Erika Velazquez Alpern
Erika Velazquez Alpern, founder of Tactile, an agency created to #changetheratio, is Puerto Rican and Jewish, an aesthete and an intellectual, an ambitious entrepreneur and a touchy-feely cuddler, a lover of gefilte fish and totally scarred by cow tongue.
What is the story behind your name?
The name that I was given was Erika Ann Velazquez, now Alpern.
I was named after my mom’s uncle, Ezekiel, who passed away before I was born, but my mom’s brother was named Eric, so people always assumed that I was named after him. My dad is Hispanic, but not a religious Catholic-Christian-y person. People made assumptions based on my last name. They’d say, “You’re named after your uncle,” and I would respond, “Well, no, because, in Judaism, you name your kids after people who have passed to honor them.”
Tell me about where you grew up and how that influenced your childhood.
I grew up in Riverdale, but, when I say Riverdale, I feel like people are thinking,”Did you go to Fieldston?”
No, not that Riverdale. Just blue-collar Bronx Riverdale.
It’s changed quite a bit, but, when I was growing up, it was a combination of Jewish and Irish Catholic people, and maybe some Hispanic people. It’s New York City, but there was something very suburban about it. It is kind of a strange culture clash, not necessarily an integrated place.
I have five younger siblings. Because I grew up in such a large family, when I think about the place where I grew up, I think more about my house and my family.
What was your kid personality?
I try to tap into my kid personality sometimes, because I was fearless, energetic, outgoing, like a bouncing bean. I was a very social kid. I got a bit more shy as I became a hormonal teenager, but I was quite the spunky one.
Did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up?
My dad’s a musician, my mom’s an artist, and I really loved singing.
I was convinced that I was going to be a Broadway singer when I was younger.
I signed up for every show I could possibly get into. I would always try to get a solo. I was on the Pokémon movie soundtrack.
How did Judaism play a role in your younger years?
My mom was a typical Upper West Side Jew. Not super religious, but not one to eat pork. She was very culturally Jewish, and, when she married my dad, she said, “We are only going to do this if we can raise our kids Jewish.”
My dad didn’t really feel a connection to religion. He grew up in a large family, and they were more connected to their Hispanic roots. Around the time that my dad and my mom got married, his parents moved to Virginia and became born-again Christians.
Growing up, we always felt very Jewish, but we would go to Virginia and be surrounded by our family, which was increasingly more Christian, and we would be lighting the menorah next to the Christmas tree while they were wrapping gifts. I just assumed that it was normal and that everyone had that experience.
When I think about Judaism growing up, my mind goes to breaking the fast at my mom’s aunt’s house and being surrounded by a bunch of other Reform Jews who were like, “Cool, it’s 4:00pm, I haven’t really been fasting that much, we’ll just eat the bagels and lox now.” It was very cultural, but no one ever missed Yom Kippur, right?
What advice would you give your teenage self?
It will all be okay. It’s all going to work out.
I was always very good in school, then I went to high school and had a really hard time my freshman year. My grades were horrible. That was so not me, and I started skipping school. I went to another high school and graduated as the valedictorian.
Do you have a personal mantra?
When I was working for someone else, my mantra was, “Don’t stress.” Also, “Keep pushing forward.” As in, don’t dwell on the past. Now, I have to reverse that mantra as a entrepreneur. When you focus too much on growth, it actually becomes quite stressful and crippling.
My new mantra is “Celebrate the wins. Celebrate the wins. Celebrate the wins.”
When do you feel like the best version of yourself?
I thrive in a bit of chaos. I feel like my best self when there’s momentum. I’m energized by that. I’m also a bit of an extrovert, and I’m energized by other people. Because I work in a services industry, if I’m doing well and there’s momentum, it also means that I’m surrounding myself with a lot of interesting people.
What’s your biggest insecurity or fear?
When things slow down too much, it’s easy for me to get lethargic and feel creatively stuck.
I compare it to when I worked in a restaurant. If it was really busy, people got good service, because you’re in motion, but, if it was dead and there were no tables, the one table that came in was going to get the worst service in the world because everyone was tired and convinced that they were making no money that night. When there isn’t enough going on, I don’t have that spark that leads to inspiration.
How did you and your husband meet?
We were working at Angelica Kitchen and both doing the artist thing. We were instantly friends, but it wasn’t like we met and then went on a date. It happened very organically. We lusted after each other for a bit, then it turned into love over time.
He is a perfect complement to me. He is a phenomenal, creative human being, and a true intellectual. I am a very visual person, but I also want to be able to discuss policy and politics with someone. We both appreciate those things. He’s a bit more of an introvert, and I’m a bit more of an extrovert. We really balance each other out. I will just like keep going, and going, and going, and he’ll suggest, “Why don’t we just sit in the park and not make plans today?” And I’m like, “That’s a possibility?”
What is something that has surprised you about being married?
The strength of it. The difference in being married versus living together.
We lived together for a couple of years, and I didn’t understand the transition that actually getting married would create.
We thought it would be the same because we live together, and we’re so close, and we love each other so much. But, the ceremony, the ritual aspect, created this new chapter in our relationship.
What do you value in your friends?
Affection, warmth, openness, and dependability.
All of my friends are the types of people who would drop anything if you needed them and are extremely warm, cuddly people. I’m a very affectionate person, so I find other people who are like, “Okay, we’re going to cuddle and talk about our feelings for the next five hours.”
How does Judaism play a role in your daily life?
My husband and I are trying to create our version of a Jewish home. We like to do Shabbat every Friday night, but we are still figuring out how to get our shit together to do it. Sometimes, our Shabbat is an apple that is in the fridge for fruit of the vine, but, we still do it, and it’s nice to be committed to the cause. There’s something about Shabbat that sets the tone for the weekend, and there’s something about lighting the candles that is like, “Okay, you’re leaving the work world and going into the weekend world now.”
Being in New York, I feel extremely culturally Jewish. I’m married to someone who’s Jewish, my best friend, who lives right across the hall, is Jewish, so, it just comes out.
What do you love most about New York?
I love the fact that it’s a diverse city, and, as someone who is both Puerto Rican and Jewish, I forget that that’s not typical, an everyday mix of ethnicities. When I leave New York, I realize, “I’m a little different.”
Being in a city where you are constantly surrounded with different ethnicities, different backgrounds, different economic statuses is really important to me.
I hope that New York continues to be a space like that. It is hemorrhaging creative people, because they can’t afford to live here, but I’m hoping that it turns a corner and stays the city that it is supposed to be.
What, or who, is your biggest inspiration?
My mom. She is Superwoman. She has six children, so, that alone is pretty amazing. My mom was an entrepreneur. She is an artist, and she started an art gallery in the 80’s. It was one of the first art galleries in the East Village, and it was called New Math.
She’s also an incredibly giving and warm person, and I aspire to have this balance of being driven and entrepreneurial and warm and giving. We’re very close.
What is the best bargain you’ve ever gotten?
I just discovered The RealReal. I was so overjoyed – too overjoyed – by this discovery of a consignment online store. The past few nights, I have stayed up too late because I’ve been on The RealReal, scrolling infinitely. I sent my husband four links to different Marni dresses, and I asked, “Should I buy these?” He actually didn’t respond. That reminds me…
Worst Jewish food, best Jewish food?
I was about to say, “I love all Jewish food,” and then I remembered going to my great-grandmother’s 90th birthday and my uncle chasing me with a cow tongue. I would say that is the worst.
My favorite is my sister-in-law’s gefilte fish. I also love a bagel with whitefish salad and onions, more than anything.
Photos by Elena Mudd