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Puerto Rican Oral History Project records now open to researchers

By Brett Dion

Posted on January 10, 2017

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.

Puerto Rican line art
Puerto Rican line artProgram 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 February, 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. [email protected]


  • Daniel M. Lopez

    Posted on April 4, 2018

    As the author of the book titled, "California and Hawaii's First Puerto Ricans, 1850-1925: The 1st and 2nd Generation Immigrants/Migrants", (which the Brooklyn Library has a copy of my 2nd Edition book (Nov. 2016) in your Library Collection. Would your Oral History Project have any printed transcripts of Porto Rican (aka: from 1898-1932) immigrants, and/or migrants, which lived in either Hawaii (from Dec. 1900 -1925 and thereafter) and or in California (from: Dec. 1900-1925 and thereafter), who then moved (or lived) in Brooklyn? If so please inform me as to how can I obtain a copy of said transcript(s), and what would be the cost, if any. P.S.: I continue to conduct research on this topic/matter.... Thank you for your assistance in this instant matter. Daniel M. Lopez (co-Editor, "El Boricua" newsletter, House of Puerto Rico-San Diego)

  • Juanita Pose Schnepf

    Posted on January 13, 2017

    My grandmother and one of my aunts migrated from PR around 1924. She was from the town of Fajardo. Through ancestry I was able to trace her journey. My mother who was born here in 1928 wrote many stories of her mom ,some passed down directly and others were her own experience growing up on Amity,State and Emmett Streets. She also passed along a story of her greatgrandfather who was captain of the Port of San Juan and how he died by not giving in to the demands of the Spaniards who took over their Island. I am thrilled to see this oral history available and would love to contribute something if possible. Thank you, Juanita

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