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.
Jesus Colon was born into a working class family in Puerto Rico on January 20, 1901. Puerto Rico went from being a Spanish colony to being a colony of the United States. He was born in Cayey, a tobacco growing area, three years after the Spanish American War.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
The sketch, Easy Job, Good Wages, appears in “A Puerto Rican in New York.”
“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.
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.
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 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.