Jesus Colón: A Writer Who Changed Our World
Jesus Colon: A Writer Who Changed our World Written by Carmen I. Mercado, Hunter College School of Education Jesus Colon Questions to Think About How do Jesus Colon’s writings reflect the times in which he lived? What writers share Jesus Colon’s interests and ways with words? How can you use this information to motivate student learning? Take double entry notes Fold a paper in half. Jot down facts of interest in one column and questions or comments in the other. Review your notes and circle important ideas at the end. A Childhood Filled with Words Jesus Colon was born into a working class family in Puerto Rico on January 20, 1901. He was born in Cayey, a tobacco growing area, three years after the Spanish American War. Puerto Rico went from being a Spanish colony to being a colony of the United States. As a young boy, Jesus was mesmerized by the oratory of readers hired by cigar makers. The resonant voices of skilled performers entertained and informed workers as they engaged in the tedious work of rolling cigars. Tobacco Workers in P.R. The words of Jesus’ first teachers made their way through the windows of the Colon home and ignited a lifelong passion for the written word. Becoming a Man of Letters As a student , injustices called Jesus Colon to action and his use of words proved powerful in fighting all kinds of injustices. Whether writing or speaking, Jesus Colon’s simple, compelling prose won admiration from peers and respect from teachers. It came as no surprise that he was named director of the school newspaper and president of the school’s literary society. The Journey North After Puerto Ricans were made U.S. citizens in 1917, many arrived on the south Brooklyn waterfront aboard commercial steamers. Among them were some of the best artists and composers of the island. Jesus Colon made the five day journey aboard the S.S. Carolina, working all the way to New York. The Long Journey North Jesus Colon’s Id Card When he arrived, Jesus went to live with his brother Joaquin, not far from the Brooklyn waterfront where the S.S. Carolina docked. Joaquin and Jesus The Brooklyn Navy Yard It was here that the first Puerto Rican community in New York was established and where Jesus made his home. Letters to Concha Jesus wrote frequently to his sweetheart in Puerto Rico. Written conversations between lovers give insights into their relationship and family gossip. The letters also provide a glimpse into what life was like in New York City at the beginning of the 20th century. Today, these letters are part of the historical record of how small town people from the tropics adjusted to a large northern city, with an unfamiliar language and a different way of life. Concha’s Letter of July 26, 1923 “Each time a boat arrives, I wait to see your face coming home. Tell me, what would you like for me to cook for you when that happy day arrives?…something you cannot get in New York City?…Meanwhile you encourage me to read as many things as I can. The San Juan Harbor Do you know that I actually hate to read? I like novels, love stories, stories about the lives of different men and women but in general, I love to talk to have a discussion rather than to read about it.” Hard Jobs, Poor Wages During the Great Depression jobs were hard to come by and wages low. This was also a time of intense racial discrimination and violence. Jesus Colon worked at many menial and dangerous jobs while attending night school at Boys High. Jesus Colon learned about the dangers workers faced in the city. QuickTime™ and a Cinepak decompressor are needed to see this picture. QuickTime™ and a Cinepak decompressor are needed to see this picture. The sketch, Easy Job, Good Wages, appears in “A Puerto Rican in New York.” Making Time to Write “It is always more interesting to live than to write,” said Jesus Colon’s friend, and Colon did both with passion. He never earned a living as a journalist but Colon wrote for several Spanish language papers in New York and Puerto Rico at the same time. By 1950, Colon had regular columns in English, in labor and community newspapers. He wrote articles and news commentaries as well as poetry, short stories and anecdotes. However, Jesus Colon was masterful in the use of the cronica or chronicle to relate important events to the community in an engaging and affecting manner. Translating a Way of Life Jesus Colon was bilingual by circumstances of birth. However, he worked hard to develop his writing skills in English. Colon’s bi-literacy allowed him to chronicle how Puerto Ricans shaped and were shaped by the history of New York City from his unique perspective. “A Puerto Rican in New York,” the first book written in English by a Puerto Rican about the NY Puerto Rican experience, was published in 1961 . “A Puerto Rican in New York and Other Sketches” is both a collection of human interest stories and a social history of New York. The Internationalist Jesus Colon was a life-long advocate for the rights of all workers, inspired by early experiences with cigar makers in Puerto Rico. Speaking at a Rally He was drawn to internationally progressive movements, especially in Latin America. He learned first hand that workers in all parts of the world shared a common cause. He also knew that political power was key to creating better opportunities. Thus, he ran for numerous public offices, including comptroller, city councilman and assemblyman. Jesus Colon and Local Labor Leaders The Nationalist Colon wrote about many topics, but his constant concern was the social and economic conditions of Puerto Ricans in New York City and on the island. Colon was keenly aware that the migrants quest for equality in the United States could not be separated from Puerto Rico’s ambiguous relationship to the United States. A Quiet Man with Strong Convictions Like many writers of his time, including Langston Hughes, Jesus Colon was called to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy period. His response was simple: “I will not cooperate with this committee in its aim to destroy the Bill of Rights and other constitutional rights of the people.” Affinities with Other Writers Colon’s work is reminiscent of Walt Whitman and Zora Neale Hurston. But it was Langston Hughes, also a light-skin mulatto, who had much in common with Colon. Langston Hughes and Jesus Colon… • 1. Were active in New York’s Black and Latino communities. 2. Portrayed the lives of ordinary people 3. Wrote about racial injustices. 4. Wrote in English and Spanish. The Jesus Colon Papers Although he wrote more than 400 pieces in his lifetime, little has been written about Jesus Colon . Unfortunately most of his writings are not accessible in bounded form. Fortunately, the Jesus Colon collection of the archives of El Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos at Hunter College makes accessible a collection of documents about the life and times of this unassuming visionary. Colon’s Inspiration One hundred years after his birth, Jesus Colon’s legacy and his contributions to America live on through his writings and his speeches. Colon’s legacy also lives on through the Neo-Rican writers’ movement he sparked as evident in the writings of Sandra Maria Esteves, Nicholasa Mohr, and Piri Thomas. In his time, Colon’s simple and incisive prose informed and entertained the masses. Today, they give us a sense of historical continuity, connecting our present to our past and our differences to a common humanity.