The Ebb and Flow of East Harlem's Ethnic Changes

By Miriam Medina

(Page: 5)

The Puerto Rican Community

Puerto Ricans have lived in the mainland, United States, since at least the 1830s. 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....They did not have to go through the Ellis Island Immigration processing which Europeans and other Latin Americans had to endure.

" Large, corporate-financed sugar plantations transformed Puerto Rico’s agricultural economy and displaced thousands of subsistence farmers from their own land, forcing them into the rural wage labor force. "The unemployment level in Puerto Rico began to rise to crisis proportions. American entry into World War I created labor shortages in many industries on the mainland. The Department of Labor made plans for bringing more than 10,000 Puerto Rican laborers to the U.S. to work on war-related projects. A total of 75,000 unemployed laborers were available for work in the U.S. The War Department agreed to transport workers to labor camps in the United States where they would be housed and fed while working on government construction contracts at defense plants and military bases. The Puerto Rican workers would receive 35 cents an hour, pay 25 cents a meal and receive free housing. Many of these work camps, however, subjected the new migrants to harsh conditions and even forced labor. In 1918 and 1919, almost one hundred Puerto Rican migrants died in Arkansas labor camps.

"See articles: Puerto Rican Laborers during World War I: The Deposition of Rafael Marchan and The Origins of Puerto Rican Migration.

The men who could not find jobs had the option of joining the United States Military. One of the most noted military units at that time was New York's 369th Infantry to which many Puerto Ricans and African-Americans belonged to. 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. Though they lived in dilapidated neighborhoods and old broken-down houses left behind by the previous immigrant residents, they still managed to establish a cultural life of great vitality and gregariousness. The people of "El Barrio "always banned together as a group united in their common interests.

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. Their only and major anxiety at that time was to find the means of surviving economically. 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. Some of the Puerto Rican women would take in boarders or provide childcare for the working mothers in order to supplement their income. Here and there throughout East Harlem religious shops, bodegas, restaurants and other businesses were beginning to sprout. During the summer months, almost on every corner was the familiar sight of a man selling "Piraguas," ( shaved ice with a thick flavored syrup over it). Delicious and so refreshing, especially on a hot day.

 Loud Latin Rhythmic music would blast through the open windows and doorways of apartment dwellings penetrating the ears of reluctant hearers. Puerto Ricans have always loved their music and plenty of it back then and even now, whether they are cooking, doing the laundry, cleaning the house or driving a car. There is something in the rhythmic beat of Latin music that reaches into their very soul. Their  style of musical compositions incredibly rich in Latin variations of tone, blend the base ingredients of rhythm, melody, and harmony  sounded by one or more instruments  which may include trumpets, trombones, saxophones, piano, drums, maracas, cowbells and guitars.  For many of the Puerto Ricans  in "El Barrio," dancing was an escape from the frustrations of their daily lives." It didn't matter how tired they felt or how miserable their lives were, as soon as their bodies were swept up by the passionate rhythm they would become rejuvenated , literally dancing until  they dropped.

There was a growing popularity of Latin dance music during the early forties. Latino dancers from all over Spanish Harlem would flock to the "Park Palace Ballroom" located at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue, El Caborojeño and Broad-way Casino, two popular dancehalls on the west side of Manhattan, the Palladium ballroom down in mid-Manhattan, the Grand Plaza and Tropicana in the south Bronx or go to the Roseland Ballroom located on 51st street taking advantage of their Latin Tuesdays which were always packed, for an evening of Latin rhythmic excitement. As the musicians played their instruments to the greatest names in Latino music, "the partners , skins flushed with perspiration would spin around the dance floor, whirling around each other. Their hips and shoulders swaying in time, and feet marking the beat of the music" to rhumbas. boleros, guarachas and the mambo. The young busty Latin women would heat up the atmosphere as they moved seductively, swaying their curvacious hips to the beat of the drums. Occasionally a flirtatious  remark made by another male dancer who had a little too much to drink, would set off a verbal confrontation between both men that would lead to an outright street brawl of switchblades and broken bottles as others would rush to their defense. Unfortunately, for the people from "El Barrio" there  never was a dull moment even when they wanted to have a good time.

The rhumba was the rage of the thirties. Then there was the mambo craze of the late 40s and 50s which gave way to the cha-cha-cha. Then in the 1960s, a native form of dance music became popular among New York's Puerto Rican population which was called "Plena." After that there was the merengue, the bachata and now the famous salsa.

Many of the Puerto Rican musicians who were struggling to make a living became part of the mainstream by joining with other ethnic band groups playing at the ballrooms. Those from "El Barrio," who didn't go to the nightclubs, would stay at home and have their own loud parties on the weekends. On unbearable hot nights many families would sit on their stoops and spend hours in loud endlesss chatter and laughter until the wee hours of the morning irritating the neighbors who wanted to sleep.

When the Puerto Rican population began saturating the East Harlem area during the 1930s through the fifties, many Italians continued to remain in the neighborhood. With the increase in population of this new ethnic group's arrival , both Italians and Puerto Ricans found themselves in constant conflict competing for  housing, educational and employment resources. 

The 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 gang members, 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, iron scrap and whatever else they could find to use as ammunition. I remember seeing this when we used to go up to the roof to get sun in the summer.

The 30s, through the 60s was an age of teen-age rebellion, drugs and alcohol and outright disrespect for parental and school authority. The traditions of Puerto Rican parents clashed with their children's American ideals.

There were those 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.

