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Sarita takes place in a Latinx neighborhood in the South Bronx between 1939 and 1947. The city’s Latinx community at the time was small: in 1940, the census did not even include a category for “Hispanic” residents, the term that was then in use to describe people with roots in Spanish-speaking countries. According to data on place of birth, the city was home to approximately 18,000 Cuban-born residents and 61,463 Puerto Rican-born residents out of a total of 134,000 Latinx New Yorkers. All together, Latinx people made up just 1.8% of the city’s population. For comparison, New York City today has 2.49 million Hispanic residents out of a total population of 8.38 million. Almost one-third – 28.3% – of New Yorkers trace their heritage to Spanish-speaking countries.

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From the Spanish Caribbean to New York City

In the 1920s and 1930s, when Sarita’s mother Fela and the family’s lodger, Fernando, would have arrived, most migrants to New York from Spanish-speaking areas of the Caribbean came for economic reasons, seeking a way out of poverty and instability in their homelands. The circumstances that drove them to New York were in some ways a result of the United States’ interference in their home region. 

Both Puerto Rico and Cuba transformed in Fela and Fernando’s lifetimes. Both were Spanish colonies before the Spanish American War of 1898. The war ended with the Treaty of Paris, in which Spain ceded ownership of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United States, and gave the US temporary control of Cuba. Cuba became an independent nation under heavy political and economic influence of the US, while Puerto Rico became a United States territory. Puerto Ricans were made United States citizens in 1917.

The Republic of Cuba, which formed in 1902 and lasted until the Cuban Revolution of the 1950s, began as a period of economic expansion. It was also a time of governmental corruption and fraud. Policies were enacted that oppressed the island’s Afro-Cuban population. Cuba’s economy was based on the exportation of sugar, and in 1920 the price of sugar dropped, creating an economic crisis. Despite this, Cuban immigration to the U.S. remained relatively low: approximately 15,000 Cubans arrived in the US between 1920-1929.

After the US annexation, Puerto Rico’s economy came to depend more and more on sugar exports, many controlled by mainland US-based firms. Puerto Ricans migrated to the New York City area for better wages and job opportunities, particularly after the Johnson Act of 1921, which limited annual immigration to the US to 3% of the existing nationality’s population in the US. As citizens, Puerto Ricans could move to and from the mainland without restriction, and additional jobs became available to them as a result.

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Latinx Life in NYC in the 1930s and 1940s

The South Bronx, where Fela, Sarita, Fernando and Yeye live, was one of several neighborhoods in New York City in the 1940s that had a significant Lantinx population, including Greenpoint in Brooklyn, and Washington Heights, and Morningside Heights in Manhattan. San Juan Hill, the neighborhood that was later razed to build Lincoln Center, was a community of Black Americans and Afro-Caribbean immigrants, many of the latter Puerto Rican. Manhattan also had a "Little Spain" on 14th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, the city’s center of European-Spanish life. The largest and most well-known of these neighborhoods was East Harlem, Manhattan, known as El Barrio. The population of El Barrio eventually spilled over into the South Bronx neighborhoods of Mott Haven, Morrisania, and Hunts Point, where it thrived amidst the area’s working and middle class Irish, German, and Jewish enclaves.

There is significant data on Puerto Rican employment trends in NYC at this time because they were the largest Latinx immigrant group. The two largest employers of Puerto Ricans in NYC in the 1930s were a biscuit company and a pencil factory. Others were employed as construction laborers or in service jobs, working as waiters or porters. The average starting wage for newly-arrived Puerto Ricans in the 1930s was $22.62 a week, which would be worth $426 today. In the 1940s, influenced by the availability of work in WWII-related industries, the average starting wage had risen to $31.43, worth $458 today.

Fela’s experience as a housewife with a lodger was common. In traditional Spanish Caribbean homes, if it was economically possible, women stayed home as “mujeres de la casas.” In New York, it was common for women, even those who stayed home, to earn income by doing needlework at home or providing informal childcare to other community members. Taking in lodgers was both a service to the community, by providing a stepping stone for newly-arrived migrants, as well as an economic benefit to the household.

