Politics and the Puerto Ricans:
Getting Out the Vote in Spanish Harlem
Dan Wakefield, a new contributor to these pages, lived in Harlem for six months in preparation for writing his book In Spanish Harlem (to be published by Houghton Mifflin), in which our present article will appear as a chapter.
“Y los últimos serán los primeros. . . .” (“and the last shall he first”)—From a campaign leaflet of Jose Lumen Roman, candidate for the New York City Council.
A Half-Dozen men wearing wide, straw-thatched sombreros walked through the rain of an autumn Thursday night on East 104th Street and turned inside the Union Settlement House. They entered the auditorium, paused for a moment, and looked from left to right. On the left-hand side ten people, all but two of them white, were scattered through the rows of folding chairs. Most of them sat alone. On the right-hand side about fifty people, several of them wearing the wide sombreros, were sitting together—some chattering among themselves in Spanish, others waiting with folded hands and a silent, skeptical detachment. The half-dozen men who had just come in walked quickly to the right and looked for seats. They did not take off their sombreros, which bore inscriptions painted in red across the crown—Vota Jose Lumen Roman. Their eyes were fixed on the men who moved against the brown velvet backdrop curtain on the stage. These were the sponsors and principal speakers of the evening’s program, which for the first time in anyone’s memory brought together the candidates for City Council from East Harlem to discuss the issues of the coming campaign.
This in itself was enough to make the meeting a notable event for the neighborhood. Its consequences were further enlarged by the fact that one of the candidates present—the man whose name appeared on the crowns of the sombreros—was aspiring to become the first Puerto Rican in history to win a seat on the New York City Council. Puerto Ricans have lived in New York since the early 1800’s, and by the 1957 season of Roman’s campaign the Puerto Rican population totaled more than half a million, which made New York the largest city of Puerto Ricans in the world, not excepting San Juan on the island itself. Yet no Puerto Rican had ever gained one of the twenty-five seats on the New York City Council or, for that matter, any elective city office.
It was mainly Puerto Ricans who came to the meeting at the settlement house, and many of them spoke only Spanish. But all the audience sat attentively as speakers in English told them about the importance of political action. The word came first from a local minister called in to act as an “impartial” master of ceremonies, and next from the New York Hotel Trades Council, an organization whose union membership of hotel and restaurant workers is composed of a growing number of Puerto Ricans, and whose local committee sponsored the evening’s unusual meeting. (The attention paid to Puerto Rican affairs by the hotel and restaurant workers would probably have come as no surprise to the city at large, since a mass television audience had been informed that spring on the Ed Murrow show by a manager of one of the city’s largest hotels that mainly Puerto Ricans were employed in his kitchens. He explained that they made excellent workers because they came from a tropical climate and therefore found it easy to work in the steam and heat of the kitchens.)
It turned out that not only religion and organized labor were represented on the stage, but the Republican party as well. There is nearly always a minister at East Harlem gatherings, and the unions are showing up more and more often, but Republicans hardly ever venture into that part of the 22nd Senatorial District north of 96th Street. But there on the stage, big as life and swathed in the blackest flannel, was Richard C. Welden, the young lawyer chosen as the year’s Republican sacrifice in the 22nd.
Welden took the floor first because he had to get on to another appointment. The audience almost automatically began to grow restless as he presented his brief, which dealt with the topic he judged this gathering to be most interested in—the bill, since adopted, to ban discrimination in New York City private housing. Welden was against discrimination: “I think all candidates for political office in New York City are against discrimination.” The joy of being residents of such an enlightened capital seemed to be lost on the crowd, but Welden forged on undaunted, droning out readings of various anti-discrimination laws as an agent on the right-hand side of the room got up to pass out additional sombreros painted with Vota Jose Lumen Roman.
The audience no doubt knew, without paying the close attention that the text required, that Welden after all had his reservations about integration. He recommended holding off the anti-bias housing bill in favor of “voluntary integration,” which really was the best and most amiable course. “That is my position,” he said in conclusion. “I hope you understand it is not ambiguous.”
