So much of New York’s history has been lived, sung and reported in Spanish. With the great migration of the 1950s, what had long been a relatively small Latino community in New York became a thriving center of Puerto Rican life and culture. But in the past half century, the community has grown and diversified. Today, Mexicans, Dominicans, Ecuadoreans, Colombians, Peruvians and Cubans have joined Puerto Ricans and comprise about 30 percent of the city’s population.
Columbia students and faculty, and others interested in the lives of New York’s Latinos, have a new resource to learn about that community. El Diario La Prensa, the nation’s oldest continuously publishing Spanish-language newspaper, has given the University some 5,000 photographs documenting the lives of New York’s Latinos, their struggles and their contributions to the city and its culture.
“I study New York, I teach New York and I’m seeing things I have never seen before,” said Frances Negrón-Muntaner, the collection’s co-curator, professor of English and comparative literature and director of Columbia’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, as she combed through 39 boxes of photos that will be housed in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. “It’s the whole texture of Latino life, which is particularly relevant given Columbia’s location between Harlem and Washington Heights.”
As part of El Diario’s centennial celebration this year, some of those images will be exhibited this fall on the Columbia campus, at the Medical Center and elsewhere in the city, and some now appear on the newspaper’s website. “It’s a story we want to tell, the story of Latinos’ contributions to the city’s culture and politics, making New York a more inclusive and diverse place,” said Negrón-Muntaner.
The collection dates from the 1960s. Although earlier photos did not survive the newspaper’s move from Manhattan to Brooklyn several years ago, the collection includes photos of entertainers, politicians, community events, parades and sporting events: Mayor David Dinkins at the 1990 Puerto Rican Day parade, children at a Three Kings Day celebration in East Harlem, and a young Fernando Ferrer when he was running for Bronx borough president in 1986. There is Tito Puente playing the timbales on Sesame Street with Elmo and photos of actors Raul Julia and Rita Moreno and singers Julio Iglesias and Ricky Martin, among many others.
There are images of tragedy, too—the funeral of a 6-year-old victim of child abuse and the 1990 fire at the Happy Land social club in the south Bronx that took 87 lives. Other photos illustrate community activism in the 1980s and ’90s. One shows a young man at a demonstration against police brutality holding a sign that reads, “I want to be a Puerto Rican leader, not a victim.”
“This is a unique and very important resource. It is a vivid chronicle of the social, political and cultural life of the diverse Latino population of New York that will be available not only to our faculty and students but will attract scholars from all over the world,” said University Librarian James G. Neal, vice president for information services. “Photographs have a very important place in how scholars do their research.”
Many photos will bring back memories for all New Yorkers: a flooded 14th Street subway station after a 1996 water main break near Times Square, the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the Yankees winning the 1996 World Series.
The collection adds to photographic archives in the University libraries as well as to the documentation of the history of Latinos in New York gathered as part of an initiative with the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. Last summer the family of Puerto Rican poet Jack Agüeros donated a collection of his papers, videos and photographs. Neal said he hopes to add to the Latino archives as more individuals and organizations recognize Columbia as a repository for their collections.
“This means New Yorkers and beyond will have a better understanding of the Latino narrative,” said Erica Gonzalez (J’05), executive editor and managing editor of El Diario. “That’s critical in a city that’s 30 percent Hispanic.”
El Diario, which merged with La Prensa in 1963 to form the largest Spanish-language daily in New York, has a long tradition of advocating for the city’s Hispanic population, as well as reporting local, national and international news. The photos are “a treasure of history,” said Javier E. Gomez, manager of El Diario’s centennial project. “To have the photos organized with the tender loving care they deserve and have them available to scholars and to the public is a thrill.”
—Story by Georgette Jasen
—Video by Columbia News Video Team