Gotham tackles some very prickly issues, such as
our poverty, discrimination and unfair media
coverage. It starts at the beginning, with our
massive migrations to a new land, where our hopes
for better lives were challenged by hateful forces
and a profit-driven society.

The collapse of the island economy and a post-war
boom in industrialized New York City spiked
massive migrations starting in the 1940s, and as
commonwealth citizens, our forefathers were
granted easy entry. But our ancestors instantly
encountered a new language, dangerous racism
and xenophobia and bitter winters nonexistent on
the island. And as we arrived and settled in the
great metropolis of Gotham, it began to de-industrialize, leaving many unemployed and
marooned. This set a pattern for economic disadvantage, for a people whose only
employment options were low-paying blue-collar jobs, as the New York economy began
to shift from manufacturing to finance and specialized services.

Boricuas in Gotham also uncovers many of the dark forces that menaced early New
York Puerto Ricans—such as the “deficit” reporting of the mainstream press, which
championed the “failures” of our community in lieu of our achievements. Clara E.
Rodríguez’s contribution, Forging a New, New York: The Puerto Rican Community, Post-
1945, details how the mainstream press—and especially The  APRIL | ABRIL 2009

Book Review | Boricuas in Gotham: Puerto Ricans and the
Making of Modern New York City
(Markus Wiener 2004) Edited by Gabriel Haslip-Viera, Angelo Falcón, and
Félix Matos Rodríquez
By Charlie Vázquez

Boricuas in Gotham: Puerto Ricans in the Making of Modern New York City (Markus
Wiener 2004) is a compelling collection of four essays and critical commentary on
them, composed by leading Puerto Rican professors and directors of sociology,
Spanish language and Caribbean cultural studies. It puts the politics, poverty and
cultural achievements of New York Puerto Ricans (Nuyoricans) under a powerful
microscope and zooms in on the last fifty years of the 1900s, mapping a broad,
panoramic sweep of our cultural vulnerabilities and triumphs. As a Bronx-born
Nuyorican and writer, I was riveted as soon as I purchased it and will continue to refer
to it, and its revealing statistics, in the future.

The late Dr. Antonia Pantoja’s opening statement on how the bulk of the Puerto Rican
experience in America is only as old as about 1945 reminded me of how new our
people are to this country—and how I still feel it every day. Boricuas in

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New York Times—has enjoyed a long tradition of depicting New York Puerto Ricans as
savage, anti-assimilationist “welfare-freeloaders” living in Third World conditions in the
South Bronx. And although there is some truth to this image, what is often ignored by
the media is that Puerto Rican households were more commonly governed by women,
whose employment options were demanding and low-paying. If you weren’t an
eroticized celebrity like J-Lo or Mark Anthony, or a politician like Fernando Ferrer or
Herman Badillo, your success story just didn't exist.

Another fascinating aspect of the book is how it charts Puerto Rico-to-mainland USA
migration trends, return migrations to the island, and the dispersal of Puerto Ricans
away from New York and to other cities, such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami and
Philadelphia. In 1940, nearly 88% of all stateside Puerto Ricans lived in New York City,
as opposed to just over 23% in 2000. Angelo Falcón’s essay, De’tras Pa’lante:
Explorations on the Future History of Puerto Ricans, takes a careful look at this
population decline of Puerto Ricans in New York and our growth and decline in the New
York suburbs, Florida, California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Texas and Connecticut. An
increase in Dominican and Mexican immigration changed the landscape of Latino New
York, where the trailblazing achievements spearheaded by Puerto Ricans, forged
despite our opposition, made the transition to New York easier for these newer groups.

Boricuas in Gotham also examines how the New York Puerto Rican community was
attacked by conservative politicians in the 1990s, a mauling spearheaded by no other
than the Giuliani administration, which cut the city’s contribution to City University of New
York by 17% and supported tuition increases at the same time, disrupting the ambitions
of many New York Puerto Rican (and other minority) students, who were studying to
improve their lives. This brand of malice echoed the manner in which we were treated
when we first arrived. As this brutally honest volume points out, the considerable Puerto
Rican absence at voting polls in the 1900s hurt us tremendously—we must mobilize
our families to vote in every election, as our numbers can tip the scale in our favor.
Boricuas in
Gotham is a realistic slideshow of our colorful history, which when memorialized,
can make the future ours.

Our cultural achievements are hardly few:  Jennifer López, Mark Anthony, Rosie
Pérez, Luís Gúzman, Benicio del Toro and Big Pun are all testaments to the Puerto
Rican presence in 1990s (and contemporary) popular culture, and the Museo del
Barrio, The Nuyorican Poets Café and Taller Boricua are all cultural landmarks
bearing our wounds and rewards. Our influence on early hip-hop goes
underreported, as does the formidable network of theaters, performance spaces and
community organizations we created through hard work and vision. The New York
Puerto Rican cultural movement was the “spark” that thrust New York City into the
Latin American sphere of influence, as Cubans did with Miami. And as the late Dr.
Antonia Pantoja pleads in the closing statements of the book, “We must also develop
effective means of communicating our history, which I insist is a powerful weapon in
our struggles to secure change and social justice.” And this is what Boricuas in
Gotham brilliantly accomplishes. Bravo.

Charlie Vázquez can be found at:  

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