NYC’s Latinx migrants quickly established businesses, including hotels, restaurants, barbershops, and professional services. They formed fraternal organizations like Club Estrella de Borinquen, Asociación Cubana, and the Casa de las Hispanas, which served to reinforce community ties, provide mutual aid, and organize members around causes. There was a Spanish-language press, including La Prensa, a daily newspaper that covered world and local events, and movie theatres that screened Mexican and Argentine films. Revista de Artes y Letras, a woman-run literary journal, was published from 1933 until 1945 and featured editorials on important community and family issues as well as literary essays and fiction. Trinidad Padilla de Sanz, known as La Hija del Caribe, a Puerto Rican poet and activist, was an important contributor to the journal.

While Latinx communities thrived internally, Latinx New Yorkers, like all immigrant groups, faced discrimination on the basis of their language and ethnic background. Many also faced anti-Black racism. As a result, they were pushed into low-wage jobs, substandard housing, and were denied service in some businesses. At the time, NYC public schools had no means of assessing the education level or ability of Spanish speakers, and Latinx children were inappropriately demoted to lower grades or put into special education classes. Parents organized, and better assessment practices were developed.

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Catholicism was the dominant organized religion of Latinx New Yorkers, and Sarita and Yeye’s experience as Catholic schoolgirls was common. Several Spanish-language parishes developed in the early 20th century: Iglesia Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe on 14th Street adjacent to Little Spain, Our Lady of Esperanza Church on 156th Street in Washington Heights, the Church of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal on 114th Street and 7th Avenue. Catholic schools, founded in the 19th century to serve the educational needs of Irish, German, and Italian Catholic immigrants who faced religious discrimination in public schools, educated many of the city’s Latinx youth. There, Sarita may have been exposed to the teachings in Pope Pius XI's encyclical (a papel letter clarifying Catholic doctrine) Casti Connubii, issued on December 31, 1930, which outlawed any kind of artificial birth control. This was in direct opposition to contemporary Protestant statements on the permissibility of birth control within marriage.

Catholicism, while a visible part of Latinx life, was not the only religion practiced by New York’s Spanish Caribbean population. Santería, today also known as La Regla de Ocha-Ifá and La Regla de Lukumí, was and is widely practiced by those with roots in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. Santería is a religion that combines Yoruba traditions, brought to Cuba by enslaved people from West Africa and the Congo Basin, with Catholicism, the only legal religion during Spanish colonial times. Initially practiced in secret, it is still a private religious practice conducted in homes by informally-organized groups. There are both priests and priestesses in Santería, known as Babalocha and Iyalocha respectively. Rituals are conducted in Spanish and African dialects. A key element of Santería is practitioners’ devotion to a particular deity, called an orisha in Yoruba and an oricha in Spanish. Over time, these deities became associated or combined with Catholic saints. For example, Ochun, the Yoruba deity of love, sensuality, fertility, and femininity, is associated with the Virgin of La Caridad de Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba. Ochun is the saint/deity worshipped by Fela and her family in Sarita, over the objections of Fernando, who follows a more orthodox interpretation of his Catholic faith. Like Fela, many practitioners of Santería also consider themselves Catholic.

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Sex and Sex Education

Sarita’s ownership of her sexuality, and her decision to pursue an independent life even after becoming pregnant, would have been unusual among young women in the 1940s. Beyond church teaching and family influences, Sarita’s knowledge of sex would have been influenced by the Comstock Laws, a set of federal laws passed in 1873 that criminalized dissemination of information on contraception and sex education by classifying those materials as obscene. The Comstock Laws weren’t fully repealed until 1957 and had a major effect on American sex education. Both free love and birth control activists worked to change and defy these laws, and by the 1930s there were numerous birth control clinics in New York City, all of which focused on married women rather than young teens. 

Sarita’s primary sex education would have come from her peers and family. American women of Sarita’s generation frequently report that their mothers gave little to no explanation of menstruation, sex, or fertility, let alone concepts like desire or pleasure. Lydia Bradley Meyer, a New York State resident born the same year as Sarita would have been, is quoted as telling researcher Grey Osterud, “Hey, we just did not talk about it. At all.” Prior to her wedding in 1943, “I asked my mother about birth control, and she says, ‘You leave that up to your husband!’ He was supposed to know.”

As an unmarried, pregnant person, Sarita would have been expected to marry the father of her child: in 1940, only 13.6% of mothers aged 15-19 were single at the time of their child’s birth. Marriage was legal for those over the age of 14 at the time. Regardless of marital status, pregnant teenagers could be expelled from school or forced into special programs; many simply left formal education altogether.

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