It really was not, and there was no applause. Several perfunctory questions came from the audience, amidst much shuffling, when suddenly there arose a man from the right-hand side of the room with black hair, a black mustache, a large black umbrella, and rimless glasses that matched his severe expression. Although unknown to Welden, this was William Rodriguez Carrasquillo, campaign manager of Jose Lumen Roman, and he demanded to know if anyone on the left-hand side of the room spoke Spanish. The two Negroes and eight white people scattered through that section looked up expressionless, without a single “Sí,” and Rodriguez asked the chair if this very meeting was not the moment to begin integration. There was hearty applause as Willie Rodriguez hoisted his great umbrella and moved to the other side. A heavy Italian man in a gray sweater and rumpled brown overcoat in turn heaved up from his lonely seat on the left and walked over to join the Puerto Ricans on the right, accompanied by another burst of applause. In the midst of all this, Richard Welden, sensing that he had lost the initiative, picked up his briefcase, nodded farewell to the unmindful audience, and disappeared quietly into the night.
The voluntary integration and disappearance of Welden seemed to have a happy effect on the audience, and When Jose Lumen Roman, candidate of the Liberal party, came to the front of the stage, the atmosphere had lost much of its strain. He stood at one side of the stage, an almost tiny man with a serious face supporting large, black-rimmed glasses, and said in English that he had offered to act as an interpreter at this meeting for Welden and John J. Merli, the Democratic candidate, since he knew that many of the people present spoke only Spanish and the other two candidates did not.
“But who,” said Roman, “will be present day in and day out in the City Council to interpret the needs of the Puerto Rican citizens if these men are elected?”
The audience cheered, and Roman told them that “the issue in this campaign is Puerto Rican representation. There are over 500,000 Puerto Ricans in New York and not one is on the City Council.”
Roman warmed up to his subject, bringing his arms down in quick, public-speaking-gesture jerks of emphasis, recounting the sad conditions in which the Puerto Ricans were forced to live, in tenements where “roaches are as large as mice and rats are as big as cats.” The audience who lived in the tenements laughed and clapped at the exaggeration of size, if not of fact. Things are never so bad but what they couldn’t be bigger.
As for his opponent, the incumbent Councilman John J. Merli, Roman charged that this representative of the people was always absent when it came to important votes. “His oldest trick is to disappear.” John Merli sat expressionless on the stage as the audience laughed at the allusion to the name their councilman is known by among the Puerto Ricans of his district: the “Invisible Man.”
“I call,” said Roman, “for a sign in the City Council that says for the first time in New York City’s history: Aquí se habla español.”
The campaign sombreros were waved in the air and Roman smiled at the cheers. A tall, aged man with deep lines running through his dark brown face got up at the back of the room and asked in Spanish if the questions had to be asked in English. The crowd on the right cried “Español!” A translator was brought out, and by the curious protocol that had been decided on, stood by to translate the questions asked him in Roman’s native tongue into English for Jose Lumen Roman.
A pretty young woman in a blue silk dress arose and addressed the stage in Spanish. The translator told Roman that the lady’s question was: Why did the Americans hate the Puerto Ricans? She did not understand why it should be, or why it was that landlords and Italians had such a special dislike for Puerto Ricans.
Jose Roman was graceful enough not to refer the question to John Merli, the political leader of East Harlem’s Italians and the champion of its landlords.
“Only low, uneducated people hate the Puerto Ricans,” Roman answered. “True Americans don’t dislike the Puerto Ricans.”
This news was translated into Spanish, whereupon a man got up and asked then if this meant that newspapermen were not true Americans.
Roman did the best he could with these ideological questions, and wound up with more clearcut assurances on practical matters, such as a promise of protection to building superintendents, who often were tossed out by landlords with only a few days’ notice, without explanation or compensation. The economic “issues” had begun to take shape: as a candidate of the Puerto Ricans, the city’s newest minority group, Roman was pledged to protect the superintendents. As a candidate of the Italians, who have now been residents long enough to realize fully the American dream, Merli was pledged to protect the landlords.
Roman, having assured his followers that he would safeguard their particular interests, turned the floor over to the landlords’ freedom fighter. Councilman Merli was of course psychologically handicapped by the fact that he was standing in the camp of the enemy. His followers had long ago stopped attending political affairs at this “mass” level in East Harlem, for they long ago captured it and owned it, politically and economically. The best guess as to the reason for Merli’s appearance at this event was his professional curiosity about what the new, never yet seriously insurgent Puerto Ricans were up to. They cannot yet be taken too seriously in this, their oldest neighborhood in the city, for they are far from owning it: they only live in it.
