January 23, 1998

What's In A Name

Graphic of the three East Harlem, Spanish Harlem, El-Barrio names

A small community issue came up earlier this year which seemed at once foolish and important. It was foolish in that the name of a place does not "make" that place. It does not take away from that place nor does it enhance it. In other words, it does not matter. It was Important in that ethnic pride was involved. Let me explain.

Since the 1940s, Hispanics in our community have called East Harlem, "Spanish Harlem" or "El Barrio". They have done this with love and pride while at parades, at community events and public functions. And it seems that this has offended some African-Americans in the East Harlem community. Around the same time, some Hispanic activist approached Councilman Phil Reed and requested demandingly that he refer to East Harlem solely as Spanish Harlem.

Now besides the obvious first amendment issue of free speech, there are other issues to consider in this matter. And all of them must be dealt with very carefully so as to not step on any ethnic toes.

The first issue to consider is "what's in a name". Historically, people have taken great pride in saying where they come from. New York City has many places named after the place where its current inhabitants originate from. We have Little Italy, Chinatown and so on. Other New York City locations though not named after places of origin are associated with a particular ethnic group. Harlem is associated with African-Americans and their culture. Soho and the Village are associated with youth and a certain class of people. Of all of these places, those which are closely associated with an ethnic group are the most likely to garner strong emotional ties to that place by it's inhabitants.

A community name can conjure memories of an especially wonderful childhood, the pride of having been raised among "ones own", or any other great moments in one's life. Hence the pride involved with a name. So you can say the name of a community is important. At the same time it must be remembered that a name is just a word we impart upon a person, place or thing. It does not inherently do anything to the geographical place itself. It does not change, enhance or take away from the place. In that way the whole argument is silly. Aren't people more important than what we call a place? Don't we have problems greater than that?

In regards to the request made to Councilman Reed, that he call East Harlem "Spanish Harlem" or "El Barrio" exclusively, well that's ridiculous. Councilman Reed has the right to call our community East Harlem, Spanish Harlem, El Barrio interchangeably without the worry of offending anyone. It is called by all three names by many people all the time. Councilman Reed has refused to honor the request by zealot Hispanic activist, as well he should.

The issue of some African-American taking exception with East Harlem being called Spanish Harlem or El Barrio is a sensitive one. From these African-American's view, East Harlem is no longer "all" Spanish and therefor should not be called Spanish Harlem. The name "Spanish Harlem" also make them feel as if they are not counted as being within the community. There presence is negated by the Spanish Harlem name. It can, in there eyes be called El Barrio in deference to it's Hispanic resident ("after all they can call it what they want in their language").

This writer sympathizes with part of their argument which says that the name "Spanish Harlem" does not seem to include them (African-Americans). But does not agree that the name should be removed totally or in part. East Harlem has been Spanish Harlem since the 40s. Songs have been written about Spanish Harlem, and other songs have mentioned it. Spanish Harlem has a "tradition" and still has a majority Hispanic population. Which will become a bigger majority as more Mexican Americans move into the community. Harlem is universally known as "Black Harlem", yet those who live there are not all African-Americans. Yet they do not seem to mind. Harlemites take great pride in their community and would not think to change their name for a second.

Lastly, if African-Americans can have a place of their own -- Harlem --, then why shouldn't Hispanics have a place of their own? A place to call home. The same place which they migrated to from Puerto Rico, Central and South America and all the Caribbean. In a way it is sad that this whole thing came up. We have greater problems to deal with than what it is we call our community. And we also have much more in common than we do not. This is not the time to waste on what we call our community. In truth, the people are the community and what we do within it is much more important than what we call it. Call it East Harlem, Spanish Harlem or El Barrio, whatever you call it, it is still a great place to live.
-- Jose B. and Letticia Rivera --
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Here's what other thought about this issue:

From: Alberto O. Cappas, President, Don Pedro Enterprises (cappas@aol.com August 24, 1998

What's in a name? History! The African American community have their community in Harlem; the Dominicans are beginning to carve out a space for their people in "Quisqueya" (Washington Heights) with or without Puerto Ricans and other non-Dominicans still living in that community. Spanish Harlem is the soul and heartbeat of the Puerto Rican people.

After all these years, we've maintained a weak presence and unable to carve out a viable space for los Puertorriquenos... What's in a name? Cultural identify! In a perfect world, name would mean nothing, but in this world, groups survive by controlling space and maintaining a viable and visible presence. believe that Spanish Harlem is that symbol for the Puerto Ricans. You give up that name, and three things will happen: (1). Blacks will claim East Harlem as "black territory"; (2). Mexicans will claim it as "New Mexico"; and (3). Latino, white, and black liberals will create a new image to satisfy all groups, again, at the expense of those Puerto Rican pioneers who had a vision and worked hard during the 50s to bring it to life. Spanish Harlem is a birth and a symbol of our presence, and we must continue to water the plant and ensure that the seeds of Spanish Harlem do grow. Let's not be naive and incorporate other people whose agenda is not the interest of the Puerto Rican people.

Take a good look at the fight for money in the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone and one will understand the meanings, etc, etc. I vote for Spanish Harlem all the way. By the way, I'm prepared to move to the area if anyone has any information about apartments in the area. I'm prepared to consider renting or buying. Sincerely, Alberto O. Cappas, President, Don Pedro Enterprises (cappas@aol.com) There is a Rose in Spanish Harlem!
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From: "A.J. Iovino"
Date: Mon, 24 Aug 1998

East Harlem is not really a "physical address" -- mail sent to East Harlem, New York would probably be returned, as would mail addressed to Hell's Kitchen, New York In my opinion, there is no need for an "official name" for the area. It is a virtual location which can be referred to by any name appropriate to the person that lives there. Call it East Harlem, Spanish Harlem, El Barrio, or whatever is meaningful to the person referring to it.

When I was a kid on the east side in the late 40's and 50's the predominant language spoken in my neighborhood was Italian. We had several Puerto Rican neighbors -- they made reference to Spanish Harlem, we made reference to Italian Harlem, we all knew it also as East Harlem, it was their barrio and my quatero. Perhaps there wasn't as much ethnocentricity at the time, but no one seemed to be offended.

Officially it's a neighborhood in Manhattan, unofficially I believe that we should be comfortable in calling it anything meaningful and prideful to us.
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From: Alberto O. Cappas, President, Don Pedro Enterprises (cappas@aol.com August 24, 1998

Thank you for your understanding. I did not see your article as a view or opposing opinion. I saw you opening a bridge of opportunity to express ideas as Puertorriquenos. Your sense of security to allow that to happen will only enhance the growth and development of our people. At least I hope that our people will see that. Not too many people have the vision or insight to do what you're doing. God bless you for that! Let's hope that we do properly take full advantage of the bridge you have allowed us to cross.... Sincerely,
Alberto O. Cappas
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Posted by Jose at January 23, 1998 09:23 PM