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Oscar Garcia Rivera

By Jose B. Rivera

It takes great pleasure and pride to include Oscar Garcia Rivera, the first Puerto Rican to hold elective office in the continental United State, as the first Inductee in the East Harlem.com Hall of Fame.imageThis writer learned about Oscar Garcia Rivera quite by accident. I happened upon the unveiling of a historic exhibition during Hispanic Heritage Month on September 14, 1987 on a day off while stationed in Albany, NY (U.S. Navy). I sat fascinated as the late assemblyman’s life was told by those were close to him.

A small ten page booklet was handed out to those in attendance and this writer was lucky enough to get one. It was promptly carefully stored away. Throughout the years I have pulled the booklet out and marveled at the life that Assemblyman Rivera led. It seemed unfortunate that most of today’s generation knows little about him. When the idea of having a Hall of Fame for East Harlem Online occurred to me, Oscar Garcia Rivera seemed like the right person to the first inducted.

East Harlem Online hopes you enjoy reading about the history of this truly extraordinary person
(This history is totally taken from the small booklet handed out during the unveiling of a historic exhibition at the Empire State Plaza on Monday, September 14, 1987.)

State Assemblyman Oscar Garcia Rivera
Oscar Garcia Rivera served in the New York State Assembly from 1937 to 1940. He was the first American of Puerto Rican heritage to be elected to public office in the continental United States.

imageBorn November 6, 1900 in the City of Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, Garcia Rivera demonstrated at an early age exceptional scholarship and leadership qualities. These were evidenced by his selection as valedictorian at the Escuela Central Grammar (Junior High School) and his subsequent election as President of the High School of Mayaguez in 1925.

In 1917 an event occurred that had a profound effect on Garcia Rivera’s life. President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Jones Act, granting United States citizenship to some 1,800,000 residents of Puerto Rico, This act also opened the doors for Puerto Ricans to hold public office in the United States mainland.

Soon after his graduation from the High School of Mayaguez, Garcia Rivera traveled to New York for the first time. While there he became concerned with the needs of the poor and working class of the city. Although the son of a wealthy family that owned a coffee plantation in Puerto Rico, Garcia Rivera left that life and returned to New York in 1926. This time he would stay, determined to fulfill his dream of becoming a lawyer and representative for the poor and working class.

In 1926 he held a part-time job at the Boerum and Pease Binder factory in Brooklyn, while waiting for the results of a Postal Clerk’s examination. Scoring 98.4% on that test, Garcia Rivera immediately was appointed to the City Hall Post Office which was considered to be a prestigious assignment.

imageimageWhile there, he organized the Puerto Rican and Hispanic employees and encouraged them to become active in the Postal Clerks’ Union of America. As this previously untold story unfolds, it will unveil his labor activities, which earned him the respect and support of the most prominent labor leaders in the country.

In 1930, Oscar Garcia Rivera became one of the pioneer law graduates from the St. John’s University School of Law, which had been established three years earlier. Several decades later, that prestigious institution would become the Alma Mater of many prominent and influential lawyers, including the Honorable Mario M. Cuomo Governor of The State Of New York.

After his graduation from St. John’s, Garcia Rivera practiced his legal profession before State and Federal courts. He established his own law firms at Wall Street, Mid Manhattan and in the Spanish Harlem section of the City. “Spanish Harlem” was the nickname for the upper east side of Manhattan County, where approximately 20,000 Spanish speaking Americans lived during the early 1900’s At his law office in Spanish Harlem, he often offered pro-bono representation to the poor who could not afford to defend themselves in the courts.

imageDuring the Great Depression, employment opportunities were scarce across all of the United States, but in Spanish Harlem joblessness was devastating. The high rate of unemployment gave rise to a high crime rate. Frustration and resentment were increased by the fact that public service jobs created by Tammany Hall were not offered to the Puerto Rican community. Schools in Spanish Harlem were overcrowded, housing was severely limited, and the residents of the area were the objects of police brutality and discrimination by neighbors and government officials. To compound all of these problems, the language barrier made communication and representation a constant difficulty for residents of Spanish Harlem.

