Saturday, August 15, 2009

"The Ebb and Flow of East Harlem's Ethnic Changes"

By Miriam Medina

My five page essay focuses a particularly long lens on New York City's early immigration as well as the progression of East Harlem's ethnic changes prior to and during the 1940s and 50s. This ebb and flow of a diverse ethnic population has had a tremendous historical significance forming an interesting part of the early history of this city.

(excerpt) from the Puerto Rican Community page:

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.

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.

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 melody, harmony and rhythm, sounded by one or more instruments which may include, trumpets, trombones, saxophones, piano, drums, maracas, cowbells and guitars. For many of the Puerto Ricans living 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.

As the musicians played their instruments to the greatest names in Latino music, the partners would whirl around each other marking time to rhumbas. boleros, guarachas and the mambo. The young busty Latin women would heat up the atmosphere swaying their curvacious hips to the beat of the drums.....(more)

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