John J. Merli, the “Invisible Man” made flesh, stepped to the front of the stage—a large, blue-suited man with glasses and thinning gray hair and a voice as husky as his body, which seemed uncomfortably strapped in its meeting-night clothes. He told the audience, with injured pride, that he was after all no outsider: “I have spoken in this hall many times. Over fifty-three years ago I was born three blocks away from here. I still live in the room where I was born.” Besides these qualifications of residency, Merli reminded the crowd that, “I come from a minority group too. My father came from Italy—steerage.”
Merli went on to declaim about the numbers of the bills he had sponsored in the City Council; and, taking note of the nature of most of them, paused to point a finger at the audience and say: “I’m proud of the fight I’ve waged for the small businessman. You in this room are mostly laborers now, but in five, ten, fifteen years, God willing—you’ll be able to buy a small business yourself.”
John Merli, almost breathless now, rested his case with the promise of democratic capitalism, and opened the floor for questions.
Willie Rodriguez, bearing his black umbrella like a lance, popped up and asked if Mr. Merli realized how tremendous was the influx of Puerto Ricans into East Harlem, and into all of New York. Merli admitted to this knowledge, and Willie pressed on to ask whether or not these people shouldn’t have a representative on the City Council. Merli judged that this was a loaded question, and felt that he had to answer yes—if they felt a Puerto Rican would represent them better than himself, they of course should elect one. The Councilman drew his first and only cheer of the evening.
A young man in a leather jacket got up and asked Mr. Merli if he believed in working six days a week and then going to church and resting on the seventh. Mr. Merli said he found no fault with that program, and followed it himself. Well, then, the young man wanted to know—“You think it’s right I have to work 60-70 hours a week myself?”
Mr. Merli looked startled, and informed the young man that the 60-hour week had long been legislated off the books.
“But what am I going to do about it?” the young man asked.
Mr. Merli said he should by all means take it to the proper authorities. The audience laughed; they had been there before. The people’s representative had held up to them the hope of buying a small business, but the people were hoping for a six-day week.
A lady got up to say that the Puerto Ricans needed help, and Mr. Merli said his political club was open every Monday and Thursday night, eight o’clock on. The lady asked if Mr. Merli spoke Spanish and he admitted his vocabulary was limited to several phrases remembered from high school. The question of whether the lady or her friends could get much help from Merli’s club will remain hypothetical because the lady and her friends will not go there.
The questions ended and the audience filed back out to 104th Street—the more dedicated partisans of Jose Lumen Roman having at least the advantage of the campaign sombreros which served an unexpected practical purpose in keeping the rain off the heads of the wearers. The wide sombreros that served as a symbol of Roman’s battle are first of all the symbol of the Puerto Rican worker of the hills, the jibaro—symbol of the poverty the people of the island thought they were leaving behind and found in a different form in New York City. They appealed, as did Roman’s entire campaign and platform, to their feeling of “national” unity and indignation, and in that sense became a symbol also of the campaign’s bitter, predestined finale.
The campaign of Jose Roman to win a seat on the New York City Council was launched with a speech by the Mayoress of San Juan, and closed with a speech by one of Roman’s workers calling for the formation of a “Spanish party” in local politics. In all the bright oratory of opening night at Roman’s headquarters on 106th and Lexington, a representative of the Liberal party apologized for not being able to address the audience in Spanish as the Puerto Rican speakers were doing, but observed that, “after all, we are all Americans.”
The observation was legally accurate—all Puerto Ricans, whether on the island or the U.S. mainland, were made U.S. citizens in 1917—but as the campaign progressed it became increasingly obvious that the legal truth was in reality a political lie. On the weekend before the election, campaign manager Willie Rodriguez dolefully stared at the map on the wall of the 22nd Senatorial District in New York City and reviewed the battle. There is one member on the City Council from each of the twenty-five senatorial districts in the city; the 22nd, where Roman waged his campaign, runs roughly from East 74th Street as far north as East 135th Street, from the East River to Park Avenue, with a bulge in the middle that extends as far west as Eighth Avenue. In the center of the area is one of the oldest and largest Puerto Rican communities in the city (known as “Spanish Harlem”) running roughly from 96th Street to 116th Street, from Fifth Avenue to the East River, and there are Puerto Ricans scattered throughout all the district north of 96th Street. South of 96th Street is the old German community of Yorkville, with a very small number of Negro and Puerto Rican inhabitants. North of 116th Street and East of Lexington Avenue is one of the old Italian sections of the city, and Italians are still scattered through what was once a part of their section to the south of 116th, which is now largely Puerto Rican. There are Negroes living throughout all the district north of 96th Street, though in nothing like the dominant numbers of the nearly all-Negro section of Harlem proper, from Lenox Avenue westward, which falls inside a different senatorial district.
