by Tom TolanPart 4 of 6 in a series. (en espanol)

“Nueva Yores.” They meant New York, the main destination for people on the Island, but the term became the popular shorthand for all destinations on the mainland. In time, everyone in Puerto Rico had at least one family member in “Nueva Yores.” 1979 Puerto Rican ParadeMilwaukee’s first major Puerto Rican neighborhood was established in the late 1940s. It was located just northeast of downtown, in an area of older homes and apartment buildings bounded roughly by Milwaukee, Van Buren, State, and Lyon Streets. The neighborhood was generally poor and ethnically mixed. By 1960, the lower east side was home to the city’s greatest concentration of Puerto Ricans, second only to the near south side, with its large Mexican population, as a Spanish-speaking community. In the early 1960s, the city began to implement urban renewal plans that called for the demolition of most of the buildings between Kilbourn Avenue and Ogden, Milwaukee, and Van Buren Streets — the heart of the Puerto Rican community. Year by year, the city acquired properties in the neighborhood, evicted the tenants, and tore down the buildings… “What the hell did we know about politics then,” says Rafael Acevedo, whose father, in a subsequent relocation, accepted just $7,000 for a house he’d bought for $14,000. “We knew we were being pushed around, but we couldn’t do anything about it…. We didn’t even know what an alderman was for.”


Urban renewal nearly erased the Puerto Rican community on Milwaukee’s near east side. The largest group stayed close by, moving north across the Milwaukee River to the neighborhood around North Holton Street, just west of Reservoir Park. This new Spanish-speaking neighborhood was the southwest corner of the neighborhood now known as Riverwest. On the west side of Holton, African-American families were just beginning to move into formerly all-white neighborhoods. As bulldozers leveled the lower east side, the Hispanic population west of the river increased rapidly. It included Mexican-Americans and other Latino groups, but the majority was Puerto Rican. There were obvious attractions, including low rents and affordable prices for those who wanted to buy. The settlement was also shaped, according to some residents, by the emergence of Holton Street as a boundary between black and white neighborhoods. Maria Ortiz, whose parents lived for many years on Holton south of North Avenue, described the growing Puerto Rican area as a “brick wall between the white people and the black people.” The situation developed, Ortiz believed, partly because the Island’s multi-racial background made Puerto Ricans more tolerant of racial diversity. At some point in the 1960s, the cross-river migration was no longer simply a movement of individuals but of an entire community. Edgardo Ortiz, whose family moved into the area in 1965, described an urban version of step migration: “One family would move into a certain area, and they’d keep their eye out for a place to rent. When they found one, they’d tell their friends from the old neighborhood.” By 1970, the Spanish-speaking population on the northeast side reached about 1,300, nearly five percent of the area’s total. There were substantial numbers of Mexican-Americans, as well as other newcomers from the Caribbean, Central America, and South America, but Puerto Ricans were a clear majority. Many people began to think of the northeast side — or at least of that portion of it at the south end of Holton Street — as a Puerto Rican neighborhood. There were some obvious differences between this new Puerto Rican community and its older Polish counterpart to the northeast, and they weren’t limited to culture, language, and historical context. But there were obvious similarities as well. In both cases, it was home-grown institutions that expressed a shared culture and communicated a sense of identity. In the early 1900s, German, Irish, and Jewish families had lived on the northeast side, but it was St. Casimir’s Parish, where children learned the Polish language, and the Polish Falcons hall, and the many stores run by Polish immigrants that made people call the area Polish Town. So it was 60 years later, when Puerto Rican institutions relocated to the neighborhood from their old center on the east side. The Puerto Rican Organization, the community’s main social and civic group, moved its headquarters from State Street to a former bowling alley on Richards and Clarke Streets in about 1961, and the Saturday night dances continued there. Many Puerto Ricans transferred from Old St. Mary’s Church on Broadway to St. Francis Church on Fourth and Lloyd Streets. By the end of the decade, St. Francis had the largest Spanish-speaking population of any Catholic parish on the north side. Along with their institutions, the Puerto Ricans carried their traditions across the river, some of them rooted in Island folk customs that were many generations old. Like the first-generation European immigrants who preceded them, the Puerto Ricans were frequent and enthusiastic celebrators of their native and religious holidays, as well as the milestones of their own lives. Edgardo Ortiz, who grew up in the neighborhood, described some of the traditional Puerto Rican excuses to celebrate: There were house parties, birthday parties, weddings, showers, and quinceaneras [lavish celebrations marking a daughter’s 15th birthday]. At each of these you would get a little ribbon, called a “capias,” as a souvenir. It would have maybe a dime or a nickel attached to it, and the name of the people who were having the party. When it was a wedding, there would be a man and woman on the ribbon, instead of a coin. There would always be music: three guitars, maybe, and an amplifier, playing Puerto Rican songs. For weddings, you’d always go to one of the families’ houses before the wedding and have a big feast, with lots of Puerto Rican food. One Christmas tradition transplanted from the Island was “parranda,” a special form of caroling. In Milwaukee, groups of singers roamed the neighborhood every weekend night between Thanksgiving and the Epiphany. (In Puerto Rico, people go out every night during the holiday season.) Carolers walked from house to house, picking up more voices as they went. At each stop, they sang a long song that began with the words, “Abreme la puerta” (“Open the door for me”), and then went through many improvised verses that described the people in the house they were visiting. The unwritten rules of “parranda” were that each family had to let the singers in and offer them food and drink. This was easy enough at the first few houses, but it became more difficult when the crowd of carolers swelled to 60 people and the hour approached 4 a.m. Celebration took other forms during the summer months. The feast of St. John the Baptist, Puerto Rico’s patron saint, was observed with appropriate fanfare every June 26. Athletic contests attracted large and enthusiastic crowds. Although some residents complained about noise in the neighborhood, whether from late-night parties or summer drum sessions, a few took a more philosophical view. An Italian-American who grew up west of the river recalled a time when members of his community did the same thing: “We used to have family picnics in our backyards. Somebody would play the accordion, somebody would bring the wine, and we’d entertain ourselves. A lot of Puerto Ricans are doing that now, just like we used to. The only time the Italians get together now is for a funeral or a wedding, or for some big doings like the Festa.” This neighbor seemed to imply that the new Puerto Rican residents of the neighborhood were a throwback to an earlier generation of settlers. The point is well-taken. Many Puerto Ricans were products of rural environments — just like the Italian and Polish immigrants who came before them. An agrarian upbringing may not be the best preparation for life in an urban industrial setting like Milwaukee, but it does impart a sense of belonging to a community of people with shared beliefs, traditions, and values. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 4 – April 2003

