I met Carolina González and Seth Kugel in the unpretentious and casera Havana Chelsea, one of the top five locales for Cuban sandwiches in NYC according to González’s and Kugel’s new book – Nueva York: The Complete Guide to Latino Life in the Five Boroughs. Munching on crispy Cubans and tres leches cake, the co-authors seemed eager to talk about their nine-month adventure that covered virtually every Latino facet to New York City – restaurants, street festivals, places where you can learn Spanish, and even underwear stores! Here is what they said about the experience that gave birth to the first-ever guidebook for Latinos and non-Latinos about Latino life in NYC.
R: What inspired the book, and how did you find each other?
C: When you write about a certain subject, you get to know everyone [else who writes about it] and you follow their work. I noticed this Jewish guy writing about Dominicans in Washington Heights. A mutual friend introduced us, and it just so happened that we became friends.
S: We ended up looking for the book, but to our delight it did not exist. People were using us as the human Google – so we thought it would be a good idea to put all of our knowledge in a book.
C: There wasn’t a single New York guide book that covered the Latino population.
R: How did you decide where to start exploring and what your sources were going to be, and how did you divide the areas amongst yourselves?
C: Geographically at first. Seth covered Upper Manhattan; Queens, we pretty much split; and Staten Island we went together. Other things we split by what we were interested in, but we kept a list to make sure we divided the work equally.
S: I interviewed about 100 Colombians outside of a concert to find out the best Colombian restaurants…I also picked up lots of fliers from the ground to see the popular clubs.
R: What were some of the funniest experiences and/or people you met?
C: I did a lot of research on the tango underground. One of the places that have a weekly milonga is a Ukrainian restaurant that I found on a tango hotline called The Ukrainian East Village Restaurant.
R: Since you both are very familiar with Latino culture in NYC from your past writing experience, did you find there were still a lot of things even you did not know about?
C: We knew in our heads that there were a lot of Ecuadorians here, but nobody ever talks about Ecuadorians, and they really do a lot in this city. Also, a lot of the visual-arts places that were around years ago are now gone.
S: I was surprised, but I mean this in a serious way, on how each ethnicity is attached to their own underwear – especially, Colombians and Brazilians. I was also surprised that we didn’t find any Nicaraguan restaurants. There was only one Paraguayan one; but, by the time we finished writing the book, it had changed to only half Paraguayan, selling only very few Paraguayan items.
R: What were some of your favorite discoveries within the boroughs that you can’t wait to repeat for yourselves?
C: Seth is hooked on baleadas, a Honduran sort of gordita [thick tortilla].
S: Pecas y Más in Sunnyside, Queens, never ceases to amaze me.
C: I’m totally hooked on alfajores, cookies with dulce de leche in the middle.
S: I also love the way the Peruvians call their stomach – rachi.
R: In your opinion, which is the most Latin borough?
C: Population-wise it’s the Bronx; diversity-wise it’s Queens. Part of our point is that Latinos just don’t live in one place. Even Staten Island has a sizable community. There are also a lot of older Latino communities that are getting lost – like the Cubans who are no longer in Chelsea – like this place [Havana Chelsea]. Businesses take longer to disappear than the people. Basically though, all of New York is Latin.
For more information about Carolina González, Seth Kugel and where you can buy Nueva York, go to their website here.