If you are reading this, consider yourself extremely fortunate because your Puerto Rican ancestors survived San Ciriaco, the meanest, deadliest, most destructive hurricane to ever hit the island. In the early hours of August 8th, 1899, San Ciriaco made landfall in southeastern Puerto Rico with estimated winds of 140-145 mph. Torrential rains hammered the island for 28 days, causing flooding that washed away homes, businesses and crops of tobacco, coffee, sugar, and more. Thousands were left without food, shelter, or work. A record 3,369 people died. San Ciriaco left behind nothing but despair and busy days for the vultures and las funerarias. With no jobs, no homes, and no hope, it’s not surprising that when an offer came to emigrate to Hawaii for work in the sugar fields, many were eager to sign up.
In April of 2017, as I planned a weeklong stay in San Francisco, an online entry intrigued me because it stated that El Club Puertorriqueño de San Francisco is the oldest Puerto Rican social club in the United States. Visiting their website, I learned El Club was founded on February 25th, 1912! Being somewhat familiar with the migration of Puerto Ricans to Hawaii in the early part of the century to work in the sugar fields, I was interested to see if there was a connection. And sure enough, there was.
The plan was for the laborers and their families to board comfortable steamers to New Orleans and from there, they were to travel by rail to San Francisco, at which time they would board a Pacific liner to take them to their final destination: Hawaii. The first group of 114 people boarded the S.S. Arkadia to New Orleans on November 22th, 1900. They were then transferred to two cars of a Southern Pacific train, which left that same night for San Francisco. What the conditions in those were we can only guess, but I have spoken to several persons about that journey and the same phrases kept popping up: “Sufrieron mucho...los trataron como esclavos, como animales...No podían seguir.” What we do know, however, is that after the harrowing journey from New Orleans to San Francisco, more than half of the 114 escaped and remained in San Francisco.
This is what my research turned up regarding El Club Puertorriqueño de San Francisco’s (CPRSF) connection to that migration history. There are multiple reasons why these Boricuas decided that staying in the city by the bay was preferable to travelling to Hawaii, but those that jumped the train, “se amarraron los calzones,” and courageously went for it and built a community that is still thriving today. How did they survive? No one actually knows all the details, but survive they did.
Contacting the club directly proved challenging, as I was not able to meet any members while in San Francisco, however, on a trip to Puerto Rico in May, I met Nimia Rodríguez Beauchamp, a past member of the CPRSF, who kindly e-introduced me to a few past members that eventually connected me to Mr. Antonio Vargas.
Vargas’s father’s aunt arrived in San Francisco as a baby, and he remembers as a youngster hearing comments about how bad conditions were for those heading to San Francisco from New Orleans:
“They were placed in containers, sheds really, and with conditions worse than those they had left behind. Those containers had probably transported livestock previously, so I can just imagine how they must have felt. They took a chance and escaped.”
Vargas has been a member of the club since the age of 16 and served as president of the club for six years. His father, Israel Vargas Franceschi (1926-2015), while on the Board of Directors, was part of the committee that started CARNAVAL, which is one of the largest festivals celebrated during Memorial Day weekend in San Francisco. At present, there are approximately 80 CPRSF members and just this year, they held their 105th anniversary by throwing a big party: 105 years of promoting and preserving Puerto Rican culture in San Francisco!
Vargas: “Like any club, membership grows and wanes. Right now, our youngest members are in their 50s and the oldest, in their 80s. We would definitely love to have more young people involved. San Francisco has many mixed couples and mixed kids seem to lose their culture and interest in their roots, so we need to work on that.”
Learning that the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College is offering an online Cultural Ambassadors program, he will take a look to see if it’s something he can promote in San Francisco as a way of getting younger people to join the club. [For more information, visit https://centropr.hunter.cuny.edu/education/puerto-rican-heritage-cultural-ambassadors-program]
Gathering information about the founders has been difficult, and Vargas is the first to admit it, but he persevered and was able to locate a picture of the first president, a very dapper and prosperous-looking Mr. Ramon E. Milan, who served from 1912 to 1915 (see photo below).
He also sent copies of some member applications from the 1900s that included children of the original emigres who worked the Hawaiian fields. Both young men had been born in Hawaii in 1903 and relocated to the Bay Area. Vargas was able to send me a copy of the proclamation they received from the Hon. Frank C. Jordan, Secretary of the State of California, that made El Club Puertorriqueño de San Francisco official on July 13th, 1912 (see picture below).
Having a robust, engaged membership is important because CPRSF has events throughout the year that are intended to keep close ties with the island. Last year, for example, to celebrate the Día del cuatro, they brought in from Puerto Rico one of the masters of the instrument, Mariano “Juradito” Jurado and the famous trovador, Jovino Gonzalez. The club also awards scholarships to youth enrolled in trade schools and both two and four-year colleges. “We hope that once the kids graduate, they will become members and pay it forward,” explains Vargas. Recently, there was a Peruvian street fair at which Vargas opened a small kiosk and where he flew his eight-foot Puerto Rican flag. At least 50-60 Puerto Ricans came by to get information and several contacted him afterwards with interest in becoming members.
There are three other Puerto Rican social clubs in California: the Puerto Rican Union of Mutual Aid, Inc. (PRUMA) located in Union City; the Puerto Rican Civic Club, Inc. (PRCC) in San José; and the Puerto Rican Organization United for Development (PROUD), in Modesto. For more information, visit the Western Region Puerto Rican Council at www.wrprc.org.
And if you are heading out to San Francisco, why not plan a visit to El Club Puertorriqueño de San Francisco on Mission Street? You can visit their website for more information: www.clubpuertorriquenosf.com
It has been an honor to learn about this group of Puerto Ricans who continue to keep the Boricua diaspora fires burning far from La Isla. Vargas:
“In the early 1900s, a group of people decided to keep their culture intact and settle in San Francisco. Their dream continues in California. Their vision is still here. I am very proud to be a member of the oldest Puerto Rican social club in the United States. I am a CaliRican and proud of it. Our club has been here for 105 years. We are not going anywhere.”