No Enclave — Puerto Rican Los Angeles

Many — perhaps most — Angelenos know that Los Angeles is home to the largest populations of Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans outside of their of their respective homelands. I know that I wasn’t surprised to learn that the next largest Latino community in Los Angeles is of Honduran Americans. I was surprised, though, to learn that the next largest Latino population community in Los Angeles is of Puerto Ricans, of which there are an estimated 45,504. Considering their substantial size, there are relatively few obvious indicators of their presence, aside from a small number of restaurants. I do notice, for whatever reason, a lot of Puerto Rican flags hanging from the rear-view mirrors of automobiles. After making that observation, I noticed one almost immediately as I passed it on my bicycle.


PUERTO RICO

Puerto Rico is a Caribbean island and unincorporated territory of the United States. It is located approximately 1,600 km southeast of Miami, between the Dominican Republic and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It has a human population of roughly 3.2 million. The Puerto Rican diaspora is believed to number somewhere between nine and eleven million. The capital and most populous city is San Juan. The peopling of Puerto Rico is a story of waves of migration. It was perhaps first settled by a people known today as the Ortoiroid people, who are believed to have migrated into the Caribbean around 2000 BCE from what’s now Venezuela. They were seemingly displaced by the Saladoid people — also believed to have originated in modern day Venezuela. They were followed by the Igneri and the Arcaico. Between the 7th and 11th centuries CE, the Taíno culture developed. They referred to the island as Borikén.

On 19 November 1493, the crew of Genoese explorer Christophorus Columbus arrived. He named the island Isla San Juan Bautista. The Spanish began to colonize the island in the early 16th century. The first African arrived in 1509, as a free functionary. Before long, however, Africans were abducted and forced to work as slaves in Puerto Rico’s coffee and sugar plantations. Today, the ancestry of most Puerto Ricans can be traced back to the Taíno as well as some combination of foreign places including Andalusia, the Canary Islands, Catalonia, West Africa, France, Ireland, Germany, There are also significant immigrant communities of Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese, Jews, and Syrians.

In 1898, the USS Maine, a United States Navy ship, sank in Cuba‘s Havana Harbor, where it was moored to protect US interests during Cuba’s War of Independence. The cause of the ship sinking has never been conclusively solved, but it was used as an excuse by the US to go to war against Spain. In July, American forces invaded Puerto Rico and secured the island by mid-August. On 18 October, Spain formally handed over control of the island to the US. In 1917, the US made Puerto Ricans American citizens — although Puerto Ricans are not allowed to vote in the US presidential election after the primary. Neither are Puerto Ricans truly represented in US Congress. Puerto Rico has one Representative in the House, called a Resident Commissioner, who is unable to vote.


STATESIDE PUERTO RICANS

Since Puerto Ricans are part of the “Greater United States,” they (like inhabitants of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the US Virgin Islands) are Americans, and so, describing anyone as a “Puerto Rican Americans” is redundant and confused. Puerto Ricans living in the US, not counting Puerto Rico, are often therefore distinguished from Puerto Ricans on the island as Stateside Puerto Ricans (Puerto Rico is a territory, not a state). Stateside Puerto Ricans are the second-most numerous group of Latinos in the US, outnumbered only by Mexican Americans. The largest stateside communities of Puerto Ricans outside of Puerto Rico are in New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Orlando. Statewide, Florida has the largest population.


PUERTO RICANS IN CALIFORNIA AND LOS ANGELES

In 2017, American FactFinder estimated that there were 212,500 Puerto Ricans in California — ranking it seventh in the country. In 2019, the American Community Survey estimated a population of 45,504 Puerto Ricans in Los Angeles County — where within the greater Latino population they ranked behind Mexicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans — and ahead of Cubans.


