The play, “Cuento que me cuentan” by Pregones Theater of the South Bronx told the story of a group of poor and desperate, but strikingly hopeful and resilient farmers at turn of the 20th century Puerto Rico as they are recruited to work for a sugarcane company in Hawaii. They are cramped with thousands of their compatriotas in a small ship with very little food or sympathy, watching their friends and families escape in route until they rebel and take over the ship from its gringo crew. While for many in the audience this obra teatral invoked a submerged history, for me, in the context of my recent trip to New York City, it did so much more. It set the stage, so to speak, for the idea that the history of Puerto Ricans of the Diaspora (in the United States) cannot reside in the unspoken past, but must live forever in the hearts and minds of our communities and inform our future. If not, we will surely collectively die.
When the major writings of Jesús Colón, a Puerto Rican migrant to La Gran Manzana in the early decades of the 20th century, were compiled in a book called “A Puerto Rican in New York,” a nascent community of struggling tobacco workers came alive for the first time to many Boricuas living in the city in the 1960s. This written history echoed in a conversation I had with Lucila Rodríguez, who allowed me to stay at her home during my trip. While overlooking the neighborhood in Queens of my adolescence across the East River from a park in Manhattan, she recollected the story of her aunt who came to the city in a cargo ship in 1926. With a big smile that betrayed a sparkle in her eyes, she sounded out in a deliberate boricua accent the ship’s name – “the Marine Tiger,” following it with laughter. Lucila, herself, was born in one of the Diaspora’s oldest communities – El Barrio/ East Harlem - only a few blocks away from where our island’s national poet, Julia de Burgos, died in the 1950s. This location is now adorned with a mosaic while across the street there is a cultural center named after her. History is indeed, all around us.
While taking the Bronx bus #2 down the Grand Concourse, from Fordham Road, only a few blocks from where my parents met in the 1980s, I could not help but think of Paseo Boricua as I saw Puerto Rican flags flying from window after window. Nonetheless, Puerto Rican New York is in a sad state of affairs, as Justino laments. Its institutions are moving more into the “mainstream” and shaking off thier Puerto Rican-focuses. The Puerto Rican Day Parade, the largest in the country, is becoming more of a showcase of the latest brands and corporations instead of our cultural traditions and nuances. The Puerto Rican university organizations are disappearing and losing their connection to the community. And, of course, the Puerto Rican community itself is being displaced, as expensive high-rises are eclipsing the brownstones that Boricuas resided in for decades. This is not just in New York, but in every place Puerto Ricans have struggled to create community, from New Haven to San Francisco. There are still groups of dedicated and brilliant Boricuas in these cities willing to develop their communities, but for the most part the Diaspora, its institutions, and with it, our history are eroding.
The slogan of this newspaper is “Advocating for the Preservation of our ‘pedacito de patria’ – our piece of motherland, a piece of Puerto Rico away from home. When those poor farmers from Puerto Rico were persuaded, under false pretenses, to slave in Hawaii, they turned around and created a lasting community that, after over a hundred years, still exists and claims its puertorriqueñidad. The same is detailed in the New York chronicles of Jesús Colón. But it is slowly dying. Walking down Paseo Boricua, the Puerto Ricans of Chicago have created a community like no other, from age-old institutions like the Puerto Rican Cultural Center to new ones like the Institute for Puerto Rican Arts & Culture and with so many young people leading the way. And of course nowhere can you find two 59-foot Puerto Rican Flags and so many Puerto Rican-owned businesses in one street. Some might see this as a ghetto in comparison to neighborhoods of the rich and privileged, but we must see it as a shinning star of communities that have struggled and that continue to struggle. But as we enter intense and trying times, as our rents and property taxes go higher and pessimism takes hold on some of our people, one thing must remain certain: that a Puerto Rican community must exist on Paseo Boricua and Humboldt Park, and can only do so with the support of our people and our leaders. Hopefully, in decades to come, when someone asks what is the story of Paseo Boricua, we will not just be a story to be told but a history that is still living.
Originally published in the "Fíjate" column of the August 2009 edition of La Voz del Paseo Boricua newspaper