Monday, January 17, 2011

Crusin' The 50s In a Volatile East Harlem (2)

By Miriam B. Medina

(Continue from page: 1)

The Young Puerto Ricans were reluctant to enter the labor force, not only after seeing their parents discriminated against, but also after witnessing their parents disappointment. It was required that the applicants should have some knowledge of the English language, even though it was for an unskilled job. The unemployed parents, in turn, would put pressure on their teen-aged son to help out. These young men knew from experience that if they followed in their father's footsteps, it would only encourage more of the same consequences to occur in their own lives. They would end up working 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 respect, something that most of them were not able to get at home. Gang life meant solidarity and toughness in a tough, discriminating neighborhood.

Gang violence was a scary reality during the 40's and 50's. The East Harlem atmosphere became explosive. Rumbles between the black Dragons, Italian Dukes, Puerto Rican Viceroys and the Italian Redwings erupted daily. The wide-spread, never ending battles were fought in order to establish and maintain domain and honor between the Puerto Ricans and Italian teen-agers. They dominated the already tensed area of East Harlem. These rumbles were initiated by whichever group that was asking for a fight, whether it was over the boundaries of their turf, establishing claims over streets, parks, testing their manliness or, as usual, petty things like rumbling over their ladies.

The girls had the support of the gang, and if any of them were insulted, which in many cases the stories were fabricated just to provoke a war, her honor would be defended. Even if the gang knew she was a whore. The Greasers, anywhere from fourteen to nineteen years old, would strut with their chests pushed out, carrying zip guns, ready to shoot just in case, baseball bats and switchblades at the ready. It made them feel real macho, smart and tough, boasting of their readiness for a good rumble, knowing that no matter how scared they were, they would not admit it. Racial slurs flung back and forth starting fights, many times resulting in death or hospitalization, with crushed heads and heavy, crippling injuries. Young men cut by switchblades, beaten by tire chains or shot by bullets. Some members of the gang would accumulate piles of gravel-filled milk bottles, bricks, cinder blocks, iron scrap and whatever else they could get to use like missiles and hide them on the roof tops before a fight. Anything was fair with no rules.

To be continued: Crusin' the 50s In a Volatile East Harlem (3)

Miriam B. Medina is an Ezine Author at Platinum Level at

To contact: or

No comments: