From street art to the vibrant and colorful bars, restaurants, barbershops, churches and community gardens, it is almost impossible not to notice the Puerto Rican flags and decorations prevailing in the popular places of East Harlem. The Puerto Rican influence and culture is unquestionably present in what was once called the “Spanish Harlem” to be, later, colloquially called “El barrio” (The Neighborhood).
“El Barrio” counts an increasing number of Dominicans, Salvadorans, Mexicans and Chinese immigrants. The area is currently undergoing gentrification whereupon wealthier residents and businesses are moving in and property values are on the rise. This shift in this community lifestyle has caused some Puerto Ricans to leave East Harlem for the Bronx or even cities like Miami. Therefore, I could not resist to think of the Puerto Ricans left as the “Franco-Belge” comic “Asterix”, a small Gauls village resisting the Roman Empire.
Who are the Puerto Ricans of East Harlem? How are they identified? But, most of all, how do they identify themselves? As Americans, Latinos, or Puerto Ricans?
“Nuyoricans” is a “portemanteau” word of the terms New York and Puerto Rico. It refers to the members or culture of the Puerto Rican diaspora based in New York City and their descendants. The reason why I have chosen to call this project “Nuyoricans” is because it illustrates exactly what I have found in the Puerto Rican community of East Harlem: a genuine mix between the American and the Puerto Rican cultures. From the “Spanglish” to food or fashion, I was walking the streets alternately listening to rhythm and blues and Puerto Rican salsa. Some Puerto Ricans were easy to identify, wearing shirts or hats mentioning the name of their country, tattoos or even jewelry representing the exotic island. It was a real pleasure, a visual one, to look for them. I easily came to the conclusion that “in East Harlem anyone is Puerto Rican, who feels Puerto Rican”. Albeit, I repeatedly heard, from Puerto Ricans born in Puerto Rico commonly called “Boricuas”: “a Puerto Rican is born in Puerto Rico and the people who were born here are Americans.” It is important to mention that Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917. The Jones–Shafroth Act grants US citizenship to anyone born in Puerto Rico on or after April 25, 1898.
Among the people I met and photographed, some were proud to be veterans who had fought for the USA, while others strongly expressed their wish to see Puerto Rico free from the American political influence and sovereignty.
The Nuyoricans have all been kind to me and despite having been told regularly “Be careful who you ask questions to; not everyone is nice here”, the majority of Americans, Latinos, Boricuas and Nuyoricans were happy to be asked about their neighborhood, country, or roots. Many spoke nostalgically about “La isla del encanto” (the charming Island), when telling me their stories. It was an interesting journey that allowed me to explore another New York, another Harlem, a Harlem I barely knew about, far away from the typical ‘cliché’ of it, too often mentioned in films or books for its crime and poverty stricken reputation.
New York, July 2016