Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Ethnic Neighborhoods

A street in Chinatown, NYC
A street in Chinatown, NYC

Loisaida. The Lower East Side. Chinatown. Little Italy. K-town. New York City is full of what are referred to as ‘ethnic enclaves,’ areas where a significant portion of the population shares the same ethnicity. I grew up in on the Lower East Side in the 80s and 90s which had a large Puerto Rican/Nuyorican population. Many people were bilingual and the comforts and foods of home were accessible. There’s something about eating a hot alcapurria when it’s snowing that is a bit comforting. A bit farther south of the bodegas, joyerias, cuchifritos and churches of the largely Latino population were the delis, garment stores and synogogues of the Jewish population. Fixing grocery on Saturdays meant seeing people coming back from synongogue; sometimes I’d run into my friend from school. Farther south on East Broadway the open air fish and produce grocers, storefronts and restaurants of Chinatown surrounded me. In HS my best friend took me to a Indian neighborhood in Queens where we stared at the gorgeous jewelry in the jewelry store windows, drank lassi and looked at movie theater posters for films with amazing dance numbers.

When people immigrate to a new land, they tend to find people they can relate to to help them settle in. Different reasons might drive populations from their country or land of origin in large numbers but once they arrive at their destination, a bit of familiarity makes the move a bit easier. When the location won’t fill in the hole, someone who speaks the language, has the same traditions or is even a distant relative or friend of a friend will make the move less scary. Sometimes people arriving might find while technically they are allowed to be in certain locations, they are not always welcome. In addition, well established and nicer areas might not be financially feasible. Unsettled or undesirable land might be what is available and through hard work and working together, a community can be built.

Once these communities are established, many newcomers gravitate towards these neighborhoods, hoping to gain from the experience of those already settled. The already established want to help their friends and fellow countrymen succeed, offering tips, housing or even employment if they’ve set up their own businesses. People settle down, start families, put their children through school, send home money to loved ones. They build grocery stores, religious communities and recreational centers where they can teach tradition and language. They bring their food, their martial arts, their style of dress, their music, their ceremonies. Sometimes they start organizations, both legitimate or illegal. Sometimes they dream of ‘going back’ but sometimes the conditions in their homeland make it undesirable or even impossible. Some do go back. And others stay, becoming citizens, contributing to the society and culture they have decided to stick with through thick and thin.

Most major cities will have ethnic diversity; in the same vein, if there is diversity, it will probably be concentrated in cities. Despite how New York City is depicted on television, it’s rare to go a few blocks without seeing someone whose family came from a different part of the world than your family. Cities being centers of commerce, business and major ports, they tend to have the most varied populations, the streets rippling with the sounds of different languages, the scent of different foods, the color of different kinds of clothing. Sometimes ethnic differences can stir up trouble but at the end of the day a vast majority of people want to be happy, safe and with their loved ones.

Ethnic neighborhoods in your campaign can expose your PCs to various issues, both political and social and is a good way to prime them for a trip to another country or region where the culture is different. Depending on your character’s background, a trip a few blocks down can be an eye opening experience or a respite from spending most of your time in a culture that doesn’t understand you. What comforts and adventures can ethnic neighborhoods offer in your setting?

For GMs

  • What ethnicities lie within your setting? Where did they relocate from? How long ago? Did they come all in one huge wave? What facilitated or necessitated their move?
  • What kinds of communities have they set up within the larger region? What part of the city do they live in? What are the boundaries of their neighborhood and how were the boundaries set? How have they grown over the years?
  • Why have they settled in the locations they have? Was the land similar to home? What was made available? The first safe place they could find? Empty?
  • What kinds of businesses have they set up? Do they import foods and goods from home or have they adapted to local fare and offerings?
  • How many generations are currently living residing in the country?
  • What issues did the population face in their homeland? What issues do they face in the new country? Security? Lack of food? Illness? Prejudice? Lack of resources?
  • Are there any locations where they make up a majority of the population, despite not being the indigenous one?
  • Does their country of origin have any issues with/affiliations with other countries? When their descendents meet in the cities of the land they’ve immigrated to, what happens?
  • How are they similar to the indigenous culture? How are they different?
  • How easy is it to move out of the neighborhood? What are reasons for wanting to leave? Reasons for staying?
  • When are people with different backgrounds considered citizens? What can they do to gain citizenship? Are their children born here considered citizens?