PUERTO RICANS IN FILM

The history of cinema in Puerto Rico began with the US invasion in 1898, when invading soldiers were filmed by camera crews. Puerto Rico’s first fictional film was Rafael Colorado D’Assoy‘s Un drama en Puerto Rico (1912). There was an upsurge in Puerto Rican film-making in the 1960s. Hollywood, when it filmed in Puerto Rico, often used the island to portray other places. In The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell, it was an island in the South Pacific. In Heartbreak Ridge it was Grenada. In Bad Boys II and Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights it was Cuba. Occasionally, as in the films Captain Ron, Contact, Executive Decision, Fast Five, Jacob’s Ladder, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, The Punisher, and Species; Puerto Rico plays itself. Perhaps the most well-known Hollywood film about Puerto Ricans was the 1961 version of West Side Story, which, although set in New York City, was mostly filmed on a sound-stage in West Hollywood. I believe, too, that the only member of the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, who is portrayed by an actual Puerto Rican actor is Anita, who was portrayed by Rita Moreno, who was born Rosa Dolores Alverío Marcano in Humacao.

Moreno is, as a former resident of the Pacific Palisades, a Puerto Rican Angelena. Most Puerto Ricans who’ve worked in Hollywood have lived, at least in one time, in Los Angeles and a few were born here. Some of the most famous Puerto Rican actors who are either from Los Angeles or have at least at one time lived in it include José Ferrer (né José Vicente Ferrer de Otero y Cintrón), Raul Julia (né Raúl Rafael Juliá Arcelay), Holly Woodlawn, Freddie Prinze (née Frederick Karl Pruetzel), Erik Estrada, Rosie Perez, Miguel Ferrer, John Leguizamo, Jimmy Smits, Jennifer Lopez, Benicio del Toro, Freddie Prinze Jr., Rosario Dawson, Michelle Rodriguez, and Frankie Muniz (né Francisco James Muniz IV).

There are many more Puerto Rican Angeleno actors, however, including Adam Rodriguez, Aimee Garcia (née Aimee Sandimés Garcia López de Ordóñez), Alanna Ubach, Alexis Cruz, Antonio Lasanta, Byron Eliazim, Charlotte Ayanna (née Charlotte Lopez), Daniella Alonso, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Eva LaRue, Fernando Collazo, Gina Rodriguez, Gloria Garayua, Gregory Sierra, Héctor Elizondo, Henry Darrow (né Enrique Tomás Delgado Jiménez), Jai Rodriguez, Jake T. Austin (né Jake Austin Szymanski), Jean Nasser, Jeremy Suarez, Justina Machado, Karen Olivo, Karissa Montaner, Kiele Sanchez, Kristin Herrera, La’Myia Janae Good–Bellinger, Lana Parrilla, Lisa Vidal, Liz Torres, Luis Antonio Ramos, Marcelino Sánchez, Marilyn Ghigliotti, Mark Indelicato, Marquita Rivera (née María Heroína Rivera de Santiago), Meagan Good, Naya Rivera, Olga San Juan, Omar Mora, Raúl Dávila, Reagan Amyre Gomez-Preston, Ricardo Medina Jr., Rick Aviles, Rick Gonzalez, Roselyn Sánchez (née Roselyn Milagros Sánchez Rodríguez), Roxann Dawson, Ruby Modine, Sandra De Sousa, Shabba Doo (né Adolfo Gutierrez Quiñones), Talisa Soto, Taylor Negron, Victoria Justice, and Yancey Arias.

San Juan-born Miguel Arteta is an often overlooked filmmaker, whose best films included Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl, and Cedar Rapids. Other Puerto Rican Angeleno filmmakers include Alejandro González Charles and Alexis Aleccia Cruz. Television hostess Pili Montilla was born in Puerto Rico and was the host of LATV‘s En Concierto and En la Zona. Television writers Abimael Acosta, Charo Toledo, and José Rivera are also Puerto Rican.


PUERTO RICAN MUSIC IN LOS ANGELES

It’s not at all uncommon to hear music with Puerto Rican roots in Los Angeles. There are numerous salsa clubs and the FM radio band is full of stations that play little besides Reggaeton and Latin Trap. Californians, often of Filipino or Mexican background, kept Freestyle alive long after that mainstream had moved on. During its tenure as “The Beat,” 92.3 FM featured Alani Nicole “La La” Anthony (née Vázquez) as a radio personality. “Stuttering John” (né John Edward Melendez), from the Howard Stern Show, at one point lived in Calabasas.

