El Barrio in the 1950’s: “La Marqueta” as a Microcosm of the World

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El Barrio describes the upper East Side of Manhattan, from 96th to 125th Street—North to South—and from the East River to Fifth Avenue East to West. It’s also the place where I grew up during the 50s. During that time, most Puerto Ricans lived to the west of Third Avenue. The last remnants of the Italian community lived along Second and First Avenues. Burt Lancaster and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (U.S. Senator) once lived in that neighborhood. Each ethnic group had its own gangs. The Red Wings were Italian; the Viceroys and Dragons were Puerto Rican; the Enchanters and a whole host of other gang cliques were black gangs. These gangs were violent, but they fought with chains or bats, knives, and homemade guns known as “zip-guns,” whose unreliability was a danger both to shooters as well as to their victims. Compared to contemporary gangs, the gangs of the 1950’s were tame and limited in the scope of their activities (protecting turf and “their girls”) and the level and scope of violence.

There were, of course, criminal enterprises operating in East Harlem engaged in drug trafficking, loan sharking, extortion of businesses, the numbers racket, and prostitution, but these activities were not as evident in the streets as they would later be in the 1960’s and beyond.

The families in El Barrio were working-class families mostly of laborers and operatives who worked in factories. Many women, such as my mother, worked as sewing machine operators in downtown sweatshops. The Italians controlled the docks and the Sanitation Department jobs. The Irish were the cops and Jews were teachers, landlords, and small shopkeepers. A good job that made you almost middle class was working in the post office or secretarial work. El Barrio of the 1950’s was a fairly stable mostly of low-wage working class people. This would change later in the 60’s when El Barrio became a drug-infested area that was rife with street crime and family instability.

From 110th Street to 114th Street along Madison Avenue there were rows of tenements, pool halls, and the famous (or infamous) Teatro Paraiso located at 113th and Madison.  Puerto Ricans called it “El Meaito” (the little piss) because there was a smell of urine in the place that reeked all the way from the toilets to the lobby. There we would pay 25 cents for standing-room-only showings of Mexican and Argentine movies that featured stars such as Arturo de Cordova, Libertad Lamarque, Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante, and Maria Antonietta Pons. The showings included two movies and some shorts that were part of a fifteen week series that kept you coming back weekly.

The early days of La Marqueta. Image from the OGPRUS Collection at Centro Archives.

A few blocks north of “El Meaito,” on 116th Street and 5th Avenue was the “Teatro Hispano.” This was a more elegant establishment that featured live shows by some of the top entertainers of the day. There, I saw the renowned Trio Los Panchos, who most identified as a Mexican trio but who in reality got their start and “made it” in New York. Their lead singer was always a Puerto Rican. I also saw Toña la Negra, Los Churumbeles de España, and a bevy of Mexican ranchera singers accompanied by full mariachis and their horses.

The other theatrical landmark was the Teatro Boricua on 107th Street and Lexington Avenue. It also featured live performances, and I got to see Los Dandy’s and a famous Dominican “declamador” or poetry reciter known as Glauco del Mar who specialized in reciting soupy tear-jerker poems dedicated to moms and lovers.

These were the theatrical institutions of El Barrio in the 1950’s, but the most central and famous place in El Barrio was “La Marqueta.” La Marqueta ran from 111th to 116th Street underneath the elevated Metro North train tracks and on the sidewalks adjacent to it. This was a place where people shopped, met, gossiped, and hustled a buck. You could buy practically anything there: fish, meat, poultry, vegetables, cloth, witchcraft items, crabs, and even vital sofrito condiments such as recao. Those five blocks were a sea of humanity where people rubbed shoulders in order navigate around the stalls. Of course, this made La Marqueta a pick pocket and purse snatcher’s paradise. You always knew when a purse was snatched because the victim would yell “Holope! This was the Puerto Rican translation for “Hold-up!”

