nipples! How often do I have to say that? No nipples! Look at the neighborhood
we’re sitting in.”
Favorite Horse to Ride: Painting Murals
resident Lady Pink was a trailblazer in the underground, illegal art
scene of the 1970s and 1980s, dubbed “the first lady of graffiti.”
Back then, she would have seen a wall or train car as a blank canvas
and covered it with curvaceous letters spelling out her name. Nowadays,
when Pink covers a wall, her name still pops up, but for the past few
years, it has gone from being graffiti to arguably the best deterrent
Although coy about her exploits, Pink’s well-documented work
speaks for itself. In the world where graffiti pieces go up literally
overnight, graffiti writers and admirers today still revere Pink’s
work, 20 years later.
Just barely out of high school, Pink’s reputation as an artist
was known around the world. At 18, she starred in the film “Wild
Style,” which became the iconic film about art and music of
urban life. Her art was on train cars running all over the city, and
inside prestigious museums around the world.
Now when she paints, it is in broad daylight, with permission slips
and scaffolding. The purpose now, Pink said, is to keep what she calls
“vandals” from turning walls into eyesores.
In person, Pink dresses like a biker: blue jeans ripped at the knees,
black leather jacket and pin-straight black hair down to her waist.
When the talk turns to murals, she lights a cigarette and sounds like
a frustrated mother yelling from her front porch.
“No nipples! How often do I have to say that? No nipples! Look
at the neighborhood we’re sitting in,” said Pink, recounting
directions she’s given over the years to those who paint murals
with her. “Just put a bra on that girl.”
For the artist whose canvas is left along the street, the responsibility
of public art is a matter of survival.
“We can’t do crazy political statements, or we can’t
do social statements. We can’t do anything that’s crazy
controversial because the opposing view will have our wall at their
mercy.” Without a trace of regret, Pink added, “I end
up having to sensor our artist.”
For a one-time outlaw artist, it’s hard pointing to the single-most
outrageous act. Quite possibly, it may have simply been her decision
to paint in broad daylight. She said her critics “want us to
cut it out. I’m sure they’d be just pleased, tickled pink
if I was just exhibiting inside and keeping indoors and lining my
pockets like a culture vulture on this” art. “Now, I don’t
feel right just profiting from it. I feel I should give back to the
community, so we do these legal walls…so we give back to the
community, for free.”
Reflecting on her career, she said, “Everything from underground
goes above ground and that’s the way it is.”
When Tony Meloni heard the artist he commissioned for over half a
dozen murals made the list of Community Characters, he said, “Character
is a good word.” Unlike the stereotypical temperamental artist,
Meloni said, “I find she is hardworking and whenever we work
together [the murals] have gone flawlessly because she cares about
For a man who “can’t draw to save my life,” Meloni
said, “each time it’s a marvel to watch something go up
that you conjure in your mind and can’t put on paper.”
Favorite Issue: Neighborhood Service
through western Queens louder than the No. 7 train is Rose Renda-Rothschild,
the district manager of Community Board 4 whose name strikes fear
in the hearts of bungling bureaucrats and scheming land developers.
She runs the CB 4 meetings with touching anecdotes about each nook
and cranny of the board, which she seems to know expertly. Her roots
to the Corona and Elmhurst neighborhoods go back decades. In fact,
along with the Ice King of Corona and Spaghetti Park, Renda-Rothschild
is considered an icon.
Lasting for as long as she has is in its own right an accomplishment
worthy of note. During her tenure in the community some other
milestones have been achieved. Queens Center Mall was named not
only the most profitable mall per square foot in America, it nearly
doubled in size. Built over 92nd Street is a unique bridge that
connects the old mall with the new mall, and provides a “seamless
shopping experience,” mall officials said. Other upgrades
have taken place at Linden Park, which now sports a new baseball
field and artificial turf. That turf is more durable than regular
grass and will save the city millions in repairs in the long run.
Also, the 74th Street station for the No. 7 train opened its doors
this year. The sleek, new design is more spacious, aesthetically
pleasing, and most importantly, roomier than its predecessor.
