February 01, 2019 | BY Anthony Lopez, Executive Director
In recognition of Black History Month, I offer three honorable Afro-Boricuas of note and of high regard.
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (1874-1938)
In Vanessa K. Valdes’ book, Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg she describes the journey of the Black Puerto Rican-born scholar who became one of the most important figures in our lifetime. An avid collector of Black Culture, advocate for Cuban and Puerto Rican Independence, and cofounder of the Negro Society for Historical Research and leader of the American Negro Academy, his personal collection is the basis for the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Throughout his life, Arturo Schomburg actively thought of himself as a black man born in Puerto Rico. He ascended the social-ladder within the English-speaking black communities of New York City and was much admired. His life offers insight to us on how to live between Blackness and Latinx.
Jesus Colon (1901-1974)
Jesus Colón was born in Cayey, Puerto Rico after the Spanish–American War when the American Tobacco Company gained control of most of the tobacco producing land in Puerto Rico. His father was a baker and his family’s home was behind the town’s cigar factory, which hired “readers” to read stories and current events to the employees whilst they worked. When he was 16, he boarded the SS Carolina as an employee and landed in Brooklyn, New York where he worked various unskilled jobs. Because of the color of his skin (of African descent), Jesus experienced discrimination complicated by his difficulty speaking the English language. He wrote about his experiences, and the experiences of other immigrants, and became among the first Puerto Ricans to do so in English. His best known work, A Puerto Rican in New York, set the stage for the literary movement known as the “Nuyorican Movement“inspiring Nuyorican writers like Piri Thomas, Esmeralda Santiago, Nicholasa Mohr, Pedro Pietri, and others. Once, at my Grandmother’s house, I was reading this book when she told me that Jesus Colon was her first cousin. His life suggests how much things have changed or stayed the same for the working class.
Ismael Lopez Pica (1911-1997)
Originally from the barrio of Aguirre in the municipality of Salinas, a coastal town on the southern side of Puerto Rico, known for it salt mines, seafood and old sugar refinery. Ismael Lopez worked as a Foreman in the sugar fields of the refinery but left to New York to look for a better life for himself and his family. He worked the tomato farms of Vineland New Jersey, as an orderly in a former Bronx hospital and in a hat factory on Orchard Street in the Lower East Side. Savings from his labor brought his family over from Puerto Rico–one at a time–until all seven children and his wife were stateside. They settled in the Washington Houses, 110th street and Lexington Ave., one block from the church that the Young Lords took over to open a free breakfast program for neighborhood children. His life is the most meaningful and personal to me. He was my Grandfather and was Afro-Puerto Rican.
Many of us come from a strong line of amazing Afro-Latinx men and women. We honor them today, tomorrow and everyday wherever we decide to plant our roots.