From Barrio Obrero to El Barrio

by Pedro Juan Hernández
Translation by Victoria Álvarez

Version en Español

The Palladium Ballroom, along with mambo and other Latin-style dancers, have reached an almost mythical and legendary status. The names “Cuban Pete” (Pedro Aguilar), Millie Donay, Augie y Margo, Andy Jerrick, Marilyn Winters, “Killer Joe,” Mike Ramos and many others are well-known among fervent followers of the history of Latino music from the 1950s onward. Carlos Arroyo belongs to this select group of dancers, pioneers, and spokesmen for dance as a medium and for the stage at the Palladium.
Carlos Arroyo was born in 1931 on Eduardo Conde Street in Barrio Obrero, Santurce, Puerto Rico, an area that was historically a community of runaway slaves, freed slaves, and laborers. He was the son of Carlos Jose Arroyo and Pilar “Lola” Almodovar. His father was a linotype operator, carpenter, and contractor, while his mother worked as a seamstress and domestic worker. They both liked to dance, play guitar, and sing duets. However it was his grandmother, Marcela, who raised him when his parents migrated to New York during his formative years. She became the most influential person in his life, instilling in him a love of dance that ultimately became the focus of his adult life. From an early age, he grew accustomed to watching her dance and learning the steps that accompanied the beat of the music. During these early years, he studied at the Padre Rufo Manuel Fernández and Rosendo Matienzo Cintrón schools of Santurce.
At the age of sixteen, he reunited with his mother who was living on 122nd Street, between Second and Third Avenues, in New York’s City’s East Harlem, otherwise known as El Barrio. Although he arrived by plane, many referred to him as a “Marine Tiger,” alluding to the last steamship that brought hundreds of Puerto Ricans that emigrated to New York City after World War II. Like many young Puerto Ricans at the time, he went to Benjamin Franklin High School, where students were divided along ethnic lines and fights often broke out between Puerto Rican and Italian students. It was during this time that he started to feel racism in ways he had never felt while in Puerto Rico. He found solace in his job as a fruit vendor at La Marqueta, a street market supplying a host of ethnic foods located on Park Avenue between 110th and 116th Streets, where he earned $13 to $15 a week.

Content credits Center for Puerto Rican Studies
Image Credits: Carlos Arroyo Collection | All Rights Reserved