A lot has changed since my childhood in New York City, particularly where the Puerto Rican community gave me an abrupt introduction to the Spanish language and influenced me to begin learning that language as young as the age of 10. Many of us in the New York African-American community were turned on to salsa music, which in those days, was simply known as “Latin.” Some of these “Latin” tunes were broadcasted on African-American radio stations like WWRL and WBLX.
I left New York at the age of 17 to go to into Job Corps, and later to college. After joining the Navy to see the world, I ended up in Oakland, CA where I lived most of my adult life. My visits to New York City were non-existent. It was later on in my adult life when I actually returned to reminisce my childhood community, which happened to be walking distance from Spanish Harlem, and at that time, it was very Puerto Rican.
El Watusi by Ray Barretto was #1 on African-American
radio station WWRL back in the day
I remember in many of the grocery stores and candy stores you could hear bomba and plena music, which was born in heavily populated black cities of Loiza and Ponce, Puerto Rico. Neighborhoods were sprawling with cuchifrito (fried dish) vendors selling their delicacies ever so popular on that enchanted island of Puerto Rico. Anytime I would hear Spanish spoken by folks be they black, white, or brown, they were most likely Puerto Rican. Those days are long gone!
From my perception, Spanish Harlem lost that strong ethnic flavor due to gentrification that is occurring in many communities of color across the country. A former Puerto Rican classmate told me that a lot of the Puerto Ricans moved out of New York City.
Salsa music, which itself was born in New York, is no longer the prevalent form of Latin music to be heard these days. New York, NY lost its title as the salsa music capital of the world to Cali, Colombia where people live and breathe salsa music. Upon my return to New York, I heard a lot of reggaetón (yuck!), and thanks to the very large Dominican community, bachata, and meringue.
Today, unlike yesterday, bachata music is very popular in Latin New York
Besides the heavy influx of immigrants from the Dominican Republic living in New York, there are many immigrants from Perú, Cuba, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and to my greatest surprise, Mexico. I was shocked to learn that Mexicans are now the third largest Latino community in City of New York. In my youth, I only met one person of Mexican ancestry and he happened to be a co-worker of my mother at a federal agency.
It wasn’t until I left New York when I had my first real live contact with the Mexican-American community. In fact, I never heard of tacos, burritos, or jalapeños until I came to California. Of course, times have changed. You can now find those items almost anywhere, even in New York, NY—the big apple.