In New York, especially within East Harlem, 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 and loud Latin' music. The Jewish and the Italian community felt
they were taking over and a terrible resentment started to build up and 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 accelerated this already smoldering resentment,
which led to the attacks." (2)
After this incident, many of the Jewish merchants kept their shops and adjusted
to the new inhabitants, willingly accepting the Puerto Rican businessmen and
The projects that were started in the forties, accelerated during the 1950s,
where many of deteriorating apartment buildings that had been built before 1901
in East Harlem, were razed. The projects were massive structures that covered
whole city blocks, replacing the smaller apartment buildings and brownstones. As
a result of these projects, African Americans and Puerto Ricans began moving
into them. The Italians were in a better financial scale, and did not qualify
for entry, so they moved out of East Harlem. In order to build these projects,
1500 shops were closed and 4,500 people unemployed in the process.
One of the features of the area was the Cosmo Movie Theater that was on 115th
Street between 3rd Avenue & Lexington. It was founded in 1922, a one story
building with 1405 seats. It was closed down in the 1980s.What a swarm of people
to get in. My family used to get free passes from the local cop by the name of
"Jack". I use to go a lot to the Cosmo during the 50s, even though gang members
would hang out in the area.
The first Puerto Rican Day Parade was held on Sunday, April 13, 1958, in
Manhattan and takes place annually along Fifth Avenue and has grown to become
the largest parade in New York City, attracting many politicians and
The famous "La Marqueta" on Park Avenue, during the 50s was the shopping center
for everybody in the neighborhood. It was then and still is a marketplace
located under the Metro North elevated railway tracks between 111th street and
116th Street on Park Avenue. It was a unique place known for its hustle and
bustle of shoppers chattering and hands gestulating wildly at the Jewish
vendors, and, where trains seem to rumble eternally overhead. The Jewish vendors
there knew enough Italian and Spanish in order to make a sale.
East Harlem now home to many recent diverse immigrants, is referred to as
Spanish Harlem or better yet "El Barrio." When asked "where do you live in
Manhattan? They would also proudly identify themselves with their block and
neighborhood and say , " Yo soy del Barrio. Vivo en la calle 110. (I'm from El
Barrio and I live on 110th street.) In the summer there is always the familiar
sight of the piragua man on each corner as well as the sidewalk domino players.
The delicious alluring aromas of roast pork, fried steaks with garlic and rice
with chicken, from the little cafes and restaurants located throughout Spanish
Harlem are carried by the summer breeze, enticing tourists as well as local
residents to enter through their doors.
So there you have now some background of what the 40s and 50s were like in East
Harlem, or better said Italian Harlem and Spanish Harlem.
FOOTNOTES (for the riot of 1926)
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)