Renda-Rothschild is an indestructible force in the neighborhood.
She presides over CB 4 meetings like a grandmother, telling her
younger kin what the neighborhood was like, and advising them
on what to do next. Sprinkled throughout CB 4 meetings are Renda-Rothschild’s
personal anecdotes, giving color and background to today’s
In one gripe session some CB 4 members suggested the overcrowding
in the neighborhood is a result of bribery in the Department of
Buildings (DOB) and possibly with other officials. Renda-Rothschild
said of one former DOB employee, whose identity she would only
hint at, “I hate to say it, but he must have been on the
Although she doesn’t mince words, the iron-jawed Renda-Rothschild
is careful about where she places them.
After the board’s meetings, Renda-Rothschild is often carrying
the conversation long into the night with other like-minded residents.
When asked for comments after a meeting, watch out. Renda-Rothschild
insists that all her comments at the board’s public meeting
be kept off the record and out of the papers.
When contacted for this profile, she reportedly called the Borough
President’s office, pleading with them to intervene and
help her maintain her below the radar profile.
“Rose strikes fear in the hearts of many, because she doesn’t
take anything from anybody,” said Chairperson Richard Cecere
of Community Board 3, which abuts CB 4 along Roosevelt Avenue.
“Whenever you’re on the scene with Rose, you know
you’re going to have a good time,” he said. For a
hard exterior that usually gets the most notice, Cecere called
Renda-Rothschild one of the foremost experts on the community.
“Certainly one of the most knowledgeable.” He then
added, “Rose is a community character.
She’s part of the character of the neighborhood, in a good
graffiti, for me they’re
all the same garbage laws.”
FAVORITE ISSUES: Preservation
Ruzalski became a grandfather this August. Before that, his grandfatherly
feelings have been directed almost exclusively at his Woodside community.
“I remember him ever since I was a little girl,” said
Vanessa Branco, who has been Ruzalski’s neighbor all her life
and his colleague at the United Forties Civic Association (UFCA) for
close to five years. “Whatever you needed, Joe would get. You
needed apple sauce—he would get you apple sauce.”
As a member and Block Watcher coordinator at the UFCA, Ruzalski walks
around much more now than he used to in his younger days, when his
truck driving job kept him in a sitting position most of the time.
Ruzalski said the beginning of his community activism was the result
of simple curiosity.
“I used to see people on the streets, protesting, while driving
a truck, so this was how I got interested in it,” he said.
The fact that Ruzalski has to use a cane to assist him with walking
makes his actively mobile style all the more impressive.
While Ruzalski never ignores any project concerning his community,
those directed at the future generations are at the forefront for
“Joe wants to preserve the environment for his grandchildren,”
Anthony Nunziato, CB 5 member and himself a Community Character,
agrees that environmental protection and neighborhood preservation
are high on the list of Ruzalski’s priorities.
“I remember his involvement with the Phelps-Dodge [cleanup]
project,” he said. “Nobody worked harder than him on
Ruzalski himself puts Phelps-Dodge at the top of the list when talking
about his achievements.
“This was definitely something that needed to be done,”
Most Outgrageous Moment
Branco recalls Ruzalski’s conduct during the recent protest
against the Cross Harbor Project as the defining element of the
“At one point [during the event], he was barely walking—his
feet must have been completely numb,” Branco said. “Congressman
Eric Gioia saw him and said, ‘Alright, get this man a chair.’
But Joe just shrugged it off, said, ‘I’m alright,’
and continued standing. It was inspiring.”
“Well, actually I didn’t refuse that chair for long,”
Ruzalski recalled with a chuckle.
Being a large man, Ruzalski has a “large” voice, as
Nunziato calls it. Like many other Community Characters, he gets
riled up pretty easily when people do not see eye to eye with him.
As his voice rises, he can seem somewhat intimidating.
“Sure he can intimidate people by the way he talks, but in
my opinion, that’s precisely the type of persons we need—someone
who knows how to get people to pay attention,” Branco said.
