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Interview with a Puerto Rican Cigarworker in New York

In his memoirs, the Puerto Rican-born cigar maker Bernardo Vega included this interview he conducted with a fellow immigrant about Puerto Rican life in New York during the early part of the twentieth century. In response to Vega's questions, the interviewee describes his work experiences as well as the cultural and institutional life of the city's growing Puerto Rican community.

Years later I got to know a Puerto Rican cigarworker named Pedro Juan Bonit, who had been living in New York since 1913. Here is a conversation I had with him, which fills out my picture of the emigrants' life in those times.

Bernardo Vega (interviewer): When did you arrive here?

Pedro Juan Bonit (interviewee): On December 22, 1913.

Vega: What town do you come from?

Bonit: I was born and raised in San Juan.

Vega: Why did you leave Puerto Rico?

Bonit: To get to know the world. And, of course, because I thought I would be better off economically.

Vega: Where did you live when you arrived here?

Bonit: In a roominghouse run by Ramón Galíndez. The address was 2049 Second Avenue, between 105th and 106th.

Vega: Was it easy to find work?

Bonit: Immediately. There were a lot of jobs for cigarmakers back then. Besides, the cigar manufacturers had agents who would find them workers, and for every cigarworker they delivered they'd get $5.00. I still remember one of those agents; his name was Damián Ferrer, alias "Batata," or "Sweet Potato."

Vega: Where was that first job?

Bonit: In a little factory. Later I worked at Samuel I. Davis's factory on 81st Street and First Avenue. Over a hundred Puerto Rican tabaqueros were working there.

Vega: Where there any other places that hired so many Puerto Ricans?

Bonit: Many.

Vega: And did those factories have readers like the ones in Puerto Rico?

Bonit: Practically all of them did. in the Davis factory there were two—Fernando García, who would read us the newspapers in the morning, and Benito Ochart, who read novels in the afternoon.

Vega: Was there any difference in the works they read here and the ones they read back in Puerto Rico?

Bonit: Well, I think the quality of the readings here was somewhat higher. They would read books of greater educational value.

[...]

Vega: Who paid the readers?

Bonit: We did. Each of us donated 25 cents a week.

Vega: Were any other collections taken?

Bonit: Yes. Every week we also contributed to the working-class press. And then they were always raising money to support some strike movement or another.

Vega: Were there already Puerto Rican businesses in El Barrio?

Bonit: No. No bodegas or restaurants had been established yet. There were only boarding houses and a few barber shops.

Vega: Then where did people buy plantains and other vegetables?

Bonit: There was a Latin grocery on 136th Street near Lenox Avenue, in the middle of the black community. And as for Spanish products, you could get them at Victoria's down on the corner of Pearl and John.

[...]

Vega: Do you remember any Puerto Ricans who lived near you?

Bonit: Sure. There was Andrés Araujo, Juan Nieto, Antonio Díaz, Agustín García, Felipe Montalbán, and many more. I think that by that time there were already a good hundred and fifty Puerto Rican families living on 105th and 106th off Second Avenue.

Vega: How about in what we now know as El Barrio?

Bonit: No. For the most part that was where the Jewish people lived. There were only a handful of Hispanic families. In those times the Puerto Ricans were scattered in other areas—in Chelsea, and over in Brooklyn around the Armory and Boro Hall. There were also Puerto Rican neighborhoods on the East Side, in the 20s and along Second and Third Avenues from 64th Street up to 85th. And the professionals and better-off families were over on the West Side, on the other side of Central Park. That's where people like Dr. Henna and Dr. Marxuach lived ..."

Vega: How did people get along in the community?

Bonit: Well, each class had its own way of associating. The tabaqueros were the only ones who organized collectively. There were no exclusively Puerto Rican organizations. But we tabaqueros did have mutual aid societies like La Aurora (Dawn), La Razón (Reason), and El Ejemplo (The Exampe) ... The educational circles were almost all anarchist except for the Brooklyn Círculo de Trabajadores, which admitted workers of different ideological leanings. The trade unions were the International Cigarmakers' Union and La Resistencia ... Where I lived there was a club called El Tropical, which had dances and where meetings were held from time to time. It was presided over by Gonzalo Torres. Over on the West Side I remember that Dr. Henna was president of the Ibero-American Club ..."

Source | Bernardo Vega, Memoirs of Bernardo Vega, ed. Cesar Andreu Iglesias (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984), 103-105.
Creator | Bernardo Vega
Item Type | Book (excerpt)
Cite This document | Bernardo Vega, “Interview with a Puerto Rican Cigarworker in New York,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 17, 2018, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/2481.

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