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400 Years of Hispanic History in Our Neighborhoods

Over 2.4 million New Yorkers, or nearly one-third of its population, identify as Hispanic or Latino, including myself. National Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15) is one of many occasions that allows us to reflect on the impact that Hispanic and Latino residents and revolutionaries have had on our neighborhoods for over 400 years.

A dramatization of Juan Rodriguez meeting the Native Americans in what is now called Manhattan.

Juan Rodriguez, a mixed-race Dominican man, became the first non-indigenous resident of what would become Manhattan when he arrived in 1613. Rodriguez worked as an independent fur trader after refusing to continue employment with the Dutch trading company with whom he arrived. The first true “settlers” of New Amsterdam would not arrive for another 11 years, making Rodriguez the first immigrant, the first black person, the first merchant, and the first Latino to live in New York City.

The Dutch West India Company would eventually target the island, which was considered to be part of the Spanish-Americas, and populate the city with Spanish slaves as they gained control over Caribbean islands. When Peter Stuyvesant arrived in 1647, his official title was “Director General of New Netherland, Curacao, Bonaire and Aruba.”

New Amsterdam was staunchly anti-Spanish, and anti-Catholic, a prejudice that survived under English rule. However, the American Revolution changed everything. Because the Spanish had rendered economic and military aid to the Continental Army, Spaniards, and “papists,” who were not allowed to vote in New Amsterdam, were welcomed in post-revolutionary New York City. Spanish diplomats, soldiers, and merchants flooded the city, and the revolutionary zeal that had created the new United States sent an anti-colonial spark around the Latin world, drawing Caribbean revolutionaries to the city.

Gonzalo de Quesada y Arótegui, author of War in Cuba, a chronicle of Cuba’s 10-years war, was a longtime New Yorker, and a graduate of NYU Law School. Via Museo del Barrio and NYHS

By the mid-1800s, a significant community of Cuban immigrants had popped up in Greenwich Village. The Spanish Benevolent Society (now more commonly known as Centro Español-La Nacional) was founded as a social club in 1868 (when the Cuban community had ballooned to 600 people spread out of Greenwich Village and between Union Square and Madison Square) and has long operated in the transitional style row house at 239 West 14th Street.

The Spanish Benevolent Society still operates today, helping Hispanic and Latino people explore their culture through tours, film festivals, and classes.

It’s one of the last vestiges of the cultural district formerly known as “Little Spain”, which was located on this stretch of 14th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. It was here that revolutionaries and dissidents plotted to free Cuba from Spanish rule. Some 60 years later, avant-garde poets and artists, among them director Luis Buñuel and writer Federico García Lorca, would sit in those same seats and stay in those same rooms, the latter famously writing sections of his anthology Poet in New York during his stay at the Society.

The Young Lords march in NYC to help regain the rights of mainland Puerto Rico.

Later in the 20th century, the East Village and Lower East Side became a hub for New York’s Latinx community and Puerto Rican migrants in particular. From the late 1960s to the early 1990s, the East Village saw many major social and cultural moments involving the Puerto Rican community. On July 26, 1969, several young Puerto Rican activists gathered in Tompkins Square Park to start a New York chapter of the Young Lords. The group fought for the rights of mainland Puerto Ricans and supported the island’s movement for independence, while working with other marginalized groups like the LGBTQ+ community and the women’s movement for greater equality at home.

The Nuyorican Poets Café’s current location at 236 East 3rd Street.

The Nuyorican Poets Café was originally located at 505 East 6th Street, but since 1981 has operated out of 236 East 3rd Street. It was co-founded by writers Miguel Algarin, Pedro Pietri, Miguel Pinero, Bimbo Rivas, and Lucky Cienfuegos. It was particularly known for its poetry slams, a form it helped popularize, and for giving access to young artists, especially those who might not have other outlets or opportunities to perform. Allen Ginsberg, a regular at Nuyorican Poets Cafe, called it “the most integrated place on the planet,” noting the racial, gender, and sexuality diversity of the poets and audience, reflecting the organization’s ethos of inclusivity and giving voice to the voiceless.

A women celebrating the Loisaida Festival, held every year on the Lower East Side to honor the diverse manifestations of the Puerto Rican and Latino cultures through music, cuisine and arts.

Algarin originated the use of the term Nuyorican to describe a cultural movement specific to people of Puerto Rican descent in New York City, which combined elements of poetry, music, hip hop, video, visual arts, comedy, and theater. Though their neighborhood had commonly been referred to as the Lower East Side, the East Village, or Alphabet City, in Nuyorican it is Loisaida. Popularized by the poet Bittman Rivas in 1974, the name became official when the city-sanctioned Loisaida Avenue as another name for Avenue C in 1987. By 2000, a surge in immigration and higher birthrates nudged Hispanic New Yorkers past African-Americans as the city’s second-largest racial or ethnic group in the city.

I owe my own debt of gratitude to these communities as someone of both Cuban and Spanish heritage. Without their willingness to both expand and revolutionize their rights into art, thought, and action, people like my uncle, a gay artist who lived in Alphabet City in the 1970s and 80s, might not have found comfort in the ability to express himself nor inspire me to seek and explore creativity as well as understand and promote tolerance for all seeking to make New York City their home.

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