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.
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.
Laborers during World War I: The Deposition of Rafael Marchan and
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
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
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. "
" 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
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)
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,
Puerto Rican Day Parade
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