Puerto Rican musicians who’ve called Los Angeles home at least at some point include pop singers Bruno Mars, Claudette Ortiz (of City High), Colby O’Donis (né Colby O’Donis Colón) Draco Rosa (of Menudo), (the aforementioned) Jennifer Lopez, Jorge Jose Resto Santiago, José Feliciano, Marc Anthony, Michael Camacho (of Sly Fox), and Ricky Martin; rappers BIA (née Bianca Miquela Landrau), Emcee N.I.C.E. (née Aulsondro Hamilton), and Hitta Castro; songwriters Antonii, Cayey Cicada, and John José; salsa singer Claudette Ortiz; rock singer Chuck Negron (of Three Dog Night), percussionist Eric “Bobo” Correa; jazz trombonist Juan Tizol Martínez; trumpeter Omar Martinez, guitarist Paul Masvidal; composer René G. Boscio; and punk singer Ron Reyes (of Black Flag).


OTHER PUERTO RICANS IN THE PUBLIC EYE

Other Puerto Rican Angelenos in the public sphere include politicians Bonnie Garcia and Sebastian Cazares; artists Gretel Cummings, Jose Borges, Karu De Jesus, and NiNo Alicea; magician David Blaine; baseball player Edwin Rios; dancer Johnse Allende Jr.; astronaut Joseph M. Acaba; photographer Keana Renee; author Maritere Bellas; arts educator Melissa Rivera; model Pam Rodriguez; and makeup artist Victor Ramos.


PUERTO RICAN CUISINE & RESTAURANTS

Puerto Rican cuisine has its roots in the cooking traditions and ingredients of the Taínos mixed with influences from West Africa and Spain. Indigenous ingredients include ají caballeros, ajicitos, allspice, avocados, varieties of beans, cocoplums, cod, culantro, guavas, Guinea arrowroot, maize, peanuts, pineapples, soursops, West Indian pumpkins, yautía, and yucca. The Spanish colonizers introduced chickens, chickpeas, cilantro, citrus, cows, cumin, garlic, goats, grapes, lambs, onions, pigs, sugarcane, and wheat. Bananas, coconuts, coffee, Cuban oregano, Guinea hen, okra, pigeon peas, plantains, sesame, tamarinds, and yams all came via Africa. Other countries that have had a marked influence on cocina criolla include the US, Brazil, Peru, and other islands of the Caribbean.

In 1994, a writer for The Los Angeles Times said that there were then still no Puerto Rican restaurants in Los Angeles, despite a 1990 population of roughly 40,000 in the county at that time and noted concentrations in the Southeast Los Angeles communities of South Gate, Huntington Park, and Bell. Given the relatively large number of Puerto Ricans living in Metro Los Angeles, it’s something of a surprise to me just how few Puerto Rican restaurants there are locally.

  • Coqui Contento (Toluca Lake) is a food stand that operates at the Toluca Lake Farmers’ Market.
  • They sell food and other products. The farmers’ market is served by Metro’s 155 and 222 lines.

    • Mofongos (North Hollywood) was reviewed by C. Thi Nguyen for The Los Angeles Times. It was established in 2009 and is located next to a stop on Metro’s 152, 154, and 224 lines. There’s also a dedicated bicycle lane on Lankershim Boulevard.
    • Señor Big Ed (Cypress) began, in 1982, as a Mexican restaurant but over time, the Puerto Rican owner added Puerto Rican dishes to the menu. It has also been reviewed for Eat the World Los Angeles. It’s served by OCTA‘s 42 Line.

    Noteworthily, there are also a couple of Puerto Rican restaurants in San Diego, just a train ride away. They include Andrés Restaurant (Cuban and Puerto Rican) and Benny’s On-The-Go.


    PUERTO RICAN ORGANIZATIONS AND EVENTS

    The first annual Dia De San Juan Festival took place in Long Beach in 1996. Bakersfield and San Diego also host Día de San Juan festivals. The first annual California Puerto Rican Parade and Festival occurred in 1999 in Montebello but in some subsequent years has taken place in Bell Gardens.

    Los Angeles is home to several Puerto Rican organizations including National Conference of Puerto Rican Women – Los Angeles Chapter, Puerto Rican Bar Association of California, and Puerto Ricans in Action.


    FURTHER READING

    “Puerto Ricans: One of L.A.’s Best-Kept Secrets” by Efrain Hernandez, Jr. (1994, Los Angeles Times)


    Support Eric Brightwell on Patreon


    Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
    Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson Collegeand the University of Southern California.
    Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubithe StoryGraphand Twitter.

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