On Sundays from May to October a corner of Sunset Park feels like a thriving Mexico City marketplace. It’s called Plaza Tonatiuh and is organized by Mexicanos Unidos. At this year’s final Plaza on October 30, the narrow pathways between rows of vendors in the park were crowded with attendees of all ages. Vendors sold Mexican and other Latin American food, household items, toys, clothes, jewelry and more. Live music and dancing in celebration of the Nov. 2 Day of the Dead lasted into the night.
Mexicanos Unidos formed in the initial weeks of the George Floyd uprising that roiled New York City three summers ago. In July 2020, the organization held protests around the killing of Vanessa Guillen, a 20-year-old U.S. soldier who was bludgeoned to death by another soldier, Aaron David Robinson.
Later that month, they distributed a flyer: “United Mexicans of America Lost invita a un foro para discutir nuestros proyectos comunitarios/Invites you to a forum to discuss our future community projects.”
By early 2021, MxU was protesting less often and had begun to shift its energy toward community engagement. In May 2021, galvanizing frustration around gentrification and crackdowns on street vendors, they launched Plaza Tonatiuh, their central organizing project.
At the last Plaza of 2021, there were 20 vendors. This year ended with 88 and more looking to join.
During every Plaza, MxU holds a vendor assembly to discuss operations. On Nov. 7, a week after the last Plaza of the season, the organization invited vendors back to Sunset Park to participate in a debrief. Around 60 people showed up. Childcare and coffee were provided.
Mexicanos Unidos takes inspiration from the Black Panthers’ ability to analyze and address community needs.
Vendors and MxU members formed two conversation circles in which one by one, each participant shared critiques of themselves and the Plaza as a whole. They discussed at length how to secure access to bathrooms when the Parks Department closes them hours before the Plaza ends and other logistical issues.
Now in the off season, MxU will be synthesizing vendors’ feedback and needs and traveling to vendors’ homes to continue political education. The organization, with around 50 members representing all boroughs, hopes to soon procure a community space in Sunset Park. It takes inspiration from the Black Panthers’ ability to analyze and address community needs.
Leo, 26, is the chair. He grew up in Sunset Park with his mother and four siblings but has since been priced out and now lives in Bensonhurst. He works at a cafe in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Leo was radicalized by learning about the 43 disappeared students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Guerrero, Mexico in 2014. In 2021, he traveled to Mexico to join indigenous activists occupying Bonafont water-bottling plants.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How was Mexicanos Unidos formed?
It was formed during the George Floyd uprising and had a lot to do with what happened around that time with Vanessa Guillen and the consciousness that grew out of that. We wanted to direct those mainly nationalistic tendencies toward something more revolutionary, more organized for the collective — also understanding that in New York City it’s not just the Mexican diaspora. So so we have a large Caribbean, Asian, Central American and South American diaspora. We wanted to make folks understand that our liberation is tied to the liberation of others.
Tell us a little bit about the political education you have coming up and why it’s important.
Right now, we’re gearing up to start doing more political education classes. We see these as a necessity. We’re doing that with the plaza participants first. It is a way for us to also get unity in thought, because we already have unity in action. It’s also something that we’ve also been doing internally with incoming members.
Our basic course consists of the Five Golden Rays by Mao, The State and Revolution by Lenin, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Friere, Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon and we also include excerpts from Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano. We have advanced courses too that consist of readings on George Jackson, and more by the Black Panthers.
What was your experience with how people received what you were sharing?
We use Paolo Friere and popular education because we strive for people to understand that we’re not teachers — we’re also learning with you. After going through the study, we see a change of mentality and commitment, but some folks retain it a lot faster than others. It’s hard to ask folks to study it on their own time, while they’re also working-class people. Not everybody has time to read. And not everybody can read. So we’ve shifted a lot of our learning to be done mainly through discussions.
“We use Paolo Friere and popular education because we strive for people to understand that we’re not teachers — we’re also learning with you.”
We met at the end of 2021 during protests outside of Bergen County Jail in North Jersey. The cops were beating up ralliers for supporting hunger-striking ICE detainees on the inside. That was brutal.
We realized how unsustainable that was and how burnout was so prevalent, especially around organizers.
I remember watching a video of Kwame Ture where he mentioned the difference between mobilizations and organization. In 2020 and in parts of 2021, we were still just heavy on the mobilizing. Nobody ever pulled out a clipboard while we were marching to ask people what they can contribute or ask people where they’re at, or how can we organize to defeat this monster that has his body all across North America.
So we took a moment to sit back and start to base build in Sunset Park and do the Plaza, to stay somewhere consistently. And just build here, honestly.
What you’re describing reminds me that in organizing, being able to offer people a vision of the positive is so crucial. It can’t just all be about protests, or even self-education. Things like the Plaza give people a vision that they can get excited about.
Thank you. Yeah! Franz Fanon mentions why celebration is so important for the oppressed, because we get to shake all that oppression out of us. And we got to, like, not have to use horizontal violence onto each other in the streets. But now we can dance together and shake all of these things out of our body.
What was the inspiration for the plaza?
One of the main ones was Chicano Park in San Diego and others out in Colorado. These cultural pillars that help with resistance movements. Another motivation was Industry City, a gentrifying entity coming into Sunset Park. Also the homicides and the robberies of street vendors, the dumping of their of their property by parks police. NYPD is ticketing ladies for selling mango on the street and in the subway.
I noticed a man wearing a Che Mario shirt at the Plaza debrief. How do you think being involved in the Plaza and practicing direct democracy is affecting people’s ideologies?
Well, you do have to remember that in general in Latin America, people are more radical. They have more leftist histories. But also I’ve definitely noticed that the plaza has created more of a collective awareness and combatted individualism.
So, what is the goal or vision of Mexicanos Unidos?
To help build a revolutionary socialist party, and to organize the lumpenproletariat (including but not limited to the unemployed, marginally employed, undocumented and welfare recipients), which are the most dispossessed and stand to gain the most from socialism.
Do the vendors know you’re a bunch of commies?
Yeah! We’re open with them about that. But we also try not to beat them over the head with it.