By Howard Hills
Beloved singer Ben E. King stirred hearts across our nation and the world in 1961 with his classic song of romance and hope entitled “Spanish Harlem.” The song’s setting is upper east Manhattan in the late 1950’s, an enclave of Spanish speaking peoples on the banks of the Harlem River.
That vibrant cultural milieu prominently included the Puerto Rican diaspora emerging as a pronounced generational and ethnic community even as the song “Spanish Harlem” became a national hit and enduring ethnic anthem.
Its most graphic lyric describes a rose blooming in East Harlem, also know as El Barrio, evoking an image of love and even dreams for a better life in America. The song tells us this rose “is a special one” that grows through a crack in the concrete sidewalk of a poor neighborhood, amid the din and turmoil of a great metropolis.
The rose in that alluringly haunting song of enchantment became iconic in popular folklore. It evoked an image of a vibrant, glowing scarlet colored life force in a grey and bustling world of struggle. It inspired more than the will of newcomers to America, downtrodden or challenged to survive.
Migration from Puerto Rico to New York
For the Puerto Rican children and other migrants in Spanish Harlem, as well as families back home in Puerto Rico, the popular song ignited an ambition to thrive and succeed in America, and as Americans. For millions the song called them to join an exodus, a stream of modern era pioneers in America.
El Barrio became home to many of Puerto Rico’s most intrepid, ambitious, creative and hopeful pilgrims to the mainland. Unlike the Mexican and other Latin American migrants in El Barrio, migrants from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico were U.S. citizens.
Most Latin Americans in NYC were foreign born immigrants. Some were legal permanent resident aliens on the path to citizenship; many were border violators who had no legal status in the USA.
In contrast, Puerto Ricans born and raised back home under U.S. territorial rule were domestic migrants. That’s because as a federally governed territory the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico was within the national borders of the United States.
Yet, like their neighbors from Latin American nations who had a legal status and earned the right to naturalized citizenship, U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico had never experienced full and equal empowerment that comes only with the combined rights of national and state citizenship.
Until they reached New York, American citizens in Puerto Rico had no right to vote in federal elections for representation in Congress or the Electoral College. In NYC or any other city in the states, suddenly the U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico also had federal voting rights that made elected leaders need them as much as all other citizens of every ethnic heritage.
That is when being an American matters most, and for most it was the first time they mattered politically, economically, and socially in the life of our nation.
That experience was duplicated in other popular destination cities where Americans of Puerto Rican ancestry and ethnicity gathered to complete their quest for full citizenship.
Connection with African Americans
That does not mean Puerto Rican integration into American society was easy. Far from it. In the workplace, education, the arts, science politics and sports, Puerto Rican Americans often were treated as foreigners, an “other,” and even as if they were not U.S. citizens at all.
Even other Spanish speaking ethnic communities sometimes discriminated against Puerto Ricans for the idiosyncrasies of their language and culture. Like black Americans, Puerto Ricans had to be better than European Americans, and even when they were better they were not treated as equal when they should have been.
That adds to the poignancy of the song “Spanish Harlem,” a national hit by a soul singer from black Harlem, the thriving center of African American culture in America.
In tribute to the long road Puerto Ricans in America have traveled from “West Side Story” to “Hamilton” and “Spanish Harlem” to “Despacito,” here are three version of “Spanish Harlem” that evoke the connection this song created between the narrative of African American success and the success of the Puerto Rican diaspora in America.
Howard Hills is a former Peace Corps Volunteer in the Micronesia, while those island nations were governed by the U.S. under a United Nations trusteeship form 1947 to 1986. He also served in the Executive Office of the President, National Security Council and U.S. State Department as a legal advisor on U.S. and international law governing the decolonization of non-self-governing peoples. He is author of the book “Citizens Without A State” with a foreword by former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh.