Celebrating The Bronx’s Hispanic contributions to the world

As Americans across the country continue to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, many may not realize just how much one New York City borough has helped contribute to Hispanic culture across the nation.

And of course, that borough is none other than The Bronx itself.

Members of The Bronx’s Mexican-American community celebrate Day of The Dead in St Mary’s Park / Ed Garcia Conde, Welcome2TheBronx

While the terms Hispanic and Latino are not quite the same things, New York City’s most Latino-identifying borough has plenty of overlap in these categories illustrating its rich history within the Hispanic world.

When the Great Migration from Puerto Rico to the mainland began in the 1940s, thousands of Puerto Ricans settled in the South Bronx as well as other New York City neighborhoods like East Harlem, aka El Barrio, and parts of Brooklyn.

In less than four years, between 1946 and 1950, over 100,000 Puerto Ricans had arrived in the city paving the way for the city’s first sizeable Hispanic population yet still considerably less than 1% of New York City’s population.

Fast forward to 2021 and Hispanics account for almost a third of New York City’s population and it’s not just Puerto Ricans anymore. New York City is now the epicenter of Dominicans, Mexicans, and many more from other Spanish-speaking countries. And in our borough, The Bronx is now home to one of the largest populations of Dominican and Mexican immigrants and their American-born children on the East Coast.

If current trends continue, Hispanics will be the largest demographic group outpacing the White population for the first time in the city’s history.

And throughout all of this history in Hispanic New York, The Bronx has had a special place in being home and in some cases, the birthplace, of many shakers and movers known throughout the world.

From film and television to music, to government, to science, Bronxites of Hispanic descent have been helping shape our world for decades.

Some of these most notable individuals are:

Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the world’s best-known astrophysicists, was raised in The Bronx and went to Bronx High School of Science and is currently the director at the world-famous Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space right here in New York City.

Neil deGrasse Tyson / via Norwegian University of Science and Technology

The father of modern-day zombie apocalyptic films is none other than George A. Romero who ushered the iconic Night of the Living Dead series that changed the game in the sub-genre of the horror world.

The father of modern-day zombie apocalypse movies, George A. Romero / Via Nicolas Genin

Before heading to Hollywood and eventually becoming one of the few people to ever win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony award, the Puerto Rico-born Rita Moreno called the South Bronx home after arriving from the island at the age of 5 (remember the Great Migration we spoke about earlier?).

Rita Moreno / Via DVSROSS

Many grew up watching Sesame Street and besides Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, we all remember Maria aka Sonia Manzano. Manzano, although not born in The Bronx, she was raised in our borough and has never forgotten her roots. Most recently, she created ‘Alma’s Way’, a new kids’ show on PBS about a Puerto Rican girl from The Bronx.

Sonia Manzano at the reopening of the High Bridge in 2015 with her book on the historic bridge / Ed Garcia Conde, Welcome2TheBronx

Speaking of Puerto Rican ‘girls’ from The Bronx, we have none other than Jennifer Lopez aka JLo who went from being just Jenny from the block to a global entertainment phenomenon in music, film, television, and fashion.

JLo performing at Orchard Beach in 2014 in her first concert appearance in her home borough / ©Katrina Davis / Katrina Davis Photography for Welcome2TheBronx

Another famous Sonia from The Bronx is none other than Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the country’s first Latina Supreme Court justice who was appointed by former President Barack Obama in 2009 and has been serving on the nation’s highest bench since then. Sotomayor, a native of Soundview, attended local Catholic schools Blessed Sacrament and Cardinal Spellman High School.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor / Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States, Steve Petteway source, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Sticking with government, we can’t forget about another Bronx native, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic Socialist who represents part of The Bronx and Queens in Congress and who has become pretty much a household name not just in The Bronx but across the nation as one of government’s most vocal members against issues of inequalities and the destruction of our environment the latter of which is the subject of her Green New Deal plan.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (left) with Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark at Bronx Pride 2019/Ed Garcia Conde, Welcome2TheBronx

Another individual that lived in The Bronx and helped shape the world we live in today is another one that is often overlooked and that is Sylvia Rivera, a Transwoman and who, along with Marsha P. Johnson, another Transwoman, is considered to be the mother of the gay liberation movement and revolution that began with the Stonewall Riots in Greenwhich Village of which Rivera was at the forefront with other trailblazers.

If it weren’t for the bravery of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, the LGBTQ community would probably not have made all the strides they have in the past 50 years since those fateful nights of rioting against police brutality and targeting of the queer community.

The Bronx is Musical

Sometimes it’s not just one individual but a group of people that make an impact in the music world and that is certainly the case with The Bronx’s Hispanic contribution to music that has changed the world forever.

Salsa

When it comes to music, The Bronx’s role in the creation of one of the world’s most popular Latin music genres, Salsa, is undisputed even if it isn’t always acknowledged.

In 2004, Roberta L. Singer and Elena Martinez, who is the co-artistic director of the Bronx Music Heritage Center, wrote, “When the story of Latin popular music (salsa) is told in popular and scholarly writings, the South Bronx is consistently overlooked despite the critical role it played in the development of that music. From the late 1940s through the early 1970s Hunts Point, Longwood, and Mott Haven were thriving Puerto Rican communities where an explosion of musical activity and creativity was taking place.”

From A South Bronx Latin Music Tale by Roberta L. Singer and Elena Martinez

Old ballrooms like the Hunts Point Palace and the Caravana Club in the South Bronx saw some of the greatest names in Salsa like Eddie Palmieri, a Bronx native, and the legendary Tito Puente who would eventually call the borough home, play to the masses in these storied places.

But after years of neglecting The Bronx’s clear importance in the creation of Salsa, a group now wants to put the borough on the map by making it the home for the International Museum of Salsa.

No dance halls? No problem. People just take their Salsa dancing to the streets of The Bronx/Ed Garcia Conde, Welcome2TheBronx

While the music halls that once played live Salsa music to thousands of Bronx residents may be gone, the beat and rhythm of the music is still alive and well in The Bronx whether at weekly Salsa festivals at Orchard Beach or on the streets of ‘El Condado de la Salsa.

Hip Hop’s Hispanic influence

And it wasn’t just Salsa that Bronx Hispanics were central to in the creation of the genre but also Hip Hop which was born in The Bronx. The Hispanic contributions to Hip Hop have been consistently overlooked despite being front and center of the movement.

Most particularly, the Puerto Rican community which was intimately involved in those early days in the 70s especially in the B-Boy breakdancing scene graffiti culture, two of the five pillars of Hip Hop.

The above individuals and examples are just a small example of the wide contributions that Bronx Hispanics have made not just to the city and country but to the world.

And to think, this is just one of the many groups that came from The Bronx or called our borough home.

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