By Joel Wolfram, Monica Espitia, and Mary Hanbury
ELMHURST — When the World Cup kicks off every four years, the city’s local Argentine community comes out in droves to the bakeries and restaurants at Corona Avenue and Junction Boulevard to cheer on their homeland's team.
El Gauchito, a butcher shop and steakhouse at the corner, wheels in big screens so the rowdy fans don’t miss a second of the matches as they wash down bites of chimichurri-covered rib eyes with house sangria.
If the team wins, the streets swell with revelers in soccer jerseys beating drums and blaring trumpets.
But when Pope Francis comes to the city Thursday evening, the celebrating in this part of Elmhurst on the Corona border known as La Esquina Argentina will be much more subdued. In fact many Argentine immigrants said they aren't planning any of the parties and gatherings that surround a soccer match.
“We are not doing anything special,” said Marcello Civelli, the manager of El Gauchito.
“If the pope came around here, this would be the corner. But he isn’t coming this way,” he said, referring to how Francis plans to stick to Manhattan during his two-day trip to New York.
The pope may be Argentina’s biggest export and his trip to the city may be a once-in-a-lifetime event, but the level of excitement among the South American country’s ex-pats hasn’t reached the fever pitch that two teams and a soccer ball generates.
Civelli and other residents said reporters are making a bigger deal of the holy trip than they are.
"The pope's visit has brought us great publicity because a bunch of media have come to cover stories here," Christian Jimenez, a manager of El Rio de La Plata, an Argentine bakery and coffee shop.
He said he doesn’t mind the attention because it has boosted business at El Gauchito and El Rio De La Plata.
La Esquina Argentina is just a thumbnail of Elmhurst — essentially the corner of Junction Boulevard and Corona Avenue. El Gauchito, another restaurant, La Esquina Criolla, and El Rio De La Plata are all located at the corner. The rest of businesses along the strip are restaurants serving the cuisine of other South American countries.
The Argentine population in the area is just as small — and shrinking. There were a little more than 400 Argentines living in this Queens neighborhood as of 2013, according to a review of census data by the demographic website Social Explorer.
“It’s still an Argentinean corner, but not like before,” said Gerardo Sportella, a Buenos Aires native who came to the United States 23 years ago, sipping coffee at El Rio De La Plata.
Despite the dwindling Argentine population in Jackson Heights, the pope’s visit hasn’t gone completely unnoticed.
Murals of the pontiff — hand-painted in the colors of the Argentine flag — decorate the windows of El Gauchito and La Esquina Criolla, a restaurant on the other side of Corona Avenue.
And the Argentines living in Queens said they are proud one of their countryman is leading the Catholic Church.
“We love the Papa very much,” said Lilia Felice, 85, who moved to Queens in 1970 from Buenos Aires, the Pope’s hometown. “He loves his country and he is very good with poor people.”
People also appreciate his inclusive approach to faith.
“He doesn’t care what kind of religion you are. He wants to bring everyone together,” said Tony Jorge, 62, another Buenos Aires native.
Mirta Rinaldi, an Argentine cooking instructor, told a story that underscores the humility that so many local Argentines admire in their compatriot. When he left Buenos Aires for the Vatican, she said, Francis called his local newspaper kiosk to personally explain to the owner that he would no longer be coming by to pick up his daily newspaper.
He’s a “very down-to-earth guy,” she said.