Willie Rodriguez, examining the map of this great “melting pot” of the nation, explained that his people had mainly conducted their campaign in the “Spanish” part of it.
“What we wanted to do,” he said, “was get speakers to go into the other sections—German speakers in the German section, Italian in the Italian, and over here, this is a rich district, have an American speaker go. The trouble is, we lack the speakers. We go in ourselves, they can tell the accent right away—it’s no good. We did get one Italian girl to help us though—very nice girl. She was out last night giving speeches in Italian.”
In the meantime, candidate Roman, having covered the “Spanish” section of the district, was speaking to a Puerto Rican Merchants Association on 14th Street, and preparing to give a pre-election weekend address to a Puerto Rican group in the Bronx. They of course could not cast a single vote for him, but contributed their full moral support.
This concept of sectional campaigning was not originated by Jose Lumen Roman—it is an old East Harlem inheritance. The only politician who brought the minority groups of the area together for any political purpose was Vito Marcantonio—though his technique was hardly a violation of the tradition. Marcantonio merely learned all the languages of all the large minority groups in his district—Italian, English, Yiddish (there was then a large Russian Jewish community in East Harlem), and Spanish.
Marcantonio, who caused another unusual political union when the Republican, Democrat, and Liberal parties finally joined in coalition to oust him from his seat as East Harlem’s U.S. Representative in 1950 after he had established a firm reputation as a follower of the Communist party line in Congress, was, and still is, a legend in his old neighborhood. The five-thousand mourners who attended his funeral in 1954 were made up of people who spoke all the languages he did, and several more. Once, during the campaign of Jose Roman, a group on a street corner in the heart of East Harlem’s Puerto Rican district stopped several people and asked them who was the politician who had done the most for the Puerto Ricans. The answers were either Marcantonio or no one. One man reached in his billfold and pulled out a lifetime membership card in the Vito Marcantonio club. Nearly every old-time resident has a story—often improved by the passage of time—of how the great “Marc” saved him from a landlord, or personally came to his apartment to turn on the steam, or examined a damaged stair and demanded its repair. His popularity prompted dire prophecies and speculations in the outside world—outside of East Harlem—that the Puerto Ricans had “gone Communist.” But the people of Marcantonio’s tenement domain neither knew nor cared what battles he fought in Congress. Who in East Harlem has ever seen “Congress”? The battle the Puerto Ricans knew and faced was the battle with the landlord, and “Marc” seemed to be their champion in it.
Marcantonio got his political start in the old LaGuardia club, and so did the Puerto Ricans—though in different ways and for different reasons. Fiorello LaGuardia first spotted the talents of Marcantonio when he led a successful tenants’ strike at the age of twenty. Four years later, while he still was a student at New York University Law School, he managed LaGuardia’s successful campaign for a seat in Congress as representative from East Harlem. That was in 1924, and it was not until the early depression days of the 30’s that the Puerto Ricans began coming into the LaGuardia club. They had taken no formal part in New York City politics before that, and came on the scene through their own necessity and the local politicians’ growing awareness of their potential voting strength in the area. One of the early Puerto Rican members of the LaGuardia club recalls that many of the Puerto Ricans first got involved “because of the depression.”
“You had to go to your Congressman to find out how to get help. Well, they gave you the help and then wanted you to help them back with your vote and political support. That’s how it started.”
Puerto Rican participation was developed further by Marcantonio, who did not depend alone on his knowledge of Spanish to draw their support, but chose as his top lieutenant and “Spanish secretary” a bright young man from Arecibo, Puerto Rico, named Manuel Medina. Marcantonio had a special “secretary” at his club from each of the district’s minority groups so that constituents of any shade of color or dialect could speak about their problems with a brother when they came to the club for help. At election time, Marcantonio would send these “secretaries” to campaign for him among their own particular minority; the dream of Willie Rodriguez in 1957 had already been realized twenty years before by Marcantonio, who had the right language speaker for every section.
