It’s hard to miss the Zuniga family. As you walk Prospect Park’s Grand Army Plaza entrance and underneath the tunnel to the Long Meadow, you can’t help but notice the loud Poblano music and smoke coming from underneath one of the lawn’s towering trees. Amidst the park’s mass of Frisbee-throwers, dog-loving young couples, and energetic toddlers, the Zunigas are a symbol of Brooklyn’s Hispanic immigrant community. On this July Sunday afternoon, the Zunigas and their friends–around 25 Mexican Americans, young and old–have come together to barbecue.
Felix Zuniga is a short and tan 45-year-old man with a white baseball cap and a thick Mexican accent. He and two of his cousins, Martin and Ignazio, oversee most of the barbecuing, serving up hot dogs, hamburgers, and ribs while their wives and kids sit on fold-up lawn chairs and talk. Martin is a shy, baby-faced man and wears a green sports jersey. He is one of 15 siblings. Ignazio is also soft spoken but heftier than the other two. He struggles to speak English but writes it with ease.
Some of the other male cousins throw tortillas on the grill to crisp, a staple food to go along with the rice, beans, and salads they’ve laid out on a large picnic table. After the hot dogs and hamburgers are done, Martin pulls out the industrial size container of ribs. They’ve been marinating in a special green sauce and are now visibly tender. These aren’t your steakhouse rack of ribs; the bones on these are less prominent and the meat is thinner. Zuniga has brought the barbecue from home. Like most of the family, he, Martin, and Ignazio were born and raised in Puebla, a small city north of Mexico City. They immigrated to New York to build their lives, Felix arriving when he was 18.
“There are two things they say to invest in: real estate and education,” Felix says. For him, America was the place to make those investments. Felix is a proud Brooklyn homeowner and the father of two private university-educated sons, one of whom just graduated from Fordham University and the other who is beginning at New York University in the fall. But according to Felix, his sons’ experiences in America have led them to detach somewhat from the family’s Mexican heritage.
“My son, he stops by and eats, but then he leaves,” Felix says of his eldest’s brief attendances at the family’s barbecues. Both sons were taught Spanish at home and are proud to be Latin American, but Felix says his eldest seems more interested in traveling to Europe than in visiting Mexico.
Felix explains this all without any visible sadness. As much as he identifies with Mexico and longs to move back once both of his sons are financially independent, he is excited that his sons are expanding their worlds and taking advantage of the opportunities America is offering them. Felix himself also feels a strong connection to American culture, smiling as he explains how he rooted for America in the 2014 World Cup.
“You watched the game? Then tell me how they got out!” he says, referring to America’s elimination from the tournament. His eyes widen as he talks about America’s efforts, his pride palpable. Felix and his family’s Mexican and American identity reflects New York’s rich cultural and ethnic blend, and the Zunigas will be returning to Prospect Park for summer Sundays to come.