Jesus Colón was born into a working class family in Puerto Rico on January 20, 1901. He was born in Cayey, a tobacco growing area, three years after the Spanish American War of 1898. Puerto Rico went from being a Spanish Colóny to being a Colóny of the United States. As a young boy, Jesus was mesmerized by the oratory of readers hired by cigar makers to entertain and inform them as they engaged in the tedious work of rolling cigars. The words of Jesus’ first teachers made their way through the windows of the Colón home and ignited a passion for the written word.
Jesus Colón’s simple, compelling prose won admiration from peers and respect from teachers, and eventually he was named director of the school newspaper and president of the school’s literary society.

After Puerto Ricans were made US citizens in 1917, many arrived on the south Brooklyn waterfront aboard commercial steamers. Among them were some of the best artists and composers of the island. Jesus Colón made the five-day journey aboard the S.S. Carolina, working all the way to New York onboard ship. When he arrived, Jesus wentto live with his brother Joaquin, not far from the Brooklyn waterfront where the S.S. Carolina docked. Here where the first Puerto Rican community in New York City was established, Jesus Colón made his home.



 
 


The letters that Jesus Colón wrote frequently to his sweetheart in Puerto Rico 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. During the Great Depression, also a time of intense racial discrimination and violence, Jesus Colón worked at many menial and dangerous jobs while attending night school at Boys High. He learned about the dangers workers faced in the city, inspiring him to write “Easy job, good wages,” one of his more famous vignettes or short stories.

Although he never earned a living as a journalist, Colón wrote for several language papers in New York and Puerto Rico at the same time. By 1950, Colón 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 Colón was masterful in the use of the cronica or chronicle to relate important events to the community in an engaging and affecting manner. Because Jesus Colón wrote in English and Spanish, he was able to chronicle for English-speaking audiences how Puerto Ricans shaped and were shaped by the history of New York City from his unique vantage point. “A Puerto Rican in New York and other sketches,” published in 1961, the first book written in English by a Puerto Rican about the experiences of Puerto Ricans in New York City. A “Puerto Rican in New York and other Sketches” is both a collection of human-interest stories and a social history of New York.

Jesus Colón was drawn to internationally progressive movements, especially in Latin America. He learned first hand that workers in all parts of the world shared a common cause in the struggle for a living wage and humane working conditions. He also knew that political power was key to creating better opportunities. Thus, he ran for numerous public offices, including comptroller, city councilman and assemblyman. Colón wrote about many topics, but his constant concern was the social and economic conditions of Puerto Ricans in New York City and on the island. Colón was keenly aware that the migrants’ quest for equality in the United States could not be separated from Puerto Rico’s ambiguous relationship to the United States.

Colón’s work is reminiscent of Walt Whitman and Zora Neale Hurston. But it was Langston Hughes, also a light-skin mulatto, who had much in common with Colón. Both were active in New York’s Black and Latino communities. Both portrayed the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. Both wrote about racial injustice and both wrote in English and Spanish. Although he wrote more than 400 pieces in his lifetime, little has been written about the literary contributions of Jesus Colón. Unfortunately, most of his writings and speeches are not accessible in bounded form. Even so, the Jesus Colón collection of the archives of El Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos at Hunter College of CUNY makes accessible a collection of documents about the life and times of this unassuming man of letters who wrote to change the world. In his time, Colón’s simple and incisive prose informed and entertained the masses. Today, they give us a sense of historic continuity, connecting our present to our past and our differences to a common humanity.

 
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