Newark archivist revives lost history of Puerto Rican riots

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on March 01, 2016

Yesenia Lopez is an archivist at the Newark Public Library and has documented Latino history in New Jersey. She is photographed at the John Cotton Dana Library on the Rutgers-Newark campus, where the Exhibit of 1974 Puerto Rican Riot is on display, Newark NJ,

 

Yesenia Lopez wasn't interested in history until she started learning about her own at Rutgers University in Newark.

The courses she studied on Puerto Rico nearly 18 years ago rewired her curiosity and ultimately changed the trajectory of her life.

Why become a nurse or a law enforcement officer (careers she once considered), when she could bring attention to a forgotten part of Newark's history – the 1974 Puerto Rican riots?

Lopez, a project archivist for the Puerto Rican Community Archives at the Newark Public Library, is in charge of a traveling exhibit that reflects the civil rights movement for the Puerto Rican community in Newark.

The exhibit, a series of panels, was on display last month at the Dana Library at Rutgers in Newark. Graduate students at Rutgers also contributed, with a showcase of materials that will be up through April 2.

"This is my labor of love, documenting our community,'' said Lopez, whose archival division comes under the New Jersey Hispanic and Research Information Center at the library.

The riots, however, remain a painful episode of violence that erupted 42 years ago between Essex County police and Latino attendees of Las Fiestas Patronales, a festival held that Labor Day weekend in Newark's Branch Brook Park.

Willie Sanchez, a former Newark resident who witnessed the clash, said years of police brutality and harassment came to a head at a time when the city still had not recovered from the 1967 riots. The Puerto Rican community, he said, had high unemployment, lived in substandard housing and lacked opportunity.  

"There was a feeling of here we go again,'' Sanchez said. "We have to understand that 1967 and 1974 were reflections of what a community was going through.''

The riots as explained in the exhibit, including written histories and newspaper clippings – started when county police tried to break up what one officer believed was an illegal dice game.

An argument ensued and the situation escalated when an officer's horse knocked over a game table. When city police were called in for backup, all hell broke loose and the rioting lasted nearly three days.

A young girl was trampled by a horse and a man was fatally clubbed by a police officer, who later was acquitted on murder charges. Festivalgoers, who were beaten by police, threw rocks and bottles.  Two police cars and a  motorcycle were set on fire.

Butchie Nieves, a Newark resident, stood on top of a car, holding a Puerto Rican flag and was engulfed in smoke.

"This was an assault on our Puerto Rican culture,''  Nieves said. "That was the moment I was proud to be a Puerto Rican and not be afraid.''

Mayor Kenneth Gibson intervened and led some 1,000 people in a march to City Hall to address their concerns, although the violence would continue.

Sigfredo Carrion, one of the community leaders, shared concerns about having more diversity in the police department and asked for the release of people arrested for misconduct during the riot. He said Amiri Baraka, of the African Congress of People, was instrumental in helping the Puerto Rican community have their grievances met.

What's surprising about this tumultuous period is that little scholarly information existed until Olga Jimenez de Wagenheim, then a history professor at Rutgers-Newark, began doing research in 1999. 

For instance, Jimenez de Wagenheim said there were 7,400 police officers on the force, but only 23 were Hispanic in a city with 40,000 Puerto Ricans. "You could see there was no real representation,'' she said.

Her original research, which placed 5,000 to 6,000 people in the park, led to the first community presentation at Rutgers in April 2000. It also linked to information about other riots that had taken place in Latino communities in Jersey City, Paterson and Camden between 1968 and 1971.

Jimenez de Wagenheim's concern about the preservation of Latino history led her to found the New Jersey Hispanic Research and Information Center. The ground she covered, which included an oral history class at Rutgers, is pretty much the origin of what is now the traveling exhibit: Newark '74: Remembering the Puerto Rican Riots – An Unexamined History.

"No one had done anything,'' said Jimenez de Wagenheim, who is now retired. "I trained Yesenia, so she continues it now.''

Lopez picked up the torch when Bloomfield College students put together an exhibit two years ago to observe the 40th anniversary of the riots. She and Elizabeth Parker, an associate archivist at the Newark Library, expanded the exhibit with additional information.

"This is somebody's dissertation waiting to happen,'' Lopez said.

Despite three exhibits since 1974, Lopez said history on the subject is still in danger of being lost and forgotten.

"Our hope is that researchers find an interest to do the research,'' Lopez said.

Meanwhile, she continues to seek another place for the exhibit to be displayed.

This beats being a police officer or a nurse any day for Lopez. Getting her fingers dusty in old files turned out to be the best way to make a difference in her community.

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