Few know that the first non-native immigrant to settle in present day New York in 1613 was a Latino. Historians have found that Juan Rodriguez was a free black man from the town of Santo Domingo who traveled with Dutch traders in 1613 to the Hudson Bay area where they set up a trading post to trade with Native Americans.
Yesterday, marking the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Rodriguez, hundreds gathered in the mostly Dominican neighborhood of upper Manhattan to name a street after him — 159th street to 218th street in New York City’s famous Broadway was officially named “Juan Rodriguez Way.”
“The significance is overwhelming,” says Dr. Ramona Hernandez, director of CUNY Dominican Studies Institute. “It’s what allows us to be part of the memory and legacy of this country. “That sign on that street will hopefully get a lot of people looking at it and asking ‘Who is that fellow?’ We are changing the history books.”
So, who was that fellow?
Anthony Stevens-Acevedo, assistant director of CUNY Dominican Studies Institute, says there is very little information on Rodriguez and no image available of him, but there is absolute consensus among historians that Juan Rodriguez came to the U.S. on a Dutch ship. Scant written sources about him describe him as a black or mulatto from a Spanish colonial society — making him an ancestor of blacks and Latinos in New York.
Dr. Hernandez says usually street namings are just a symbolic gesture, but in this case it was an actual event bringing hundreds of people, including Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez and two New York playwrights. Instead of the predicted rain, she says there was a very Caribbean sun in the sky.
“There were children from several schools, there were senior citizens, people with canes, young people, professionals, people I have not seen in five years — this became the event everyone wanted to attend,” she says. “It was hard to contain the tears…it was hard, very hard because of the emotion involved here.”
New York City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez agrees. He says Juan Rodriguez, who came from what once was the colony of Hispaniola — which is today Haiti and the Dominican Republic — is a model for immigrants of all nations who come to the U.S. for a better life.
“With this event, we are honoring the long history of immigration to this wonderful city, keeping in mind that we are all immigrants from somewhere and we all have a place in New York’s history,” says the councilman.
Dr. Hernandez hopes that the years of work to uncover the history of Juan Rodriguez is used in years to come.
“We hope our comprehensive effort finally leads to a mentioning of Juan Rodríguez some day in New York City’s public school education materials, so that our children once and for all have access to this fascinating story,” she says.