Marcantonio’s Puerto Rican secretary, Manuel Medina, was a fiery speaker as well as an able administrator, and achieved a considerable reputation of his own in Spanish Harlem. He ran twice for office himself, in 1949 for state assembly, losing to the Negro Hulan Jack (who went on to become Borough President of Manhattan) by only 671 votes, and in 1950 made an impressive showing in the City Council race by polling 27,853 votes, and thereby coming far closer than anyone since then to upsetting John J. Merli. Merli got 35,377 votes, which is about the usual total the Democratic candidate counts on in that district. In explaining his unexpected showing in the City Council race, Medina made clear that he broke none of the neighborhood traditions in campaigning—he spoke only to the Puerto Ricans. As for the Italians, “Marc took care of that.” But after Marcantonio was beaten by the coalition that same year, and died of a heart attack in August of 1954, after starting to talk again of a comeback, there has been no one to “take care of the Italians”—or even talk to them—in behalf of a Puerto Rican candidate. Marcantonio’s organization died with him, and Manuel Medina, one of Spanish Harlem’s best-known political figures, became a notary public on 100th and Madison.
It is true that no non-Puerto Rican politician in New York except Marcantonio captured the Puerto Ricans’ support and sentiment, and it is also true that no politician except Marcantonio ever really tried. The history of the city’s politicians in their relations with the Puerto Ricans has been a history of flimsy “favors” of the most perfunctory kind. The “recognition” by the major political parties and their candidates of the Puerto Ricans in New York City has varied only in its degree of crudeness, and has always been limited to a minimum of real help and a maximum of “brotherhood” oratory.
The first recorded recognition of the Puerto Ricans by a major party’s political candidate occurred when Senator Robert Wagner, Sr., had lunch with a group of the leaders of the city’s Puerto Rican community in 1932. The historic occasion was officially photographed and printed in the Spanish press of the city. Lunch was not to be scoffed at—it was more than the Puerto Ricans had received from any other politician.
The few scattered Puerto Rican political recognitions and victories since then have come through last-minute efforts of a party or candidate to play for the “Spanish vote.” When the election was over, the people who cast the “Spanish vote” were again forgotten. The most flagrant use of this technique has been on the mayoralty level, where the candidates before election decide they must show their deep sensitivity to the problems of the Puerto Ricans. A handy and painless device for this was invented by Mayor William O’Dwyer six weeks before the 1949 elections for mayor in New York City—it is called “The Mayor’s Committee on Puerto Rican affairs.” It passes manifestoes. It is referred to in the campaigns as evidence of the Mayor’s vital interest in the Spanish-speaking peoples of the city who, potentially, make up the fourth largest voting group, behind the Italians, Irish, and Jews. The “Mayor’s Committee on Puerto Rican affairs,” after proving its use as a harmless propaganda group, was solemnly adopted and incorporated by Mayor Vincent Impelliteri and then Mayor Robert Wagner, Jr. Recently, however, Wagner watered it down even further by incorporating it into the “Committee on Inter-Group Relations.” It holds conferences and passes manifestoes. And it contains one Puerto Rican member.
In 1951 Mayor Vincent Impelliteri moved beyond the shadow play of his Committee on Puerto Rican Affairs to make a historic political appointment. He named Emilio Nunez to the post of Special Sessions Justice, proudly proclaiming that this was the first Puerto Rican appointed to serve on the Municipal Court of New York. As it turned out, Emilio Nunez did not happen to be a Puerto Rican. He had a Spanish name, of course—and, indeed, he was from Spain. In such ways the faceless minority confounds the politicians with the always surprising, always bothersome business of having some personal identity.
That was the last “Puerto Rican” political appointment until 1957. It was then that Mayor Wagner announced, for the second time in New York City history, the first appointment of a Puerto Rican to the post of municipal magistrate. The mayor made sure that his designee, Manuel Gomez, not only spoke Spanish but also came from Puerto Rico. Manuel Gomez was the real thing, and history was finally made.
The Puerto Ricans have fared only slightly better in getting into elective office. Two of them made the New York State Assembly, and the first, surprisingly enough, was elected in the earliest days of Puerto Rican political participation. In 1937 the Republican party was looking for a way to upset the Democrats in the old 17th (now the 14th) Assembly District in Spanish Harlem. It was composed of about half Negroes and half Puerto Ricans, and the Republicans hit on the novel notion of running a Puerto Rican. Oscar Garcia-Rivera was the man, and he won. The next year at Albany he voted for the kind of legislation that would benefit his tenement constituents most, and this did not happen to be the kind of legislation being pushed by the Republican party. Garcia-Rivera was accused by the Republican club of his district of “hanging around too much with Communists and members of the American Labor party,” and on these grounds was refused support for re-election and kicked out of the club. He turned to Marcantonio, and won a second term as a candidate for the American Labor party before retiring from elective politics.