This is an excerpt from Tom Tolan’s Riverwest: A Community History, which will be published late this spring. The Riverwest Currents plans to include further excerpts in the coming months.

Tolan wrote the history 20 years ago, as part of the Milwaukee Humanities Program, a federally funded organization based at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and he’s updated it over the last several years.

The Riverwest History Society, a committee set up solely for this purpose, will publish the book. Milwaukee historian John Gurda heads the committee and is also editing the book. Riverwest resident Kate Hawley is the book’s designer.

Money for publication of the book comes from grants from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Harry and Mary Franke Idea Fund, the Inbusch Foundation and Outpost Natural Foods. Proceeds from the sale of the book will benefit COA Youth and Family Centers (Children’s Outing Association), which helped revive the book for publication.

The Riverwest History Society is looking for photographs to use in the neighborhood history book. Family photos, pictures of businesses and of recreation, church, and ethnic events all would be helpful.

Of special interest are old photos from the everyday life of the Polish-American community surrounding St. Casimir and St. Mary of Czestochowa parishes; from the first integration of the neighborhood in the 1960s, and of the old St. Elizabeth’s Parish on First and Burleigh; from the Puerto Rican and larger Hispanic communities that arrived here in the 1960s and 1970s; and from the neighborhood activism and the counterculture movements of the 1970s and 1980s.

If you have old photos, please call Tom Tolan at 331-3510 or Kate Hawley at 372-8510.

1979 Puerto Rican Parade

1979 Puerto Rican Parade down Holton St. This celebration used to be staged every June in honor of St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of Puerto Rico.