 

The meat markets had nothing wrapped in cellophane. Whole pigs were hung on hooks stuck through their throats with their bulging eyes giving the impression that they still wanted to live. Fish, crabs, and oysters were laid out on big trays full of  ice and—especially in the hot and humid New York summers—gave off the fetid smell of a rotten pier that reached half of a block into our fourth floor apartment, piercing the air as we tried to eat or to sleep.

La Marqueta was full of characters known to everyone in the neighborhood. One was a black man with no legs who dragged himself on a wooden platform while he managed to play a military drum and a trumpet. He was a war veteran who earned change playing martial music as he dragged himself over the sidewalks. I was terrified by the thump of the drums and the sight of this man without legs.

Another memorable character was a Latino man with long black hair who harked “Chamsuela, Chamsuela.” Chamsuela was a liquid concoction made by boiling leather in water and adding “secret” ingredients that guaranteed the mixture would grow hair on bald heads. Another individual had a green parrot that said words and pulled out little pieces of paper from a box that predicted your fortune—for a fee of course.

 But by far the most memorable individual performing at La Marqueta was an older black Puerto Rican gentleman that local people had blessed with the name “Vinillo” or “Wino” in Spanish. The rumor was that he had been a street “bum” who had found redemption in the Bible and in Jesus. Rain or shine, in the winter cold or the sweltering heat of summer, Vinillo would thunder “Dejate del brinquito y del saltito que fuera de la palabra de Dios no hay salvacion (Stop your hopping and jumping because there is no salvation outside of the word of God).”  People would insult him when he got in their faces with his aggressive preaching of the Word, and he was at times doused in urine bags thrown from the tenements above. But, in time, I could only admire his fortitude in light of all of the maledictions that came his way. He was a Christian soldier in the trenches of East Harlem’s streets.

My first job was at La Marqueta selling paper shopping bags. I would buy them for three cents each at a paper store on 115th Street and sell them at five cents each. On a good Saturday, I could earn between three to five dollars walking up and down the streets of La Marqueta yelling “shopping bag, five cents!” At the same time, a little, old, Italian lady stood on the hilly 115th Street hawking “pizza pie, ten cents!” while Vinillo preached and the legless veteran played martial songs on his trumpet and drums. The cacophony on those streets was the cacophony of life.

Push cart vendors hawked fruits and vegetables, and I could not understand why the police would overturn their push carts and dump all of their produce onto the street. I knew nothing about having a license or rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. I did not see the police as my friends and I saw their destruction of the vendors’ goods as totally unfair. In the fifties, there was a larger number of police on horseback and the huge size of the horses was particularly intimidating.

 Saturday was the busiest day at La Marqueta and it was almost impossible to walk on the sidewalks between 111th and 116th Streets and Park Avenue. This dense mass of humanity attracted pickpockets and purse-snatchers. But La Marqueta was also our public square where you were likely to run into friends and relatives or just someone you had not seen in a while. You could buy a piragua (shaved ice cone) sprayed with exotic flavors and all for the price of five cents! My favorites were coco y tamarindo (coconut and tamarind). You could get the best hot dogs in New York on the southwest corner of 111th Street from a stand owned by Greeks who made delicious onion and sauerkraut condiments for the hot dogs. My first introduction to knishes was not in the bowery (now called the East Village) but rather at the corner of 116th and Park.

La Marqueta created a central place, a public square that gave a focused sense and reality of community to El Barrio. I was shocked by the changes that had taken place when I returned to El Barrio, years later, as an adult. All of the sidewalk stalls with goods spilling out into the street were gone and there was only one block of stores underneath the Metro North tracks. The drug store on the corner of 116th and Park was gone and converted into a luncheonette. Tony apartments had been developed and strange folks walking two or three dogs on leashes came out of buildings. My old elementary school had been uprooted to make room for fancy condos with a doorman in the front to boot! For a while I thought I had gotten out at the wrong subway exit south of 96th Street.

What made La Marqueta was the central role it played as a concrete manifestation of a real community that existed there. Today it stands as a strong memory of that community of struggling working class people to which it was organically linked and which gave it life.


© Jose M. Vadi. Published by permission in Centro Voices on 21 July 2015.
Photos by Emmanuel Abreu. 

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.