No Puerto Rican in Manhattan has since been elected to any office; the Democratic party has never put up a Puerto Rican candidate in Manhattan. In 1953 Ed Flynn, boss of the Bronx Democratic club, needed a candidate for State Assembly and decided to make an appeal for the first time to the second oldest Puerto Rican community of the city, the Morrisania and Mott Haven section of the Bronx. A Puerto Rican named Felipe Torres was supported for State Assembly by Flynn’s club in 1953. He won, and still holds his seat.
The Democratic party in Manhattan, party of the people, the masses, and the minorities, has managed to avoid ever running a Puerto Rican for any elective office. The Puerto Ricans who have run in their oldest neighborhood, in East Harlem, have run on the tickets of the Republicans, the Liberals, and, before it died, the American Labor party. This is not necessarily a sign of the forward-looking nature of the aforementioned parties, but in most cases a tactic mixed of despair and hope by out-of-office political groups to score an upset over the older, entrenched minorities represented by the ruling Democrats.
The first Democratic acknowledgment of Puerto Ricans in Spanish Harlem occurred in 1954 as a result of the fact that the Jewish district leader of the 14th A. D. had refused to support Robert Wagner, the Tammany Hall candidate for mayor, the previous year. The great majority of the Jewish community had long moved out of East Harlem—including Sammy Kantor, the Democratic district leader. But Kantor was entrenched, and might be to this day were it not for the fact that he threw in his political cards with Vincent Impelliteri and thus aroused the wrath of DeSapio and Tammany Hall.
DeSapio “discovered” that Kantor did not actually live in his district any more and had him disqualified. The fact that the leader did not live in his district was nothing strange. It is the common practice of political leaders of the slum areas who make good as representatives of their old neighborhood to realize the dream of its residents and move to a better place.
Having ousted Kantor, DeSapio decided to recognize the people who were still unfortunate enough to live in the district, and appointed a Puerto Rican. He called before his throne a representative selection of Puerto Ricans and placed his hand on the shoulder of one named Antonio Mendez, a mild-mannered, hard-working gentleman who had a jewelry store in Spanish Harlem, no political past, and no recognizable ambitions of a political future beyond the one assigned him by DeSapio. The other candidates for the appointment included men who had worked as block captains in Sammy Kantor’s club and had expressed certain hopes of some day running for an office. These more wild-eyed men were passed by. Tony Mendez thus became the first Puerto Rican district leader in New York City and a new blow was struck for democracy. DeSapio further noted the bravery of his selection, since it was made at a time when much adverse publicity was devoted to the Puerto Ricans because of the shooting up of Congress by a group of Puerto Rican Nationalists. In appointing Mendez, he stated: “The Democratic party believes now, as it always did, that guilt by association is as tyrannic, as evil, and as ugly as Communism. The Democratic party believes that the Puerto Rican people will provide leadership to our nation and add to our great heritage as a free people.”
Thus having assured New York that Tony Mendez would lead no gunmen on City Hall, DeSapio seated him into the district leadership. He has done an earnest job, and been faithful to the Chief through a growing number of bolts and threats to the status quo from within and without the club. The first official challenge to Tony’s leadership occurred in the fall of 1957, when one of his top captains—a man who had hoped for the district leadership himself—opened a short-lived revolt. Benie Caballero announced his candidacy for the leadership of the 14th A. East with a pink and blue leaflet charging that “Agitators, Pinkos, Nationalists, and Non-Residents Have Taken over the Democratic Leadership of the 14th A. D. (East.)” When questioned as to how poor Tony could be both a Pinko and a Nationalist, Benie said that a more basic issue was one stated in the leaflet (spelling in the original): “We firmely believe that Tony Mendez, being illiterate and inixperienced in political matters, cannot lead the Puerto Rican people residents of this district effectively.”
Benie elaborated on this by explaining in a low voice of outrage that Tony was very uneducated and Americans would think all Puerto Ricans were uneducated if Tony was the Puerto Rican district leader. “I’ll tell you the truth,” Benie said to his questioning visitors, “when Tony goes to see Carmine, he doesn’t call him ‘Chief’—he calls him ‘Chef.’”
