This collection includes recordings and transcripts of oral histories narrated by those in the Puerto Rican community of Brooklyn who arrived between 1917 and 1940. The Long Island Historical Society (now Brooklyn Historical Society) initiated the Puerto Rican Oral History Project in 1973, conducting over eighty interviews between 1973 and 1975. The oral histories often contain descriptions of immigration, living arrangements, neighborhood ethnicities, discrimination, employment, community development, and political leadership. Since their creation in the 1970s, the recordings had not been fully processed and have been inaccessible to researchers until now.
Program cover for “¿Por Que Brooklyn?” The Puerto Rican Oral History Project was a source for this 1991-92 exhibition. Illustration by David Diaz.
Access to Brooklyn Historical Society’s oral history collections is now made possible through a generous grant by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) for Voices of Generations: Investigating Brooklyn’s Cultural Identity, a project to digitize, process, catalog, and make accessible nearly 500 interviews from BHS’s earliest oral history collections that document the histories of Brooklyn’s diverse ethnic and cultural communities. With a goal of improved accessibility via thorough description, Oral History Project Archivist Brett Dion assists and supervises an intern team processing the collections, with project management by Oral Historian Zaheer Ali and Managing Director of the Library and Archives Julie I. May.
The Puerto Rican Oral History Project began with grant funding from the New York State Council on the Arts. Sixty-nine individuals were interviewed as part of the original scope of the project. The number of participants later expanded due to the continued interest of project interviewer John D. Vazquez. Interviews were conducted in Spanish, English, or both.
Winter of 2017 brings a momentous, yet fraught, centennial anniversary for the United States government and the island territory of Puerto Rico. It was March 2, 1917 when President Wilson signed the Jones Act; a piece of legislation applying to the U.S.’s obligation to Puerto Rico (and vice-versa) and U.S. citizenship for the island’s inhabitants. I say fraught because, in comparison to statehood vs. independence for Puerto Rico, the Jones Act introduced half-measures of autonomy, thereby ushering in decades of political frustration and economic challenges (some of which persist a century later).
In broad strokes, some of this frustration is addressed by Brooklyn political leader and Puerto Rican migrant Ramón Colón towards the end of his multifaceted, two-hour oral history recorded in 1973. As a teenager, Colón had arrived in Brooklyn by steamship in 1918 and went on to work in New York State’s Division of Human Rights and with the Republican Party of Kings County. A short time after this interview, Colón authored two books related to the Puerto Rican experience in urban America. Here, Colón laments the U.S. congressional pull on Puerto Rico’s government, but urges the second-generation of Puerto Rican-American citizens to sort out the 1970s-era morass with greater representation and legislation by and for the Puerto Rican community.
This month, BHS will launch the Oral History Portal, an online access website that combines the detailed interview descriptions and the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer player to seamlessly intertwine a descriptive index with the listening experience. The portal was funded by the New York Community Trust. For an overview of the Puerto Rican Oral History Project records and descriptions of narrators and oral history content, please see our guide which is available online via our finding aid portal. You can also visit the Othmer Library to listen to oral history interviews during research hours Wed-Sat, 1:00-5:00 p.m. firstname.lastname@example.org.