In Nueva York
In Nueva York
by Nicholasa Mohr
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in approximately 1970 on New York City’s Lower East Side; published in 1977.
Eight vignettes describe the hardships and joys of the residents in New York’s Puerto Rican slums.
Nicholasa Mohr was born to Puerto Rican parents in 1935 in a neighborhood of New York City known as El Barrio, or Spanish Harlem. She grew up in the Bronx in New York during the Great Depression, facing economic and social challenges associated with the time, the place, and her ethnicity. Mohr used adversity to fuel her creativity and imagination, first as a visual artist, painting the community scenes that she saw around her, and then as a writer. Her novel In Nueva York portrays the lives of several families living in the Puerto Rican neighborhoods of the Lower East Side of New York City around 1970. The eight vignettes that comprise the novel look at the community from several perspectives, bringing into relief both its cruelties and its joys.
Puerto Rico: A brief history
Puerto Rico was originally called Borinquen, meaning “the land of the brave lord” in the language of the natives (the Arawak or Taino Indians, Taino being the Spanish name for them). In 1492 Christopher Columbus encountered a thriving native population of some 40,000. A few years later, in 1505, the Spanish founded a settlement on the island, after which the numbers of natives shrunk rapidly. Some 6,000 rebelled and were punished by being shot to death in 1511. Faced with a sudden labor shortage, the Spanish began to import African slaves on boats that also brought smallpox to the island. By 1515 only about 4,000 Taino Indians, or one-tenth of the original population, were left (Novas, p. 147).
Puerto Rico became the gateway to the Spanish empire in South and Central America and soon sported an imposing fortress. Spanish ships making the long trip from America to Europe stopped at the island for supplies. At first, the African slaves worked fields of sugar cane, coffee, and spices, to which were later added tobacco and ginger. Most of the money that people made in Puerto Rico came from illegal trade with other European nations, a practice that Spain had forbidden, of course, but could not seem to control. In 1765, Major Alejandro O’Reilly, a Spanish official, arrived on the island and started a cultural overhaul of the place. He gave free farm land to Spaniards willing to till it; he oversaw the building of Spanish schools and communities—in short, he tried to turn Puerto Rico into a little piece of the motherland, in the hopes that stronger cultural and political ties would bring economic ties with them.
But it would prove to be too late—the Puerto Ricans (now a mixture of Taino, African, and Spaniard) already considered themselves a separate people from the Spanish, and began a long process of negotiating for independence. On July 17, 1898, Spain finally gave in and granted the Puerto Ricans the right to be governed not by Spaniards, but by locally elected officials. This system lasted just one week—and then the United States, at war with Spain since April 1898, arrived in force on the island and ruled it thereafter. Official notice of the change in leadership dragged behind the actual fact. Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States in the Treaty of Paris, signed December 10, 1898, which brought the Spanish-American War to an official end.
To the dismay of Puerto Ricans, the American victory did not bring about independence. Instead the United States ruled the island through a military government, until pressure for increased autonomy produced the Jones Act. Passed in 1917, the Act declared Puerto Ricans to be citizens of the United States—a move widely resented by the general population, in part because Puerto Rican men were now subject to the American draft during World War I (17,000 were actually drafted). As American citizens, Puerto Ricans were subject to federal laws, but they could not vote in U.S. elections and did not pay federal taxes unless they lived on the mainland. Still Puerto Ricans agitated for greater reform. In 1946, Jesís Piñero (1897-1952) became the first Puerto Rican-born governor of the island, and in 1952, Puerto Rico became an estado libre asociado, or free associated state (in English, a “Commonwealth”), which allowed Puerto Ricans to live and work in the mainland U.S. and travel freely between the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
After the Spanish-American War, Puerto Ricans began the massive migration to America and especially to New York City that continued into the time during which Mohr was writing In Nueva York. During and after World War I, Puerto Ricans settled in Brooklyn, near the Navy Yard, where many served during the war. However, by the 1930s (the period during which Old Mary, the character at the beginning of In Nuevo York, first came to America), the largest Puerto Rican community was in Harlem. After World War II and the passage of legislation making Puerto Rico a United States commonwealth, Puerto Ricans began to migrate by the thousands to the mainland, and especially to New York City, seeking greater economic prosperity. Puerto Rico was at that time experiencing widespread unemployment along with a population boom; America, on the other hand, was more prosperous than ever. The migrants came to New York City in particular because it was relatively easy to find work in the massive service industry and in the Garment District, especially for Puerto Rican women.
