During the 1890s, a first small group of Puerto Ricans
arrived in East Harlem. The United States took possession of Puerto Rico at
the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and has retained sovereignty ever
since. In 1917 the Jones-Shafroth Act gave the islanders U.S. citizenship along
with the obligation of serving in the American armed forces . This newly
acquired citizenship allowed them to work and live in the United States as well
as travel without the need of a passport between the island and the United
States mainland. Puerto Ricans, in search of a better existence than what they
had in Puerto Rico, continued to migrate to the United States, after both World
Not aware that they would be facing a highly racialized labor market which would
deny them the opportunities to move into the American mainstream, a large number
of Puerto Rican families made New York City's East Harlem, their first mainland
destination. Assimilation to the American culture was not their priority. As
long as they lived here, they were going to preserve their heritage through the
Spanish language, music, and cultural activities and never completely cut their
ties with their homeland. Puerto Ricans by the thousands found employment in the
factories as unskilled operators and even as seamstresses in the garment
industry. They competed with other ethnic groups for the positions of unskilled
labor such as , maids, maintenance, dishwashers, janitors, doormen and laundry
workers. As the Puerto Rican population began saturating the East Harlem area,
both Italians and Puerto Ricans found themselves in constant conflict competing
for housing, educational and employment resources. As a result of air travel
commencing in 1945 and a one-way ticket from San Juan to New York costing less
than $50, the steady flow of Puerto Rican migration which had begun during World
War I, had reached an immense proportion, of circa 70,000 to 250,000.between
1940-1950 that it overwhelmed the communities that were already established
since the 40s, and began forming their own distinctive neighborhoods. Puerto
Ricans became an important and visible presence in East Harlem during the 1950s
that the area was given the familiar name of "Spanish Harlem", which is also
known as "El Barrio."
During that era of the forties through the fifties, the Italians in East Harlem
possessed a fierce pride and loyalty to their provincial customs and dialects.
They spoke their own language, ate their own ethnic foods, practiced their
customs and religion as if back in their homeland resenting the newly arrived
Puerto Ricans who were invading their territory with their strange language,
customs and loud music.. Assimilation to the American culture was not the Puerto
Rican's priority. As long as they lived on the mainland, they were going to
preserve their heritage through the Spanish language, music, cultural activities
and never completely cut their ties with their homeland. It was very difficult
and frustrating for the Puerto Ricans who had to leave the island seeking
employment on the mainland to speak English, which became a racial
discriminating factor for them in adjusting to their new environment . Out of
extreme necessity, in order to survive in the midst of a highly prejudiced
society, a new form of communication with its own vocabulary was created. It was
called "Spanglish." Spanglish was common throughout the neighborhood as
frustrated Puerto Rican residents struggled to pronounce correctly the strange
English words, which were new to them. Some say it is a mixture of Spanish and
English commonly used by the Puerto Ricans of New York or better said "Nuyoricans."
It is a jumble of English and Spanish words and phrases, switching back and
forth between the two languages. Also when the speaker is unsure if the word is
correct or not, then a Spanish suffix is added to the end of English words such
as in the word "plataforma" which means Platform. Here are a few examples of
Spanglish that were used then and moreso now.
1. Oye nene, ya comiste el lonche?
2. Mami, hecha me la bendición, que voy chopin. (cho-ppen)
3. Hay bendito, Ernesto lost his job y está bien pelao.
4. Hey honey, va a chequear el newspaper para ver si el show está allí?
5. Te veo ahorita, me voy de shopping para el mol.
6. Oye mi negro, Que vas hacer this weekend.?
7. Oye Marta, el hijo tuyo le gusta bulear a los otros niños.
8. Petra, voy al banco, to cash my check...vengo enseguida.
9.Juanito, come here and give abuelita un beso.
The Young Puerto Ricans who were reluctant to enter the labor force, after
seeing their parents discriminated against, and disappointed, because the
unskilled jobs that were available were limited by the language barrier. The
jobs were only given to those who could speak an English that was understood.