Nunziato thinks Ruzalski’s image stems from a great deal of
caring rather than meanness.
“It comes from how passionate you are,” he said. “Joe
has true passion for the community. He lives there, surrounded by
other people who live there and who equally care for the environment
in which they live. When you care so much, coming up against indifference
could make for some hot tempers.”
is a quantum leap for community boards. We’ve never had this
kind of data.”
nickname: The Doctor
Neighborhood: Jackson Heights
Favorite Issues: Immigration, Demographics and Technology
way a Swiss watchmaker admires the perfectly timed gears of a Rolex
is the way Arturo Sanchez appreciates an immigrant’s journey
from their homeland to the streets of Queens. Sanchez, an assistant
professor of urban studies at LaGuardia Community College, doesn’t
give lectures on immigration: he performs them. Cupping his hands
and sliding them across imaginary planes, Sanchez describes the
financial and sociological forces pushing new Americans into Queens.
During his talks he stands in front of colorful, digital maps generated
from his research, lending a laser-light show quality to a Sanchez
To study the shifting demographics in his neighborhood, Sanchez
brought the students to the sidewalks. Graduate students in urban
planning from Hunter College studied Corona Plaza by 103rd Street,
while Pratt Institute students recently began their study of 74th
Another milestone in Sanchez’s work was the creation of
the Community Mapping Assistance Program (CMAP). In collaboration
with the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), Sanchez
for the first time created a map that showed the ethnic clustering
of immigrants within a single community board.
“This is a quantum leap for community boards,” Sanchez
said. “We’ve never had this kind of data.”
Previously, decade-old census information asked people to identify
themselves within broad ethnic categories. “Most analysts
use terms like Hispanics, [but] we break it down into Mexicans,
Dominicans, Columbians” and other nationalities.
This newly analyzed information “changes the geometry of
information and leverage that community boards can now have,”
Donning an Indiana Jones-style hat and satchel, Sanchez replaces
one cigarette after another and delves into the market forces
and policies that bring immigrants into New York. His appearance
leaves some listeners unaware of the academic vocabulary and theories
about to come forward.
“Within each nationality there appeared to be a two-tier
economy that plays out spatially,” he said.
When the glazed look washes over the face of the lectured, Sanchez
knows he’s lost someone, and translates his Ivy-League ideas,
into laymen’s terms.
“The difference between Dominicans in Corona and Maspeth
is something akin to your parents when they moved out of their
ethnic neighborhoods and suburbanized,” he revised.
Shy to mention his outrageous moments, Sanchez preferred to discuss
his “most vivid moments.” That, he said, is when he
presented the CMAP information to CB 3 last year. “It was
bold because it was visual. It was the first time people saw clustering
patterns by ethnicities.”
has been a lot of over-development, a lot of luxury apartments.
I would put a stop to the
Favorite Issue: Tenant’s Rights
Sasson is a political insurgent, the sort of civic activist who
remains undaunted by long-shot odds or other factors lined up
Sasson is the sort of impassioned community do-gooder with his
roots firmly planted in local issues—he has led crusades
on behalf of his fellow residents as a leader of the Skyline Tenants
Association—but who does not hesitate to take his reformist
drive out into the community at large.
“I’ve been a resident of Flushing for 27 years,
I live on Kissena Boulevard,” Sasson said. “I’ve
been a New Yorker since 1956,” he added, “after
I came from Lebanon.” An experienced immigrant in a neighborhood
defined by newcomers, Sasson knows the dynamic pull of Flushing
“I was going to stay here for a few years and do some
post-doctoral work,” he recalled, “and 27 years
later I live in the same apartment.”
As a tenant’s rights advocate, he had focused on strengthening
rent stabilization laws. Over the years, he has taken the fight
to unscrupulous landlords and prevailed, forcing building owners
to restore services and trim back skyrocketing rents.
