Spanish Harlem 1939


Though called Spanish Harlem, this district is not the home of Spaniards but of Latin-Americans. European Spaniards have their own small colonies on West Fourteenth Street and in the vicinity of cherry Street. Living in the Harlem quarter side by side are Puerto Ricans, Cubans, American Negroes, West Indian Negroes, South Americans, and Mexicans. Puerto Ricans are in the overwhelming majority, numbering about one hundred thousand persons, or 85 percent of the area's population.

Spanish Harlem first acquired its present character after the World War, when thousands of Puerto Ricans and Latin-Americans came to New York. Poverty, famine, or successive political upheavals in their native countries drove these people to the United States. They settled in Harlem because of the cheap rents and the sympathetic environment. Sixty percent of the residents, however, have not been able to obtain regular employment since their arrival. The section around the 110th Street station of the Lexington Avenue subway, with its clutter of shops, tenements, and dime movie houses, is typical of the community.

The neighborhood's more important business places are on Fifth and Madison Avenues, between 110th and 116th streets, and on 116th Street, east and west of Fifth Avenue. These range from small well-kep0t shops to fairly large and prosperous establishments. Numerous restaurants offer such typically Spanish food as arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) and gazpacho (Andalusian stew). Much of their patronage is drawn from visitors, who have more money to spend than the local residents. Noticeable, too, is the number of music shops with large assortments of mandolins, Spanish guitars, lutes, and bandurrias, phonograph records, and such sheet music as La Violetera (The Violet Seller), La Partida (The Parting), the universally popular La Paloma (The Dove), and other old favorites.

The near-by side streets are crowded with lightly stocked drygoods stores, bodegas (grocery stores) and carnicerias (meat stores) and with blocks of old, broken-down houses, their stoops alive with people.

It is perhaps the PUBLIC MARKET PLACE that expresses most vividly the Latin-American character of the locality. The market, owned by the city, extends along Park Avenue under the New York Central viaduct, from 111th to 116th street. Its block-long, steel-and-glass sheds, replace an old pushcart market. Besides little green limes, tangerines, oranges, bananas, and lemons, many tropical fruits grown in the various home-lands of the inhabitants of Spanish Harlem are in season displayed here. Piled high in the racks are avocados (sometimes called alligator pears), mangoes with their strong flavor of turpentine, guavas from Cuba, and melon-like papayas, the leaves of which the Puerto Rican wraps around tough meat to make it tender. Tamarinds are sold to make a lemonade-like drink called tamarindo; and the long brown roots of the tropical cassava swing overhead.

Garbanzos (chick-peas), red kidney beans, dried peas, and lentils are in open sacks. Strings of fiery red peppers hang above their sweet-flavored kin, the pimientos. From the spice stalls women pick twenty or thirty different varieties which are mixed and stuffed into one bag. Fish of all kinds are on display, including huge tuna sold in slices.

The women shoppers move about with dignity: fair-skinned Creoles with dark eyes, lean-faced, copper-complexioned Spanish Indians, sensitive-looking West Indian Negroes. Voices are musical, and bargaining is done in a friendly spirit. The first price asked is always more than the Puerto Rican vendor expects to receive: regatear (to bargain) is the custom in his country.

To Spanish Harlemites bargaining is more than a tradition; to save a few pennies is a necessity. Those who succeed in finding employment work as poorly paid domestics or at menial occupations in hotels, laundries, cigar factories, or on Works Progress Administration projects; women and girls earn meager wages in local embroidery shops. Racial discrimination and lack of opportunity to learn skilled trades have kept both sexes from better-paid jobs.

Many Puerto Ricans suffer from malnutrition and are physically so underdeveloped that they are rejected for manual labor. Their diet in New York, except for the addition of a few vegetables, remains much the same as in their native land: a roll and black coffee for breakfast; for the other meals canned tomatoes, white rice, dried fish, and meat about twice a month.

In Spanish Harlem, the death rate from tuberculosis is high compared to the 52 per 100,000 for white persons in New York as a whole: among white Puerto Ricans the rate is 200 per 100,000; for colored groups, 553 per 100,000. The district's infant mortality rate is the highest in New York.

With little money to spend, the residents of this neighborhood have few and simple amusements. They attend the cheap movie houses, and the TEATRO LATINO, at Fifth Avenue and 110th Street, and the TEATRO HISPANO, at Fifth Avenue and 116th Street, which show Spanish-language films, many of them made in South America and Mexico. (The Hispano also presents Spanish vaudeville.) They gather in the evening at each other's homes to talk and entertain themselves over cups of black coffee. The different national groups have their favorites among the inexpensive restaurants and cabarets, where there is much music and festivity on Saturday nights. Several cafes and night clubs, featuring Cuban music, draw their patronage from the Spanish-speaking element and from visitors.

Cock-fighting, a sport that is legal in Puerto Rico but illegal in New York, goes on now and then in Spanish Harlem. The place and time are carefully guarded; the audience gathers surreptitiously in a basement or empty room, where a small shallow wooden "ring" has been laid with dirt and sand. The cocks' steel-tipped talons are examined carefully by their sponsors. The birds are brushed, caressed, huskily exhorted, and then let loose amid excited betting and low-pitched cheering. Not till one of the cocks lies dead is the fight finished. Then the winner is embraced, washed, and hurried into hiding.

Most of the Latin-Americans in Spanish Harlem are of peasant or peon stock. The majority are American citizens. (All Puerto Ricans are.) They have an intense love of their homelands, and despite an occasional flurry of nationalist jealousy, a warm sense of neighborhood solidarity. Almost all are property less working people. They have their own political clubs, and during the past few years some organizations that were once interested primarily in the politics of the homelands, have become powerful pressure groups fighting for improved conditions in Spanish Harlem. As a result, their influence in city politics has increased. In 1937 this district elected O. Garcia-Rivera, a Puerto Rican lawyer, to the new York State Assembly.

The majority of Spanish Harlemites are Roman Catholics. The neighborhood Catholic churches include St. Francis De Sales, 137 East 96th Street; St. Cecilia, 220 East 106th Street; and Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, 77 St. Nicholas Avenue. The Iglesia Metodista Episcopal, 1664 Madison Avenue, where services are held in Spanish, is an outgrowth of a Methodist mission among Puerto Ricans and other Spanish-speaking people in New York.

The most important holiday observed in Spanish Harlem is DIA DE LA RAZA (Day of the Spanish Race), celebrated on Columbus Day by all Spanish-speaking people. They hold a ceremony in front of the statue of Columbus, a copy of the one in Madrid by Sunol, the Spanish sculptor at the south end of the Central Park mall.


Website: The History
Article Name: Spanish Harlem 1939
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: New York City Guide Random House-New York Publishers.(1939) Copyright by the Guilds' Committee for Federal Writers' Publications, Inc.
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