Plot Hooks

  • All the PCs grew up in the same neighborhood and have the same cultural background but have since moved away. When someone they have in common invites them back for an important function/ceremony, they run into old acquaintances and customs and must maneuver through the ‘old ways.’ What things are asked of them? Who do they meet? Who did they have connections to? How long are they ‘in town’ for?
  • When an ethnic neighborhood starts creeping into another neighborhood, setting up businesses and moving into domiciles, the PCs are hired to sabotage the storefronts and make the place unappealing to the newcomers. What reasons are given as to why these newcomers aren’t welcome? How do the PCs go about keeping them away?
  • While traveling through the countryside, the PCs come across a town populated by people from a different culture altogether. Far removed from the country they originated from, they have set up a small community that appears to be thriving. How did they all arrive there? Do the surrounding towns and villages know they’re there? How have they acclimated to the dominant culture? How do they receive the PCs? Do the local authorities know they’re there?
  • When the country goes to war with another country, the neighborhood that corresponds to the enemy country comes under scrutiny. The PCs are sent to see who goes in and out, monitoring the populace and watching for spies. When people start disappearing, their neighbors and friends are too afraid to give any information. Why are the people disappearing? Has the mood changed in the neighborhood? How are the people treated by others? Do the PC suspect anyone in the neighborhood and how are they regarded by the would-be traitors?
  • The PCs are all parents/guardians of children who attend the local language and tradition school, where the next generation is taught the ceremonies and ways of their people. When the government decides to cut funding which would shut the school down, the PCs are sent to convince the government otherwise. Why is the government pulling its funding? Where does the funding from the school come from? Why do they as parents care and why are they the ones sent? Can they obtain the money for the school elsewhere? What would it mean if the school were to close down? How many schools would be affected?
  • When crime becomes a problem in the neighborhood, the local police force blames it on the tempers and attitudes of the citizens, blaming their background for their violent behaviour. The PCs investigate the reasons for the sudden uptick in crimes. What kinds of crimes are on the rise? Who is committing them? Who is helping to commit these crimes? What are the police threatening to do to curtail the lawlessness?
  • After a few years of trying to establish itself in a new land, the elders of the community decide to try and hold one of the larger festivals publically and invite citizens to join in the revelry. The PCs are selected to help organize the event and spread the word. What is the large festival about and when is it to take place? What must be prepared? Why is this the first year it is being held on this scale? Which elders proposed the event? How does the local government respond?

For PCs

  • Did you grow up in an ethnic neighborhood? Are you part of an immigrant group that came here from another region/country? Born to one of these groups?
  • What have you heard about the different neighborhoods? Are their neighborhoods you go into for certain reasons/items? Ones you avoid? Ones you avoid at certain times?
  • How have you seen the neighborhoods change over your lifetime? Do you think they’ve changed for the better or worse?
  • Do you like places with more diversity or less?
  • What do you do in neighborhoods where the cultural background is different from your own? Do you just eat food? Buy goods? Talk to people? Receive services (clothes washed, armor repaired)?
  • If someone invited you to their home in a neighborhood you heard questionable things about, would you go?

What say you? Where we come from can be a big deal, both geographically and culturally. One doesn’t have to leave the country to necessarily encounter someone very different from us. The differences and similarities can make for a wild ride indeed. Do you have ethnic neighborhoods in your town or city? How can you translate that to your campaign?

Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Death by Census

Taino Village in Cuba

I grew up in New York City and was a student of the public education system for seven years. Therefore, every year we spent the obligatory 30 minutes on the indigenous people of New York, the Iroquois and the Algonquian. As much as half a page of the outdated history book mentioned the Five Nations, the existence of longhouses, the “Three Sisters,” and how they were susceptible to dying from European-borne diseases. Scalping of course was mentioned. The history of native New Yorkers starts with them.

When I got older, I learned about the indigenous people of Puerto Rico, where my maternal family is from (as I mentioned in this earlier article). These people were the Tainos. They called Puerto Rico Boriken which means “Land of the Valiant Lord.” The Taino people lived in villages ruled by caciques, grew cassava, beans, peppers, cotton and more. They worshipped the cemis, made weapons, held festivals, and built boats. The history of these people, as well as that of the Caribs and the Arawaks that also populated the Antilles, is very interesting, a wealth of information that would work in many campaigns. I  encourage you to read up on their customs, their deities, their matrilineal inheritances, their clothing, and all that on the internet, in books, or by visiting events if you’re lucky enough to live near one.

The Taino population, like most of the indigenous populations of wherever Europeans trod, were basically forced to deal with the invaders’ germs, greed, and really terrible idea to not bring women along with them. Smallpox and other diseases destroyed the population, ill-treatment drove many to suicide, and scores died at the hands of the Spaniards. Groups of Tainos all over the Caribbean rose up and fought the Spanish, while other groups of Tainos fled, hiding in the hills and jungles they knew so well. Catholic priests spoke out against the ill-treatment of the indigenous people of the Caribbean, but still the indigenous people were enslaved, maimed, killed, and beaten. The Spanish took indigenous women as wives to gain land or just used them to sate their lust. The Taino population dwindled. The mestizo population grew. Slaves were brought in from Africa to make up the work force.

And then the Spanish census just…stopped counting the Tainos. Official inquiries were made into the number of Tainos left and many Spaniards answered there were none. In the Census of 1790, 3,000 “indios” were counted in one area of Puerto Rico. Later censuses, in an effort to streamline the process, just failed to have Taino as an option. Again and again, records claimed the Tainos were all gone, though other records named people who were clearly of indigenous descent. Intermarriage changed the face of the population, but the traditions, the language, and the knowledge were all still there. Physically, culturally, the Taino were alive. On paper? They were gone. It was easier.

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