Cruisin' the 50s in Spanish Harlem
 

By Miriam Medina
 
 

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 Wars.

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.

Gang 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.

FOOTNOTE:

Peddle Pusher, Skirt with Poodle,  Photo Courtesy of BowlingShirt.com. All Rights Reserved.

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Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: Cruisin' the 50s in Spanish Harlem
Author Miriam Medina

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