A veteran representative on Community Board 7, Sasson takes
an active role in shaping issues as both a critic of local problems
and a champion of causes that can help Flushing. As a member
of the Health Committee, he has worked to prevent cutbacks in
senior services and demanded compliance with federal and state
standards at area nursing homes.
In addition to these achievements, Sasson may well be defined
by his courage to challenge the political order in Flushing.
Last year, he took on the powerful incumbent councilman, John
Liu, in a bid to highlight issues he considered important for
“I am running for office because I see the changes in
my neighbor and Jon has not done the job he should have done,”
Sasson said at the time.
Though his campaign ultimately failed, his emphasis on political
independence led him to an alliance with Flushing businessman
Jimmy Meng, who successfully defeated incumbent State Assemblyman
Barry Gordenchik, earlier this year.
In a way, with Sasson on the ticket as a district leader candidate,
Meng’s victory represented a triumph for political underdogs
A one-time researcher at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer
Center and an associate at the Institute for Cancer Prevention,
Sasson did take one counterintuitive political pose during his
campaign against Councilman Liu: he criticized the citywide
When asked to name which of Liu’s City Council votes he
disagreed with, Sasson replied, “I think the thing about
the smoking.” Liu voted with the majority to ban smoking
at most city bars and restaurants.
The anti-cancer scientist explained, “People go to bars
to smoke, and now they are standing outside… People who
work in bars would know that that’s where people are going
to be smoking.”
Grace Meng, who helped run her father’s primary campaign
against an incumbent, praised Sasson’s tireless dedication
to the people of Flushing. “He is a very caring person,”
she said, “very involved in the community.”
Gene Kelty, chair of Community Board 7, called Sasson “a
ball of fire.”
“He gets frustrated when things get bogged down, but he’s
very tenacious. He is always ready with research.”
you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know
where you’re going.”
Favorite Issue: Historic designation of Douglaston
Sievers has lived in the Douglaston Hills community for more
than 40 years. He sees the history that is there. It’s
been around him long before he came to the area. So why has
it been so hard to get the bureaucrats and politicians to see
what he does?
“The emphasis has always been on Manhattan,” said
Sievers, who, since becoming a charter member of the Douglaston
Hills/Little Neck Historical Society in 1991, has fought tooth
and nail to have his community recognized as a historical district.
“Sure, that’s where the city started, but no one
really considers the historical significance of the outer boroughs.
“There’s a lot of history out here,” he added.
He’s still waiting for it to happen, but he’s
confident New York City Council will eventually vote to designate
Douglaston Hills as a historical district.
“They tell me it’s moving forward,” he said.
And it took a lot of work to get it to move at all. Sievers
has chaired the Douglaston Hills Committee for the historical
society for nearly 14 years and he’s become known as
the “relentless organizer” of the whole operation.
He was the one keeping the pressure on the politicians and
the Landmarks Commission. He was the one making phone calls,
mobilizing volunteers throughout the community. And he was
the one heading up all the research that goes into even applying
for historical designation.
“We’ve contacted politicians to get our issue
pushed into the limelight,” he said. “That was
a way to garner some attention. It was a group of people that
had to be kept on course to get the results we wanted, and
I guess that was my job. While this stuff is moving its way
through the bureaucracy, you have to keep the flame burning.”
You could call Sievers a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge
of the Douglaston Hills area. Some of his knowledge comes
from the hours of research he’s had to do throughout
the years. But a lot of it comes from his enthusiasm about
“There are limited opportunities in Queens County for
becoming acquainted and learning about what went on here 150-200
years ago,” he said. “That was a valid reason
to chase after this. This is an area where property sales
are not that frequent. There’s little turnover of residents
and some people are still living here who are descendents
of people that date back to the 1900s. There aren’t
many areas within the city that you can find a community like
“One of the main levers we kept pushing was of the 70
or 80 historic districts in the city, only five were in Queens.
That’s one historic district for every 400,000 residents.
It’s one-tenth of that in Manhattan.”
Co-founder and fellow vice-president of the Douglaston Hills/Little
Neck Historical Society Kevin Wolfe uses the word “piston”
to describe Sievers.