But Benie never got the chance to put his platform to the test. The Chief had his men look into the revolt, and Benie’s petitions to run were disqualified in court on the ground that they were not properly taken. Benie disappeared from the scene in disgrace and was last reported to be living in Greenwich Village, which may mean something to the eventual literary history of the Puerto Ricans, if not the political.
A much greater menace to the status quo of Tony’s Caribe Club came shortly after when the Liberal party announced that it was running a Puerto Rican for the City Council in East Harlem. Tony’s Puerto Rican Democratic club of course had to support the Italian Tammany incumbent, John J. Merli. The Liberal candidate was Jose Lumen Roman, a thirty-two-year-old reporter for El Diario de Nueva York and announcer of a Spanish-language TV version of “Mr. Anthony” called “What Is Your Problem?” Roman was the first reporter to write on the exploitation of Puerto Ricans in unions in New York, and later testified on the matter before the Senate committee investigating rackets. His stature as a hero among his people was in question, however, because many Puerto Ricans objected to his TV program, feeling that it exploited and advertised the problems of the Puerto Ricans and lowered their status and reputation as a group. Problems common to all humanity were paraded before the microphone, and many Puerto Rican watchers felt the presentation implied that these were all “Puerto Rican problems.” They especially objected to the fact that the problems of Puerto Ricans were presented for all to see, and then an advertisement for a roach-killer would appear on the screen. All this has its bitter effects when presented to a group made sensitive to their public image by the daily experience of being a “Spic” in a city of strangers.
But whatever the adverse feeling caused by Roman’s TV show, he had much more tangible handicaps to contend with: he was previously not known personally in the neighborhood, and the Liberal party had no organization in the area to work for him. Nevertheless, he posed a solid and dangerous challenge to Tony Mendez, who would stand or fall on how well he was able to hold the Puerto Ricans in the Democratic camp against a Puerto Rican candidate. The motto of the Tony Mendez club was: “I am a Democrat first and a Puerto Rican second,” and it was up to Tony to prove that his people followed the rule.
His club was bolted again by a group of old timers, some of whom had once aspired to his office, who said that they could not stay loyal now against a Puerto Rican candidate. They set up a rival club called the “Loyal Democrats” and reversed the motto of Tony’s club, saying, “I am a Puerto Rican first, and a Democrat second.”
This heresy was naturally looked upon with horror by Tammany Hall, and in election week a group of regular Democratic candidates for city office spoke at a rally at Tony’s club, pounding home again the politics of acquiescence and obedience that constitutes their political message to the Puerto Ricans. The essence of this politics is that everyone will be given his handout and it is unpatriotic to step out of line. The Italians are ahead of you, but they were there first. This Democratic ideal was summed up most cogently by one of Tammany’s lawyers for the club, a man named Irwin Grey. He told the assembled Puerto Rican multitudes who crowded the club and stood drinking the beer and eating the bread that is the bounty of Tammany Hall for its people in election week rallies: “We must show that we will follow our leader to elect all Democrats running for office.”
He explained that doing this—turning out a large vote in that mainly Puerto Rican district—would endear the people to the Democratic leadership: “And then, when we come here for little favors during the year, we will be strong and Tony will be able to ask the Mayor for many little favors for the Puerto Rican people.”
The Democratic party stands in the midst of the nation’s worst slum and assures the people who live in its roach-ridden rooms, which go for three times the price of a room south of 96th Street, that if they will turn out in force to vote for the Democratic party they will be rewarded with little favors. Return us to power, says Irwin Grey, and we will serve you more beer and hot dogs when election time comes round again, and your children out there who are put in “health classes” in the local grade schools because they suffer from malnutrition so badly they can’t do their school work, they can come too, and partake of the hot dogs that Tammany dispenses as a favor.
Neither DeSapio nor Mayor Robert Wagner appeared at the Democratic rally in Spanish Harlem. It was left to local candidates and third-string party hacks to deliver the high promise of a handout.
The Tony Mendez club did its job and proved its devotion to the cause beyond a doubt when it kicked out Frank Rodriguez, one of its workers who was caught on election day showing a Puerto Rican who asked how to vote for Jose Lumen Roman how it was done. Political education has its limits.
A meager 5,452 people pulled the C-line lever for Roman on election day, which is only slightly more than the usual total that any Liberal party candidate expects in the 22nd Senatorial District. The Republican candidate, Richard Welden, got 10,460, which is the usual total a Republican runs up in the 22nd, largely through strong support in the “American” and “German” part of the district south of 96th street. John Merli got 32,022, which was 3,000 less than when he was first elected in 1950, but still quite close to the expected total that the Democrats count on in the area. The status quo was maintained to near perfection and Tony Mendez enforced his position as the “House Puerto Rican” of Tammany Hall.