The unemployed parents in turn would put pressure on their teen-age son, to help
out. Not having any money for their living expenses created daily conflicts,
between the husband and wife, which would at times accelerate into domestic
violence. These young Puerto Ricans resented being pressured into joining the
mainstream's workforce. They knew that if they followed their parents footsteps,
the alternative for their future would be more of the same, unskilled low-paying
jobs with no possibility of advancement." Hell no man, that's not for me!" they
would say. It was easier to hook up with a gang or to organize one, which gave
them a sense of worth, belonging, and one of acceptance, something that most of
them were not able to find at home. Gang life meant solidarity and toughness in
a discriminating neighborhood. Yet, there were other young Puerto Rican youths
who loved and respected their parents, that grasped their responsibilities with
capability and understanding, working together as a family to excel themselves
in the face of a highly prejudiced society.
members, who wanting to look tough, imitated the Marlon Brando image, leather
jackets, black boots, slicked back hair, riding motorcycles such as viewed in
"The Wild One," therefore becoming known as the "Greasers" . Even other "Wanna
be Greaser" youths that were not involved in gang membership would also copy the
look. It was the fashion trend of that era. If you looked like a Greaser then
you were considered "Hep," or a Rebel. So then, what was the Greaser look? The
hair would be slicked back to the middle of the head, then with the end of a
comb make a center parting, applying lots of petroleum jelly or olive oil
resulting in the famous DA (Duck Ass) hairstyle. It also had a pompadour in the
front with long side burns., The Greasers would, wear a rolled up t-shirt
sleeve (black or white) tight trousers, baggy gray or blues, Levi jeans with
rolled up cuffs, and denim or leather jackets with the collar turned up to be "hep."
which was the popular look of those days. They also wore black boots. Toward the
mid fifties tattoos became more popular among the Greasers. The teenage girls
would wear their hair up and back in a pony-tail style with bangs. Most of them
wore bobby socks and saddle shoes, with their circular felt skirts or other
round skirts supported by petticoats, that had all sizes of poodle appliqués.
They loved the tight pullover sweaters and would wear a scarf knotted in a
cowboy fashion at the side of their neck , capri pants (known as peddle
pushers), and tons of make-up.. It was an era viewed as down-right rebellious
between parents and teen-age offspring's.
Gang violence was a frightening reality during the 40s and 50s. The East Harlem
atmosphere became explosive, with rumbles between the black Dragons, Italian
Dukes, Puerto Rican Viceroys and the Italian Redwings. Puerto Ricans and the
Italian teen-agers clashed with one another to establish and maintain their turf
and honor. These rumbles were easily set off by the side that was looking for a
fight, whether it was over the boundaries of their turf, establishing claims
over streets and parks, testing their machismo and as usual petty things over
their ladies. The girls had the protection of the gang and if any of them would
be insulted, which in many cases were fabricated stories just to provoke a war,
they would defend her honor, even if they all knew she was a whore. The Greasers
anywhere from fourteen to nineteen years old would strut with their chest pushed
out, carrying with them zip guns ready to fire just in case, baseball bats and
switchblades which were common weapons back then. Yeah man, it made them feel
real macho, cool and tough, they were prepared, anytime, for a good rumble,
knowing that no matter how afraid they were, they would not admit it. Racial
slurs tossed back and forth provoked frequent confrontations which would many
times result in death or being hospitalized with crushed heads and serious
crippling injuries from switchblade knifings, beaten by tire chains or shot by
bullets. Some members of the gang in preparation for a rumble would store on the
roof tops piles of gravel-filled milk bottles, bricks, cinder blocks, iron scrap
and whatever else they could find to use as ammunition.
Statistics say that in
1952, about one million American teenagers were in trouble with the police. In
New York City during the 50s there existed at least several hundreds of gangs.
Benjamin Franklin High School was opened in 1942 on Pleasant Avenue between
114th and 116th streets. In the late 1940s, the area around the Benjamin
Franklin High School was controlled by Italian youth gangs, some say it was the
Red Wings. "It was their Turf," and if any African-American or Puerto Rican,
tried to use the Jefferson Park pool, they would be attacked. To make matters
worse, even inside the school the Puerto Rican students were assaulted. Benjamin
Franklin was a volatile mixture comprised of young people with active gang
affiliation and kids from different neighborhoods. The dominant group, claiming
their rights to Benjamin Franklin as "Their Turf," would threaten and attack
gang members that were a minority. The atmosphere was continually charged with
verbal and physical violence, which were prevalent in frequent confrontations in
the school yards, hallways or even in the bathrooms with vandalism against
school property . Not only were the Latinos assaulted by the Italian gangs, but
the black students as well would be targeted as a barrage of bricks, bottles and
rotted garbage would be thrown from the rooftops of the tenement buildings near
the school. It was dangerous to go to school, and a lot of the students were
plain scared of being jumped on, beaten up every time, or knifed, so they had no
choice but to fight and defend themselves, be called a punk or run as fast as
their legs could carry them. Some students would even join gangs from either
side, just for protection, whereas many would drop out of school at ages 14-17.
Peddle Pusher, Skirt with Poodle, Photo Courtesy of
BowlingShirt.com. All Rights Reserved.