When Nicholasa Mohr was a high school student, “she was mortified by her guidance counselor’s insistence that she, as a Puerto Rican girl, did not need a solid academic education” and would be well served by attending a school where she could learn to sew. (Telgen, p. 275)
One historian notes that the Puerto Ricans “constitute the first airborne migration to the United States”; with mid-century airfare between San Juan and New York costing as little as $50 and with travel agencies willing to accept monthly installments on the price of the six-hour flight (about three hours today), the Puerto Ricans have not had to undergo the terrible ordeals that other migrating peoples have had to suffer in coming to America (Fitzpatrick, p. 15). By 1973, nearly 5 million Puerto Ricans migrated to the mainland annually. Not all of them would stay, however; a great many Puerto Ricans return to the island once they have established themselves financially in New York, or have managed to save enough money to fund an extended return home. As of 1970, one of the biggest problems nagging the New York Puerto Rican community was the absence of wealth and prestige, for as soon as these were achieved, people tended to go back to Puerto Rico. In Mohr’s novel, for example, Old Mary’s friend, who puts her in touch with her long-lost son, William, retires to Puerto Rico after spending his working life in New York City.
In 1970, according to the U.S. Census, 817,712 Puerto Ricans resided in New York—the largest Puerto Rican population of any city in the world, including San Juan, Puerto Rico. In the same year, 1970, the average per capita income of Puerto Ricans, the poorest group of people in New York City, was $5,575—almost half the citywide median of $9,682. One-third lived below the poverty level and were the poorest of all Latino groups in the United States. There are signs of this poverty throughout Mohr’s novel.
After World War II—during the most active Puerto Rican migration period—Puerto Ricans in New York spread from their original settlements near the Navy Yards into East Harlem, the South Bronx, the Upper West Side, the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, and the Lower East Side (where In Nueva York is set). The Lower East Side was previously a Jewish neighborhood before the arrival of the Puerto Ricans, and the Jews had been preceded by many other groups. The area was in an advanced state of dereliction, but some of its areas were a step up from the East Harlem Puerto Rican neighborhood known as El Barrio, the neighborhood in which Mohr was born. This community of Spanish Harlem remains the heart of the Puerto Rican community in New York.
El Barrio had first begun to attract Puerto Ricans as early as 1917. In the following decade, the Puerto Ricans slowly displaced the Russian-Jews, Irish, and Italians who had been living there; the original inhabitants were not thrilled with what was happening, and a plague of youth gangs formed to dispute territory. But change was inevitable, and East Harlem became a solidly Puerto Rican neighborhood. An observer of the neighborhood in roughly 1970 describes the place as follows:
Life begins to stir in the Barrio at 6:30 in the morning, for the poor are early-risers. They must do the jobs nobody else wants, those with very early hours or very late hours … the Puerto Rican women set out for the garment factories. Later, the children pass by on their way to school. Still later, unemployed men gather on the sidewalks to chat.... Old people and housewives lean from their windows to watch the passers-by.
(Tovar, p. 38)
Despite the obvious problems of poverty, the Puerto Rican community in New York is tight-knit and culturally active. It has its own Spanish-language newspaper, El Diario de Nueva York, which Mary is reading as In Nueva York opens. El Museo del Barrio, located alongside the city’s other museums on Fifth Avenue, showcases the work of Puerto Rican and other Latino artists. The community has had several theatre companies that produce Puerto Rican plays, perhaps the most innovative of which was the Teatro Ro-dante Puertorriqueño (Puerto Rican Theatre on Wheels), which traveled to the poorest of neighborhoods to put on performances. La Marqueta, an open air market, is the social center of the community.
In one of the novel’s vignettes, “I Never Even Seen My Father,” a teenage girl, Yolanda, explains to her friend, Lil, how it was that she wound up in rehabilitation:
Look, maybe I started on drugs because of a lotta things that might be wrong with me. Right? First of all, drugs are out there, available for anybody who wants to get high.... When you’re high, it’s beautiful, because you got no worries, man. You feel fabulous, you ain’t scared of nothing and nobody. Your problems are over because you don’t see where you live and you don’t see what you ain’t got and what you look like, and you don’t miss what you can’t see.
(Mohr, In Nueva York, pp. 40-1)
Yolanda is describing a problem that, in New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s, afflicted a disproportionate number of Puerto Ri-cans. Between 1964 and 1968, 23 percent of the 62,938 people in New York City whose names were on the Department of Health’s Narcotics Register were Puerto Rican; in 1969 alone, 689 Puerto Ricans died of drug abuse in the city (Fitzpatrick, p. 172).
