The Nuyorican Poets Cafe, a landmark cultural institution on the Lower East Side
When I think about Puerto Ricans in New York City, I have to admit something. My mind immediately goes to West Side Story. I can only offer explanations, though not necessarily excuses: I’m not Puerto Rican, I’m not Latinx, I’m not even a New Yorker. I’m just a grown-up theater nerd who grew up in a bubble, and West Side Story, for a long time, was my only reference point. But the fact that I’m a grown-up, though, allows me to acknowledge the problematic aspects of the grand Hollywood movie musical — namely, the lack of any Puerto Ricans in the cast, apart from the fabulous Rita Moreno (a fan, I have to point out, of the Tenement Museum) in an Oscar winning performance.
Film scholar Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz, author of West Side Story as Cinema: The Making and Impact of an American Masterpiece, was interviewed at the time of the movie’s restoration release in 2011. A Puerto Rican himself, Acevedo-Muñoz spoke of the initial reaction by the Puerto Rican community to the movie, saying, “There was always some controversy, with some complaints from sociologists and people like that, but the overwhelming majority of reviews were positive,” also pointing out that, by the end of the movie, the Sharks in fact look alot better than the Jets in terms of morality, community and family, and education.
Of the movie’s notorious “brownface” commentary, Acevedo-Muñoz spoke of the novelty that he as a Puerto Rican felt, watching an actual representation of his culture in a major Hollywood production. “Now, is Natalie Wood something of a brownface? Yes. But does it matter? No,” Acevedo-Muñoz said, “And the reason it doesn’t matter to me is because outside of West Side Story, which I saw first as a pre-teenager… I’d never in my life heard the words “Puerto Rico” spoken in a movie. And I’ve heard it very few times after that. Seriously. The fact that they said the words “Puerto Rico” in a movie and there were Puerto Ricans being portrayed on screen – even if only one was a legitimate Puerto Rican that was born-and-raised-on-the-island, Rita Moreno – we didn’t care.”
The interview also discusses the lyrics to “America,” which pleased me greatly, because when I knew I would be writing about the history of Puerto Rican migrants in New York City, I knew I’d want to include that song. What I didn’t know was that the movie version and the stage version differ drastically from each other. Whereas the original drew criticism as being demeaning to Puerto Ricans, the movie version emphasizes genuine issues of discrimination the Puerto Rican community faces in America, and the constantly warring, constantly changing concepts of the American Dream and the American Reality.
We at the Tenement Museum can really relate to the line, “Twelve in a room in America!”
What I find interesting, watching from outside my bubble, is the characters repeatedly calling themselves “immigrants,” which they technically aren’t. The differences between immigrants and migrants are thin, but there. While neither group deserves to be subjected to discrimination, persecution, and violence, both often are. But immigrants will usually have to deal with more complicated legal matters to remain in their adopted country. Migrants, like those coming from Puerto Rico, are United States citizens. I can only imagine the strain and confusion on one’s identity, to be treated as an outsider by the nation to which you are a citizen.
Ramonita Saez, a highlight on our upcoming exhibit at 103 Orchard Street, on a rooftop in New York City
Puerto Ricans have been emigrating to New York City since the middle of the 19th century, in the first so-called “wave.” At the time, the island was still a Spanish province, and the motivation to move was the same as it was for other immigrants — America offered the greatest opportunities for economic success. Puerto Rico then became a territory of the United States as a result of the treaty arrangement following the Spanish-American War.
In 1917, the Jones-Shafroth Act changed the status for Puerto Ricans forever. Now, they were officially American citizens, and could travel to and from the United States without the use of a passport. Eligible Puerto Rican males could also be drafted into the military, just in time for World War I. This change in citizenship status caused many Puerto Ricans to head to New York City, as the island had previously been terrorized by hurricanes, ruining many crops and causing great financial crisis. But the industrialized city presented other hardships to the newly arrived Puerto Ricans. Discrimination, language barriers, lack of technical skills were all hurdles newly arrived immigrants faced on their job hunt — and these issues are often discussed on current Tenement Museum tours about German, Irish, and Italian immigrants — and many Puerto Ricans encountered the same. However, as citizens, those who struggled to find work often resorted to joining the military.
The third and largest wave of Puerto Ricans occurred in the 1950s, known today as “the Great Migration.” The Great Depression, World War II, and the advent of air travel were all leading contributors to the increase in migration during this time. This era marked the first time a Hispanic group moved to New York City in great numbers.
Throughout these waves, new terminology began to spring up, and the name Nuyorican initially started as a kind of insult towards assimilated Puerto Ricans or second and third generation Puerto Ricans who have lost touch with their island roots. Traditionally, Nuyoricans planted their flags in what became known as “Spanish Harlem” in East Harlem, and “Loisaida” in the East Village, a Nuyorican pronunciation of “Lower East Side.”
Loisaida is one of the neighborhoods where the Nuyorican Movement began in the 1960s and 1970s, the name meant to reclaim the former insult, originally founded by writer Jesús Colón. One of the most iconic, important cultural and intellectual movements to come out of New York City, the Nuyorican Movement produced some of the best works of poetry, literature, art, and music of the 20th century. Miguel Algarín Jr., poet and founder of the historic cultural institution Nuyorican Poets Cafe on the Lower East Side, was one of the first to reclaim the title of Nuyorican. Some other notable artists from this movement include Esmeralda Santiago, Piri Thomas, Pedro Pietri, Miguel Piñero, Eddie Palmieri, and Tito Puente.
Ramonita Saez, focal point for our new tour at 103 Orchard Street, came to live at Loisaida during the Nuyorican Movement. She raised a family during a time when the city was close to tearing itself apart. We don’t know if she ever saw West Side Story when she first arrived on the Lower East Side in 1961, or what her opinion of it would be, but we can imagine, given her achievements, her pride in her work in the Garment Industry, and the success of her children, she might have agreed with Anita in the song “America.” Life can be alright in America.