty supply shop on 182nd Street. He wore a black knit cap with, what else, the words “New York,” to protect against the 10-degree chill. 

Hovering over the grill to stay warm, Velez, 48, said he has made regular visits south during his 33-year tenure in New York, which created a decent balance.

“Destiny sent me here, and this is my home now,'' he said. "I like going back to visit, but you know, aside from the better money and schools, things aren’t really that different if you have family with you. Family is the key.”

The genesis of the term “Neza York” is a matter of debate back in the 36 square miles of 1.2 million people that makes up Nezahualcoyotl. Primo Mendoza is an artist who has written extensively about the city's history, and he believes that immigration played a major role in the popular pet name.

“People here love puns,” said Mendoza as he drove a pair of visitors around.  “Other nicknames are Mi-nesota, pronounced like the American state, a play on the Spanish for My Neza. Before, everyone spoke about "Nezahualpolvo'' or dusty Neza. The reference to New York resonates most widely, because in the last decade so many people have gone there and they saw parallels with urban survival.”

He also drew analogies to the dual melting pots. Ever since it was founded a half a century ago, Neza has attracted people from all over Mexico’s diverse country, “a cultural mosaic,” as he put it.

Then there’s chutzpah. “The rest of the society puts down marginalized places so we reject that by being proud of who we are. If we had tourism we would sell t-shirts that say “I ♥ Neza.”

For Manuel Tovar Campos, Neza York is preferable to New York. The novelty of pizza and other discoveries wore off.
Alicia Vera for Al Jazeera America

Inducing less satisfaction is the violent ambiance that would remind New Yorkers of the 1980s, when residents got routinely mugged. Neza posts a high homicide rate and turf wars among drug gangs are so bad that security helicopters regularly circle above. Extortion of businesses is huge. At one point the government sent in soldiers to try to impose order. City elders fret that lawlessness is driving residents to leave.

Yet for some who have gone to the other side, home pulls strong. Manuel Tovar Campos, 48, never got used to Coney Island during his 20 months there in the early 1980s. He hated working as a dishwasher. The winters were cold and the novelty of pizza wore off. He felt lonely.

“You make more money there but I would prefer to eat beans here. Don’t get me wrong, you have some amazing things like the Statue of Liberty and the bridges. Snow is very impressive the first time you see it, but then it gets old. And New York was so expensive! We shared an apartment among four people and had to take turns sleeping in the beds.”

He came back, married a local girl and had three daughters. Now he drives a school bus and spends time with his aging mother, something he cherishes. “I love the lifestyle here. It revolves around the family, the street, parties, markets. There, they call the cops if you play music loudly.”