It is generally agreed that one of the major causes of drug addiction among New York’s Puerto Rican poor is environmental: peer pressure and the high visibility of drug users in the neighborhood. Children and youth, like Yolanda in Mohr’s novel, are particularly susceptible. In Nueva York describes the neighborhood as infested with drug pushers and addicts—this is one of the main reasons that Mary wishes to move away. In the same year in which In Nueva York was published, the New York Times (February 27, 1970) ran a story about a twelve-year-old Puerto Rican boy who had become a heroin addict. The boy stated that his decline into addiction was purely a matter of conforming: “nobody taught me, nobody forced me, but I didn’t want to be left out when I saw my friends use drugs” (Fitzpatrick, p. 173).
The education factor
In Nueva York illustrates that lack of education and its attendant economic opportunity are major obstacles facing the Puerto Rican community. Primarily because New York City schools did not offer bilingual education until 1975, there was a high dropout rate among Puerto Rican immigrants who spoke little English. In 1970 the average twenty-five-year-old Puerto Rican had completed 8.6 years of school, compared to a national average of 12.1 years, and just 2 percent had finished college. Contributing to the high dropout rate was an opposition in the community to becoming “Americanized”; many Puerto Ricans felt that learning English and being exposed to an American/Eurocentric education would compromise loyalty to their culture, homeland, and language. The disproportional dropout rate led to a class action lawsuit against the New York City Board of Education in 1975. Filed by Aspira, a Puerto Rican educational association, the lawsuit (Aspira v. NYC Board of Education) demanded bilingual education for the city’s significant Spanish speaking population.
From the Spanish word meaning “to strive,” Aspira was founded in New York City by Antonia Pantoja in 1961 to help Puerto Rican youth obtain a higher education, whether academic, artistic, or otherwise. Not only does it solicit scholarship funds for deserving students, it also promotes Puerto Rican culture. In 1970 Aspira clubs existed in many high schools in New York’s Puerto Rican community, encouraging students to achieve academic and personal success.
Following the lawsuit, district schools began providing instruction in Spanish for regular curriculum classes such as math and history, and implementing multicultural studies programs. As a result, there has been an increase in college enrollment among Puerto Rican youth. Furthermore, the proportion of second-generation Puerto Ricans attending adult education classes is now higher than for any other ethnic group in the nation, and a Puerto Rican Studies Center has been established at the City University of New York. Meanwhile, many Puerto Ricans have joined the ranks of New York State and City educators and administrators—including Mohr, who began teaching in 1967 and publishing books in 1973.
The novel opens with “Old Mary,” the story of an elderly Puerto Rican woman living in the Puerto Rican ghetto of Lower East Side New York City. Mary had come to New York from Puerto Rico nearly forty years before to make a better life for herself. She had always planned to return to her homeland but, still struggling to make ends meet, that is no longer a realistic possibility for her. Out of the blue, Mary receives a letter from her long-lost son, William. As a poor teenager in Puerto Rico, she bore her employer’s child and left the baby behind when she came to America. She had vowed to send for him once she had made enough money, but her plan fell through; her husband did not want the child to come to them, and once they had started a family with children of their own in America, she could not save enough to send for William.
William’s letter is a welcome surprise, which Mary feels must be a sign from God that her prayers have been answered. Her son writes that he is coming to New York to be with her; she plans a joyful reunion with her beautiful baby and dreams about the two of them moving out of the barrio together. She waits anxiously for his arrival, as do her other (grown) children, who go to pick him up at the airport. When William steps out of the car, Mary does not recognize him: William is a little person, 3’11” tall. At first family and friends are taken aback by his size, but quickly realize that he will be a good provider and great company for Old Mary.
The second vignette, “I Ain’t Never Seen My Father,” records the reunion of two high-school friends several years after graduation. They are eating at Rudi’s Luncheonette, the local gathering spot, where Mary’s son William now works. Yolanda and Lillian, who grew up together, used to be inseparable, but their adult lives have taken very different turns. In despair over her poverty and lack of opportunity, Yolanda has turned to drugs and prostitution; Lillian, however, has gone to college, where she is majoring in psychology. Lillian is trying to explain Sigmund Freud’s theory about the “Oedipus Complex” to her friend, whose court-mandated psychiatrist told her that subconscious hatred for her mother and desire for her father have made her act in a self-destructive manner. Yolanda does not understand this concept at all and is appalled that anyone would think she wanted to sleep with a father she has never seen. Lillian tries in vain to explain to Yolanda that it is precisely because she has never seen her father that she takes drugs and works as a prostitute. Clearly education has separated the pair of friends forever. The two part company, and it is clear they will soon lose contact for good.
