Along Roosevelt Avenue, foodies can find cuisine from all over the world. The stretch from 79th to 84th Streets is known as Little Colombia. Since the end of World War I, Colombians have immigrated to this corner of Queens, looking for a better life.
"It's kind of easier to navigate, especially when you don't speak the language,” said Alejandro Osorio, the manager of the Arepa Lady restaurant.
Osorio was four when his family moved from Medellin, Colombia to Jackson Heights in 1984 to escape the drug war. His mom, Maria Cano, was a judge in her homeland. To support her four children, the single mom started selling arepas, traditional Colombian corn cakes, from a cart beneath the 7 train at night.
"The cart didn't have a license. Permits are really hard to get in the city, so with that schedule it's kind of easier to avoid tickets and police and stuff," said Osorio.
Cano became known as the Arepa Lady. Now, her sons run the brick-and-mortar shop on 37th Avenue, a place that feels like home to Colombian expats.
"They like coming in, hear the music and everyone who works here is Colombian. So they start talking about back home," said Osorio.
The first Colombians to settle here were professionals and students. At the time, Jackson Heights had a suburban feel. When a recession hit Columbia in the 1960’s, the influx grew, the newcomers spreading out into neighboring communities like Corona.
That’s where the Centro Civico Colombiano is working hard to keep the Colombian culture alive for the next generation. Sixteen people started the group in the 1970's, as a meeting place for the new immigrants. Beyond ESL classes, the group also offers folklore dancing and guitar lessons for young people.
"Tell the new kids over here what is Colombia. From where the parents coming, show the geography," said Amparo Gómez, the president of Centro Civico Colombiano.
But Gómez, a community advocate, says many Colombians have left Queens for more affordable living in the suburbs and Pennsylvania. By the 2010 census, only about 94,000 Colombians lived in the city.
"We only have one quarter of what it used to be here,” said Gómez.
But the Colombian-American impact on the local government is growing.
Catalina Cruz, who was undocumented when she immigrated to the U.S. as a child, became the first Dreamer and Colombian-born politician elected to the New York State Assembly.
"For a very long time, we worried about the politics back home. Because we were going to go back home, but now there are many communities that have planted those roots. So you see more of a need to worry about who's representing us while we're here," said Cruz.