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Jesús Colón Writes and Fights for Puerto Rican New Yorkers

The progressive mutual-benefit organization the International Workers Order (IWO) was located at 80 Fifth Avenue for its entire lifetime, from 1930 until 1954. A pioneering force in the U.S. labor movement, which was in many ways grounded in the area south of Union Square throughout the twentieth century, the IWO took incredibly strong positions for civil rights, and fostered an interracial membership. At its height, the IWO enlisted 188,000 members, who participated in fifteen language federations. One of these, the Cervantes Fraternal Society — also known as Sociedad Fraternal Cervantes — organized the IWO’s Spanish and Portuguese-speaking members. The Society was led by a renowned Puerto Rican author and labor activist, who contributed to Communist publications rooted in the neighborhood, and penned a groundbreaking text.

Jesús Colón, c. 1973. Photo courtesy of Jesus Colon Papers / Center for Puerto Rican Studies via People’s World.

The Cervantes Fraternal Society was formed on March 31, 1931, a year after the IWO was founded at 80 Fifth Avenue. Named for the sixteenth-century writer Miguel de Cervantes, the Society encompassed thirty Spanish and Portuguese-speaking lodges of the IWO. There were ten lodges in New York, and some of the most active were La Vanguardia Puertorriqueña and La Mutualista Obrera, which were largely powered by women.

80 Fifth Avenue, 2020.

The Cervantes Fraternal Society’s leader, Jesús Colón (January 20, 1901 — May 14, 1974), was a major figure in the city’s Socialist and Puerto Rican circles. His life and work have been thoroughly documented by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at CUNY’s Hunter College, which maintains a digitized archive of the Jesús Colón papers. According to the finding aid, Colón was born in Cayey, Puerto Rico, and was active in political movements from a young age. As a student, he joined San Juan’s newly formed Socialist party, and moved to New York City in 1917 to live with his older brother. When he arrived, he worked in factories, and as a dockworker, dishwasher, waiter, and postal clerk.

Colón soon plugged into the city’s Puerto Rican community, and started engaging with local labor organizing efforts. In 1918, he participated in founding the first Puerto Rican committee of the Socialist Party in New York. He was also involved in the early development of Alianza Obrera Puertorriqueña, Ateneo Obrero, “Sol Naciente,” and La Liga Puertorriqueña e Hispana. As the head of the Cervantes Fraternal Society, Colón made strides promoting youth activities such as choral, dance, drama, and sports groups.

Jesús Colón with community labor organization. Photo courtesy of the Jesús Colón Papers, 1901-1974, Hunter College.

Colón was also a prolific fiction and nonfiction writer, who sometimes used the pen names Miquis Tiquis and Pericles Espada. He contributed to publications including Gráfico, El Nuevo Mundo, Vida Obrera, La Voz, Liberación, La Tribuna, and the Puerto Rico-based Socialist newspaper Justicia. Beginning in 1955, Colón wrote a column for the Communist Party papers the Daily Worker and Daily World, which have strong roots in the neighborhood south of Union Square. The Communist Party headquarters was located at 835 Broadway starting in the 1930s, along with the plant of the Daily Worker. Around 1945, New Century Publishers, which published the Daily Worker, was located at 832-834 Broadway.

Correspondence from Jesús Colón of Cervantes Fraternal Society, May 2, 1949. Photo courtesy of the Jesús Colón Papers, 1901-1974, Hunter College.

In 1961, Colón published what is perhaps his best-known work, A Puerto Rican in New York and Other Sketches. A series of vignettes, the book chronicles his experience finding jobs and housing in New York City, and offers a portrayal of Puerto Rican New Yorkers that challenges and transcends racist stereotypes. It is considered one of the first books written in English by a Puerto Rican author about the Puerto Rican experience.

Colón’s literary pursuits paralleled his political ambitions and connections in New York, Puerto Rico, and Latin America. He was active in the Communist Party of the USA, supported the Puerto Rican independence and labor movements, and even ran for office several times. In 1969, Colón ran for New York City Comptroller on a Communist Party ticket. At other points, he sought a seat in the New York State Assembly and the New York City Council as a member of the American Labor Party.

Sociedad Fraternal Cervantes membership form. Photo courtesy of the Jesús Colón Papers, 1901-1974, Hunter College.

The career and accomplishments of Jesús Colón, which is very much intertwined with the International Workers Order at 80 Fifth Avenue and the buildings associated with the Daily Worker, deepens our understanding of the neighborhood south of Union Square as a center of the labor, leftist, civil rights, and social justice movements. Without a doubt, the IWO shaped and was shaped by the tireless advocacy of Colón, who put Puerto Rican New Yorkers at the center of his efforts. While the IWO disbanded in 1954 following House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigations and legal action by the State of New York during the Red Scare, it had a profound influence on the development of many New Deal reforms, especially the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act. The IWO, the Cervantes Fraternal Society, and Jesús Colón built a robust foundation for the continuing fight to provide and protect human rights internationally.

Protect the Neighborhood South of Union Square

Village Preservation has received a series of extraordinary letters from individuals across the world, expressing support for our campaign to landmark a historic district south of Union Square. For more information on the International Workers Order at 80 Fifth Avenue, please read the letter of support from Dr. Robert M. Zecker, Professor of History at Saint Francis Xavier University and the author of “A Road to Peace and Freedom”: The International Workers Order and the Struggle for Economic Justice and Civil Rights, 1930-1954. We also highly encourage you to read the letter of support from Dr. Elissa Sampson, who digitized the International Workers Order (IWO) and Jewish People’s Fraternal Order (JPFO) archive for the Cornell University Library Digital Collections. The archive is held at the Catherwood Library at the Industrial Labor Relations School (ILR).

To help landmark this and other buildings in this area, click here. To read more history of the buildings and area south of Union Square and our preservation efforts, click here.

Sources

Jesús Colón Collection, Brooklyn Public Library

Jesús Colón Papers, 1901-1974, Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College

“Jesús Colón: A Puerto Rican in New York,” People’s World

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