In “The English Lesson,” Mary’s son William (nicknamed Chiquitin) attends a local night school in order to strengthen his English. He takes with him Lali, the young wife of his boss, Rudi. Fresh off the plane from Puerto Rico, Lali is from a small village in the mountains and is used to the customs of her tropical island home—a stark contrast to the concrete jungle of New York City. Lali speaks very little English and feels extremely alienated in New York City; William is sure that learning English will help her overcome her feelings of being alone and he convinces Rudi that it is a good idea. She and Chiquitin share the bond of being recent immigrants from Puerto Rico and become fast friends.
The English class is filled with people from all over the world who have come to New York in search of a better life: a Polish professor of music, a Dominican man, and a Chinese man as well as Puerto Ricans. Their stories provide a backdrop and larger context for the tales of Puerto Rican experience in the city.
“The Perfect Little Flower Girl,” the next story in the series, is about two gay couples who stage a wedding. Johnny Bermudez has just been drafted and has six weeks before he must report for boot camp; the Vietnam War wears on in Southeast Asia and, despite the fact that the army will not allow gay soldiers, Johnny seems to have strong personal reasons for wanting to join up and will keep his orientation a secret. His partner, Sebastian Randazzo, is ill and unable to work regularly. With Johnny gone and no one to support him, Sebastian’s situation will be bleak. But Johnny and Sebastian have come up with a plan: Johnny will marry Sebastian’s lesbian friend, Vivian, so that he can collect the salary of a married soldier and continue to support his mate, Sebastian. Vivian will help look after Sebastian while Johnny is away.
The simple Catholic wedding comes off without a hitch, despite its underlying unconven-tionality; the priest clearly has no idea what the real situation is as he unites Johnny and Vivian in the presence of their respective mates. The reception is catered by a neighbor, Raquel, whose daughter, Hilda, is the flower girl. Friends, family, and neighbors join in the celebration. At the end of the reception Hilda, who has always wanted to be a singer, performs “You’ve Got a Friend” (by James Taylor), and moves her audience to tears.
“The Operation” tells of a little girl who stays out late playing one evening. Her parents are frantic and immediately think she has been abducted by an old white man who has raped and killed three neighborhood girls, according to graphic newspaper accounts. Angie, the panic-stricken mother, is overwhelmed by guilt—for letting her child play outside, for living in such a poor neighborhood, and for not being able to do anything about it. The neighbors are all alerted to the girl’s absence and everyone comforts Angie. As it turns out, her daughter, Jennie, has been distracted by a young cat that a local stray, an orange cat that figures in all the vignettes, has chased off. The little girl follows the young cat up onto the roofs of some nearby buildings, trying to give it some affection. The cat eludes her, but she bumps into “Captain Nate,” a former tugboat captain who lost his union card in 1954 because he was a communist. Captain Nate has just had an operation for lung cancer and has no where to go to recuperate—he lives on the street. He takes Jenny back to her street and she arrives home hours late. Her parents are of course overjoyed to see her and to learn that her brush with this particular old man did not lead to tragedy, as it might have.
The next vignette, “Lali,” follows Rudi’s wife as she struggles with her feelings for William’s brother, Federico. Rudi has broken his leg and cannot work. Federico takes his place at the luncheonette and soon he and Lali begin an affair. As the day of Rudi’s return dawns, Lali realizes that she is trapped in a loveless marriage and pleads with Federico to take her away. He is obviously reluctant, but he finally gives in. The two plan to bankroll their flight with some of the luncheonette’s profits. Lali will do anything to escape from the husband she doesn’t love and the city she hates and will do anything for Federico, with whom she has fallen hopelessly in love. Federico, however, has a history of instability and has left a trail of broken hearts behind him. Lali goes through with her half of the plan and gives Federico $2,000, but he leaves without her. When William brings her the letter revealing that he is gone, the two make love for the first and only time.
“The Robbery” takes place in the luncheonette six months later. Rudi is back at work and so is Lali; relations were strained between them because of what transpired with Federico, but things are now more or less back to “normal”—Rudi and Lali hardly speak. Near closing time, two young boys come in and rob the store at gunpoint; one of them shoots William, wounding but not killing him. Rudi gives chase and corners the two, shooting and killing one of them. From that day forward, the deceased boy’s mother pickets the luncheonette in an effort to get Rudi to pay for a headstone for her son’s grave. She cannot afford to mark it and has a large family to support.
The eight stories in In Nueva York are linked by the common image of a scruffy orange cat picking through garbage on the street. Prior to the late 1960s, New York City had been slow to provide full sanitation, health care, and other social services to the most impoverished neighborhoods; Mohr’s characters are always commenting on how much garbage is lying around rotting the streets and how irregularly the city picks it up. The situation came to a head in 1969 during the so-called “garbage riots,” when the youth group known as the Young Lords, a former street gang, grabbed headlines for their part in the protest. They not only drew attention to the filth and squalor of the streets in their neighborhood, but occupied a local rundown hospital, agitating for improved health services, among other things.
