Latino Studies Spanish Harlem
Miranda Martinez
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0089


Spanish Harlem, also known as East Harlem and El Barrio, is located in northeastern Manhattan. As the first major point of settlement for Puerto Ricans in New York, Spanish Harlem has remained a political, literary, and cultural touchstone for the Puerto Rican experience of migration and what became known as the “Nuyorican” identity. Spanish Harlem, as a term, refers to the geographic location of the community, but also to the cultural community (musical and literary) sustained by and emerging from the challenges and vitality of El Barrio. Many popular Latin musical styles emerged from musicians playing and living in Spanish Harlem, yet the cultural ferment of the neighborhood sits uneasily alongside its reputation as a poverty-stricken ghetto. In much social science literature on the neighborhood, Spanish Harlem is defined primarily by its poverty. Puerto Rican settlement in El Barrio occurred primarily in two major waves. During and after World War I, when the United States had adopted restrictive immigration laws, Puerto Ricans arrived to take advantage of plentiful jobs in New York’s manufacturing economy. Virginia Sánchez Korrol wrote the earliest account of the Puerto Rican colonia in these years. El Barrio was a somewhat more middle-class and intellectual settlement than the largely working-class settlement in Brooklyn. The mass migration of the 1940s and 1950s brought rural working-class Puerto Ricans who were actively encouraged to leave by the island government, as part of its industrialization plan known as “Operation Bootstrap.” Puerto Ricans arrived in New York as colonial citizens: although legally citizens, they were the target of racial discrimination, police brutality, economic exploitation, and cultural disdain. Ethnographies of the period debated to what degree Puerto Ricans were progressing toward incorporation, and whether such incorporation was possible given their linguistic and cultural disadvantages. The historiography of Spanish Harlem tracks the ongoing struggle to organize stronger community institutions to challenge the structural sources of Puerto Rican poverty, and to carve out an autonomous cultural space of latinidad, within the Anglo-dominant, racially bifurcated landscape of New York City. Puerto Ricans often clashed with other ethnic groups, including Italian, Jewish, and African American communities, with whom they competed and collaborated to confront systemic neglect and exclusion. Living in a working-class neighborhood, residents of East Harlem were denied basic services and often remained trapped in low-wage jobs. These struggles peaked with the militant community-based movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and continue even as Spanish Harlem becomes a diverse, gentrifying neighborhood, where Puerto Ricans no longer predominate.

General Overviews and Related Articles

The works included here focus on the Puerto Rican experience generally, not only on Spanish Harlem. However, these works offer a good overview of the history and importance of Spanish Harlem as the neighborhood that for several decades defined the New York community. Sánchez Korrol 1994 is one of the first books that reaches back to uncover the history of the first Puerto Rican community, starting in the 1920s. Sánchez Korrol discusses the rich associational life of the early colonia, as the embryo community of that era is called. Thomas 2010 looks at citizenship struggles in different decades of the 20th century. Together, these two works capture how Puerto Rican migrants fought against their colonial status, and how they struggled to define Puerto Ricans as culturally distinct and apart from the black-white racial binary. The personalities and associations of Spanish Harlem figure prominently, although, of course, it was not the only place these battles were fought. Ayala and Bernabé 2007 is the best recent history of Puerto Rico as an American colony. Several chapters give a well-organized, strongly analytic background on the conditions and policies that drove the migration. A number of chapters discuss political mobilizations and cultural production of the Puerto Rican diaspora, especially New York. They offer a good description of how island and diaspora experiences interrelate, and how they have diverged. Haslip-Viera, et al. 2005 is an edited volume offering a comprehensive history and overview of social conditions and issues for Puerto Ricans in New York at the turn of the 21st century. It is a useful teaching tool, using readable language and well-presented data. Acosta-Belen and Santiago 2006, a study of Puerto Rican community development, centering on the experience of coloniality and the rise of the “commuter nation,” is another useful teaching text that avoids the tendency to treat the challenges confronting Puerto Rican migrants without a wider sociopolitical context.

  • Acosta-Belen, Edna, and Carlos E. Santiago. Puerto Ricans in the United States: A Contemporary Portrait. New York: Lynne Rienner, 2006.

    NNNA very useful study of the development of mainland communities, which looks at migration patterns and struggles for social and civil rights.

  • Ayala, César J., and Rafael Bernabé. Puerto Rico and the American Century: A History since 1898. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.5149/9780807895535_ayala

    NNNThe most current and comprehensive history of Puerto Rico as an American colony, this book concentrates largely on the history of the island, but several chapters focus on the diaspora community in Spanish Harlem, contextualizing the New York diaspora in relation to island culture, history, and politics.

  • Haslip-Viera, Gabriel, Angelo Falcón, and Félix Matos Rodriguez, eds. Boricuas in Gotham: Puerto Ricans in the Making of Modern New York City. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2005.

    NNNAn edited collection of sociological and historical research on the establishment, progress of, and challenges to the Puerto Rican community in New York.

  • Sánchez Korrol, Virginia. From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York City. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

    NNNAn essential early history of early Puerto Rican settlement in New York, looking at citywide community and associational life, with a great deal about Puerto Rican life in Spanish Harlem.

  • Thomas, Lorrin. Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political Identity in Twentieth-Century New York City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226796109.001.0001

    NNNAn excellent political history focusing on how Puerto Ricans fought against their colonial status, through struggles for recognition and inclusion in New York. The book necessarily focuses a great deal on Spanish Harlem.

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