Putting Immigrant Crises in Perspective: BLC Latin and Puerto Rican Cultural Collection

By Helen Broady, 115th Street Library
March 11, 2019
Bronx Library Center

Tucked away in a corner of the reference room on the fourth floor of the Bronx Library Center is the Latino and Puerto Rican Cultural Collection and Gallery, affectionately called the "cuartito" ("little room").  A few loyal patrons peruse this room for knowledge not easily found elsewhere including our unofficial "scholar in residence," who told me the collection has helped him connect with his history, understand where he came from, and explain many of today's issues and events.  

Here in the cuartito, you'll find neglected history, unsung literature, books on the folk music of Puerto Rico (including musical notation and song lyrics), and beautifully illustrated volumes about trees, flowers, and healing plants of the island. 

Diccionario - Autobiografico de Conquistadores, 1923

IIlustration: Juan Garrido, el Conquistador Negro en las Antillas, Florida, Mexico y California

Just a few examples of what you can discover within the collection: 

  • Juan Garrido, el Conquistador Negro en las Antillas, Flordai, Mexico y Californiaby Ricardo E. Alegria, a nicely illustrated volume about the little-known black explorer and conqueror. 

  • Zapata's Disciple, in which poet Martin Espada writes essays about social class and power, parenthood, and identity. His observations reflect his father's life as a dark-skinned Puerto Rican, first in the Air Force in Biloxi, Mississippi; then later in the suburbs with his mother, who he describes as Jewish Jehovah's witness. About his son, Espada asks "How do I teach him to disappoint and disorient the bigots everywhere around him… "  Published 20 years ago, Zapata's Disciple is sadly too relevant today.

  • Lesser-known information on the life of José Martí, poet, prolific writer and founder of the Cuban Revolutionary Party—did you know he wrote "one of the most detailed… and perceptive descriptions of U.S. life by an outsider"? (so says Esther Allen, editor and translator of José Martí: Selected Writings). Martí explored and expounded on everything from Coney Island to Ralph Waldo Emerson, from  working class struggles to high-society life.

  • From author Piri Thomas (of Down These Mean Streets fame) Stories from El Barrio, eight poignant stories written for young people, about Thomas's childhood in Puerto Rican New York. 

  •  If you’re a nature lover and lucky enough to visit Puerto Rico, you can prepare yourself with Arboles de Puerto Rico (Trees of Puerto Rico) and Plantas medicinales de Puerto Rico (Medicinal Plants of Puerto Rico). 

Studying Immigrant Crises at the Cuartito: Connecting the Past and the Present with The Puerto Rican Experience and more

When we read Francisco Cordasco and Eugene Bucchioni’s The Puerto Rican Experience, we begin to understand today's attitudes toward migration and immigration in a new light. 

Jesuit sociologist Rev. Joseph Fitzpatrick observed in 1971 that "Puerto Ricans may have to… achieve community solidarity… in ways different from those of past immigrants… as migrants [(rather than immigrants) to the mainland, being U.S. citizens)]… they are the first group to come… with widespread intermingling and intermarriage of people of many colors."

A more radical perspective came from Generacion Encojonada (from Juan Silen’s We the Puerto Rican People): "Violence is (basic) to colonial societies… between the people and the oppressor, for whom the lifeblood is the profit offered to the exploiters. When one confronts 'the system' (schools, churches, factories, strikes), he feels its violence…  imposed by colonialism." Similar sentiments were expressed by the Young Lords, who recalled that people were made to feel ashamed of their language and cultural values.

If you prefer numbers in your research, or find sociology too subjective, there is plenty of hard data available on income, migration trends, and demographics, from the information inThe Puerto Rican New Yorkers: A Recent History of their Distribution and Population and Household Characteristicsprepared by the NYC Department of City Planning, to volumes published by the Puerto Rican government. 

Visit our cuartito and I promise you will discover something new and surprising. And don't forget to admire the art work, with a new exhibit every month. 

Read more about the cuartito in Spanish here.