The final vignette, “Coming to Terms,” returns to Old Mary on her stoop and shows life as usual in the barrio. The cagey orange cat that is forever rummaging through the garbage bins outside Rudi’s luncheonette is once again making a mess of the place. Rudi, who has vowed repeatedly to kill the infamous neighborhood fixture, grabs something in the store and runs toward the animal. But instead of shooting the cat, he offers it a saucer of milk, saying: “I can’t shoot you … we come to terms already, eh? Anybody who lasts as long as you don’t die easy” (In Nueva York, p. 192). The novel closes as the cat laps up the milk and then finds a warm, dry place to sleep.
In “The English Lesson,” Mohr stages a confrontation between a man from the Dominican Republic, Diego Torres, and his classmates, who seem uniformly delighted with the prospects of being, or becoming American citizens. Through this character the novel suggests that, although the Latino characters look upon it as a good opportunity, their huge migration to America is something of an outrage, necessitated as it is by poverty and ambition. Torres is in New York because he feels he has no choice; American conglomerates control all the industry in his deeply impoverished homeland and it is impossible for him to find work:
O.K., I prefer live feeling happy in my country, man. Even I don’t got too much. I live simple but in my own country I be contento. Pero this is no possible in the situation of Santo Domingo now. Someday we gonna run our own country and be jobs for everybody. My reason to be here is to make money, man, and go back home buy my house and property. I no be American citizen, no way. I’m Dominican and proud!”
(In Nueva York, p. 57)
Torres is also upset when an Italian student thinks that he, like William, is Puerto Rican. William can vote because he is an American citizen, but Torres does not believe this is such a great privilege; it hardly alters the basic fact that William has had to leave Puerto Rico in order to find work, for example.
The Dominican Republic has had a long history of dictatorship and civil war; in 1963, U.S. Marines landed to prevent war from escalating between the country’s left- and right-wing factions. The turmoil involved has not been conducive to economic prosperity for most Dominicans. Consequently many try to cross the eighty-mile Mona Passage to Puerto Rico, and from there to catch a domestic (and hence uncontrolled) flight to the United States. Political and economic necessity, in short, compels people from the Dominican Republic to try and pass as Puerto Ricans.
In Nueva York is based on the author’s experiences as a resident of the Puerto Rican barrio. She patterned the characters and incidents on real people and events, drawing on her imagination and creative talent to expand upon these sources. Mohr’s mother taught her as a young girl that “by making pictures and writing letters I could create my own world … like magic” (Mohr in Tardiff and Mbunda, p. 555). Heeding this advice, Mohr studied art at the Art Students’ League in New York and then in Mexico City, where she was profoundly influenced by the works of muralists Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. This exposure was “to shape and form the direction of all [her] future work” (Mohr in Tardiff and Mbunda, p. 555). Both her illustrations and stories reflect the influence of the muralists, and nowhere is this clearer than in her book of vignettes, In Nueva York, which has been called a “vivid tapestry of community life” (Telgen, p. 275).
First published in 1977, In Nueva York won rave reviews and garnered several awards from young adult and from adult organizations. The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books praised the work as “tough, candid, and perceptive,” complimenting Mohr for creating a remarkably realistic mix of community life and of individual characters (Telgen, p. 276). The work won the Best Book Award from School Library Journal and the Best Book Award in Young Adult Literature from the American Library Association. This widespread approval persisted, with the selection of the novel as one of the New York Times’s “New and Noteworthy” paperbacks in January 1980.
Fitzpatrick, Joseph P. Puerto Rican Americans: The Meaning of Migration to the Mainland. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971.
Jennings, James, and Monte Rivera, eds. Puerto Rican Politics in Urban America. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984.
Mohr, Nicholasa. In Nueva York. Houston: Arte Publico, 1993.
Novas, Himilce. Everything You Need to Know about Latino History. New York: Plume, 1994.
Tardiff, Joseph, and L. Mpho Mabunda, eds. Dictionary of Hispanic Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1996.
Telgen, Diane, and Jim Kamp, eds. Notable Hispanic Women. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993.
Tovar, Federico Ribes. El libro puertorriquenño de nueva york I Handbook of the Puerto Rican Community. New York: Plus Ultra Educational Publishers, 1970.
Wagenheim, Kal, ed. The Puerto Ricans. New York: Praeger, 1973.