Puerto Ricans are established as a large part of American society in today's world, but like many ethnic groups in America, they struggled and worked hard to find their place in the United States. While today, Puerto Ricans make a proud, strong cross-section of Americana, their story is quite unique and interesting. In part 1 of this 4 part series we studied the history of their early migration and the lineage of Spanglish, a immigrant of the English and Spanish language unique to Puerto Rican Americans. In this, part 2 of the series, we examine the growth of Puerto Ricans in American society through US History.
To Work or Join A Gang: The Puerto Rican Youth Dilemma
Puerto Rican youths struggled adapting to their new lives. Speaking English did not come naturally to them, and an ability to speak English was required to get even the lowestliest of jobs. Besides, their parents either could not get work or could not hold down jobs for the same reason, or they held menial labor jobs that paid little and offered a desperate future. Who wants that kind of life?
The options were simple: remain unemployed with little hope of a future while being hassled by your parents to help, take a low paying job at the bottom of the employment food chain or join a gang. For many Puerto Rican youngsters, the gang seemed the only logical choice, even though that could mean trouble with the law. But what was trouble with the law versus being a lackey? What was trouble with the law versus a sense of community with others like yourself? What was trouble with the law versus credibility and a sense of esteem in an otherwise prejudiced environment?
So many Puerto Rican teenagers joined the gangs for obvious reasons, and they disclosed in their new rough and tumble lifestyle, strutting like peacocks, armed to the teeth as they looked for trouble. Many were young and terrified of the potential consequences of their actions and of the potential harm that awaited them around every corner on any given day, but instead of admitting it and finding a way out, they bragged about their "bravado".
To the already established Jewish and Italian communities who dominated East Harlem prior to World War II, the Puerto Ricans with their culture and businesses were becoming a threat. They were catering to their own community and expanding far too quickly 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, which nobody understood, maintaining strong links to their homeland. They just did not fit the image of what was expected by the existing 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 the odors of Latin cuisine, Latin music, loud endless chatter and raucous laughter. Tensions accelerated as frustrated Jewish and Italian merchants began losing the loyalty of their clients, who were now soliciting their competitors. The Jewish and the Italian community felt that the Puerto Ricans were taking over. A terrible resentment started to build, which exploded into the "East Harlem Riot of 1926."
The East Harlem Riot of 1926
It was unusually hot that July of 1926 in East Harlem. People overwhelmed by the heat wave taken to the streets to escape oppressive apartments. The smoldering resentment developing against the increased presence of Puerto Ricans in the area of Spanish Harlem was fanned by the intense heat. Both Puerto Ricans and non-Hispanics alike, made of mostly Irish and Italian groups, began arguing, triggering an outbreak of fist fights and shattered bottles. For a whole week, gangs from both groups battled each other. Push-carts were turned over and stores vandalized. After several verbal and physical confrontations, including a riot, many of the Jewish merchants decided to keep their shops, but they adapted to the new immigrants, willingly accepting the Puerto Rican businessmen, even learning Spanish.
Attempts At a Changing of the Guard
By the time the 50's rolled around, East Harlem was normally dominated by the Italians and Puerto Ricans. The Puerto Ricans became such a significant and visible presence in East Harlem during the 50's, that the area gained the familiar name of "Spanish Harlem". At the same time, the Puerto Rican people began inundating the East Harlem district. Both Italians and Puerto Ricans found themselves caught up in a constant battle, competing for housing as well as educational and employment resources.
Surviving the Concrete Jungles of East Harlem
East Harlem became a powder keg after World War II all the way into the 1960's. Gangs like the Black Dragons, Italian Redwings and the Puerto Rican Viceroys faught constantly, terrorizing each other and the neighborhoods of East Harlem. Turf was cooked over, women were gone over, and blood was spilled over insults, real and imagined. East Harlem, in a nutshell, became a gang war zone, its rank and file manned by mere boys, mostly of Italian and Puerto Rican heritage. There were no rules. You could be hit from a bottle thrown off of a rooftop while walking to school, or gutted by a switchblade in an all out rumble.
Almost any reason was good enough to start a fight between rival gangs in East Harlem, and there were too many casualties to count. To many Puerto Rican teens, this, they believed their only option, an option that turned the streets of East Harlem into an urban jungle.
Statistics say that in 1952, about one million American teenagers were in trouble with the police. In New York City during the 50's there existed at least several hundred gangs. Benjamin Franklin High School was opened in 1942 on Pleasant Avenue between 114th and 116th streets. In the late 1940's, the area around Benjamin Franklin High School was controlled by Italian youth gangs, some say it was the Red Wings. It was "their turf," and if any African-American or Puerto Rican tried to use the Jefferson Park pool, they would be attacked. To make matters worse, even in the school the Puerto Rican students were assaulted. Benjamin Franklin was an explosive mixture, consisting of young people with active gang affiliations and kids from different neighborhoods. The dominant group, claiming their rights to Benjamin Franklin as "their turf," would threaten and attack gang members in the minority. The atmosphere was continuously charged with verbal and physical violence, prevalent in regular confrontations in the school yards, hallways or even in the bathrooms. There was vandalismpetrated against school property. Not only were Latinos assailed by the Italian gangs, but black students were targeted by a hail of bricks and bottles, rotted garbage would be thrown from the rooftops of the tenement buildings near the school. It was dangerous to go to school, and a lot of the students were downright afraid of being jumped on, beaten up, or knifed. They had no choice but to fight and defend themselves, be called a punk, or run as fast as their legs could carry them. Some students even joined gangs from either side just for security, whereas many dropped out of school between the ages of 14-17.