“He really threw himself into this,” he said.
“He’s kind of the leader of the pack on this issue.
He’s always been the guy who has kept the pressure up
and has been relentless and dogged in making this happen.
Without someone like that, you can’t be as effective.”
you are quiet, you get elected. If you speak out, you are
Favorite Issue: Women’s issues
Joyce Shepard published the Queens
Alternative, a newspaper dedicated to change, for two years
before folding it out of frustration for what she calls the
apathy of the people of Queens. Shepard was also involved
in a myriad of civic organizations and even ran for City Council
once, although she was happy to have lost, “Could you
imagine me working along side of Gifford Miller? I don’t
Among the more politically inclined in Queens, the name
Joyce Shepard has for a long time been synonymous with crazy.
But determined might be a better word. Although her greatest
achievement in Queens might be successfully lobbying for
public meetings to discuss the future of Fort Totten, her
work on domestic violence, her support of the mentally ill
and her fight against the use of the toxic pesticide Malathion
are also impressive feats.
But Shepard will tell you that bringing down Ross Perot
is by far her greatest achievement. She started an organization
called “Duped by Perot,” after she discovered
the presidential candidate was financially taking advantage
of grass roots organizers.
Shepard was featured on Dateline and her catch phrase “Grass
Roots Turned Astroturf” was used in newspapers all
across the country.
Every time the candidate came to New York, she hired a plane
to carry a banner deriding him.
Shepard is known for her fiery brand of affecting change.
At most meetings she would often speak out (scream out might
be a better way to describe it). She at times can be impressive,
intelligent, warm and affable. But at other times she can
be downright intimidating. When advocating for the mentally
ill, she organized more than 600 mental health consumers
and managed to stop traffic all down Broadway. And she isn’t
always exactly “politically correct.”
“In the beginning my strategy was to hold meetings
and write letters. But when that didn’t work I would
bring out my two by four,” she said.
In an effort to expose the deficiencies of the domestic
abuse help centers in and around the city, Shepard went
undercover as a battered woman.
“I think going undercover as a battered woman was
a little outrageous,” she said. “I was on the
telephone as an abuser trying to get treatment.”
She had discovered that most of the numbers and centers
offering help were not actually trained in helping with
domestic abuse. When she called, they would tell her that
they couldn’t help her. But her undercover work paid
off in the end.
“The first call I made was to a 24-hour hotline that
was listed in a book distributed by Borough Hall,”
she said. “They said they didn’t have domestic
Shepard said that these places were just listed in the book
in order to help them receive money from the city.
“Mayor Giuliani’s top man’s wife was a
lobbyist for a hotline and got them a $100,000,” she
said. “But that was the hotline that didn’t
do anything. I would call and ask them for a shelter and
they wouldn’t be able to help me.”
Shepard said there is still a lot of work to be done to
correct this problem.
But Shepard got the ball rolling and when Alan Hevesi did
a similar study he got the mayor to give $5 million more
toward domestic violence and 200 more beds in domestic abuse
Shepard has worked with many different people over her years
as an activist. But she said that her time was often tainted
by how she was treated as a woman. Shepard often found herself
fighting for change in a man’s world, which often
made things unnecessarily difficult.
“If a man did what I did, he would be the Mayor,”
she said. “When I do it I am either crazy or a bitch,
females are not supposed to bang doors to get justice.”
But Shepard is putting that behind her now as she intends
to spend more time with her husband and less time fighting
the powers that be.
from one generation is handed down to the next via history,
and the man in charge of the history of Astoria, one of
Queen’s oldest neighborhoods, is Bob Singleton.
As President of the Greater Astoria Historical Society (GAHS),
Singleton nearly single-handedly drums support and stirs
the crowd into turning out for his organization’s
lecturers, slide shows, and historical celebrations. His
family’s roots to Queens go back several generations,
giving Singleton’s mission of preserving the neighborhood’s
history, a personal touch.
In celebrating the rich history of Astoria and Long Island
City, there have been quite a few moments one could consider
“greatest achievements.” GAHS helped raise
the community’s concern over plans to demolish a
hundred-year-old church in order to build a smaller church
and residential units.
GAHS also helped publish “Images of America: Long
Island City” which contains 209 photos of the neighborhood.
The Dutch recognized the area as a village in 1839, roughly
60 years before Queens was incorporated into New York
City and 70 years before the opening of the Queensboro
Singleton’s group also helped celebrate the 100th
anniversary of the General Slocum disaster; hosts the
lecture series Civil War Saturdays, and routinely hosts
notable historians for one-time speaking engagements.
Mix methodical persistence, pinpoint accuracy, and familial
pride, and that’s Singleton.
Friendly and undeterred, he’ll pursue leads and
causes and sound the alarms to preserve the community’s
history. Reluctant to speak on the record, Singleton will
nonetheless speak at length about almost every topic relating
to local history, like: significance of various manhole
covers (now on display at the GAHS), the Ronzoni building
(who’s giant metal R is also on display), and Queens’
electrical grid, based in Astoria.
Congenial but unmistakably focused, Singleton seems most
at home when the room is full.
Exuberance may have gotten the best of the historic group
when they weighed in on a church’s decision to replace
it’s building with a cheaper, mixed-used facility.
On GAHS’ website, the group not only posted 27 photos
of the church, but also the following statements: “This
site requests architect’s renderings of the new
façade and the entire new complex. An educated
community and congregation should see what their future
Singleton called reporters and helped bring the church’s
situation to the attention of the entire borough. Singleton
said he has received anonymous e-mails from church members
concerned about the demolition plans, but was unwilling
to give any specific details about the e-mails.
Some would refer to Singleton as a walking encyclopedia,
and they wouldn’t be exaggerating. While some find
his persistence a bit much, those who’ve gathered
for a lecture, browsed the GAHS website, www.astorialic.org,
or simply glanced over the group’s exhibit would
call his work, tireless, and invaluable.
always told me I had no heart, I have now proved them
Favorite ISSUE: Zoning Regulations
Frank Skala has now had two heart
attacks, the second of which struck earlier this month.
To an outside observer it comes as no surprise that Skala
might have heart problems. He is involved in more civic
and community organizations than most people know exist,
he leads an epic adventure of a life (think whitewater
rafting and bungee jumping), and he has chocolate and
a Coke for breakfast.
It isn’t easy choosing Skala’s most outrageous
act, there are so many. But one of the most publicized
took place at a meeting of the 111th Precinct Council
in 1998. Skala, more than 60-years-old at the time,
vocally and persistently objected to the meeting’s
procedure. “They ran the meeting incompetently,”
he said. He was so aggressive that the presiding officer,
a captain, “flipped out, grabbed me, dragged me
out of the room and threw me out.”
Forcefully throwing a senior citizen out of a public
meeting is considered conduct unbecoming of an officer
and the captain was forced to retire soon afterwards.
Skala has been described as everything from a “curmudgeon”
to simply “loud.” A former public school
teacher at I.S. 25, he has developed a reputation for
being a thorn in everyone’s side. But, as is a
criteria for making this edition, his persistence is
mostly for the betterment of his community.
Skala’s most impressive accomplishment might be
establishing the East Bayside Homeowner’s Association
in the mid-1970s. The Association now boasts more than
450 member homes and it represents more than 4,000 families.
But Skala is best known for tirelessly maintaining zoning
regulations - he jumps on every opportunity to run a
detrimental developer out of town. His most recent project
is battling the expansion of St. Mary’s Hospital
Skala is omnipresent in the Bayside community. Besides
the Homeowner’s Association, Skala has been a
teacher, PTA president, minister, choir member, union
chairman, and he runs the Bayside High Alumni Association
- not to mention his acting career (he plays Santa Clause
Skala has taught more than 7,000 kids and it’s
a good bet they all remember him. One former student
wondered aloud in a college essay nine years later,
“I don’t know what is brighter, his clothes
or his bald spot.”
