Spanish Harlem

Spanish Harlem

ISLAND IN THE CITY, by Dan Wakefield. Houghton Mifflin

Dan Wakefield has written a fine human document about the 600,000 Puerto Ricans in New York City. It is a little on the sentimental side (perhaps in reaction to those who have seen these people as so many faceless ciphers); but never mind. Considering the widespread prejudice and open hostility which these people have suffered from since they began to arrive in 1945, Wakefield can easily be forgiven a tendency to overplay his hand; the reader’s common sense will redress the balance. And if there are any doubts on the need for elementary humane emotions, consider the strike of the employees in the so-called New York City charity hospitals. The wealthy philanthropic benefactors, donating their administrative and charitable services, took an attitude toward their Puerto Rican employees (now the bulk of the nonprofessional hospital workers) which has a long history. In fact, it dates back to the day 500 years ago when Columbus enslaved the first Indian to carry water to his ships and commanded his chief to lead him to gold.

That Dan Wakefield’s approach to this latest minority problem (he’ll probably object to that term, and rightly so) is different from the growing collection of dreary documentary “studies” is made clear at the start. The author conjures up the nightmare that we call Spanish Harlem; then he leads us into it via the migrant night flight from San Juan. The hopes, sufferings and dilemmas of its people are seen not through the city’s official institutions (Welfare Department, Housing Commission, police), but rather through institutions of the Puerto Ricans themselves: local clubs, churches, political groups, teen-age gangs, etc. Wakefield attempts to penetrate still deeper into the mind and feeling of these people by forcing us to see their culture at work: spiritualism and the shadowy semi-voodoo world; the addicts and semi-criminals; the Puerto Rican in the strange world of labor organization; the naive expression of independent political action. Occassionally, but then simply to underscore a point, he quotes from one of the official documents.

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