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Jesus Colón: A Writer Who Changed Our World

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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.
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