What makes Skala so memorable?
“I tell it like it is and I don’t really
care if they agree or not,” Skala said. “I
have no agenda that involves any kind of profit. Over
the course of four decades you can get a lot done. I
have an absolute ego that says I can do it when nobody
Frank Skala doesn’t call, he just shows up at
Councilman Tony Avella’s office whenever he has
an issue – which is often.
“Frank is certainly single-minded in purpose,”
Avella said. “When he gets involved with an issue
he doesn’t let it go until it is to his satisfaction.”
In regards to Skala’s crusades against zoning
violations Avella said, “Frank is certainly vociferous
in his opposition to development.” That’s
putting it politely.
Avella said Skala is unique and effective because he
doesn’t care what anybody else thinks. “He
is well-known for his Hawaiian shirts, he likes them
and he doesn’t care what other people think about
it. You have to admire people like that.”
Neighborhood: Jackson Heights
Favorite Issue: Recovering the bodies
of dead drug runners, or mules.
of every major and minor happening inside the borough’s
Colombian community seemingly passes through the tiny,
street level office of Orlando Tobon: a travel agent;
tax preparer, and funeral arranger for young drug mules.
Not the usual image of a Hollywood hunk, Tobon’s
work with the Colombian community reached new heights
when he played a fictionalized version of himself in this
year’s “Maria Full of Grace.” A stroll
down the streets of Jackson Heights is a testament to
how life imitates art. Strangers and friends alike now
refer to Tobon by his character’s name, “Don
Undoubtedly, for an activist who gets called in to recover
dead bodies of drug mules, “achievements”
are a murky topic. Those most indebted to Tobon include
the families of Colombians whose younger members are
lured to the states with the promise of a better life
and easy money.
In exchange for a free ride here, they swallow condoms
filled with drugs, turning themselves into human vessels
for a lethal amount of narcotics. If the condoms rupture,
death is all but certain. In a mule’s journey,
that can happen at any moment, and when it does, Tobon
is usually called.
For Tobon, the greatest achievement is the movie. In
it, audiences see the people, places and reasons behind
this phenomenon. Filmed in Jackson Heights, audiences
here see the characters act out stories they know in
places they know.
Like his reputation, Tobon’s presence is hard
to miss. Tobon, who moves at his own pace, is often
seen amidst a crowd of activist gatherings anywhere
along Roosevelt Avenue. Often times, if he’s not
speaking, he is standing right next to the event’s
Standing on Roosevelt Avenue, Tobon can be seen going
to or from his office, heading to a civic meeting, rally,
protest, or some other function. For a man so involved,
the one thing he doesn’t chase is the limelight.
In fact, holding Tobon long enough for a five-minute
interview is a task in itself. Juggling a travel agency,
preparing financing for a large swath of the Colombian
community in Queens, and sitting on more boards than
most people leaves Tobon with little time for interviews.
Tobon has helped orchestrate or been associated with
a number of protests in the area. In Jackson Heights,
especially during campaigns, that hardly is considered
an outrageous act. One highlight that did not go unnoticed
was when he stood alongside his Councilman Hiram Monserrate,
a man he criticized as being an outsider and corrupt,
in order to support Luis Rosero’s candidacy for
the State Senate.
According to activists in the area, this marked a major
shift in the sometimes-fractured Latino community. By
bridging the ethnic gap, Latino’s proved they
could mount extremely competitive races for local offices.
Some say it’s a matter of time before more leaders
in the Latino community follow Tobon’s lead.
Don’t think that a feature film has gotten the
best of Tobon. His CB 3 colleague, Shiv Daas, said Tobon
is “a very intelligent person, very down to earth.
We learn a lot from him.” When asked what sets
Tobon apart from other activist, Daas quickly responded,
“I think it’s his experiences. He has experience
with the community, and he works with different communities.”
Even without the widespread attention that comes with
being in a movie released world wide, Daas said Tobon
is a man many people in Jackson Heights gets to know.
“He’s always outgoing.”