Those in the first generation of arrivals learned as much English as they needed to get by, but mostly spoke Spanish at home. Out of extreme necessity, in order to survive, 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: "Oye mi negro, Que vas hacer this weekend.?," "Mami, hecha me la bendición, que voy chopin. ", "Jorge wachale how the troka se parkea." For more examples of Spanglish visit thehistorybox's page of Spanish Harlem.

In New York, the Puerto Ricans also suffered the same hardships and racial discrimination that earlier immigrants such as the Irish, the Italians and the Jewish Community had to endure . Good paying jobs were not available to  them due to the lack of the English language  and special working skills. They were labeled as minorities suffering widespread discrimination by the hiring practices of businesses.

To the already established Jewish and Italian community who then dominated East Harlem and its economy prior to World War II, the Puerto Ricans with their culture and businesses were becoming a threat because they were catering to their own community and expanding far too rapidly throughout the neighborhood. The Puerto Ricans were apparently different. They had and still have great pride in their national heritage. They spoke the Spanish language that nobody understood, maintaining strong links  to their homeland. They just didn't fit the image of what was expected by the current residents. They began replacing the Jewish Delis and Italian grocery stores and markets with their religious shops, bodegas (grocery stores) and restaurants, as well as filling the air with their Latin cuisine aromas and music. The Jewish and the Italian community felt they were taking over. A terrible resentment started to build up, which exploded into the "East Harlem Riot of 1926."

These are excerpts from two sources that reflect on the Riot of 1926.

"The precarious proximity of disparate groups exploded in the East Harlem Riot of 1926. The trouble started during July when a heat wave drove people out of their stifling apartments into the streets. Arguments arose, tempers flared, fights broke out, and bottles were thrown. For a week, gangs of old residents battled gangs of new residents. Pushcarts and stores were vandalized on both sides of the ethnic divide. Each group boycotted the other groups' businesses. Over fifty people were badly hurt and three Puerto Ricans were arrested. " (1)

" In July 1926, Puerto Ricans were attacked by non-Hispanics as their numbers were becoming larger in Manhattan neighborhoods. the "riots," took place in the intense heat when Harlem residents literally lived in the streets to escape their suffocating dwellings. The influx of Puerto Ricans, the most recent arrivals in the area of Manhattan called Spanish Harlem, provoked racist hostility among non-Hispanic neighbors, who were mainly of Italian and Irish stock. . The overwhelming heat excelerated this already smoldering resentment, which led to the attacks." (2)

As a result of this, La Liga Puertoriquena e Hispana was established to unify Puerto Rican clubs and organizations in New York City.

After this incident, many of the Jewish merchants kept their shops and adjusted to the new inhabitants, willingly accepting the Puerto Rican businessmen and learning Spanish.

Statistics say that by 1930 there were approximately 100,000 Puerto Ricans living in New York City.

In 1944, another wave of 11,000 Puerto  Ricans migrated to East Harlem, and in 1945, the year air service was introduced between San Juan and New York an additional 13,500 arrived. A one-way ticket from San Juan to New York could be bought for less than $50. Then in 1946 an astounding amount of 40,000 migrated to  East Harlem.

The majority of the Latin population that lived in Spanish Harlem were Roman Catholics.  Some of the churches that they attended included St. Francis De Sales at 137 East 96th Street, the Iglesia Metodista Episcopal at 1664 Madison avenue, St. Cecilia at 220 East 106th Street and Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal at 77 St. Nicholas Avenue.

"The first New York Puerto Rican Day Parade was held in “El Barrio” in Manhattan. Amongst its founders were; José “Chuito” Caballero, Peter Ortiz, Luisa Quintero, Victor López, Luis Amando Feliciano, Vicente Hernández, Angel M. Arroyo, Atanacio Rivera Feliciano, y Amalio Maisanave Ríos. Its first President was Victor López and it was coordinated by José Caballero. The Grand Marshall was Oscar González Suarez, Esq. Prominent personalites from Puerto Rico headed by then Governor Don Luis Muñoz Marin, attended the initial parade. Several Mayors from Puerto Rico, led by the Mayor of the Municipality of Corozal, Hon. Leo Cabranes also participated." (4)

Though many Puerto Ricans have endured great injustices, inhumanities, and severe hardships they were able to overcome all barriers  which crossed their path , becoming respected members of their  communities, contributing their talents and knowledge to the city of New York and the United States as a whole in the fields of arts, entertainment,  politics, and much more. Their lifestyles have improved as economic opportunities and patterns of development have emerged. It has been an extremely slow uphill climb, for the Puerto Rican community to make their voices heard and their rights respected though attempts to intimidate and stifle that voice are still being made.

Since the early 1990's there are an estimated 15,000 Mexicans living in East Harlem. New arrivals are Latinos from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Central and South America and Africans from the Caribbean and West Africa, Turkish for Eastern Europe and Chinese. (3)


The great injustices, inhumanities, hardships, pain and suffering endured by our early ancestors who have sought refuge on our shores cannot in anyway possible be ever minimized or forgotten.

As long as America is viewed as the land of opportunity, the continuous ebb and flow of East Harlem's endless ethnic succession will never cease to fill the voluminous pages of New York City's rich and turbulent history.


1) The restless city, A Short History of New York From Colonial Times to the Present By Joanne R. Reitano (2006)

2) Dictionary of Latino Civil Rights History by F. Arturo Rosales (2006)

3) The Empire City New York and its People 1624-1996 by Selma Berrol,

4) Puerto Rican Day Parade

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Website: The History
Article Name: The Ebb and Flow of East Harlem's Ethnic Changes
Researcher/Transcriber written by Miriam Medina


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