Cryptocurrency 101 in the South Bronx


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Carlos Acevedo, a teacher at a public high school in the South Bronx, recently invited a group of his former students back for a two-day course in cryptocurrencies. He planned to cover decentralization, blockchain, peer-to-peer networks, and fiat currencies. Each student would then get five dollars, in a form of cryptomoney called Zcash, to spend. “After these two days, you’re going to be the one per cent,” he told the twenty-five young people who had gathered at the South Bronx Business Lab. “You’re going to know more about cryptocurrency and blockchain than ninety-nine per cent of people out there. You have the opportunity to get in on the industry right now.”

Until last month, Acevedo taught English at Morris Academy, in Morrisania, which is in the poorest congressional district in the country. Having read about Bitcoin, he started investing in cryptocurrency in 2014, and he’s been hooked ever since. He views it as a way of helping what he calls “the unbanked,” so he created the Crypto Community Project, with the goal of building a cryptocurrency economy in the South Bronx.

Acevedo, who wore a Zcash T-shirt, reminded the students that they were in the Forty-first Precinct—known as Fort Apache, he explained—which was at one time “the most dangerous precinct in New York City.” Low-income neighborhoods like theirs often lack banks where people can open savings accounts or apply for loans; instead, they rely on pawnshops and check-cashing joints that charge huge fees. Over truck noise on the Bruckner Expressway outside, Acevedo said, “For the first time in history, if you have a phone you can participate in a worldwide economy without the need of any bank.”

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Mejreme Musaj, who had braces and wore her long brown hair in a bun on top of her head, raised her hand. “When we first talked about Bitcoin in your class, I thought, Criminals,” she said.

Her friend Ashley Perez Camacho, a science major at City College whose nails were painted blue, cut in. “I see it like an ideology, the people taking control,” she said. “But how does this not create chaos? How is this not going to—?”

“Blow up the world?” Acevedo said.

“Let’s say this is the next big thing, instead of Chase and TD Bank,” Musaj said. “Wouldn’t crime rise more?”

“You guys are going heavy,” Acevedo said. “I’m not talking about machine guns on the street. It’s not ‘Mad Max’ out there.” He suggested that they take a break to eat; trays of “Puerto Rican and Italian-Bronx dinner” had been laid out.

They piled paper plates with rice and beans, pernil and chicken parm. “I believe capitalism is built to collapse, and then go back up, collapse, and go back up,” Perez Camacho said. “So how does Bitcoin actually fit into a capitalist system?”

Musaj answered that she wasn’t sure, but that cryptocurrency might come in handy when she wanted to send money to her relatives in Kosovo.

Brandon Gonzalez, who had carefully styled hair and wore torn jeans, said that he had already invested a hundred dollars in Bitcoin but that he knew it was risky. “I don’t have a thousand dollars I can just lose like that,” he said. “I’ve seen Bitcoin go down. It was ten thousand, then down to seven thousand, in an hour. And later it goes back up.”

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“I got into Bitcoin at thirteen,” Alexis Ortiz Estrella said. He had a pair of headphones around his neck. He was interested in computers as a kid, and then his father, a landscaper, introduced him to the cryptocurrency Ethereum. “So we invested, like, four dollars, because we didn’t have a lot to invest,” he said.

“What happened?” someone asked.

“Gone,” he said, in two days. “We didn’t realize we could lose it real quick.”

Most of the other kids said that their parents didn’t know that they were dabbling in cryptocurrencies. “My mother will think I’m wasting my money,” a girl named Teshura Francis said. “That I’m, like, throwing it away.”

“I talked to my mom,” a bespectacled boy named José Pimienta added. “Even with trading stocks, she’ll tell me, ‘No, no, no!’ She don’t really know—she don’t understand it.”

After dinner, Acevedo was planning to explain the concept of digital wallets, and there would be a presentation by representatives of Gemini, the cryptocurrency exchange founded by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss.

“Nobody tells us, ‘You could actually do this,’ ” Perez Camacho said. “Having someone tell us, ‘This is how the real world works’—I like that. You’re at a young age, in high school. I appreciate that a lot. I know more than my mom.” ♦

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