The results of the vote were almost identical with the party showings in the district in 1950—except for the glaring absence of the 27,853 votes that Manuel Medina had gotten on the American Labor party line. Where did those 27,853 votes go? They were certainly largely Puerto Rican. Medina himself feels that, for one thing, most of the Puerto Ricans who were registered by Marcantonio’s organization merely gave up when he died; and that those who remained active went with the Democratic party for lack of any alternative, and also because of the year-round work of Mendez and his club later on to line up the Puerto Ricans for the Democrats. If Roman were to bring out the old and new Puerto Rican vote, it would take time and money and men—none of which he had in any significant measure. He opened his headquarters two months before the election; two years would have hardly been enough. The registration of Puerto Ricans has always been difficult because of the English literacy tests, which many are unable to take or are embarrassed to try—especially in Spanish Harlem, which has an older age level than many of the newer Puerto Rican settlements, and is sufficient enough unto itself so that people who live there (especially women, who don’t have to go outside the area to look for jobs) are able to stay put all their life without learning a single word of English. Many do just that. The Council of Spanish Organizations in New York City estimated in 1957 that there were 85,000 Puerto Ricans registered to vote in the city of New York—and a potential total of 266,000 voters. The relatively small number who vote is not due to any “national” or “cultural” lack of interest in voting by Puerto Ricans, since elections in Puerto Rico usually draw 80 per cent of the voters. The difference can be attributed, in some significant part, to the English-language literacy test requirement.
It is obvious that in any case the voting pattern in their oldest neighborhood, the 22nd Senatorial District, was exactly the same in 1957 as it was in 1950 (except for the absence of the American Labor party vote.) And yet there has been a tremendous new influx of residents since then, especially of Puerto Ricans, into the once highly concentrated Italian area east of Lexington Avenue, between 96th and 116th Streets. But that is largely the domain of John Merli’s Democratic assembly district club, and it is against the continued survival of John Merli to go out and try to register the new Puerto Rican residents. There is no other organization to do it.
On election night there was a total of two Puerto Ricans and one Negro among all the people celebrating in John Merli’s political club on East 105th Street. There were also some cops, who had come to free-load on the roast beef sandwiches and beer of victory.
There were no cops that night at the headquarters of Jose Lumen Roman. The only people besides the Puerto Ricans were volunteers from an International Union of Electrical Workers local which has a growing Puerto Rican membership and whose leaders were interested in working for the election of a Puerto Rican to the City Council. These outsiders worked every night for the last two weeks of the election, and were known among Roman’s regulars as the only steady non-Spanish speaking workers of the campaign. On election night at Roman’s headquarters, one of the Puerto Rican captains turned to a stranger and asked him, “Are you Spanish?” The stranger said no and the Puerto Rican nodded understandingly, extended his hand, and said “Sholem Aleichem.”
There was no roast beef and no beer at Roman’s, and the few remaining workers stood around a desk at the back of the empty hall in the late evening amid the scattered refuse of defeat—the useless maps and the left-over leaflets with the promise that “los últimos serán los primeros,” the last shall be first. The men passed around a pint of whiskey that someone had brought and talked in the bitterness of those who are always last. They talked of what was the mystery to them of their failure, blaming it finally on the Liberal party, which they felt had not really cared, and pledging to form a Spanish party, because they decided they could only trust themselves. Someone asked if this wouldn’t restrict their appeal to others, and a man explained that it would be a “Spanish party open to all Americans.” Campaign manager Willie Rodriguez stood with his face pale and slightly whiskered by the long day, a notebook poking through a hole in his white shirt pocket, and asked if he himself had failed, and the others assured him he had done his best. It was not his fault—it was the others, those forces no one could quite pin down but which were against the Puerto Ricans; those invisible forces of bitterness and disregard which had again returned the Invisible Man to the City Council by an overwhelming vote, and the men around the desk stood beaten by them and not understanding them. Willie Rodriguez said there would be a meeting in that very room next Sunday to form the Spanish party. He stood for a moment in silence, then picked up the pint of whiskey, raised it in front of him, and proposed a toast.
“To the future,” said Willie Rodriguez.