Sunday, January 14th is a day of pride for the Puerto Rican community in North Brooklyn. It is the celebration of the feast of the Three Kings and there is an enthusiastic parade and celebration of Puerto Rican culture on Grand Street. In traditional Puerto Rican culture, the feast day was a day of celebration and gift giving that was actually bigger than Christmas for many Puerto Ricans. So it’s a good time to reflect on the long history of Puerto Ricans in our part of Brooklyn.
Recently, many Puerto Ricans have been fleeing the Hurricane Maria devastation on the island and coming to the mainland United States, but this migration of Puerto Ricans from the island is nothing new. Already in the 1920s there were Puerto Ricans living in Greenpoint. Some flew here and found work in the many factories that needed hands locally. In the 1920s, immigration was severely limited by new laws and New York industries were in need of labor. This was the start of a great exodus of Puerto Ricans to New York. By the 1970s, there would be 600,000 Puerto Ricans in New York City, and our part of Brooklyn had a huge Puerto Rican community located near the Williamsburg Bridge and North of Greenpoint Avenue.
Many Puerto Rican women were skilled seamstresses and they worked in the thriving garment industry. One documented case was the recruitment of 130 women directly from Puerto Rico by the American Manufacturing Company, which made hemp ropes on West Street. The work required very dexterous hands and Puerto Rican women were ideal for the work, because traditional Puerto Rican handicrafts also required working with hemp. Polish women, who had previously worked for the firm, increasingly refused to work for the low pay the company offered. So the Polish women were replaced by the Puerto Rican women, who were were being recruited in Puerto Rico to come to Brooklyn by steamship. They were set up in an apartment building complete with chaperones from well-known respected Puerto Rican families, and a free bus took them to and from work. They missed the delicious food of their island and soon a bodega appeared in Greenpoint, serving the workers the foods of their home.
These Puerto Ricans set down roots and invited family members on the island to come here and settle. Although many Puerto Ricans were Catholic, not all were. In 1928, Tomas Alvarez came from Puerto Rico to establish an Assembly of God church in Greenpoint, one of the first Pentecostal churches in New York City.
Like most immigrant communities, at times there was conflict with other ethnic groups. In 1973, violence broke out locally and the New York Times reported on conflict between local Puerto Ricans and others. A community meeting to resolve tensions was held in the 94th precinct. Tension gripped the neighborhood.
Trouble began late on a Saturday night when about 100 Puerto Ricans and 100 persons of other ethnic backgrounds, principally Poles, became involved in a series of street fights that resumed on Sunday night. Eleven persons, six of them Puerto Ricans, were taken into custody. All were released after being charged with resisting arrest. Some Puerto Ricans charged police brutality. The police in turn said that several of their cars were attacked by Puerto Ricans during the fighting. The tensions happily died down, and Puerto Ricans lived in harmony with other ethnic groups in the area for decades.
When I arrived here a quarter century ago, Puerto Rican culture was much more evident, especially on warm summer days when locals would sit outside, playing dominoes and listening to the rhythms of salsa. Sadly, gentrification has driven many Puerto Ricans from our area, just like other working-class ethnic groups. Although smaller in number, Puerto Rican culture still survives locally. Sunday‘s parade is a great way to see the rich culture of the island on display.