Hoping that he could eliminate these conditions, Oscar Garcia Rivera launched his candidacy for public office. His leadership qualities were demonstrated by the diverse and bipartisan support which he mustered for his campaign. (Fun fact; Oscar Garcia Rivera was a Republican).

imageThe list of supporters included: New York City’s Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, New York City District Attorney Thomas Dewey (later Governor of the State), and Union leaders like Michael J. Quill, TWU, George Meaney, AFL/CIO, Alex Rose and Benjamin MacLauren.

In 1937, Garcia Rivera was elected to the New York Assembly becoming the first Puerto Rican in history to be elected to public office in the continental United States. He was reelected in 1938 and continued to serve in the state Assembly until 1940.

A review of some of the historic correspondence from The Oscar Garcia Rivera files reveals the way in which his candidacy was held by labor and other significant organizations. We include some of the quotations of the day:

October 27, 1938

“We are extremely happy that you decided to become a candidate for reelection ... (our) ... endorsement comes with profound feeling that in your election, we shall have in Albany a true and tried representative of Labor”

Michael J. Quill
International President,
Transport Workers Union of America

September 29, 1938

“...after a careful analysis of the records of the candidates running for Member of The Assembly .. a favorable report on your record ... entitles you to Labor’s support.”

Thomas OLeary, Chairman
Central Trades and Labor Council-AFL

August 24, 1938

“(We) have the pleasure of informing you ... (that) by unanimous vote (we) ... extend (our) sincere appreciation and thanks…for your earnest and constant support of Labor legislation.”

George Meany, President
New York State Federation of Labor

September 27, 1937

“I am delighted on behalf of the State Executive Committee to officially inform you of your nomination by the American Labor Par- public office.

(Our) active campaign in your behalf by our membership .. will result in your victory .. on November 2, 1937.”

Alex Rose State Campaign Director American Labor Party

Assemblyman Oscar Garcia Rivera was a tireless supporter of Child Labor and labor services and protective laws. On February 3, 1939 his Unemployment Insurance Bill was accepted by the Assembly. The provisions of the bill would:

1. Make all employers, instead of those employing four or more persons, liable for contributions to the unemployment insurance fund.

2. Provide for payment of full 16 weeks’ insurance benefits to claimants qualified by 18 weeks employment in any one year.

3. Reduce the necessary unemployment period, after application for benefits, from five to two weeks.

4. Make benefits available to anyone earning less than $5.a week instead of $2 a week.

His other labor related bills, although not adopted at the time, provided for:

* Penalties for violators of the State’s Labor Relations Act;

* Establishing minimum wages and minimum hours for men, women and children;

* Establishing a division of hours and wages (within the Labor Department) and

* The creation of a Wage Board.

* Bill calling for two days rest in seven for certain (Government) employees was also submitted by Assemblyman Oscar Garcia Rivera in January 17, 1939. Other labor related bills submitted by Garcia Rivera provided for:

* Certificates of Incorporation of Labor Organizations

* The right of employees to organize and negotiate on grievances, and

* An appropriation to The State Labor Department for its responsibilities of certifying private employment agencies.

Quite a small district, wasn’t it.

The Assembly Chamber at the time Oscar Garcia Rivera served as East Harlem’s representative. Click on the image to see a larger version of this map

The New York State Department of Labor and the Office of General Services, together with the Governor’s Office for Hispanic Affairs, take great pride in presenting this publication in recognition of the late New York State Assemblyman Oscar Garcia Rivera.

His tireless and excellent work on behalf of the underprivileged and the working class is worthy of such recognition.

Upon his death in 1969 in his hometown of Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, Assemblyman Oscar Garcia Rivera left us with an enviable record of achievement for all of labor to emulate.

The information provide in this biography was written and compiled by Mr. Jose Angel Noriega, President, Committee to Commemorate Oscar Garcia Rivera, for the New York State Department of Labor, 1987. East Harlem Online would like to thank the family of Oscar Garcia Rivera and Mr. Noriega, for the information provided herein. We proud to have former Assemblyman, the late Oscar Garcia Rivera as our first inductee into the East Harlem Online Hall of Fame.

Editor’s Note:
On February 22, 2002 the East Harlem “Hellgate” post office was renamed the Oscar Garcia Rivera Post Office. Below are links to pictures of El Diario’s newspaper coverage of the event.
El Diario Picture Caption - March 6, 2002
El Diario Article Page - February 22, 2002

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