Nuyorican justice

If Sonia Sotomayor becomes the next associate justice of the Supreme Court, she will find a family of two fellow Puerto Rican New Yorkers waiting for her in Congress.

Reps. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) and Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) have distinct ties to the Caribbean island and identify with Sotomayor’s background, her family’s struggles, her loyalty to Puerto Rican culture and the obstacles she overcame to reach a pinnacle of American public service.

Sotomayor’s parents were two of the thousands of Puerto Ricans who emigrated to the Big Apple seeking a better life during the 1950s.

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Serrano was born on the island commonwealth but moved to the Bronx as a child, while Velázquez went to New York at age 19 to attend college after growing up in Puerto Rico.

Serrano said the influx of Puerto Ricans not only paved the way for his and Sotomayor’s success, it also eased the transition for all Latino immigrants who followed. In pursuit of the American Dream, New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent — or “Nuyoricans” — brought a new flavor to the melting pot of New York City.

“It is still difficult being a Latino immigrant in New York,” said Serrano, who moved to the Bronx at age 7. “But because of Puerto Ricans, it is so much easier.”

Serrano helped lead a Puerto Rican insurgency in the borough’s established Democratic Party in the late 1960s and early 1970s and was himself elected to the New York State Assembly in 1974. He was elected to Congress in 1990.

“You no longer have to worry about a city that considers you foreign; you don’t have to work to get the first Puerto Rican elected official; you don’t have to picket and fight to allow you to vote even though you don’t speak English fluently,” he said. “All of those that started with pickets and protests were the fights that Puerto Ricans fought.”

The change Nuyoricans brought to their new city’s climate was incremental, Serrano said. The foremost barrier to inclusion was language, he said, as Spanish was still a foreign tongue in New York City.

Serrano hates when people talk during movies, but remembers translating dialogue to “Vera Cruz,” the 1954 film with Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster, so that his father could understand the movie.

“At home you heard Spanish, then you went to the movies on a Saturday afternoon with your dad, and half the time you ended up translating for him at the movies,” he said.

“Now you step into a city with five Spanish radio stations, with four Spanish TV stations, with three newspapers and countless magazines in Spanish, with every store speaking in two languages,” Serrano said.

Velázquez does not call herself a Nuyorican because she moved from the island to New York City to attend college when she was 19. Changes caused by the previous generation of Puerto Rican immigrants were apparent, she said.

“When I came to New York, I came to a bilingual city, and when Sonia’s parents came to New York it wasn’t a bilingual city,” Velázquez said in her trademark Spanish accent. “But it was because of people like Sonia’s parents that we were able to reap the benefits of Univision, Telemundo, all these bilingual Spanish stations.”

As the first Latina appointed to the New York City Council, Velázquez was able to launch a successful run to become the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress in 1992 in part because of Sotomayor’s and Serrano’s parents and the Nuyorican community they helped build.

“It was just amazing, the grassroots organization that took hold around the possibility of empowerment,” she said. “The sense of pride and the sense of ‘Yes we can’ was amazing. So, when you saw Obama with ‘Yes we can,’ it took place 18 years ago in my district where I faced a candidate with a multimillion-dollar war chest and people just saw the possibility, and they just went ahead and organized — knocked on doors and organized the vote.”

About one-third of the 3.4 million Puerto Ricans living in the continental United States are in New York, according to the latest U.S. Census data, with the two largest concentrations of Puerto Ricans in the country living in the Bronx (319,000), Serrano’s district, and Brooklyn (213,000), Velázquez’s district.

Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D), Puerto Rico’s non-voting member of Congress, said islanders have different reasons for moving to the mainland, including a desire for better healthcare coverage or education.

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A large reason for the thriving Nuyorican culture is that Puerto Ricans in the U.S. stay in close contact with family and friends back home, he said. Velázquez, who still has family in Puerto Rico, agreed.

“On the island … they realize the power of the influence that Puerto Rican communities play in American politics, and so they feel that the biggest lobbyists they have are the Puerto Rican communities in the United States, and it doesn’t cost them one penny,” she said.

With the nomination of Sotomayor, there has been a resurgence of Puerto Rican residents and Nuyoricans who feel as though they have a stake in their government, Pierluisi said.

“The nomination of Judge Sotomayor proves that anybody can live his or her dreams in America,” he said. “It’s just a matter of working hard and excelling. Everybody has the opportunity, and this proves it. She’s the best example to all Puerto Ricans, to all Hispanics, to pretty much all Americans, that there’s life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as a reality.”

Serrano likens the development of the Nuyorican culture to one of his favorite Puerto Rican dishes: pasteles, pastry-like savory cakes filled with plantains, pork and spices, then wrapped in banana leaves and tied together with a string.

When Serrano’s parents’ generation moved to New York City from the Caribbean island, they did not have banana leaves at their ready to make pasteles.

So, as Puerto Ricans in New York City have continually done, they created a distinctly New York version of the Puerto Rican standard by substituting wax paper for the leaves, he said.

“The pasteles, like Puerto Ricans in New York, changed on the outside,” he said, “but never changed on the inside.”